Exposing PseudoAstronomy

May 31, 2010

How to Teach Science versus Pseudoscience — Follow-Up


Introduction

Two posts ago, I wrote a post soliciting advice on how to teach science versus pseudoscience to a class of college undergraduates in an astronomy for non-majors introductory course. I received several replies, though apparently some people had problems leaving comments on the blog … to the point that they tried to leave a comment and I didn’t get any sort of notification — WordPress didn’t record it at all.

Not sure what’s going on there, but if that happens here, I’ll give out my e-mail address and you can e-mail me.

What I’ve Done for the Lecture

It was interesting trying to meld disparate advice into a lecture format that seems to sorta kinda make sense. For the moment, I’ve decided to:

  1. Start with the infamous “Rainbow Lady” YouTube video of the woman thinking there’s a government conspiracy to make water coming out of her sprinkler show a rainbow. The purpose is to have the students try to frame the scenario in a scientific way. An observation is shown, how can they go about figuring out what’s going on? I have prompt questions written to myself to try to steer the conversation towards what experiments could they do, is it simpler to explain it through known phenomenon or a government conspiracy, is it possible to disprove a conspiracy, and is it possible to prove that diffraction is the explanation — answers to the last two being “no” which will lead into …
  2. What is a theory? Differentiating between every-day use and scientific use including the “this can never be proven” part.
  3. What is science? Starting out with a quote by Einstein and then outlining the scientific method.
  4. Flowchart of the scientific method. And I have decided that I will be posting my lectures on the course website as PDFs*.
  5. Finish off the “What Is Science?” part with the facts/observations < hypothesis < law < theory hierarchy.
  6. What is pseudoscience? I’ve written two slides on many common parts of pseudoscientific claims/beliefs/ideas/”theories.” End with a much shorter flow chart.
  7. End with two main types of pseudoscience that will be addressed in the course (mainly through the required writing assignment). Those would be (1) Claims that argue against science or an established concept/idea, and (2) Claims that make you go, “WTF did that come from?”

*I know this is a point of contention among many instructors. I was forever against it. I recently heard though from people who actually do do research in astronomy education that their data shows posting lecture notes does not change their class attendance. Also, since lecture will nominally be only half of any given class period, group work and class discussions comprising the rest will mean that just printing out the lectures and not attending class will not get them a good grade. Posting the lectures online will also let them not have to spend time copying down word-for-word what’s on the screen but focus more on the explanation and discussion.

Other Things I Considered

A few weeks ago I heard an amazing caller on the Coast to Coast AM radio show. In the space of 2 minutes, he talked about how Earth’s atmosphere was lost and flash-froze all the animals due to Earth losing all gravity and coupling to the moon’s off-center core and the moon retreating and …. . Needless to say, I cut that clip out and was going to use it as an example and have the class discuss it. However, I’ve now decided that I’m going to use it, but I’m going to use it as a test question later on in the course after we’ve talked about gravity, Earth, the moon, and atmospheres.

Another thing I considered was to have an example from the other infamous YouTube clip of “Dr. Werner” trying to explain how homeopathy works. If you don’t know the clip, I recommend watching about the first 6.5 minutes. It’s precious. But, I decided that even if I could cut it down to the first 3 min 40 sec, it was too far afield for the class and the history majors may feel lost to the finer points that “Steven Hawkings” didn’t come up with string theory and that mass cannot simply be crossed out of E=m*c2 to make E=c2. Oh, and the lecture already has 11 slides and with discussion that’ll probably put me at 20 minutes already.

From another suggestion, I thought I may start with a magic trick to show the importance of careful observation, how your senses can be fooled, how you think what’s going on isn’t actually going on, and the importance then of careful observation and testing. I was actually pretty into magic early on in my life and I have amassed quite a bit of tricks. The one I was going to show has to do with disappearing water into a cup. I’m not going to go further in case I actually do end up doing the trick and someone in my class finds this blog. But, I for now have decided against that because (1) I’m not sure how a group with a median age of 21 will respond, and (2) I can’t think of a good transition between it and the Rainbow Lady or another good place in the lecture to put it.

Another idea I had was to start out with an observation. Someone weighs themselves, gets a weight, takes a shower, dries off, gets a weight that’s 0.5 lbs more, and then weighs themselves a half hour later and gets the same weight as the first time. How would they go about figuring out what’s going on? I decided against that because it’s a minor thing that’s not really on-point and I think the Rainbow Lady can be better-used to accomplish the same goal.

Final Thoughts

Thanks again for all those who replied or tried to reply. I still have about 22 hours before the class, so if anyone has further advice or comments on what I’ve decided to do so far, please let me know. Post in the comments here, and then copy your comment (before submitting!) and if it doesn’t go through, send me an e-mail to the address provided above.

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