Nurture science appreciation – teach the controversy

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology,” said Carl Sagan, a person who inspired many to appreciate science and learning about nature.

Even though that quote is decades old, it applies now more than ever and continues to be pithy as each day goes by.

Today’s school science classes are still exercises in memorization and not much fun for most kids. Most students will not become scientists nor remember the processes, facts and formulas. But science is everywhere, affecting us daily. It is crucial that citizens grasp why it’s needed and valued for society. The average non-scientists likely sees no direct connection to science in their daily lives. Do we really need an educated society to know the specifics of scientific fields or do we REALLY need a population generally supportive of science as a way of knowing. I’d argue the latter which is why I would prefer classes in science appreciation. I interviewed Dr. Andrew Read from Pennsylvania State University (PSU) a little while back on his science appreciation class for freshman non-scientists called “Science in Our World: Certainty and Controversy”. Dr. Read is able to draw his students’ interest by focusing on what they care about or what resonates with them in their everyday lives. Because science really is part of our everyday lives.

Making science immediately relevant to the life of any individual student might seem difficult in a chemistry or physics class. I propose that the most attention grabbing topics in these fields are the controversial ones, the mysteries, the things kids will encounter on TV, in movies and all over the Internet. Use popular examples to illustrate the value of good science.

Matthew P. Wiesner, in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, explores the small community of modern geocentrists. These are people who think that the Earth does not move but that the ENTIRE UNIVERSE revolves around us according to the Bible. To borrow the framework of a popular quote about evil and religion, “…for smart people to believe really silly things, that takes religion.” Geocentrists don’t do bad science, they do anti-science. What a great topic to explore from many angles (even if you avoid the religious angle). Geocentrists, like other pseudoscientists, are motivated by their own agenda, they must resort to conspiracies that have no evidence to support the claims, and they do funny math or no math at all. Regardless, they insist that what they have is REVOLUTIONARY! How their swiss cheese theory is better than the existing well-established explanation about how nature works is glossed over. Such an example can serve as a model for an array of pseudoscientific subjects showing students what red flags to watch for.

Wiesner holds, as I do, that ignoring nonsense claims doesn’t make them go away but allows them to spread further. Someone needs to put up a checkpoint. Why not use pseudoscientific claims, those made by self-described experts playing pretend science, in the classroom? Use these examples as illustrations. It’s fun.

I’ll be talking about this topic next month at a conference at Northern Arizona University called The Skeptical Classroom, providing examples in the natural sciences that educators can use to connect to their non-science students and show them how critical thinking is relevant TO THEM. By actively addressing claims that kids may hold, and forcing them to take a hard look at why they probably are bogus, will, if nothing else, plant the seed. It will get them thinking and engaged in a skeptical process.

Teaching earth and space science in high school? Ask students why aliens might or might not have visited earth. Ask them to assess astrology versus astronomy. If the moon has an effect on tides, does it affect human behavior as well?

Chemistry? PLEASE examine homeopathy and handily demolish its entire premise, hopefully sparing kids and perhaps their family members from wasting money on sugar pills.

Biology? Figure out if Bigfoot or lake monsters make sense. Attempt to identify what is represented in the picture of the strange carcass that washed up on the beach that everyone is calling a “chupacabra”.

Physics? How could this free energy machine actually work? Can we model out how paranormal entities can affect the environment – where does the energy come from to throw a lamp, how are the local EM fields manipulated, can something we see go through a wall?

Got younger kids? What is there favorite monster and do they think it’s real? Does it behave like humans or other animals?

Get students thinking about things that matter to them in a new way. They will love it and will learn a whole new appreciation for the value of science and practical skepticism. They will appreciate that it helps them to not be fooled. The early we can instill this, the better.

geocentric

Video: Media Guide to Skepticism

A while back, I produced with the help of many others, this guide to skepticism for beginners and for journalists and whomever else was interested.

In May of 2013, I was asked to come to L.A. to do a live presentation on the topic and a Q and A session as well for the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). The video is now online. It’s an hour and 20 minutes of me and Barbara Drescher talking and demonstrating.

It’s gotten some nice views and compliments already, so enjoy.

Reality Check: We all need it (Book review)

There are some writers for which you know pretty much exactly what you are going to get. Donald R. Prothero is one of those writers. I expect a well-researched, comprehensive treatment of the topic with a flavor of emotion here and there. That’s what I got with Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten our Future, 2013, Indiana Univ Press.

The core of the book is summed up in the John Burroughs quote given on page 1:

To treat your facts with imagination is one thing, but to imagine your facts is another.

RCOnce you observe the methods of creationists as the classic example of science denialists, you can recognize the same tactics in those that reject climate change. I have also noted the same tricks in environmentalists or those holding contrarian views about vaccines, the paranormal, and various consumer products.

The premise of Reality Check is that when “a well-entrenched belief system comes in conflict with scientific or historic reality” the believers in this system will actively discount, ignore or distort the facts that go against it. They may stop at nothing to defend their belief – they will lie, hide evidence, manufacture evidence, pay people off, bully, harass, discredit, and even threaten the scientists who are  supporting the “inconvenient” conclusion.

The book highlights denialism rampant in the fields of environmentalism, global warming, evolution education, vaccine information, AIDS treatment policy, medical claims, energy policy and population size and growth. Each chapter exposes the hidden agendas of those who reject the scientific consensus and provides the reader with the solid, established evidence.

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Count von Count’s arithromania

Last Dragon*Con, I went to a talk about movie monsters. It was a small group with three artists up front chatting about their favorite creature features. It was so much fun, all that trivia. There was one tidbit from that presentation that I found so adorable and interesting, I was amazed I never thought of it before. I had to write about it. Yes, it’s taken me a year to do it.

I don’t know how they got around to the topic but we were discussing the Count from Sesame Street. You may remember that he counts everything. Nifty, eh? What a great kids character – just a touch scary (like other Muppets) but not threatening.
count

When I was a kid, a bit after the Sesame Street days, I got into monster books and loved to learn “facts” about vampires. One way to stop or at least delay a vampire, I’d heard, was to throw a handful of rice or seeds behind you. He would (apparently) compulsively stop and have to count every grain before proceeding. Interesting…

Is that where the Count von Count got his counting habit from?

The person next to me in the monsters talk said “Yes”.

Really? How did I not make this connection!

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PA House Bill 612 on licensing naturopaths: Opposition fail

It’s critical to speak out on legislative issues. Just a dozen or so well crafted letters or phone calls to your representative show that there is interest in the public constituency on an issue.

PA House Bill 612 is proposed to license naturopaths in PA. There is an excellent post on Science-based Medicine that explains why this is a bad idea.

I wrote to my local Representative and copied in the bill sponsor, Mustio.

 

But it’s too late. I IMMEDIATELY got this reply from Mustio:

Dear Sharon Hill,

Thank you for your email. The bill will be amended tomorrow and pass overwelmingly. 

Sincerely,

Mark

Why did physician groups not object to this? Was there not enough/no counterview?

Please do your part. NO ONE else will.

It appears we have to live with this piece of crap legislation and that is a shame for the health of citizens in PA.

Weird Newsapalooza!

New Sounds Sciencey post is about How to Think About Weird News

Every day, I scour the Internet for news. Not just any news. Weird news. What bizarre thing was seen, heard, or found today?

This interest in the unexplained, mysterious, and Fortean is a perpetual thing for me. The first books I ever recall picking out as favorites were about ghosts, monsters, and UFOs. But the qualification for my interest was that I cared about them only because I thought they might be real.

I began a website to highlight these paranormal and anomalous news stories. While there are a lot of strange news feeds and news aggregators that do this, mine is different. I didn’t just want to share these stories so you can pass them along your virtual circles. I wanted to discuss these stories. What about them was true? What was missing? Why did people latch onto certain ones and enthusiastically share them with everyone they knew, even if they were almost certainly hoaxes or exaggerations? One of my goals was for my website to show up in online searches for these topics so perhaps interested readers would stumble upon a more thoughtful analysis than what was found in comment sections after the news stories or on Internet forums.

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