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Warning Signs That Something is Not Scientific

*Some editing and language added by Barbara A. Drescher

Some people promote theories and treatments that they claim to be scientific, but are not. ResearchBlogging.orgOn this website, we often refer to such dubious claims as “woo” or pseudoscience. These often troublesome theories and treatments are widely advertised on the internet, on TV, and in the psychology or self-help sections of commercial book stores. But because some material in these venues is legitimate, it is important to know how to distinguish science from pseudoscience.

Here we provide a useful toolkit which can be used to identify pseudoscience. The following warning signs are just a rough guide and should be used with some care, because the distinction between science and pseudoscience is rarely clear-cut. Nevertheless, the more warning signs, the more suspicious of a claim you should be.

Warning signs that something is not scientific:

  1. It cannot be tested.

    Pseudoscience is often either impossible to test or excuses are made which keep it from being tested.

    In some cases, when evidence does not support the claim, instead of abandoning their ideas, pseudoscientists add conditions to their theories or explain away the evidence so that it is impossible to test the claim empirically. For example, a psychic who cannot demonstrate mind reading or other psychic feats under carefully controlled conditions in the laboratory might claim that “the skeptical vibes of experimenters” are blocking his or her psychic powers. Such an excuse makes the claim untestable.

    In other cases, pseudoscientific theories cannot be tested right from the start.

  2. The basic theory does not change in response to evidence.

    Genuine science adapts and updates its theories in response to new evidence, especially refuting evidence. In contrast, pseudoscience tends to maintain its initial claims and instead dismisses or ignores counter-evidence.

  3. The claimants avoid peer review or other outside verification.

    Peer review is the checking of scientific-journal articles by other scientists. Although it is by no means perfect, peer review is an effective, if slow, safeguard against human error. Pseudoscientists tend to avoid close scrutiny. In many cases, their descriptions of procedures and mechanisms are vague and the terms they use are undefined (e.g., “energy”). In other cases they may claim that “orthodox science” conspires against them.

  4. They only look for evidence which confirms their hypothesis.

    In science, studies are designed to disprove hypotheses, not to confirm them. This is because confirming evidence cannot tell us if the hypothesis is always true or if we have simply not seen a case in which it is false. For example, we could test the hypothesis that all birds fly by dropping birds from a bridge. We would confirm our hypothesis many times over, but we would not discover that it was wrong unless we happened to drop a chicken, penguin, or ostrich.

    Scientists look for evidence that their theories are false. Pseudoscientists, however, often look only for evidence which supports their beliefs.

  5. The claimant insists that their theory is accurate because it has not been proven wrong.

    Pseudoscientists typically say that it up to critics to disprove their claims, and until they do they should hold firmly to their beliefs. However, the burden of proof is on those making the claim.

  6. The claim defies what established science has told us about the world.

    Pseudoscientists often claim to have discovered a completely new way of looking at the world, one which requires existing scientific knowledge to be tossed out. For example, “psychic surgeons” claim to remove tumors from a patient’s abdomen without cutting the skin. This is considered an extraordinary claim as it defies the laws of nature as we know them. Such claims require extraordinary evidence.

  7. The claimants attempt to persuade using anecdotes.

    Pseudoscientists tend to rely on evidence that is testimonial – engaging and vivid personal stories. These stories are often touching and persuasive. Although such testimonies may be useful starting points in the early stages of scientific study, they rarely provide enough evidence to accept a claim. That’s because they are often difficult to verify, unrepresentative of people’s experiences, and open to alternative explanations that pseudoscientists haven’t considered.

  8. The claimants use confusing and inappropriate scientific-sounding jargon to persuade.

    Pseudoscientists sometimes use jargon which hides the lack of substance in their claims. Scientific or highly technical words are used to impress the reader and make it look like science. Technical or scientific terms are often used out of context. For example, the claim that a product regulates the flow of ions in the body is a misuse of the term “ion”, which refers to states of a molecule, not something that flows in the body.

  9. The claim has no limits.

    In science, theories are specific and treatments have limits. In contrast, pseudoscientists often claim that their theory or treatment applies to just about everything. For example, sham treatments for ADHD also claim to treat or even cure autism, learning disabilities, and other behavioral disorders even though these disorders are completely different in nature and have different causes.

  10. The claimant rejects counter-evidence from specific testing because it is not “holistic”.

    “Holistic” is often used to mean “treating the whole person.” Buyer-beware if “holistic” is used in such a way as to explain away unfavorable results, or to undermine the value of testing specific parts of the treatment or theory.

Note: These warning signs were adapted from Lilienfeld, Lynn, and Lohr (2003, pp. 5-10).

Lilienfeld, S.O., Lynn, S.J., & Lohr, J.M. (2003). Science and pseudoscience in clinical psychology: Initial thoughts, reflections and considerations In S.O. Lilienfeld, S.J. Lynn, & J.M. Lohr (Eds.), Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, 1-38

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There Must Be an Idiom

                                 St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia

A couple of days ago I read something that I found very disturbing and I was reminded of it today. It illustrates the challenge we have in educating the public about science and, perhaps, why it is so challenging. There must be an idiom which fits. Perhaps you have some suggestions.

So, first I will tell you what I read, then I will tell you why it was more disturbing than what I commonly encounter. If you want to skim, I cannot stop you, but please scroll down to the bottom for the shocker.

The offending paragraph was found in a review of Daniel Loxton’s wonderful children’s book, Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be which appeared in CM Magazine, a publication of the Manitoba Library Association.

Although the text is very good in describing the theory of Evolution, there are points in the book where the author makes comments that could imply that Evolution is more than a theory. For example, “…Charles Darwin revealed the solution to the mystery of evolution” (p. 7). He also makes the comment that Evolution is the most important idea in all of biology (p. 7). Such phrases may lead the reader into thinking that scientists completely understand the theory of Evolution which would be incorrect, else Evolution would be a principle or a law and not a theory. As well, it is a bit bold to claim that evolution is the most important idea in all of biology – biology is a huge field of study with other key discoveries.

This text could be read by a young reader for ‘fun.’…

First, let me address this criticism because it is a common one made by evolution deniers and because it preys on a misunderstanding of science that many laypeople have.

As with most words in the English language, the word “theory” has multiple meanings. In general use among non-scientists, it is often used to express “conjecture”, “speculation”, or some other unproven or untested guess.

None of those definitions are what a scientist means when they use the term “theory”.

Neither a “principle” nor a “law” is a theory which is “completely understood”, either. Laws are simple statements which describe, not explain.

The descriptions given by Dr. Genie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, of the definitions of fact, law, hypothesis, and theory. It occurs about 3:50 into the video.

                    

Theories vary in strength from very weak to very strong. The theory of evolution through natural selection has withstood 150 years of rigorous testing. It is one of the strongest theories in science.

And, yes, it is, by far, the most important idea in biology. It is probably the most important in all of the life sciences including behavioral sciences like psychology. Of course, this is a statement of opinion and I am not a biologist. However, I cannot imagine a biologist of any quality who does hold this opinion. I offer as evidence the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whom Theodosius Dobzhansky quoted in his 1973 essay in American Biology Teacher titled “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in Light of Evolution“:

(Evolution) is a general postulate to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must henceforward bow and which they must satisfy in order to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light which illuminates all facts, a trajectory which all lines of thought must follow — this is what evolution is.

So, to summarize so far, a theory is an explanation – it is a set of testable and tested statements about relationships among variables which explains a given phenomenon. Ideas are not called “theories” because we do not know if they hold true. The strength of a theory depends on the quantity of observable facts explained, the quality of the explanation, the amount of testing it has withstood, and many other factors.

Evolution is an amazingly strong theory.

The author of the review does not understand the term “theory” as it is used in science, nor does she understand “law” and “principle”. Although these are often misunderstood by laypersons, they are fundamental to science. They are the language of science.

What is so shocking?

The review was written by an Assistant Professor of Science Education.

Katarin MacLeod is an Assistant Professor in Science Education at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, NS. Her areas of interest include physics educational research (PER), and the incorporation of science, technology, society and environment (STSE) outcomes into science courses at all levels to help students understand the relevancy of science, increase scientific literacy, and to promote citizenship.

That, my friends, is disgraceful.


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Skepticism: Making the Distinction

There appears to be a lingering confusion between philosophical skepticism and scientific skepticism. Here, an attempt will be made to elucidate this issue further and draw a clear distinction between the two.

image source: http://www.skepticfriends.org

In general, philosophical skepticism holds that no definitive knowledge can ever be obtained through the senses, mainly due to the senses being flawed and thereby unreliable; the same arguments can be applied to logic and reasoning. Scientific skepticism, on the other hand, posits that though the senses and logic may in fact have their limitations and as such, never truly allow us to hold any definitive knowledge, the senses and logic are the best tools we have for any hopes of obtaining knowledge. Thus, it is apparent that each form of skepticism is distinct and operates under a different set of underlying assumptions.

Certainly, philosophical skepticism supplies adequate reason to question that which we believe to know and can logically justify. One need only turn to findings on the belief bias or narrative fallacy to find evidence for the short comings of human reasoning. However, the arguments of philosophical skepticism only put forth reason to doubt and remain skeptical of the tools (the senses and logic) which we have to make sense of reality. They fail to provide sufficient reason to not make use of these tools. Indeed, scientific skepticism acknowledges that they can often lead us astray, hence the precept behind a core scientific principle of skepticism: open-mindedness. Consequently, scientific skepticism assumes that there exists an approximate one-to-one correspondence between the senses and reality, such that the senses can give us some degree of reliably accurate knowledge about the universe. Philosophical skepticism refuses to make such an assumption and we are left with no trustable conclusions. For this reason, there is a need to recognize the distinction between the two.

Philosophical skepticism provides an invaluable principle to science: that we always have reason to continue to doubt. Because of this principle, science can never prove or disprove any phenomena, but rather provide inductive evidence for or against a given hypotheses along with a measure of certainty. From this we infer knowledge. Scientific skepticism takes a more pragmatic approach than philosophical skepticism by not allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good and making use of the best tools we have (our senses) in this search.


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