Token Skeptic Podcast – Skepticism, Education And Using Misunderstandings To Gain A Greater Understanding

I have two podcast episodes out recently, both of which tackle the ever-relevant topic of education – one of them I live-blogged at the time (as it was a lecture, after all!). Episode One Hundred And Five – On Teaching Skepticism With Science – With Alison Campbell At The NZ Skeptics Conference:

I’ve included the notes and relevant links to the papers she mentions here. If you’re following along with the audio, please note that I was typing furiously and there might be some differences (hopefully not many inaccuracies, and I will correct them if needed!) – what this does provide for you is all the links to the papers that Alison Campbell mentions during the talk:

The listing for her presentation is as follows: “At a time when we really need our children to be gaining a good understanding of the nature of science, pseudoscience seems to be on the rise. Rather than ignore it, or lambast it in a general way, a better approach may well be to make use of the teaching opportunities that pseudoscience offers”. She’s a blogger for the NZ Science Blogs; works at the University of Waikato in the science and engineering faculty.

She talks about the scholarship exam that she’s been helping students with and how the students need to think critically – know what the questions are asking them for and how the information they have can be used to answer the questions effectively. She started blogging to encourage people to read these kinds of questions correctly. “Science is such a big thing… to make informed decisions, they need to have an idea as to what science is saying, even if not agree with it… about fitting all people, all generations for dealing with science and technology in the modern age. More important than just ‘preparing for university’ – to know what is science and how is it done, how to think like a scientist”.

She reads what the NZ science curriculum says: ’Science is a way of investigating, understanding, and explaining our natural, physical world and the wider universe. It involves generating and testing ideas, gathering evidence – including by making observations, carrying out investigations and modelling, and communicating and debating with others – in order to develop scientific knowledge, understanding, and explanations. Scientific progress comes from logical, systematic work and from creative insight, built on a foundation of respect for evidence. Different cultures and periods of history have contributed to the development of science.’

So, there’s a lot for science teachers to do. But what to take out in order to fit this all in? It’s not just about studying “the facts”; students need to find what it is, the process of science, which is as important as a series of science facts. A concern that people studying science are “Not really doing so until in grad school”. There’s no use just accepting something because a scientist says it; what she would like her students to do is encourage them to think.

She sees that there’s a general tendency towards students seeing the schooling experience as focused on “What do we need to pass the exam?” – which is a great shame. Students should think about how reliable particular statements may be: how does one journal have more validity than others; what’s peer review and what that means about a report? What’s in the popular press that can mislead us (e.g cold fusion) and how press release doesn’t equal accepted fact. Hopefully some of the critical thinking skills will also help with understanding information on the internet as well, not just the popular press. The internet is rather self-referential and not really teased out or dug out; she talks about how science bloggers might help address that.

She elaborates upon her experiences as a high school teacher and how difficult it is to have an open-discussion in class (the range of students; what happens if there’s dissension due to various backgrounds – what if the students come from families where they promote pseudoscience or fundamentalist religious backgrounds?) – but if you focus on what is the nature of science, then looking at controversial topics can be done and done well.

She’s used an article, Darwin at the Drugstore? Testing the Biological Fitness of Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria by Dr. Alan L. Gillen and Sarah Anderson and talks about how students analysed what was being done with measuring the rate of bacterial growth. Was there any real statistical difference given? No graphs with whiskers, et al. The authors concluded that antibiotic resistance didn’t influence the bacteria – “The results of various experiments do show that bacteria can change quickly. Although the acquisition of antibiotic resistance does not demonstrate Darwinian evolution, it does demonstrate that bacteria were endowed by their Creator to change and adapt very quickly in an almost constantly changing environment.”

Students were led through the report: what are the variables, were they single? What might have influenced their behaviour? How well was the test done? It was a poorly designed experiment that was designed to demonstrate an a priori assumption. This generates interesting discussion amongst the students, but also what constitutes good science and how science coming out from the Discovery Institute isn’t good science – and the students look at the source of the data and the institution it comes from. That it’s online rather than published, not peer reviewed and not mainstream – therefore a good teaching tool to get students thinking about the validity of the experiment.

There are other things she thinks students should be looking at in regards to bogus science – cold fusion (not offered to peer review – why is that happening?). Another sign is conspiracy theories – and how that can influence views of science (‘the cancer cures that no-one wants  you to know!!’). She mentions Orac (on as a fellow science blogger; how vaccination conspiracies proliferate and how the pharmaceutical companies are debated as reliable or not. An example is given of a paleontologist was being cited as an authority on their views about vaccination amongst anti-vaccination proponents.

Scientists Anonymous: she has blogged about it here. When mentioned to students, they asked “Why are they anon?” Are they really scared about the quality of their science?? Message that the credentials and claims are important and if you’re presented with pseudonyms, it should be doing so for a really good reason.

Students need to be learning that there isn’t always two equally valid sides of an argument – and apply the scientific thinking to both sides of the argument to weigh them up. She gives the example of health benefits – when we’re talking science to kids, it needs to be relevant to their everyday lives. This is because it influences them directly. “Sodium bicarbonate as a cure for cancer” claim (just lemon juice!). They can look into this, the claims of efficacy, apply knowledge of chemistry. If they’ve studied homeostasis, they’ll know about the limits of the body – so how likely are these claims are true? Are cancers really “funguses”, as proposed by these sellers of “cures”? What will help make a decision about this and what are the facts.

If we can get students to apply these to any science claims, then they may well be better equipped to deal with the conflicting information. That’s her hope.

I asked this question of her during Q&A: What happens when one teacher might produce these kinds of lessons (using creationism as an example), but others in the school / country don’t? Is it flash-in-the-pan teaching – without sustaining good strategies or passing them on? What if her classes were shut down, what next?

She sees this as a strong argument for a common syllabus – not learning the same thing, need flexibility for different needs – but a strong in-house syllabus and curriculum is indeed needed.

The opportunity since primary school is needed to have the opportunity to DO the science and do the thinking, talking, problem solving since the early years. One of the complaints that came from a survey was that kids were complaining that they weren’t doing enough “doing” and just reading or watching films. “We have to try to do that somehow if we’re not going to get another generation turned off science by the time they reach high school”. The concepts that in early primary get are things like “Living things on earth”, and how dinosaurs (“scary and dead!”) and how the concepts are there. The concepts of evolution are meant to be embedded from the start and articulated in the final years.

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