Exposing PseudoAstronomy

May 25, 2010

How to Teach Science versus Pseudoscience?


Some people who read this blog may have noticed another paucity of posts lately. I have the usual excuses – finishing up a paper and submitting it, being busy with research – and then unusual excuses – I went on a camping trip to Yellowstone National Park for a week, and I’m prepping to teach a class next month.

It’s the latter that is the reason for this post. I’m teaching my first class ever as Instructor of Record, meaning I have complete control over what’s taught and how. The class is a “summermester” meaning that it is every day for the entire month of June — June 1 through July 2, 11:00-12:35. The class is “General Astronomy: Solar System” for non-majors without a lab component. Checking the roster shows that, at the moment, there are about 25 students signed up, 1 freshman, 3 sophomores, about 15 juniors, and the rest seniors. Most are liberal arts students, but there are some from the sciences.

One of the assignments that I have already written is a course-long writing assignment. It requires the students to look into one of four modern popular astronomy-related pseudosciences — Planet X and 2012, The Apollo Moon Hoax, Is the Universe <6000 Years Old?, and The Hollo Earth "Theory."

Application of Critical Thinking

I will be passing out this assignment the first day of class. I will also be requiring intermediate progress items: (1) At the end of the first week (only 4 days into the class) they need to turn in an outline of their paper that lists the topic, sub-topics they’ll discuss, and at least 3 references they’ll use; (2) at the end of the 3rd week, a rough draft to me; and (3) at the end of the 4th week, a close to final draft that they’ll exchange with someone who’s NOT doing their topic, read over the weekend, and then peer-review on Monday.

As you can see, there is a reasonable emphasis on this paper. I also hope to gear the class towards an Astronomy Cast -inspired “How do we know what we know?” approach, and I plan to bring in pseudoscience topics that are related to homeworks and tests (I’m a fan of Phil Plait’s question of, “How can I state with great confidence that over 95% of violent crimes occur within 1 week of the full or new moon?”).

How to Teach?

The point of this post is to solicit advice from readers: How can I actually write an introductory lecture on this subject? I want the lecture to be no more than 20 minutes, and I would like it to teach science from pseudoscience without (a) getting preachy and (b) WITHOUT examples at the beginning. The last half of the lecture can be examples (good class discussion starters!), but I would really like to introduce the topic without falling into debunking.

I do have a wonderful 2-minute clip from a Coast to Coast AM caller who rambled about Earth’s gravity field collapsing pushing the moon away removing our atmosphere which flash-froze animals that I plan on playing towards the end.

My thoughts so far are showing the scientific method flow chart, or maybe asking the class how they would go about showing something is “true,” contrast that with methods employed by pseudoscience proponents … but those ideas are fairly vague. I start in a week; if people have advice, I’m interested in hearing (reading) it!


  1. Showing a flow chart doesn’t really encourage them to understand epistemology, which is clearly what you are going for here. They will just copy it down, memorize it, and try to regurgitate it.

    I start every course with some things to shake them up – examples of how our senses and perceptual processes fool us. If you only have 20 minutes to spend on it, this is a great way to start. You can add in a “checklist” which includes things like how we might compare results with what is expected by chance (i.e., statistics) and the elimination of plausible rival hypotheses.

    Comment by badrescher — May 25, 2010 @ 11:43 pm | Reply

  2. Hello! This is Kylie Sturgess and Reed sent me to this site. Hi Reed! 🙂
    A friend of mine, Mike McRae (who you can hear on Token Skeptic episodes #7, #9, #10 and #16) says:

    “I like that he says ‘I want the lecture to be no more than 20 minutes, and I would like it to teach science from pseudoscience without (a) getting preachy and (b) WITHOUT examples at the beginning. The last half of the lecture can be examples (good class discussion starters!), but I would really like to introduce the topic without falling into debunking.’

    There are myriad of approaches he could take, depending on his style of teaching and the class demographic, but in my opinion the initial lesson needs to provide a base for two main things – a means of making discussion a positive experience (i.e., positing opinions and anticipating critical responses are necessary and even enjoyable experiences) and a way of valuing knowledge by a measure of confidence and not an objective dichotomy of right and wrong.
    I’ve used a confidence scale, which is drawn on the board and discussed (a little like the ‘political worm’ for elections). What can work well is focusing on childhood beliefs – it gets people reminiscing on what they used to think was true with limited experience and sharing openly without a judgmental air.
    That’s just one path, of course. The important thing is that if you’re going to open with a science demo of any sort, not to ‘debunk’ with a dichotomy of ‘haha, you thought A, but it is really B!’, as it establishes the dichotomy from the start and makes it difficult to refrain from polarising science into absolutes.”

    I would also add, from my part as an English and Philosophy teacher (NOT a science teacher), that perhaps a useful checklist of ‘how to know what is a trustworthy source’ is. You wouldn’t have to explicitly use examples, in fact, just talk about what is standard. As homework, you could get them to find four examples and rank them in terms of ‘why this is more an authorative source than another.’
    Perhaps have a ‘grab-bag’ of ten websites pre-prepared for them (the website might even just be a page about a book, too, so they could examine how they might bias towards or against the printed text) and get them to choose four randomly and list what factors make them more ‘legit’ than others? Then next lesson, discuss it in groups and rank them as a group activity.

    Hope that’s of use! 🙂 Feel free to zip me an email or check out my website. 🙂

    Comment by podblack — May 26, 2010 @ 5:57 am | Reply

  3. I don’t have experience teaching college, nor have I done any formal entry into pseudoscience, since state secondary science standards don’t have room for that much variation. However, when I teach the scientific process, I make sure that my students remember two important vetting points for discriminating science from pseudoscience. First, I want them to remember that anyone can make a claim about anything, but that the only way to verify the claim (or defend it in any way), is by providing and defending the evidence. It does, in fact, go back to the question of “what do we know, and why?” I do think, though, that it is a bit more to-the-point. When we talk about astronomy in my general sci class, the question of “aliens” always comes up. Here in Southern CO, we get a lot of press and TV coverage of alleged “cattle mutilations” in the San Luis Valley. I use this media coverage to ask the question of “what is the evidence for the ‘alien’ claim?”

    This leads to the second point I use: “Which is more likely to be true?” One student pulled up a website that had a photo showing some animal hung up on a power line as “proof” that aliens had visited the region. She was flustered when I asked the question, “which is more likely–that a bunch of goofy college kids hung that carcass on the power line as a prank, or that aliens did it?” The cognitive dissonance was palpable. For college students, this second point may be useful, though I would modify it to something on the order of “OK, there’s one hypothesis (aliens). What alternative hypotheses can you think of that might be more probable?”

    So, my intro might be, “Think of some claims that people make regarding our knowledge of space. What evidence do we need to verify these claims? What evidence do we have?” I think that you may have to give at least one example to get the ball rolling. Since people haven’t had to consider things like this, I don’t think that a lot of them would even be able to come up with their own examples to start.

    For the intro, I might even pose one of the most outrageous claims that people make and ask those questions of the class. Let them go from “well, that’s ridiculous,” to “what evidence do we need? What evidence do we have? What evidence contradicts the claim?” Move on to a somewhat less obvious example where they might have to wrack their brains a little to come up with good, rational, points. Finally, move to one of the topic questions. Let them muddle around with it for a little bit, then give them the assignment.

    You and I might approach things differently because of the target audience, but this would be my approach for a class like this. Be cognizant of the fact that really examining topics like Planet X and the Apollo “hoax” probably requires students to consider information that they’ve never had any exposure to at all, so their thinking on these are going to be quite muddled, even after some deep consideration.

    I don’t know if you’ve considered these points, so I hope this helps!

    Comment by Shawn — May 26, 2010 @ 8:10 am | Reply

  4. I left a comment last night (it should have been the first), but it appears to be missing, so I will try to remember what I said and reconstruct it.

    First, drawing models and comparing them is not likely to teach them anything. They will copy it down, memorize it, never fully understand the purpose, then forget it. It seems that you are shooting for an epistemological understanding, which is exactly what my goals are.

    What I do at the beginning of every course that I teach is provide a clear and even shocking demonstration of how our sensory, perceptual, and cognitive processes fool us. This can be accomplished through demonstrations of magic, illusions, attentional blindness, an many other fun things. If you only want to spend 20 minutes, these are the most valuable, imo, because they clearly show why we NEED science.

    You can then go through a quick checklist of the things that science provides that other ways of acquiring knowledge do not (e.g., separating experimental effects from chance outcomes, eliminating plausible rival hypotheses, etc.). This list also serves as a checklist for their research.

    So, that’s my 2 cents. If you need materials, please feel free to email me.

    Comment by badrescher — May 26, 2010 @ 11:26 pm | Reply

    • Sorry about that. I just (noon, May 31) found your comments. WordPress thought they were spam and so didn’t notify me at all that you had tried to post them. My apologies.

      Comment by astrostu206265 — May 31, 2010 @ 12:18 pm | Reply

  5. Interesting stuff. In a sense this is a little controversial since lecturers generally try not to come right out and tell people their beliefs are wrong. Some students might carry these beliefs. Moon-landing hoax and 6,000 year old earth probably most likely. I respect the stance and the peer review part is spot-on. Much like how we learn about how the body works by studying disease and other problems we can learn how science works very effectively by studying the awful mishap that is pseudoscience.

    Comment by Marky — May 27, 2010 @ 2:25 am | Reply

    • To your point about whether they hold those beliefs, I have no qualms on the first day pointing out that if they believe the moon landings were a hoax that they are wrong. If they believe through young-Earth creationism that the universe is under 10,000 years old, I also have no issues pointing out that that is not science. Religion has made a testable prediction and based on all scientific evidence, it is wrong. If they want to believe that, that is fine. But they also need to know that on a test for the course, if they put that down, they will not get any points as it does not demonstrate they learned/comprehended the material presented, which is what the test tests.

      Comment by astrostu206265 — May 31, 2010 @ 12:15 pm | Reply

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