Science and Humanities Need to Team Up to Bust Pseudoscience

Fagjun | Published 2017-03-23 08:40

Critical thinking sheds light on pseudoscientific claims.
[Photo by William Carlson]

Researchers have found that teaching critical thinking in humanities can help students reduce their belief in pseudoscience.

Any belief or practice that appears to be scientific but are not supported by facts or the scientific method are part of pseudoscience. These beliefs and practices may seem plausible, even believable, but are not actually justifiable. Pseudoscientific claims are usually unprovable and prone to confirmation bias as well as exaggeration. People who publish pseudoscientific claims may also refuse peer reviews, which are essential to the publication of scientific claims.

Because pseudoscientific claims can be quite prevalent, critical thinking is crucial. A recent study details how humanities courses can teach university students to think critically and separate science from pseudoscience.

117 university students in three humanities courses participated in the study. There were 59 students in a psychology research methods course, which did not teach critical thinking. This group therefore became the control group. The remaining 58 students, meanwhile, were in two separate history classes that taught critical thinking skills and ways to identify logical fallacies.

The Effects of Critical Thinking Instruction

One of the pseudoscientific claims in the assessment test was about the existence of the underwater city of Atlantis.

At the beginning of the semester, the researchers assessed how much the students believed in pseudoscientific claims. The students rated their belief in specific pseudoscientific topics from a scale of 1 to 7, in which 1 signifies complete lack of belief and 7 signifies complete belief. The students then re-assessed their beliefs at the end of the semester.

The researchers found that the control group's beliefs in pseudoscientific claims did not decrease at all. Meanwhile, students who were in the classes that taught critical thinking believed less in pseudoscience. The honors history class in particular exhibited a more pronounced decrease.

The history courses tackled some of the pseudoscientific topics that appeared in the assessment test. Researchers noted that the students believed in these topics less than the other ones by the end of the semester.

However, the classes did not completely make the students in the history classes disbelieve in pseudoscientific claims. Their end-of-semester assessment of their beliefs dropped an average of only one or a half-point in the belief scale. This may mean that continuous effort is necessary. ”It's also important to note that these results stem from taking only one class,” says Alicia McGill, one of the researchers. “Consistent efforts to teach critical thinking across multiple classes may well have more pronounced effects.”

How to Separate Science from Pseudoscience

But what about those who don't have access to university classes that teach critical thinking skills? How do we avoid falling prey to pseudoscience?

One way to make sure that what you're dealing with is truly scientific is to check peer-reviewed studies on the subject. If a certain claim has a published study that has not been peer-reviewed, it's best to remain skeptical.

Also, a pseudoscientific claim may specifically look for evidence to support it. Simply put, the final claim comes before the search for evidence, which is not how the scientific method works. It also allows more room for the researcher's personal biases. Scientific claims, meanwhile, are tested in controlled environments that leave no room for biases.

There are of course more ways to distinguish science from pseudoscience. It's important to maintain a certain degree of skepticism when we see something that claims to be scientific and factual.

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