Ross Pomeroy has a great idea. He says we should incorporate discussions about how to spot pseudoscience into public school curricula in order to teach students how to distinguish between reality and nonsense and thus better equip them to understand the world. I could not agree more.
In a new perspective published Monday in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Schmaltz and Lilienfeld detail a plan to better instruct students on how to differentiate scientific fact from scientific fiction. And somewhat ironically, it involves introducing pseudoscience into the classroom.
The inception is not for the purpose of teaching pseudoscience, of course; it’s for refuting it.
“By incorporating examples of pseudoscience into lectures, instructors can provide students with the tools needed to understand the difference between scientific and pseudoscientific or paranormal claims,” the authors say.
According to Schmaltz and Lilienfeld, there are 7 clear signs that show something to be pseudoscientific:
1. The use of psychobabble – words that sound scientific and professional but are used incorrectly, or in a misleading manner.
2. A substantial reliance on anecdotal evidence.
3. Extraordinary claims in the absence of extraordinary evidence.
4. Claims which cannot be proven false.
5. Claims that counter established scientific fact.
6. Absence of adequate peer review.
7. Claims that are repeated despite being refuted.
They recommend incorporating examples of pseudoscience into lectures and contrasting them with legitimate, groundbreaking scientific findings. These examples can be tailored to different classes. For example, in physics classes, instructors can discuss QuantumMAN, a website where people can pay to download digital “medicine” that can supposedly be transferred from a remote quantum computer directly to the buyer’s brain. (Yes, that’s a real website.) Or in psychology classes, professors can expound upon psychics and the tricks they use to fool people.
My friend Greg Forbes does this in his college courses. For example, he has students write to companies that make supplements and claim that there is scientific evidence that shows they do wondrous things for people. They write and ask for copies of the clinical trials or references to the scientific literature to support those claims. Inevitably, those requests are either ignored or answered with a stream of bullshit. Actual studies are never produced.
I see this as part of a larger course of study in critical thinking that needs to be made a very big part of our educational system. That would also include, I think, teaching kids how to decode the messages used in advertising that appeal to our insecurities.