Wikipedia defines pseudo science as “a claim, belief, or practice which is presented as scientific, but which does not adhere to a valid scientific methodology, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status".
Pseudo science ignores the scientific method. It makes conclusions and then looks for facts to support the conclusions. In pseudoscience there is no healthy skepticism about fantastic claims, in fact there is an enthusiasm to accept untested personal testimony as a public truth ( as in the stories about UFOS).
It is more about what someone feels then facts. The elevation of individual testimony or sensation over logic and verifiable fact is not only popular; it is often linked to religion, spirituality, popular psychology and cults. Pseudoscience enthusiasts offer a hypothesis first and ignore facts such as the assertion that ancient aliens were behind most changes in history.
A recent Time/Yankelvich poll found that 80% of Americans feel that the government is covering up information about extra-terrestrials.
68% of citizens support child vaccines compared to 86% of scientists
57% do not know that electrons are smaller than atoms.
84% percent of scientists think that humans are warming the planet by burning fossil fuels but only 49% of the public believes it.
93% of scientists support federal research on funding on stem cells versus 58% of the public.
About 46% of the public believes, “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years” and this number has not changed since 1982
63% of American adults are unaware that the last dinosaur died before humans arose.
According to a recent Pew Research poll, science is on the decline in terms of public interest. At the same time there is almost a universal criticism of our education system directed at students, teachers, school administrators, and their curriculums. And the latest “magic curriculum” that is being offered is called STEM LEARNING which is supported by the Federal, State, and local governments as well as the manufacturing sector. This program aims to make kids better at science, engineering, technology and math.
I am a supporter of the STEM learning initiative, and feel strongly that all citizens (not just students) need to have a better understanding of science. But I have a big question that relates to STEM learning. How can we ask kids to be more interested in science and math when their parents are enamored by pseudo-science?
Pseudo-science comes in the form of books, products, seminars, newspapers, magazines, pop psychology, religion and TV shows. I think TV is very representative of what people are really interested in because it is based on ratings and numbers of viewers. There are channels called the history and science channels on cable TV but these are oxymoron’s because there is very little real science or history. Most of the programs are about UFOs and Ancient Aliens with a smattering of reality shows like Swamp People.
All of these examples make it very clear that pseudo science is a lot more popular with the public then real science which I believe is a real danger for the future. But before any attempt at making a case for science literacy, it is important to understand why people like pseudoscience.
Pseudo-science is very appealing to people who like black and white or fundamentalist thinking such as creationists and new earthers. People attracted to fundamentalist solutions prefer simple solutions to very complex problems. Secondly a lot of people who took science courses in high school remember very little science because the courses were taught through rote memorization. Third science is not easy to study and many people simply avoid hard subjects. And perhaps the biggest problem is that pseudo-science is easier and more entertaining than the real thing.
To put this problem in a larger perspective, American Manufacturing must be able to compete with the rest of the world by advancing science and technology. Manufacturers know this and are crying for students who can take courses in Science Technology, Engineering and Math.
Of all of the subjects that students can master in their STEM learning, I think understanding the scientific method way of thinking is the most important lesson that can be learned. In the scientific approach to analysis, people create a hypothesis, describe the facts that support the hypothesis, and then publish their findings as conclusions. Science has a built in system of checking for errors, by letting anyone on the planet try to find errors in the facts or conclusions. The theory is based on provable facts and your conclusions will not be accepted until a majority of the critics agree they are valid.
We are in a century where there will be many changes to the planet and environment. In our new century, science will permeate all industries and most of our major problems. But with so few citizens’ really understanding science there will be big problems. The late Carl Sagan summed up this problem in his book the Demon Haunted World: “We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our face.”
I think that the most critical factor in student learning are their parents. Parents are in the unenviable but responsible position of setting an example for their children and being involved in the learning process. Parent’s involvement is crucial to developing the child’s academic ability and confidence. Dr. Patricia Porter makes the case that parents are very influential in 3 ways:
1. Modeling– “Children love you and want to be like you. They watch what you do and try to do what you do. Modeling is the most important way you influence your child’s behavior.”
2. Mentoring “Sharing your knowledge and experience with your children will help them develop skills.”
3. Mediate – You need to mediate between your child and the world around him. You can help your children understand science and the realities of the world by preparing yourself in the realities and basics of science.
How can a student focus on geology and the search for natural resources if parents tell them that geological dating methods are wrong and the world is only 10,000 years old? How will we train the future doctors, nurses, and medical technicians if they are told that the principles of evolution and biology are not proven? How will students be able to understand and analyze the problems of gas emissions and make a decision about climate change if they don’t know basic chemistry? More importantly, how will students understand many of the advanced and complicated concepts in STEM learning if their parents cannot model, mentor, or mediate?
Pseudo-Science leads to irrationalism
Parents, not just students, are going to have to learn more about science just to play their role as mentors to their children. To even have a chance of understanding the natural world and all of the problems that are coming at us in the future, parents need to set a better example for their kids. They need to be less gullible and better at critical thinking and more skeptical about fantastic claims. They need to understand that fantastic claims require fantastic evidence. Rather than accept a claim that appeals to them emotionally, people need to learn more about the scientific method. It is a way of looking at the world as it is, rather than how we would wish it to be.
The 21st century is going to bring some fantastic breakthroughs in stem cell research, cloning, coding of DNA, fusion, quantum physics, artificial intelligence, computers, microelectronics, materials science, nanotechnology and the conquest of disease. Pseudo-science can lead to blind antipathy to reason and lead people away from making good decisions or understanding the true nature of the world we live in and the problems we must solve. It makes people gullible to fantastic claims taken at face value without investigation. A good example is the current antipathy to vaccines by 32% of our citizens which has led to a rash of infections in Southern California
It will be very tempting for people to be attracted to superstition, cult theories, and pseudo-science for answers. Unless we can make a lot more headway in discounting the importance of pseudo-science we will continue to move towards a society where irrationalism will prevail, clutching our crystals and magnets to our heart.