Should we teach examples of scientists falling for unscientific practices?

By Grant Jacobs 28/07/2011

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:


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

0 Responses to “Should we teach examples of scientists falling for unscientific practices?”

  • I won’t look at you sideways! In fact, I agree with you 100% – we should be teaching some of this material alongside all the ‘facts’. There is a tendency to assume that students will pick up the ‘how to actually think like scientist’ by osmosis. That’s why the science education material that Marcus & I write about from time to time is so important, because it’s bringing the thinking and problem-solving skills to the forefront and asking students to apply them. Results: much better learning outcomes & – hopefully – a more science-literate bunch of graduates as well 🙂
    Sorry, didn’t mean to bang on; as you know this is a favorite topic for me…

  • I seem to recall that the most recent redesign of science teaching in high schools involves explicit teaching of the scientific method, which is probably a good place to start.
    I agree that the scientific method and critical thinking are probably best taught explicitly but there is also value in embedding it in other science courses as well.

    I find a useful question which may help avoid getting caught up in woo is to ask “do I believe this because I WANT to believe it for some reason or other or do I believe it because it is the best conclusion I can draw from the facts.
    (I know my use of “believe” in this context may draw the ire of one or two people here but hopefully you understand what I am trying to get at.

  • Hi Alison,

    I know *you* wouldn’t – it’s a theme of your’s after all… 🙂

    The main thing I meant to say was that ‘ordinary’ examples might help. Looking at people who’d strayed to poor thinking (or practices) I wondered if less abstract examples, one that people can better identify with, might help.

  • Michael,

    Now you mention it, I recall Alison writing something along those lines. (Is this in practice, or “up-coming”?) It’d be interesting to learn how far this goes.

    I agree it’s better embedded, but if every course did it would it be redundant – ?

  • No offense, but I think the job of teaching students that certain scientists have fallen for pseudo-scientific ideas would be best left to historians of science. Of course, at most major universities it would be simple enough to require science students to take a relevant course. I just get concerned when scientists try to do history of science; see my an example of my complaints when this happens here:

  • Interesting blog, Daniel 🙂 Over here in NZ, it probably isn’t all that straightforward to ask students to take a paper in the history of science, due partly to the way that our degrees are structured. (I’d love to introduce a paper in science communication, for example, but that would generate all sorts of conniptions over what would have to be left out of the program. Doesn’t mean I’ll stop discussing the option, mind you.) At high school, delivering such content does fall to the science teachers, & the key thing there is providing them with sufficient & suitable resources to let them do the job well.

  • Hi Daniel,

    Hope you don’t mind but you appear to be thinking of something quite different to what I’m writing about and suggesting here.

    You’ll note my objective was to help students catch poor thinking in themselves in the future, in part through using examples they can more readily identify with. The ‘ordinary examples’ I’m referring to of are or the present day (or nearly so), and of ‘ordinary people’, not lofty figures of the past. (As I pointed out that they are too distant to readily identify with.)

    For what it’s worth, I was thinking more of people falling for the various ‘natural health’ claims than those falling for creationism as you cite as your example. I don’t really write either way about religion, much as I think creationism an odd thing and am not partial to religions.

    You also seem to have misunderstood my passing reference to science history. I am strongly for science to be taught in context of how things have arisen, rather than just how they now are. This isn’t the same as scientists teaching the history of science, it’s giving the background of current science. Note the distinction here between the people and setting in the former, and the science itself in the latter. (I’m aware you can’t entirely tease these two apart, but for the history I’m thinking of it’s less of an issue as it’s almost all from within the last 100 years.)

    For myself, I’m well aware of the likes of Newton‘s enquiries into alchemy, which today seem strange, as I think many (if not most) scientists are. (It’s more a ‘man of his time’ thing than poor science per se). For example, I’ve mentioned in passing on reading the early Transactions of the Royal Society of London how curious they can seem to modern eyes. My own feeling is that many modern high-school level and non-scientist portrayals of these people are somewhat air-brushed but all of this, while interesting, is a different thing to what I was referring to here and the topic of another post! One I’ve meant to write… one day…

    You might like to know that one of my Ph.D. student friends was in History and Philosophy of Science (I did my doctorate overseas, in the UK), so I have some personal sympathy for the field. A fair amount of my leisure reading is informal works on the history of science.

    By the way I’m curious as to how your link to my blog was made – how you make a self-referential comment before the comment has been accepted?

  • Just adding to Alison’s comment (my previous crossed over her’s):

    At the high school level teachers have to be generalists. Alison will know the score there – she works on the NZ high school science curriculum and has taught at high school as well as university, etc.

    (It’s also occurred to me that there two points I mention science history and that these have different settings.)

  • I enjoy learning about the history of science and scientists who have fallen into unscientific thinking.

    I personally find it even more inspiring to learn about people who use scientific thinking, even though they were not trained as scientists, to provide great advances in science and even the world. Often such breakthroughs have involved questioning the current status quo.

    As an example, think of Hans Ørsted who noticed that a compass needle swung when it was not supposed to. He started asking questions and making scientific observations about it. His approach lead to the development of electromagnetic theory and ultimately special relativity.

    I’m not sure whether that approach would work for everyone, but my memory suggests that it had a reasonably large influence on my own use of the scientific method.

  • It’s great to see dialogue amongst other scientists about the need for critical thinking in science education. Of course, I’d in fact widen this beyond science. I’ve been thinking that there is a problem in this area for some time now. Personally, I think that philosophy and particularly critical thinking should be taught much earlier than 7th form – it is afterall, the basis from which all skeptical and evidence-based enquiry builds from, so I think it is even more important than, say, physics or english.

    As for the history of science being taught by historians of science, I agree, but I think here we are in fact talking about the philosophy of science – empiricism, the scientific method, skepticism, logic, and epistemology in general. Critical thinking comes to science via philosophy.

    I have noticed a worrying trend from my own experience. As a trained archaeologist, my background was a blend of sciences and humanities, and this exposed me continually to concepts of bias, interpretation, and wider issues of epistemology (being situated closer to philosophy as a discipline than natural sciences). The importance of the philosophy of science as the framework (empiricism, for example) from which our interpretations were built and tested was a given. I am now involved in the forensic sciences, but have noticed a near-universal naievete from chemistry and biology graduates about the role of philosophy and critical thinking in science. Common things I’m told about the nature of science or philosophy are:

    1) science is applying maths to problems
    2) science is only quantitative (sorry anatomy)
    3) science is the experimental method (sorry geology)
    4) philosophy is just ‘waffle’
    5) philosophy is useless/unimportant/unrelated to science
    6) an attitude where science is ‘doing’ (i.e. method) or is otherwise a-theoretical

    These are all very capable people, but I find it a little worrying considering they (and I am generalising including other (younger) scientists from the natural sciences I have worked and studied with) are conducting research. When I talk of empiricism, or wider issues of epistemology, I usually recieve blank looks followed by the feeling I’m a ‘waffly arts’ person. I do think that this seems to be restricted more to recent graduates, but I suspect the odd person goes through their career as such.

    Food for thought anyway. Thanks for the post, once again great to see this being discussed.

  • Edward,

    “have noticed a near-universal naievete from chemistry and biology graduates about the role of philosophy and critical thinking in science.”

    Don’t forget about the physicists. I have come across a number of physicists who cling to the “science is only about quantifiable, experimental methods.” These are the people who love Rutherford’s quote that “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”

    Perhaps because many graduates end up focusing on one area of science in particular the begin to lose sight of how big and diverse “science” really is.

  • Somewhat related to this article is this quote from Professor Robert Lord Winston (note second paragraph):

    “Scientific advice does affect and should affect every part of government.”

    In return, the public needed to be scientifically literate. “We have to focus much more on the education of young people. Science should be … absolutely embedded in our culture.”

  • His final paragraph sums up the scientific dilemma…

    “So I have just one wish for you–the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.”

    A scientist finishing a profound lecture on the importance of science with a wish and good luck… how paradoxical..!

  • “A scientist finishing a profound lecture on the importance of science with a wish and good luck… how paradoxical..!”


    You make it sound like you expect scientists to be some sort of unfeeling robots.

    There is nothing wrong with scientists having hope, wishing others fortune or in believing in good luck.

    Luck favours both the prepared and the observant.

  • Michael, I agree that humanity and the scientist can’t e divorced… the problem is the use of language… Cultural understanding of luck vary from perceiving luck as simply a matter of random chance to attributing to luck elements of faith or superstition.

    For posters who, more often than not, view science/”woo” in black and white terms with tolerance for ‘woo’ does it not seem paradoxical, if not hypocritical, for them to then sign off using ‘wooish’ language?

    I don’t think anyone should point the, albeit, questioning finger at me as viewing scientists as some sort of unfeeling robots… The core of the so-called scientific method is about removing ‘feeling’ as a potential confounder… surely the scientific method is about de-feeling experiments…

  • Ron,

    Feynman’s ‘luck’ refers to careers, not science itself or the ‘scientific method’.

    FYI – I’ve withheld one of your comments yesterday for trolling.

    I’ll explain a new policy on trolling, disruptive commenting, etc., in a later blog post.

    [Edited to correct spelling error.]

  • Ron,

    “… the problem is the use of language…”

    So very true. Far too many disagreements can be traced back to different interpretations of a word or phrase.

    “The core of the so-called scientific method is about removing ‘feeling’ as a potential confounder… surely the scientific method is about de-feeling experiments…”

    I think it is more about removing bias not ‘feeling’ however one might define that.

    One can still be passionate and driven about science, be doing it because they feel it is important, however when it comes to the gathering and use of data or doing experiments then yes, bias, if that is what you mean by ‘feeling’ has no place.

    “I don’t think anyone should point the, albeit, questioning finger at me”

    I’m sorry you felt that I was pointing the finger at you with my comment. To me it sounded like you were applying the scientific method beyond the experiment to the person doing it, which doesn’t make sense to me

  • Ron, surely there’s a difference between how science is done & how science is communicated? Science has a bit of an image problem & at least part of that can probably be traced back to the way many scientists have tended to talk about their work, in distant, unfeeling way. Good science communication allows for the development of a positive relationship between the parties in that communication, and the passion & enthusiasm need to come throughfor that to work. (One of the things my students regularly comment on, in a very positive way, is my enthusiasm for what I’m talking about. If that enthuses them in turn, I’m happy.)

  • Alison, yes there is a difference between the doing and communicating… and yes, enthusiasm is important… but it’s also important that the best con artists are often the most enthusiastic communicators…

    Speaking from my personal life’s journey, a major problem with science per se is that the thesis/antithesis culture leads to them/us, believer/non-believer, ins & outs, hot/cold, dichotomies which is not conducive to career paths unless one always sides with the theory-de-jour.

    I’ll start with a question and see where it leads. Is there a scientific basis for voodooism or is it, what some scibloggers would call, ‘wooism?’

  • There are possible science-based explanations for some of the phenomena claimed for voodooism (such as zombiefication (to use Brian Dunning’s word):

    This is not the same as saying there is a scientific basis for the practice of voodooism, which does appear to be belief-based & rather heavy on superstition.

    Just as a matter of interest – why not start your own blog & delve into these questions, since this does appear to be tangential (at best) to the focus of this particular blogpost?

  • Ron,

    I’ll start with a question and see where it leads. Is there a scientific basis for voodooism or is it, what some scibloggers would call, ‘wooism?’

    My article was about how we teach students to recognise poor thinking, specifically if examples that they can identify with might help. It’s not about if a particular thing is ‘woo’ or not. If you want to start your own conversations, I suggest you start your own blog or find an appropriate discussion forum.

  • Grant, in your blog you said, “How do you enable students to recognise themselves as straying into pseudoscience, non-scientific practices, or just ordinarily sloppy thinking?”

    Voodooism is a very good example… scibloggers have tagged it alongside pseudocience and witchcraft as woo… how would you respond to a student who took and interest in voodooism…? Would you be suggesting that they were ‘straying into pseudoscience, non-scientific practices, or just ordinarily sloppy thinking??? Or would you communicate with an open mind?

    Davis traveled to Haiti at the request of Dr. Nathan S. Kline, who theorized that a drug was responsible for Narcisse’s experiences as a zombie. Since such a drug could have medical uses, particularly in the field of anesthesiology, Kline hoped to gather samples, analyze them and determine how they worked.

    Davis learned that Haitians who believed in zombies believed that a bokor’s sorcery — not a poison or a drug — created them. According to local lore, a bokor captures a victim’s ti bon ange, or the part of the soul directly connected to an individual, to create a zombie. But during his research, Davis discovered that the bokor used complex powders, made from dried and ground plants and animals, in their rituals.

    Davis collected eight samples of this zombie powder in four regions of Haiti. Their ingredients were not identical, but seven of the eight samples had four ingredients in common:

    So to answer your question, “”How do you enable students to recognise themselves as straying into pseudoscience, non-scientific practices, or just ordinarily sloppy thinking?””

    Firstly, a good science lecturer would encourage their student to explore the area of interest for themselves… they could simply do a literature search, which means they’d more likely than not just learn what is already known, or they could think outside the square and explore possible scientific possibilities as occurred in the above example… Now, having established a scientific basis for one aspect of voodooism, it would take a very brave/closed minded scientist to write of the rest of it… surely?

  • I have theoretically studied both Critical Thinking (AS level, i.e. high school) and History and Philosophy of Science (aka HPS) (second year university). I’m not sure that either of them has quite provided the level/kind of knowledge that it is suggested that scientists (and others) should be taught.

    Critical Thinking was badly taught and mostly focused on how to build an argument/detect flaws such as the “straw man” fallacy. It was useful, in hindsight, but it was just something we were made to do, so I don’t think people ever thought about why it would be useful to them. I do think more examples of real life people would have been helpful, at least made it seem more relevant.

    HPS was very differently (and much better) taught, but what I learnt of “the scientific method” mostly consisted of debating whether there is one or not. It was interesting but hard to apply to science in practice.

    I’d say a combination of ethics and *applied* critical thinking would be the best way to go. I’m not sure delving too deeply into the philosophy would do more than just confuse people. Some will be interested for the philosophy’s sake as well, but it’s likely to be a minority, and so it seems to me that a specifically science-focused approach would be best. But then you have the problem of tailoring courses to different groups of students, and the fact that really, everyone, not just scientists, needs these skills…

  • Ron,

    As I wrote earlier, “If you want to start your own conversations, I suggest you start your own blog or find an appropriate discussion forum.”

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

    The question was rhetorical, as is self-evident; you’re representing it incorrectly here.

    Voodooism is a very good example…

    Of what? … of a practice.

    When cautioned you about using my forum to push your own barrow, I wrote: “It’s not about if a particular thing is ‘woo’ or not.” (It’s not about if you read the literature or not either.)

    scibloggers have tagged it alongside pseudocience and witchcraft as woo…

    If someone wrote that, why not just ask the person who wrote that? Bringing it here is just pushing your own interests.

    Would you be suggesting that they were ’straying into pseudoscience, non-scientific practices, or just ordinarily sloppy thinking???

    Quote-mined. (Representing what was written out of context to give it a different meaning.) Read what you quoted earlier: “enable students to recognise themselves as straying”. Asking what I might do misses the point entirely. (You also miss the point in your final paragraph.)

    And so on.

    Now that you’ve have had your spiel on voodoo, that side-line is closed. Please stick to the subject – or start your own blog or find a suitable discussion forum, etc.

  • Liz,

    Nice to see someone on topic and sharing their experiences 🙂 Are these courses usual for British students?

    I’m not sure that either of them has quite provided the level/kind of knowledge that it is suggested that scientists (and others) should be taught.

    Hmm. Too soft, vague…? Hang on, let me read the rest of what you’ve written.

    re Critical Thinking: I can well imagine it being a topic that how it is taught would make a huge difference. (I have a feeling Alison might be a good teacher for this!) Of course I agree with your last sentence on CT, being the main thought in my article. If the course is entirely abstract it may seem pedantic and a bit pointless.

    It occurs to me that another level of critical thinking occurs quite a lot later in training, when you starting to read the scientific literature. My course for this were very small groups (the final year honours classes), where we were set a number of papers to ‘dissect’ and in the next session all discuss or criticism, with the lecturer pitching in. There was explicit breaking down of the logic in an organised fashion, really, just picking up the “likely things” you ought to be looking out for.

    I think I know what you mean about HPS. It can sometimes seem the sort of thing that’s intriguing, but doesn’t seem to practically contribute much – at least not in the sense of being able to directly apply it. I think it’s more an awareness of the history of your field, that helps you appreciate the value of a sound approach to the data, problem, etc.

    I’d say a combination of ethics and *applied* critical thinking would be the best way to go. I’m not sure delving too deeply into the philosophy would do more than just confuse people.

    I’m with you on this. Most scientists I know aren’t big fans of overdoing the ‘pure’ philosophy. I’m not saying it has no place, just what my impression of what most people think is.

    In the end you run into what I added as my last footnote (#2). Currently I’m suspecting it’s better taken as all of the sciences. I like the idea that students should retain at least some awareness of other fields. I may be biased, though, as I like to mix biology, computer science and physics, with a dash of chemistry – as many (most) people in structural computational biology do.

    PS: I see on your blog you’ve donated blood – so does Alison. I’ve got that transcriptome study of ASD brains still stuck on my if-I-can-ever-find-time reading list along with a newer one on exome sequencing reveal de novo mutations. (Currently I’m reading zinc finger protein stuff and papers working towards the 3-D structures of genomes and that lot is keeping me busy enough…)

  • My experience is different to Liz’s, so I’m not sure about the focusing just on science bit – it seems to me to be going right back to the underlying problems with critical thinking in science – divorcing science from its philosophical roots. Sometimes ‘science’ appears like a mechanical process – method method method, and I think it’s much more creative and dynamic. I do agree that it needs to be taught in such a way as to engage people, as you suggest might happen with real-world examples. But my thinking is that if philosophy of science and epistemology confuses people, it’s probably because they haven’t spent enough time on the subject. I have found a grasp on critical thinking and epistemology increasingly important in my postgraduate years, as I develop my own research and begin to theroy-build. I personally think that a ‘here’s some bare-bones ethics and critical thinking for science’ isn’t good enough, and my experiences with other scientists seem to support this (locally, I admit). That said, I’m with Liz on most of her points re: using case studies, in a similar vein to what Grant says about applying critical thought to the literature.

  • Edward,

    But my thinking is that if philosophy of science and epistemology confuses people, it’s probably because they haven’t spent enough time on the subject.

    Just some loose thoughts.

    Vaguely speaking (!) there are usually two levels in a subject – practical use, and the theory/background behind it. Universities, historically at least, are inclined to focus on the latter (with polytechnics, etc. [historically, at least] favouring the former). In this context, I think the emphasis needs to be on the former – ?

    The (rhetorical!) question here, I guess, is do most people really need the full background, or would a pragmatic approach work better? I’m inclined to think a pragmatic approach works better for most people and that most would find the deeper roots too abstract for their purposes – ?

    Your line of research work will affect why you think it important. I know too little of archaeologist to really comment, but I can imagine it to involve a fair amount of ‘case scenario’ thinking, which other fields will have less demand for. Highly quantitative areas probably have less need for it. Not none, less. ‘Emphasis in different aspects of critical thinking’ might be more accurate – ?

  • Hi Grant,

    I know what you mean and agree to a large extent (as I do with Liz). My concern would be that without the theory behind it, the practical use doesn’t actually become all that practical. In situations where we have a ‘toolbelt’ of critical thinking skills, but lack the theory to necessarily adapt them effectively to different situations (or research problems), I’m not sure how useful such a toolbelt really is? This is not to say I’m rubishing the idea (I think practical critical thinking skills are great), but I’m merely skeptical of the line between theory and practice. I find it a bit arbitrary.

    I do agree that the full background can be left to the philosophers (I’m not an expert, so I think of myself as only having a rather imperfect ‘running knowledge’ of the philosophical arguments), but again the question is how much of the theory do you leave out and what constitutes the pragmatic bits? Do we include the epistemology of empiricism for example, and leave out naieve positivism? They sound abstract at first, but I think they’re quite important.

    As for my research, archaeology is best thought of as an historical science, which operates in a similar way to geology, paleontology, or evolutionary biology, but also within a social science framework. In moving to forensic science, this is a lot more case scenario-specific I think (no longer looking for general human behavioural patterns), but with a huge emphasis on quantitative analysis (lots of bayesian statistics) and the normal raft of scientific controls, experimentation, and testing etc. It very much is pragmatic, applied, and uses a sort of adapted critical thinking toolbelt. However, I still often hear the sorts of things I listed earlier, and it seems like the lack of philisophical argument or theory leads to misunderstandings down the track.

    An quick example of the mismatch between theory and practice for me is where forensic personnel applied archaeological methods to scenes of crime – in completely the wrong way with disasterous consequences. The archaeological techniqes were developed from particular theories, in the same way that much critical thinking tools are attached to larger philosophical arguments.

    Anyway, I’ve probably rambled long enough. I just find the topic both facinating and really important, and I think it’s great that you’ve opened up a dialogue on the issue. It’s always good for me to learn from others.

  • On another post, PZ Myers, author of Pharyngula, is quoted thus:

    “I will still be maintaining my relationship with Scienceblogs and National Geographic, but only select content will appear there: that is, science, anti-creationism, that sort of thing…the openly anti-religious material will be on FtB only. So if you’re a Christian, you’ll now be able to read Sb Pharyngula without crying (but don’t fool yourself, I’ll still be despising your foolish belief system);

    Edward, are you familiar with Sir William Ramsey’s life and work?

    I suspect if a student had Ramsey as one teacher and Myers as another they would have two totally different responses regarding “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.”

    I suspect each teacher could use the other as a case example in this scenario.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts as to who/how ‘strayness’ is determined.

  • Something of an aside, see on twitter (trite perhaps, but—hey—it’s the weekend…):

    @zoltanvarju “Philosophy of science without history of science is empty; history of science w/o philosophy of science is blind” -Lakatos

  • Did Feynman say that??? The link you give quotes, “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” doesn’t mention politicians as far as I can see.

    Feynman’s quote surely is saying the opposite… that the philosophy of science is worthless to a scientists…

    I guess it’s a sign of the times when 5 second soundbites called ‘tweets’ get accepted as fact… even in weekends.

  • Hi Ron, I’ve heard of him, though don’t know much about him other than he’s a bit dated. William Dever I have studied though, and he wrote an interesting book a couple of years back on biblical archaeology.

    In my experience and reading, most scientists, regardless of if they are religious or otherwise, tend to hold the same view regarding how science operates. The ‘woo factor’ usually comes from people who operate outside of the scientific method such as ‘intelligent design’ apologists or, closer to home (for me), pseudo-archaeologists (aliens built the pyramids etc.). Different scientists might hold different views and come from dfferent backgrounds, but I think most would find common ground against such examples of silliness.

    Personally, I think ‘strayness’ is when one stops staying close to the evidence, ignores evidence, or otherwise disembarks from a rational approach using critical thought in favour of emotive or fantastical explanations. A general lack of scientific methodology, and a general departure from philosophically safe ground. I suppose a lack of professional ethics may also be a part of it. I’m no philosopher of science though, and I think they’d be the best person to ask about defining such issues.

    That link to the Bio 101 class which Grant posted up seems pretty interesting.

  • Did Feynman say that???

    Why not ask the person who wrote it?

    Feynman’s quote surely is saying the opposite… that the philosophy of science is worthless to a scientists…

    Try re-reading, more carefully: “Paging Feynman” is not the same as “Feynman said”.

    I guess it’s a sign of the times when 5 second soundbites called ‘tweets’ get accepted as fact… even in weekends.

    You’re being snarky and trolling again, and hardly for the first time.

    Regards of your error, making me out to have ‘accepted this as fact’ is silly (words in other’s mouths, etc.) and taunting by paraphrasing is childish.

    I offered the links as they might interest readers and it’s customary to share amongst the science writing community. I’m not offering them as agreeing with them or endorsing their views.

  • Ron,

    While I was writing my previous comment you extended your sniping to someone else and are getting even further off-topic.

    Regards your latest reply to me: I’m not interested in hearing more excuses. (Re-read my reply: I already explained it to you.)

    I’m not going to approve either comment.

    I’ve been round this silliness too many times to just ask you to get your act together. In the interests of good discussion on my blog, I’m not accepting further comments from you at this point in time.

    As a ‘natural health’ advocate you seem to get a little upset over people suggesting ‘natural health’ “remedies” are (most) often bunk. Ditto vaccines seem to make you argumentative. Likewise, I see your theology degree and interests showing in your segueing to religion v. not, which my article is not about. You have, to me, bizarrely wrong ideas how how research science is done for someone who claims to be an advisor on ‘health’ matters. I can live with that and more, as I do with others, but as I’ve told you many times before I draw the line at how you treat others and your spoiling the mood here.

  • Ron,

    Don’t dispute moderation decisions please; I’ve told you this before.

    New moderation approach, as I mentioned earlier :- Every time you write whilst I’m withholding your comments, I’ll extend the withholding period in cumulative (i.e. exponential) fashion. Write to me privately and I’ll double the effect. Seeing you’re (again) trying to pester me behind the blog, I won’t be approving comments from you for at least another 3 weeks.

    I’d quite likely grant others the benefit of the doubt (creationists for example, offer similar wayward thinking as you have offered here), but your past behaviour means if I see you heading towards making a mess, I’ll head you off.

    It’s got nothing to with views that oppose mine. After all, I allowed (but have personally ignored) a lot of nonsense from you in this thread! I’ve told you quite a few times now that where I draw the line for moderation is at treating others badly or creating an unpleasant atmosphere.

  • back to topic – I’m writing a thing on using pseudoscience to teach science at the moment (hi, Michael, yes it’s partly for you!). And yes, talking about scientists who’ve fallen for the pseudo-side is part of that. I’m thinking particularly of an example of a paper by the Discovery Institute folks, claiming to look at antibiotic resistance in bacteria & showing that hey, it’s not beneficial at all! But going about it all the wrong way & certainly not doing a fair test. Which is where you often get to, with a priori assumptions… 🙂

  • I always like the point my Ph.D. supervisor once made that you have to treat your “beloved” ideas as if they were from a rival, so that you critique them soundly. (By contrast if you start with a favoured position it’s easy to fall for propping them up with selective evidence and unsound arguments, instead of critical inspection.)

  • Hmmm, I wonder how that would fit with the current trend in the US for teaching hospitals to include CAM practices in their curriculum…

  • Alison,

    You’d hope that having these classes would encourage students to better critical thinking, including critical thinking about what they are taught. I wouldn’t mind seeing this in New Zealand. Given a doctor’s role, you’d what them to exercise critical thought well.

    Ron: re moderation policy – the idea is if the person keeps hassling me, they (not me) will extend the block. I only start it. Had you not pestered me, you’d have only had a week to sit out. If you want to comment here again, you want to stop hassling me behind the scenes.

  • Ron,

    Please see the Comments section of my About page. (It’s near the end of the page.)

    These extensions—as I have already explained to you—are effectively by your own hand, not mine. There’s no good pointing at me over them; you have yourself to blame for them. I only set the initial stand-down period.

    You have written pleading to the SMC administration over this.

    Please don’t bother them, they have their hands full running a busy media centre. The SMC offers the infrastructure – the content and day-to-day running of the blogs are our own.

    Your additional comments since would have extended your stand down period further (applied strictly, until sometime next year). I will overlook this just once. Come Sept. 12th you may comment. Any comments or messages between this time and then will cause this date to be extended. (The next number in the series to be applied is 3.)