Not long ago I learnt of another former scientist I know of who has, apparently, fallen for pseudoscience or ‘woo’. It was a bit distressing. A lovely person, but you had to think ’good grief, why?’

With that in the back of mind my while reading blog posts and writing about this to others I got to wondering if that when teaching ‘how science works’ as part of senior high school and first-year undergraduate courses if ordinary, approachable, examples of scientists who’ve strayed, and how they strayed, should be taught too.

Perhaps it’s just my dismay speaking unreasonably and too loudly at this moment. Nevertheless, let me continue with this line of thinking as something to mull over. My thought, or I guess wistful hope, was maybe these ‘ordinary examples’ might serve to alert students to where they don’t want to end up, to where lack of introspection, critical thinking and scientific integrity can lead.

I’ve highlighted those phrases, as they’re what I want to focus on.

You might think of it this as self-reflecting on your reasoning, having the skills to think soundly and the integrity to hold up to what your criticism of your own thinking found.

Before I expand on this, I’d like to ask those who think this suggestion ‘odd’ to hold off a bit. I’m well aware this will seem a strange suggestion to some, particularly those focused on the use of the science to the exclusion of it’s lack of use or misuse. I’m not suggesting science courses or degrees need radical reworking; I’ve outlined this more in an extended footnote.[1]

It asks (first-year) university and high school science courses to face a wider brief than generating more scientists. It also asks for a full appreciation of–let’s be frank–how wide-spread non-scientific nonsense is. I don’t know about others, but I find the extent of nonsensical belief expressed in the community is overwhelming sometimes, and when I see the occasional former scientist (or even, rarely, current scientists) fall for it’s a little disturbing.

How do you enable students to recognise themselves as straying into pseudoscience, non-scientific practices, or just ordinarily sloppy thinking?

Perhaps an underlying issue–maybe the underlying issue–is that the three items I mentioned earlier are not formally taught, or not often, not well or only in passing, when in many ways they are a core foundation of good science. Good judgement for all walks of life, really. (Politicians included, but we can leave that for another article!)

I’m not suggesting that those who stray should be mocked, but that teaching scientific methodology and sound thinking might be rounded out by showing showing examples of the flip side: where a lack of application of it can lead, what could be applied to recognise misleading thinking and avoid mistakes in a student’s own work through these examples.

Where possible examples ought to be people who students identify with, who they might recognise as the same as people they come in contact with, and ideally as potentially themselves down the track.

It’s easy to use as examples people who are famous and who have ‘fallen’–there are ample examples even from the ranks of Nobel laureates for that. Likewise, it’s easy to use famous events as examples.

These people and events are too distant.

It’s too easy to think ’I’m not them’, or ’I’ll never be in a situation like that’. It’s harder for examples to serve as a caution if the student can’t picture themselves having to face it and work on it in their own lives.[2]

So, what of those three elements?

In a recent comment in reply to a post by Marcus Wilson, Alison Campbell wrote touched on introspection,

I’m not sure that some element of self-reflection isn’t required of scientists, though — how else can one be quite sure that one doesn’t have the wrong handle on something? That (since Elf mentioned Feynman) one’s not been sucked in by cargo-cult science?

[The reference to Feynman will be to his well-known ‘cargo-cult’ lecture - to keep the video from distracting reader from what I’m writing I’ve placed it at the end of this article.]

I agree.

I’ve always thought this a key element of good science. You have to be constantly challenging yourself with critical questions along the lines of ‘why am I asking this?’, ’what are the conditions required for this statement to hold true?’, ‘do I really know that?’

If you don’t sooner or later you’ll buy into a shoddy argument, most likely one of your own that you’re a bit too fond of. (It helps in this respect to treat your own favourite ideas as if coming from an arch-rival when judging them, to focus on what might be held up by others as wrong and how to critically test them. Looking only at how to ’prove’, or ’back’, your idea encourages overlooking flaws.)

This, in turn, brings up the role of critical thinking. I’ve touched on in A course for all degrees: PHIL 105, Critical Thinking, taking as my starting point a local undergraduate course that is the only course available to all students at Otago University regardless of their degree program.

I don’t wish to repeat what I’ve written there. Instead I want to add that I think that there is a need to include ‘ordinary’ example cases in courses like this, examples that students might recognise in the people they encounter and, more importantly, ones they might recognise as situations they might find themselves in.

Feynman’s Cargo Cult lecture, from his 1974 Caltech commencement address, adds another aspect: integrity. Janet Stemwedel recently wrote how her undergraduate students believed there was extensive formal training in scientific ethics or some Official Scientist’s Code of Ethics to which all scientists swore allegiance. If only. By contrast Feynman says in his lecture of how scientific integrity is really taught (this in 1974): ’we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that you catch on [from] all the examples of scientific investigation’.

I’m suggesting that in addition to teaching this, perhaps there is a need to also teach examples of the opposite: of people failing to apply good practice, using people and situations students can readily relate to.

I’ll leave you with Feynman’s renown address:

YouTube Preview Image


One forum I can suggest readers to follow if this general topic interests them is Janet Stemwedel’s blog Doing Good Science a the new Scientific American blog network. She takes talking about this subject to another whole level. It being her professional focus that’s to be expected, of course! Her latest article, Objectivity requires teamwork, but teamwork is hard, argues that it’s unrealistic for any one scientist on their own to be objective. It’s an aspect I haven’t touched upon at all here; there are other aspects to.

1. In some ways I feel as if I’m sticking my neck out even raising the subject. I have this vision of university science lecturers giving me funny looks and avoiding me! Their courses, of course, focus on science only and don’t worry with this sort of thing. I’m not suggesting science courses should all take on philosophy of science, or something like that – that wouldn’t be practical or make sense. However, somewhere in the wider mix material on the philosophical basis of science might not go amiss, with a view to explicitly teaching the value of ‘the scientific method’, and something of what when it comes down to it is just plain sound thinking (basic critical thought). Teaching it through it’s origins, or history, would be helpful too. Ultimately these should be useful to everyone. The key thing I wanted to add here is that it ought to be explicitly taught and with ‘real’, rather than abstract, examples in a perhaps forlorn hope it might reduce the number of people who go on to engage in nonsensical practices or thinking. The reason I’ve pointed at high school and first-year levels is that the suggestion be focused on all students, including those that don’t go on in science. Of course, there are university courses like this already (Otago University, for example, already has one) and for these I’d be most certainly preaching to the choir, but these courses might be encouraged to take a routine place in degree courses rather than treated as either odd-ball or something of a fun soft option.

(I’m biased in dropping in the history reference. I think that ideally science is better taught through how our current ideas and understanding developed, rather than presenting it in a ’it’s like this’ manner. Of course that requires more time, and so runs into practical limitations.)

This footnote has grown so much that it appears to have morphed into something like a blog post within a blog post…

2. You could argue for taking this a step further and encouraging examples relating to the broad fields that the students study, health examples for medical students, for example, on the basis that students will better relate to them but I’ve two minds about that. A problem is that people are, in general, naïve outside ‘their patch’ and that’s something students need to be taught to be wary of.

Other articles on Code for life:

A course for all degrees: PHIL 105, Critical Thinking

Conspiring against science

Haemophilia — towards a cure using genetic engineering

Of use of the active voice by scientists

What aspects of biology need to be explained better?

Choosing an algorithm — benchmarking bioinformatics