PSEUDOSCIENCES: A MEANS TO TEACHING SCIENTIFIC METHODS

A G Wheeler University of Queensland, St. Lucia Qld 4067.

Tony Wheeler has conducted research into the physiological regulation of reproductive activity in female mammals, and teaches practical physiology to medicine and science undergraduates. His interests include science education and the relationship of science to society, particularly regarding the popular pseudosciences.

The requirement that the scientific method and its use be taught permeates school science syllabi. However the scientific method is difficult to present attractively within the classroom. Studies of past discoveries is one strategy, but is hampered by the difficulty of recreating the ignorance of the past. Semmelweis' germ theory of disease is one of the clearest examples of the scientific method, but Semmelweis' profound innovation of washing the hands after dissecting cadavers and before examining patients is now so obvious (I hope) that it is uninteresting to students. Harvey's discovery of the circulation in 1628 was such a triumph and model application of the scientific method that his description is still in print (Harvey, 1963), but now the concept that our blood circulates is so well-known that it is difficult to capture the past enthusiasm for the discovery in such a climate of ignorance.

How about a classroom exercise in telepathy instead?

Teaching science requires that the scientific method, and the knowledge accumulated by that method, be presented. Scientific knowledge - the content, the facts, the minutiae of doubtful relevance - is typically the bulk of the science course. Yet it is the method of science (rather than the facts) that constitutes what is special about science.

1) Observations.

2) Hypothesis to explain observations.

3) Experiments to test hypothesis.

4) Derive theory, or revise hypothesis.

This is the scientific method reduced to a formula: this is what most teachers teach and most students learn. Using pseudoscience we can postulate hypotheses, design a classromm experiment to test our hypothesis, and on the basis of the results revise our hypothesis.

Take telepathy for example:

1) Hypothesis - minds can communicate telepathically,

2) Experiment - mind-reading test using Zenner cards (the whole class is actively involved)

3) Conclusion - on the basis of the results students modify the hypothesis.

The pseudosciences (astrology, biorythms, telepathy, numerology, etc.) are useful to us as sources of claims and hypotheses. The static, unchanging claims of the pseudosciences can be readily tested using principles of the scientific method in practical exercises in the classroom. The novelty and widespread popular interest among students in the pseudosciences will contribute to effective learning. Also we will be demonstrating that the scientific method, as a system of enquiry, is applicable to a wider field than just the usual 'textbook science'.

Another advantage of using pseudosciences is that most students will believe that the 'answer' is not known with certainty; we have the element of real enquiry and discovery. And many experiments, being simple, can safely be designed by students with the teacher's help. And the results are often clear enough for the students to evaluate them.

And by focussing on the pseudosciences we and the students can clearly recognise that the objective here is not to introduce new scientific knowledge: there is no 'content' to be learnt along the way. (This is a recurring difficulty in my experience with classes intended to teach scientific method by, for example, using experiments on gut physiology as demonstrations, but end up teaching the students the gut physiology instead.) Rather here we are teaching the scientific method, which is after all the aspect that is so special and useful about science. (That there is a need for greater understanding of the scientific method is demonstrated by estimates of only 12 and 14% for the proportion of American adults that reasonably understand the meaning of "scientific study": see Singer & Benassi, 1981: Miller, 1983.)

ASTROLOGICAL PERSONALITY DESCRIPTION:

The oldest example of a pseudoscience is astrology (Bok & Jerome, 1975). Your personality and future can be predicted from the movement of the sun and planets against the starry background. Or can it?

People close to you have been taking advantage. Your basic honesty has been getting in your way. Many opportunities have been offered to you in the past, but you have declined them because you refuse to take advantage of others. You are often misunderstood. You are a far more complex person than most people appreciate. You like to read books and articles that improve your mind. Your real abilities are not appreciated by those who should know better. You have a natural sympathy for others' problems. If you are not already in some sort of personal service busines, you should be. You are firm when confronted with obstinacy or outright stupidity. Law enforcement would be another field you understand; your sense of justice is quite strong.

This is a standard horoscope that I have used: although designed for no one, most readers surprisingly respond positively to it.

Distribute copies of one fake astrological-personality-summary like this to each student; con them with the story that you used a computer program and their birthdates to produce these customised individual horoscopes. Ask your students to read their 'personal' horoscopes, but not to show them to their neighbours for the moment, (having the students' names on the horoscopes helps carry the hoax, though is not at all necessary for the demonstration to them many accurately (not necessarily exactly) to raise their hand. Typically between one half and all the students in any class respond positively. Now invite your students to show their horoscopes to their neighbours, and they will soon realise that the whole class had exactly the same horoscope, regardless of their birthdates. This activity demonstrates how vogue statements are read as specific to the reader, and that most readers will typically consider anything remarkably prophetic and relevant. (Even negative, highly specific and unlikely statements are commonly accepted as valid descriptions of the reader; Marks & Kammann, 1979).

This is straight-forward short activity with which to start a class, and form the basis for a discussion and further testing of this, or other, claims.

HOROSCOPES:

A second test of astrology suitable for the classroom is a comparison of the astrology columns from two (or more if you have them) different newspapers for the same day. Number the corresponding predictions in each from one to 12, and hand the columns to seperate volunteers. A third student specifies a number, and the volunteers read out loud their corresponding prediction. The briefest analysis of their contents of their class will demonstrate that the two predictions do not agree at all - they won't even cover the same aspects. Now reveal that the two predictions are for the same sun-sign, and the same date, and are therefore supposedly based on the same astrological 'facts'.

As an example here are two randomly-selected (trust me) predictions for TAURUS for Friday 30th September, 1986:

"Your peaceful, serene attitude is needed by those who are troubled. So spread yourself around, your head is in the clouds, but you can afford the time so dream away, you could do with a rest. Lucky number 1, 6, and 7"

"Your stars with Kisna", Sun (Brisbane).

"It may be quite a busy day, and unless you are methodical in planning and working to a schedule, it may be appreciably basier. Be especially careful under pressure of making snap judgements or delivering off-the-cuff comments on people."

"Starscope", Courier-Mail (Brisbane).

(Note that any two columns always differ, because astrology does not work. Despite repeated and careful assessments, astrology's predictive powers have never been able to be demonstrated (Bastedo, 1978; Ianna & Tolbert, 1984-85; Kurtz & Franknoi, 1985: Carlson, 1985.).

Now it is for the class to discuss their results, and decide how they should revise the hypothesis that "astrology generates accurate discriptions of people and predicts important events".

BIORHYTHMS:

Biorhythms are in us all. Three cycles of different, fixed lengths start on the day of your birth and persist for life, and these cycles control all aspects of your intellectual, physical and emotional performance (Gardner, 1966a). Or do they?

Biorhythms are a bit more difficult to test satisfactorily. We will need the concepts of double-blind testing, statistics, and combining the test with access to computers is a great advantage. (Biorhythms could be used as an exercise in computer programming.)

First have every student record the specific date of a recent serious, unpredicted mishap (being knocked off their bicycle, losing something valued, failing an important test or exam, breaking up with a valued friend, etc.). Relatives' and friends' mishaps may also be used so long as their birthdates are known. Second, have the students note their date of birth. Now the biorhythm profile based on their birth date, for the date of each mishap is needed. One of your students may already have a biorhythm calculator, or a computer programme can be written (For & For, 1976) or bought (1).

Biorhythm theory is supported if the mishap occured on a critical day, or the day before or after (Hines, 1979). There are two critical days in each of the 23-, 28- and 33-day cycles. So the odds that the day of the mishap fell on such a day are 6/23 + 6/28 + 6/33 to 1, or 0.66 to 1. Allowing for the probability that some days will be double - or triple-critical the expected odds are about 60% that the mishap occured on a critical day (Hines, 1979). If more than 60% of your students' mishaps occured on critical days then the biorhythm hypothesis is supported. If only 60%, or less, it isn't. How would your class revise the biorhythm hypothesis on the basis of their observations?

Others have tested biorhythms (Bainbridge, 1978: Soutay & Weaver, 1983) and found no significant effect. How would your class revise the hypothesis on this basis?

PARAPSYCHOLOGY:

Parapsychology is the pseudoscience concerned with telepathy, clairvoyance, pre-cognition, telekinesis, E.S.P., spoon bending, and such like. Parapsychology is a pseudoscience because (referring back to our description of the scientific method) there are no observations on which the hypotheses and theories are based (Blackmore, 1987). The absolute lack of any verified on repeatable demonstration of any of these phenomena is the reason that science is generally not interested in parapsychology. Nevertheless the lack of such examples does not deter proponents from theorising how the effects (if they existed) might be produced.

Parapsychology generates many claims that can be tested easily. Clairvoyance, predictions, psychokinesis, and so on: all are sources of possible classroom activities. Several chapters in Gardner (1981) and Randi (1982a) will give the (sceptical) background.

TELEPATHY:

Telepathy is readily tested within the classroom. Prepare a pack of cards. A deck of 25 "Zenner cards" comprising 5 each of a star, square, circle, cross and wavy lines is typically used for this sort of experiment and will add novelty. These cards are easily made by pasting photocopies onto card. Or ordinary playing cards will suffice.

Take a volunteer as the 'sender': the sender concentrates on each card in turn telepathically "sending" the image to the receiver. The "sender" must also record the cards in the order "sent".

All the other students can be seperate "receivers", each recording their own guesses. A time-keeper (a student or the teacher) calls out the number of the card being "sent" (1 to 25) at 5 or 10 second intervals so as to synchronise the sender and receivers. After every card in the deck has been "sent" the guesses are marked by calling out the cards in their order.

For each sequence we would expect 5 matches just by chance. Scores above five can be interpreted as proving the hypothesis of telepathy: scores below five can be interpreted as proving negative telepathy! Both can be claimed as significant. Is this fair? But to be really significant the effect should not be just due to chance, but consistent and repeatable.

One sequence may give quite "non-chance" results. Out of every class one or two student's results may be quite remarkable. However, the more sequences averaged the closer the results will approach the random 20% success. What will your students infer from this?

Repeat the test with your top scorers: how do they score this time? If your top scorers fail to maintain their standard is this just because they were 'lucky' the first time? Or because their proven ability is fading as they tire from the effort involved? Which explanation would parapsychologists propose?

DERMO-OPTIC PERCEPTION:

During early embryonic development our body grows from a three-layered ball of cells. The outer layer, the ectoderm, forms the skin, and a longitudinal invagination of the ectoderm also forms the spinal cord and brain. (These long words are so important to any convincing pseudoscience.) Forward outgrowths of the brain form the light-sensitive retinas of our eyes. With this developmental history it is therefore hardly surprising to read of people who can 'see' colours, and even 'read' print through their finger tips. (Some Russian adepts use the skin on other parts of their body, but we won't go into that here.)

Take a series of volunteers from your class, blindfold them in turn, and test their powers of dermo-optic perception. Ask for blindfolded students to identify the colour of some cards, read some print from a newspaper. See how good they are, how good a performance they can improvise without any clues from you. However - there are apparently 21 methods by which a magician can see through a blindfold, and peeking down the gap between the blindfold, the side of the nose and the curve of the cheek is the obvious one to anyone wearing a blindfold (Gardner, 1966b). How many of your students spot this illicit opportunity and capitalise on it? (That is - cheat). Funnily enough the more wadding placed beneath the blindfold, the more elaborate the blindfold, the more the observer is reassured without actually hardly hampering the cheat at all. Do the observers in your class spot the cheats? Would they spot them if their 'performances' had been rehearsed and practised? Can your students make the test cheat-proof? Try out the suggestions to see (pardon the pun) if they work.

DOWSING:

It is difficult to evaluate a dowser's claim to be able to find water since water doesn't usually flow in the narrow streams that dowsers typically describe, but rather permeates large areas of porous strata. Actually there is so much water underground that it would be cleverer to identify an area where there is no water. So wherever the dowser indicates you will probably find water, and the dowser will score another 'hit'.

Boring for water, or the lack of it, or laying grids of pipes is a little ambitious for most science classes. Fortunately most dowsers also claim the ability to locate metals. Here is an easily testable claim. Ten shoe boxes or plastic containers, a lump of each of several different metals, an organisation of experimenters/recorders to hide one piece of metal under one of the ten boxes. Impartial referees who do not know the location of the metal to actually conduct the trials, and your volunteer dowsers. In each test the probability of locating the hidden metal by chance is one in ten, so if anyone consistently scores above 10% you have a potential dowser in your class.

How will your class revise the hypothesis that dowsers can locate metals if the score is 10%? What is the effect of only a small number of tests on your confidence in the result? How reliable is the experiment as the number of tests increases?

Water dowsing has been repeatedly and thoroughly tested, without any ability being revealed (Randi, 1982b: Smith, 1982). Does such evidence influence your class?

NUMEROLOGY:

Distribute copies of the numerology chart on the next page to your class. Ask each student to write his full name (forename, middle name(s) and family name) underneath, and to count the total number of letters in this - their own, personal name: this is their personal 'magic number'. Starting at the bottom of the tail and continuing anti-clockwise around the circle count off your 'magic number'. If your number is great and you get back to the tail worry not, just keep on anti-clockwise around the circle ignoring the tail. Stop counting when you reach your magic number. Counting this same symbol as '1', start again, but this time moving clockwise, still ignoring the tail. Draw a ring around the symbol that you finish at. For now keep the identity of this magic symbol secret.

Now to test the supreme and predictive power of numerology. The teacher removes a sealed envelope from a pocket, opens it, removes the folded sheet of paper, unfolds and exposes the predicted symbol - a 'star'! The whole class gasps in amazement - is numerology true then? Has this simple test proved beyond doubt that the secret and ancient science of numerology can successfully predict every student's personal magic number?

Probe a little further. Have your students try to find any number between 10 and 50 that doesn't end up on the 'star'. How many names would have fewer than 10 or more than 50 letters? How valuable was our initial test in assessing the predictive power of numerology?

The moral is to be careful when experimenting in new areas. Learn as much as possible about the system under investigation before starting. and always be ready to admit that there may be a mundane but unappreciated explanation for even the most startling of results.

This test is from Ben Harris (1988): a sceptical magician in the great de-bunking tradition of Houdini. (Now try and persuade your school library to subscribe to the magazine containing this reference) Super summer reading is the skeptical classic by Houdini 1981, Miracle Mongers and their methods.

CREATION SCIENCE:

The most disturbing pseudosciences are the creation cults, the self-proclaimed creation science being the foremost (Wheeler, 1987). A 6000 year-old earth, the miraculous divine creation of every living kind, Noah's catastrophic flood submerging even the highest mountains, human races having degenerated from a recent common ancestor: all this is repeatedly urged on our politicians, educators, teachers and community leaders. The creation science movement can be viewed as an attempt to hijack the school science curriculum by a small group with eccentric views.

Creation science is included here because many schools will have creation science material in their library. This is useful material for detailed analysis using library and other resources to assess the standard of correctness and honesty in its content and presentation (Bridgstock, 1985). To be effective this enquiry must be conducted on some specific topic in some depth with every original reference checked and the scientific content ASSESSED, WITH A KNOWLEDGE OF THE SPECIFIC BACKGROUND. Such analyses typically expose mis-representation and errors by the creation scientists; these errors will need to be placed in a social context by the teacher.

Two resources written specifically for the Queensland science teacher are The Other Quote Book (Wheeler, 1986), a collection of quotations demonstrating the widespread and confidence acceptance of life having evolved evolution and the widespread criticism of creation science, and Creationism - An Australian Perspective (Bridgstock & Smith,1988), a readable collection of articles responding to general and specific claims of creation scientists.

CONCLUSION:

Remember that school children like to please their teachers, indeed they are strongly encouraged to do so. So it is hardly surprising to find that some school children may cheat in tests of this type whenever they can (Pamplin & Collins, 1975). Many adults have been caught cheating profusely too (Randi, 1975).

One disadvantage of using the pseudosciences in this way is that, for younger students especially, the inevitable implications of gullibility and dishonesty by proponents may be disturbing. We don't like to learn that we have been duped by frauds. Consequently the teacher will have to place this into some sort of social context. On the positive side this strategy may encourage a healthy sceptism.

The purpose of these experiments is to test the claims made by pseudoscientists in a practical manner, using the scientific method. We must be careful not to ridicule the claims and argument (a very easy thing to do - for example why should biorhythms all start on the day of birth after all, regardless of the method of delivery, and age and maturity of the baby at birth, etc.?). And we should not attack the lack of theory, or the proposal of conflicting theories, explaining an occurence: Wegener's proposal of continental drift initially suffered such a lack but was still eventually shown to be correct. And of course never attack the person proposing the theory. This is especially important in the pseudosciences because so many 'believers' are not frauds: rather just sincere-but-mistaken.

We must be careful about student's preconceptions. We may have read all about the Bermuda Triangle (Kusche, 1975) or Uri Geller (Randi, 1975: Harris, 1986) and concluded that it is all nonsense - nothing strange has happened. But unknown to us a student may have acquired a strong belief and commitment to this fallacy (he thinks of it as a 'truth') from his family or influential older friends.

A 1987 survey of Grade 6 students in Massachusetts (Needham Science Center, 1987) found that:

34% believe that dinosaurs may still live in some remote area.

41% believe that certain people can identify colours by touching them,

51% believe that U.F.O.s are visitors from outer space,

78% believe that some people can read other people's minds,

62% believe that there is a giant monster living in Loch Ness, and so on...

It does no good our confronting the student with just the bottom line: "Rubbish! Of course it is all nonsense!". Instead we should rather take the softly, softly approach of presenting the evidence to expose internal contradictions, and leaving the student to reflect and possibly change his views in privacy.

REFERENCES:

Bainbridge, W.S. (1978) Biorhythms: Evaluating a pseudoscience. Skeptical Inquirer, 2(2), 40-56.

Bastedo, R.W. (1978) An empirical test of popular astrology. Skeptical Inquirer, Fall 1978, 17-38.

Blackmore, S. (1987) The elusive open mind: Ten years of negative research in parapsychology. Skeptical Inquirer, 11(3), 244-255.

Bok, B.J. & Jerome, L.E. (1975) Objections to Astrology, Prometheus (New York).

Bridgstock, M. (1985) Ten checks upon creation science. Australian Science Teachers Journal, 30(4), 26-32.

Bridgstock, M. & Smith, K (editors) (1988) Creationism - An Australian Perspective, Australian Skeptics (Sydney), 4th edition. (Available for $10 from Australian Skeptics Inc., P.O. Box 575, Manly NSW 2095.)

Carlson, S. (1985) A double-blind test of astrology. Nature, 318(6045), 419-425.

Fox, J. & Fox, R. (1976) Biorhythms for computers. Byte, April 1976, pp 20-23.

Gardner, M. (1966a) Freud's friend Wilhelm Fliess and his theory of male and female life cycles. Scientific American, 215(1), 108-112.

Gardner, M. (1966b) Dermo-optical perception: a peek down the nose, Science, 151, 654-657.

Gardner, M. (1981) Science: Good, Bad and Bogus, Prometheus (New York), ISBN 0879751444.

Harris, B. (1986) Gellerism Revealed, Australian Skeptics (Sydney) ISBN 091923092X.

Harris, B. (1988) Mindbending made easy. Australian Penthouse, June 1988, 74-80.

Harvey, W. (1963) The circulation of the Blood, J./M.Dent (London).

Hines, T.M. (1979) Biorhythm theory: A critical review. Skeptical Inquirer, 3(4), 26-36.

Houdini (1981) Miracle Mongers and their Methods, Prometheus (new York), ISBN 0879751436.

Ianna, P.A. & Tolbert, C.R. (1984-85) A retest of astrologer John McCall. Skeptical Inquirer, 9(2), 167-170.

Kurtz, P. & Franknoi, A. (1985) Tests of astrology do not support its claims. Skeptical Inquirer, 9(3), 210-211.

Kusche, L.D. (1975) The Bermuda Triangle Mystery - solved. New English Library (London).

Marks, D. & Kammann, R. (1979) The Psychology of the Psychic, Prometheus (New York), pp 155-200.

Miller, J.D. (1983) Scientific literacy: A conceptual and empirical view. Daedalus, 112(2), 29-48.

Needham Science Center (1987) "Do you 'believe it or not'? - Results", unpublished survey.

Pamplin, B.R. & Collins, H (1975) Spoon bending: an experimental approach. Nature, 257(5521), 8.

Randi, J. (1975) The Magic of Uri Geller, Ballantine (New York).

Randi, J. (1982a) Flim-Flam!, Prometheus (New York),ISBN 0879751983.

Randi, J. (1982b) The 1980 divining tests. The Skeptic, 2(3), 1-3.

Soutar, G.N. & Weaver, J.R. (1983) Biorhythms and the incidence of industrial accidents. Journal of Safety Research, 14,167-172.

Stanway, A. (1980) Alternative Medicine: A Guide to Natural Therapies, Macdonald & Jane's (London). Also 1982, Pelican: 1986, Penguin.)

Wheeler, A.G. (1986) The Other Quote Book, Wheeler (Brisbane), ISBN 0958901708. (Available for $5 from Tony Wheeler, 18 Noreen Street, Chapel Hill GLD 4069.)

Wheeler, A.G. (1987) Creation science in Australia. Quadrant, 31(3), 58-62.

Notes:

1. Disk M9513: Lifestyles and Health Analysis contains a biorhythm programme. Available from Seltec Software (Box C343, Clarence Street P.O., Sydney NSW 2000).

General Resources:

The Skeptic, Australian Skeptics Inc. (P.O. Box 575, Manly, N.S.W. 2095): quarterly, Membership plus subscription $15 annually.

The Canberra Skeptic, A.C.T. Branch of the Australian Skeptics (David Wilkinson, Canberra Skeptics, P.O.Box 107, Cambell A.C.T. 2601).

Southern Skeptic, South Australian Branch of the Australian Skeptics, (P.O. Box 314, Unley, S.A.5061), ISSN 08155798.

Skeptical Inquirer, Committee forthe Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (Box 229, Buffalo, NY 14215-0229, U.S.A.: quarterly. Subscription U.S.$22.50 annually.


The University of Regensburg neither approves nor disapproves of the opinions expressed here. They are solely the responsibility of the person named below.

Gerald_Huber@r.maus.de

Last update: 8 July 1998