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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May 25, 2010

How to Teach Science versus Pseudoscience?


Introduction

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!

March 8, 2010

Is Debunking a Fringe Person Still Worth It?


Introduction

This morning, I received an IM from a friend congratulating me on the 100,000+ reads on my blog. I responded with a bit of surprise, saying that I didn’t realize she read my blog. Her response was that she has an RSS feed of it and skims what I write when there’s a new post.

This particular friend happens to be the person I briefly consulted for my two-part (eventually three-part) series on the astrologer Terry Nazon (here and here), because this friend practices astrology as a hobby.

Somewhat fearful, I asked her what she thought of the two blog posts about Ms. Nazon. Her response was, “I think that you were probably debunking a hack astrologer.” That led me to quickly justify why I did it, but I think it does raise a decent question: Should one spend the time debunking someone who is on the fringe of their particular pseudoscientific belief system?

Why I Think the Answer Is “Maybe”

I think that there are several reasons both do to this and not to do it. On the “not” side there’s the obvious time-waste component for relatively little gain if they’re on the fringe. There’s the lack of applicability to the underlying field you’re trying to refute. Another con is that you run the risk of presenting a straw man argument – though I try to make very clear that I am only addressing specific claims, not the entire field.

On the “do it” side, I think there are stronger arguments, providing you have the time. The first I thought of is that this person is still making their claims and they do have an audience. In Ms. Nazan’s case, she was going to be featured on an internationally syndicated radio show that reaches literally millions of people every night on over 525 radio stations. Many of her website page headings (her site, her blog, her Facebook) bill her as “Terry Nazon World Famous Astrologer” with the word “Celebrity” sometimes thrown in there. She also apparently makes enough money to run her website.

That led me to the second reason: She’s bilking people out of a heck of a lot of money. I’ll repeat the numbers – at least the current ones on her website – which are $4.99 per minute, $75 for an e-mail reading, $75 for a 15-minute reading, $150 for a 30-minute reading, and $330 for a 60-minute phone reading. I am still amazed at that – I cannot grasp that people are willing to throw that much money at her for something that says at the bottom of her website in very small print, “For entertainment purposes only,” and for someone who was absolutely so demonstrably wrong in her claims (as I illustrated here and here). A three-hour reading from her costs more than my month’s rent.

Third – and this is more minor – you get experience picking through arguments in a logical, methodical way.

And for me, that’s really enough. If (1) the person has a name for themselves and an audience, and (2) there actually is harm being done – in this case separating people from their money during a recession – then I think they’re fair game. It doesn’t matter whether they’re on the fringe of their particular field. You still get the experience of debunking someone, and hopefully some of the people being harmed will at least begin to doubt what they’re about to do. If by my blog posts I have stopped one person from contacting Terry Nazon for a reading, then I will be pretty happy and consider it worth it.

Similarly, despite using some of the more fringe claims of 2012 and Planet X stuff to address some of the more basic claims people make, my blog generally gets ~150-250 hits a day from people searching for information on the subject, or linking to my blog from forums or bulletin boards as a resource to learn what’s really not going to happen. I have actually received e-mails from people who say that they were very worried and my blog helped them to calm down from the hysteria that they were approaching. And of course the Comments section posts are nice, too.

What Do You Think?

This is where I normally sum up my position, but I think I already did that. Rather, I’ll use this quick ending to ask you, the reader, what do you think about this? Should people bother to spend time debunking more fringe claims in a field? Or is it just a waste of time? Please answer in the Comments!

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