Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Science vs Pseudoscience

Every semester (and summers), I teach an online 101-level Earth science course.  One of the things I have students read is a short paper on Distinguishing Science from Pseudoscience by Dr. Rory Coker, a professor of Physics at UT Austin (here's a slightly different version).  I then ask them to comment on the paper - the responses are interesting.

One of the things that surprises me is that many students have never heard of the term "pseudoscience" before reading the paper.  That fact alone reinforces my belief that this assignment is useful.  If nothing else, it will let them know that there's a reason scientists generally don't support things like astrology, young-Earth creationism, autism being caused by vaccines, space aliens abducting humans, sasquatch, etc.

What I also find interesting is the student's reaction to the paper.  Many of them will say something along the lines of "Well, I understand why XXX, XXX, and XXX are nonsense, but I really think he's wrong when he criticizes XXX."  My response is usually "I have no interest in telling you what to believe, but simply how to critically evaluate claims - if someone claims there's scientific evidence for something, this evidence must meet certain criteria.  If not, it's not scientific evidence."

If it gets one student to start thinking critically about the nonsense so pervasive in our society then I think it's worth it to have them read the paper and discuss it a bit.  That's more important, in my opinion, than whatever "facts" they learn in the course.

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