In an era of conspiracy theories and fake news, our students come into our classes with misconceptions and misunderstandings about our disciplines. In this episode, Kristin Croyle and Paul Tomascak join us to discuss how a first-year science seminar class confronts pseudoscience. Kristin is a Psychologist and Paul is a Geochemist. Kristin is the Dean and Paul is the Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY-Oswego.
- Shermer, M. (2014). Why People Believe Weird Things. Naturalist.
- Zener cards – American Psychological Association
- Huff, D. (1993). How to lie with statistics. WW Norton & Company.
- Van Der Kroon, C. (1996). The Golden Fountain: The Complete Guide to Urine Therapy. Wishland Incorporated.
John: In an era of conspiracy theories and fake news, our students come into our classes with misconceptions and misunderstandings about our disciplines. In this episode, we discuss how a first-year science seminar class confronts pseudoscience.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Our guests today are Kristin Croyle and Paul Tomascak. Kristin is a Psychologist and Paul is a Geochemist. Kristin is the Dean and Paul is the Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY-Oswego. Paul also had been the Associate Director here at our teaching center at SUNY Oswego before he entered the Dean’s office and Rebecca joined us as Associate Director.
Kristin: Thank you.
Paul: Hi, John. Hi, Rebecca.
Kristin: We’re happy to be here.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are:
Paul: I have a special tea for you. I have a tea that has a best buy date of March 2000. A special tea.
Kristin: Does it have flavor still?
Paul: In a way… Yeah, It’s got a special flavor. [LAUGHTER]
John: A vintage tea…
John: …a good year.
Kristin: And I have coffee in a Christmas mug because the Christmas mugs are still out.
Rebecca: Mine are out year round.
John: And I have Prince of Wales tea.
Rebecca: And I have Big Red Sun.
John: …for a change.
Rebecca: Ah, it’s a little switch up. It seems sciency… It’s what I had open.
John: We’ve invited here today to discuss the first- year seminar course you both offered on “How to Think about Weird Things: science confronts pseudoscience.” First, could you remind our listeners a little bit about what the first-year seminar courses are here. We’ve done some past podcasts on them, but it’s been a while since we talked about that program.
Kristin: The first-year seminar course at SUNY Oswego is a relatively new initiative started just before I came here in 2018. But that’s before I came to SUNY Oswego, so I’m allowed to be wrong on dates before I started. It was initiated by our Provost, Scott Furlong. And the first-year seminar courses, the way that we envisioned them, is partially as passion topic courses for faculty, but also as a transitional experience for new freshmen so that they can have an experience in which they have both some social bonding, some interesting and challenging and really fascinating materials to talk about in course, but also some built-in experiences to help them connect to their new university and transition into kind of the college student way of functioning and being in a supportive atmosphere. So both academic challenge and excitement along with kind of the adjustment to the new university culture… Oh, and those are all taught in classes of 19 or less, so that there can be a strong peer-to-peer experience. And they also have writing intensive experiences involved.
John: What are some examples of pseudoscience that you address in your classes?
Paul: I’ve been teaching this course prior to the first-year seminar series for some years in a variety of different places: as an upper-level Gen Ed course for non majors, as a honors course, because the topic just transcends level, and it’s something that everyone can get something out of. And every time I’ve taught it, I’ve ended up emphasizing different things. And that persists. At one time, I was adamantly avoiding talking about conspiracy theories, because conspiracy theories are just bollocks. It’s a zero-sum proposition, there’s really no way out of it. There’s no good dealing with the topic. But given the fact that conspiracy theory is something that we all really need to be talking about nowadays, it’s something that I’ve brought in little by little, but it’s still dicey. You can talk about creationism, and have some strong things that you can bring up as, this is why this really is not tenable in there, lots of things you can talk about in terms of cryptozoology or psychical ability, or persistence of life after death, consciousness after death. And there are scientific things that you can point to with these. But with conspiracy theories, it’s always going to be “Oh, well…” there is always an “Oh, well” out of it. And so that’s a hard one to grapple with in any real constructive way.
Kristin: Well, one of the things that attracted me to the course…. Actually, let me tell you about how I got into it. As Dean, I wanted to get a stronger connection to the students. It’s good to have the experience in the classroom, especially at a new university for me, because I can see what faculty were going through in terms of: setup your course shell… What are the policies that you have to include? What are the students like in the classroom? How do you submit your grades? …all those kind of technical aspects also that Deans know. I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen Fall 2020 if I had perfect foresight about what that would have been like, but still… not necessarily as my first experience teaching at Oswego. But I still think it was valuable. But one thing that attracted me to the courses when I was thinking about what courses to teach, intro psych was actually my first choice because I enjoy hanging out with freshmen. It was my field. But then I thought… these freshman seminar courses, and I got a chance to talk with Paul on a regular basis in previous years, he was teaching a bit about all the interesting things we were talking about. And I think that course is fascinating, but as a psychologist, some of the things that really attracted me are pseudoscientific beliefs, particularly about interventions and treatments and the way people are scammed the way that having an understanding of how the brain and body actually work, and what evidence for treatment looks like versus people who are charlatans who are taking advantage of people who are in vulnerable positions. That’s the part that really hooks me into pseudoscience and why it’s so important to teach students about it. But with that, as a hook, you’ve got all kinds of possibilities, because it’s many of the same thinking errors and misunderstandings that open you up to paying thousands and thousands of dollars for getting your future read repeatedly. It’s the same kind of thinking errors that opening you up to those and some other things that are not necessarily mainstream.
Rebecca: So how do you overcome some of those thinking errors, or help students overcome their thinking errors?
Paul: I’m going to say “um” a lot and I’m going to pause a lot, because I know that it’s something that John enjoys editing out.
Kristin: But you should totally leave that…
Rebecca: Um….what do we think about that? [LAUGHTER]
Paul: When I teach this class, there are a number of things that I emphasize. But I emphasize that we are on some level, all scientists, we are all critical thinkers. And in order to get through life successfully, you have to be able to do these things. And I like to draw the horizontal line on the board on the first day and say, on this end is complete gullibility, complete credulousness, you’ll accept anything as truth. And on the other side is complete dismissiveness, complete cynicism, and you won’t accept anything, regardless of how well it’s shown to be acceptable or true. And that it’s important that you understand that there is a spectrum. And that being skeptical doesn’t mean being dismissive. It means that you ask questions, it means that you don’t accept things at face value, especially if they don’t really smell right. And if something has the taint of, “Well, this is too good to be true” …it probably is. And you’d be doing yourself a favor by looking more closely at things, getting some more information. So I try to disabuse students of preconceptions by asking questions and by forcing them to ask questions. And even with things that seem to be “Well, that makes sense, so yeah, I’m going to buy into it.” Well, why does that make sense? What’s the physical reality that underlies that, that makes you think that that is the way it should be, the way it might be? And where do you get your information? And that is a very productive line of inquiry, where you start to break down the “Well, I heard it from this person…” Well, what does this person know? “Well, I heard it from this website.” Well, let’s go to that website and look and see if there’s anything that we can connect to. And is this someone who’s just manufacturing information? Or do they have links to somewhere where you can say, “Wes, this is verifiable on some level.” So it’s good regardless of whether you’re talking about something that’s way out there or something that’s not so way out there. It’s good, basic, critical thinking.
Kristin: And one of the things that I think is very helpful is repetition. I went through a lot of topics, but in each case, there is this harking back to what kind of thinking errors might be present, what kind of scientific errors might be present. And as they start to do that over and over, they get better. For example, one of the early topics that I talked about was alien abduction. When we talked about alien abduction, we talked about how does memory formation work, we talked about sleep, the sleep cycle, hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations and sleep paralysis. We talked about false memories, and how false memories are formed, and that they are experienced in the same way as real memories. If you have a false memory, it’s not like a different thing for your experience. We talked about all of those kinds of normal processes, as well as, unfortunately, the role of hypnosis in creation of false memories, which has a lot to do with beliefs and induction. I say, unfortunately, as a psychologist, it’s horribly embarrassing for the field. it really is a terrible thing. So we talk about all of the scientific contributions, and then we talk about “Okay, now the experience of alien abduction.” How does hypnosis fit in there? How do sleep paralysis, and hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations, fit in here? Those are hallucinations as you’re falling asleep or waking up…it feels very real, but are actually more like a dreamlike state. How do all of this fit in? And then we look at an account of alien abduction and say, “Okay, what do you see here?” And then they can identify some of the thinking errors, like “Okay, here’s this part… looks like a false memory.” But sure, they’re really upset because it feels real. This part here, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. There’s no extraordinary evidence, so they can start to identify both how do we separate the science from the non-science and then where can we start to identify thinking errors. And as we do that topic after topic, they get better and better and better at it.
John: In all of our classes, following up what Paul said, students come in with models of the world and those models aren’t always accurate… or we often have better models that we’d like to share with our students. But it’s important to break them down. And you’ve talked a little bit about how you can provide them with evidence to help them perhaps modify their models of how the world works. But, what do you do with those students who are really resistant, who really deeply believe in some of those pseudo science principles?
Paul: Yeah, this is something that Michael Shermer talks about in one of the books that I’ve used as a quasi textbook has been Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things. And in the later editions of the book, he has a specific chapter, that is “Why Smart People Believe Weird Things.” Because, again, early on in the class, there’s something of an inclination to think of, “Well, I don’t think crazy things like that, and it’s only the gap-toothed yokels that believe in alien abductions or that believe in whatever it is.” But it’s important to understand that this is not something that’s limited to people who aren’t smart. There are plenty of people who are genius-level smarties who believe, not just weird things, but things that are patently out there. And so getting students to accept that, “Okay, we can talk about this as a group, because we’re not just pointing out that you’re a dummy, these are things that lots of people believe, and there are reasons why they believe them other than just being morons.” So the idea that preconceived notions are things that aren’t necessarily rooted in ignorance, or rooted in stupidity, but they’re rooted in misinformation, they’re rooted in being told something by someone you trust at some point, and not questioning it. So I think creating an atmosphere that people can feel good about talking about these things, and not just sitting there going, “Oh, I hope he doesn’t talk to me about this, because I actually believe in ghosts,” is useful. And I’ve had students in class who are ghost hunters. And we’ve gone through an entire lesson on why some of the classical ghost hunting techniques really don’t make sense when you analyze them. And I’ve had a student say, at that point, “Well, we don’t really do that, what we do is this,” and everyone in the class looks nervously at one another, that “Oh, that’s interesting. I didn’t realize that they were among us.” But, they are among us, because we are them. They are us, we all have an equal opportunity for believing weird things.
Kristin: One of the things that I also talk about is different ways of knowing. And that when you say science proves X, Y, Z, it has to meet a scientific standard. But if you say, for example, my faith tells me X, Y, Z, that’s a different way of knowing. And it’s not subject to the same kinds of proofs, it’s subject to different proofs. An example that we explicitly talked about is angelic visitations: are angels real? If you say science proves that angels are real, it has to stand up to scientific scrutiny. And in many religions, that would not only be a weird thing to say, it would be antithetical to their religious perspective. As soon as you start saying science proves my religion is correct, it becomes in some ways, a non-religious argument, and that it’s perfectly fine to have different ways of knowing different aspects about the world. But if you say science says this, this is the way the world works, because scientists have proved it, then you can subject it to scientific scrutiny. Another example is intuition and personal experience, that there are aspects of intuition and personal experience that may tell you certain truths about yourself or your relationships with others or whatever. And you don’t have to have the kind of scientific scrutiny in order to believe that you understand the way that your relationships work. But that’s a different way of knowing, it’s a different aspect of the world, and we do talk about that explicitly. And it’s fine with me if students choose to hold two ideas in their mind at the same time, they say, “Well, perhaps this idea that I have doesn’t actually make any scientific sense. I still believe it right now.” But I have some faith that if they continue this process to continue to analyze different ideas using the same skill sets: How does this make sense? What are their thinking errors? Is there an underlying explanation that makes some scientific sense that fits with the way that we know the world works. If they continue to do this, that eventually some of those closely held beliefs, which are scientifically disprovable, that they will start to kind of chip away at the edges there.
Rebecca: I know both of you are big advocates of active learning. Can you talk a little bit about some of the activities or exercises or things that you have students do as part of this course.
Paul: One of the classics, when we talk about psychical ability is pairing students up and having them basically test each other and their clairvoyant skills. So you give them the set of five Zener cards with the star and the squiggly lines and the square and you have them run through a series of “Okay, I’m projecting an image to you, you write down what it is.” And that’s good from a couple of standpoints. One is that it’s active and people are taking part in it, two is that people can understand: “Okay, if I really wanted to do something to show that there is something viable here, what would I have to do differently? Why is this test flawed?” And we talk about the development of good scientific tests. And that’s very productive, because there’s a lot of situations where you can say, “Well, you know, you’re still not controlling for this…” Okay, and the series of sort of nested tests that you have to go through in order to get to something that everyone would say, “Okay, I will accept the results of this” gets to be pretty complex. The other thing that’s good about this on a basic level is that it regresses to the mean. And regardless of the number of students, the number of tests, occasionally students will cheat and you can talk about that. But aside from cheating, you end up with a bunch of people that score exactly what statistics would say you should get and you can talk about one of the big things that I like to emphasize is not to let people use numbers to try to prove something to you that isn’t accurate, basically lying with statistics. A former student in the class sent me a book at some point, this little book called How to Lie with Statistics. And it’s a great medium to talk to students about things that are mathematical in a world where people are fearful of math, and they hate math. And this is a good application of mathematics, sort of basic mathematics to show something that is easy to wrap your head around. And it’s something as well in Shermer’s book, he talks about going to Edgar Cayce’s Institute, and doing this sort of mental ability test or psychical ability test. And he does the same thing. And he tries to convince people that “Well, just because you got 5 right out of 25 doesn’t mean that you’ve got some exceptional ability,” and he draws a bell curve, and they talk about it. And in the end, the person still doesn’t accept it. But it’s a good experiment to run, it gets people thinking about something that is not necessarily easy to think about otherwise.
Kristin: I’ll start by saying that I have huge sympathy for all the new faculty that started in Fall 2020 and were trying to build new courses while coming up with different teaching techniques. I was challenged this semester, this last semester, to build the course while trying to adapt to what was an unfamiliar form of teaching for me. Paul was very gracious in sharing materials. But, you know, when you teach the course yourself has to be rebuilt because it’s your own thinking, and your own style. Just for disclosure, though, I had intended the course to be a hybrid course in which we met with our faces, at least, three times a week, sometimes in the classroom altogether, and sometimes all online together. But as the semester went on, it did not work that way. I ended up having some students that always want to come face to face (a small number), and some that always ended up being online. So it was not the course I anticipated. But that’s okay. I know that we all experienced that. What my students responded to the most enthusiastically ended up being analysis of web comments. So I would often bring in slightly adapted web comments, I would correct for grammar and, you know, readability …say here is this diatribe this person and removing their identity and things because it’s about analysis of argument and they would go to town on it. Here’s this diatribe about astrology, it runs from how scientists are paid to debunk astrology all the way down to how you should stop being sheep and see the truth in front of you and everything in between, with all kinds of false analogies that don’t make any sense in the middle, all that good stuff. They loved that. And I loved it too. We all loved it, because that’s what I really want them to be able to walk out doing, to be able to see kind of something that looks like a well argued and well written diatribe against the world who doesn’t understand and to be able to look at it and say, “Oh, wrong, wrong. wrong, thinking errors, misstatement, false analogy, ripples in a pan have nothing to do with how stars move, and all kinds of different things. [LAUGHTER] So we ended up doing a lot of those kinds of similar things. I think one of the last things I did in the last homework that we worked on together was on a manifestation website service, you sign up for $1,000, you get these courses, and you can manifest wealth in your life and their analysis there was really excellent. It was excellent about why this might appeal to people. What is wrong with all of these arguments? It doesn’t matter how many incredibly well done video anecdotes you get from individuals who have manifested wealth in their life, that that’s not gonna transfer to other people. So lots of analysis of web comments.
John: With social media, there’s a very rich source of data that could be used for this.
John: Could you tell us a little bit more about the course structure and what you’re doing in these classes?
Kristin: I have avoided student presentations in class for 10 years, because I usually find them to not be a good use of course time, let’s just say that. But Paul was using student presentations, and I put them in for this course and they were awesome. So, I have completely changed my opinion. But part of it is also that I was teaching larger classes in the past. So figuring out how to integrate student presentations in a way that is a useful use of everyone’s time, but the student presentations in this class were fantastic. They were typically on a specific pseudoscience topic that we wouldn’t have spent a lot of time in class on. But it gave them an opportunity to again, have this kind of repeated, “Here’s a thing that you think is really different.” Like. maybe… maybe not… Chromotherapy, you know, does exposing yourself to different colors of light effect different organ functions beyond jaundice, and beyond seasonal affective disorder where there’s clear evidence… if you look at blue light, or red light, or whatever. People go “Hmmm, I’ve seen videos on this on TikTok… well, wait a minute, doesn’t make any sense.” And here are the arguments, a little scaffolding from a student presenter, here are the arguments about why this doesn’t make any sense, then students popping up with other arguments. And having that experience repeatedly, of student presentation after student presentation, I have worked them like you know, three or four weeks, it gave them more experienced practicing. And honestly, some of those topics are fabulous to talk about in class. Although I allowed students to select their topic out of a menu so that they didn’t have to know what was pseudoscience right at the beginning of classes. No one selected urine therapy, though, I was hoping given how much success Paul has had in his classes with that.
Paul: Urine therapy is number one.
John: Could you elaborate on that a little bit, Paul?
Paul: The student response to the class has been really good historically. And I will occasionally, and sometimes out of the blue, receive a book in the mail from a student. This person that I had never heard from after the class, student says: “I was in a bookstore, I saw this and I thought of our class, and I thought you might like it.” So that’s always really nice. But it’s especially nice when the person sends you the definitive book on urine therapy, because my library was not inclusive enough of that topic. So now I have something that when a student chooses, or pulls the short straw, on urine therapy, I have something I can give them as a resource for this topic.
Rebecca: A whole book….
Paul: A whole book. I think it’s called the Golden Fountain. I’m not kidding. When I do the course and I have students do some sort of presentation, I will, so that I don’t run into the problem of a student doing something that they already know a ton about, I’ll have them draw them at random. And from the start, I’ve got the little hat with pieces of paper in it, and I’m telling them: “Who’s going to draw urine therapy?” …and it’s hotly contested. And it’s great when the student comes in to give their presentation that day, and starts out with a long pause and says, “This really makes me sick.” [LAUGHTER]
John: I’m not sure if I should ask, but what is urine therapy?
Paul: Well, I’m surprised being a man of the world that you are not well aware of this, John, but by consuming your own urine, you’re able to tap into a great deal of vitality and essential nutrients, etc, perhaps some reparations to your chakras as well, through consuming your urine. There are people out there who will attempt to get you to pay them money to teach you how you should be doing this. But it comes down to drinking your own urine and having that basically cure any disease. And you can take it purely internally, you can rub it on your skin to produce a healthy skin tone, you can use it in your hair. There are certainly people out there who will claim that it is a cure for cancer. And that’s sort of the bar for all pseudo-medicine is when are we going to get to the end, this cures cancer. And sure enough, there are people out there. It’s usually a sad case where the person had cancer, they went through a number of different treatments, nothing was working, and they hit on this and suddenly they’re cancer free. And it’s a good place to talk about correlation and causation. It’s a good place to talk about how we design clinical tests for medications, vaccinations, whatever. When an agency says “Yes, this is demonstrated efficacious or this is demonstrated safe…” what does that actually mean? Well, it has to go through a certain process, which is not some random process that someone hands over some money and “Okay, yeah, you’re good to go,” that these are real things. So that, I think, is another area in which I’ve significantly improved over. I think I started teaching this in 2006. I talk more about anti-vax. I talk more about clinical trials. I talk about the placebo effect, and Kristin has actually helped me a lot with that. Because she knows about things that I didn’t know about when it came to placebo effects. So there’s a lot of good stuff there that, again, it’s science, but it’s not something that you need to have a degree in something to understand and to be able to then apply in your own life.
John: In terms of the placebo effect, there’s two things that just really struck me in terms of fairly recent research. One is that the strength of the placebo effect seems to be growing over time. And secondly, that the placebo effect still seems to exist, even when people know they’re taking a placebo. Any explanations of why that’s happening?
Kristin: Isn’t that fascinating? I just think that’s amazing. No, no explanations. I have great admiration for the power of the mind.
John: Mystical powers? [LAUGHTER]
Kristin: Well, for example, there is excellent research that says that people who have even late-stage cancer will survive longer, if they have social support. That’s not placebo. That’s because your mind and body are constantly one system and that we survive in a social environment… just one reason the pandemic has been so difficult… and that people survive and thrive better when they’re in a supportive social environment. Totally not placebo. But it is, in some ways, our traditional Western medical approach would see that as a psychological or mental intervention. It’s amazing. Although the early psychoanalysts, they did some strange stuff, and claimed some strange things, Freud and his students, some of that early work, it really does demonstrate if you believe that something is going to be very different. Hysterical pregnancy is a great example. People who believe that they are pregnant strongly believe that they are pregnant who are not actually pregnant, show many physical signs of pregnancy, including abdominal distension and ending of periods. Sso there’s a lot of different things that the mind can do. Unfortunately, only that only takes you so far. But that is definitely something that I talk about in class, as well as the waxing and waning nature of many illnesses, and how that opens people up for charlatans to take advantage of them. Multiple Sclerosis is a great example, where there’s unpredictable often waxing and waning symptoms. And people with MS have been targeted for many, many, many, many years for completely wacky, expensive, invasive, painful treatments because of the waxing and waning nature. And if their experience is that it has healed them, it’s hard to say that’s not your experience. But it is easy to say there isn’t any scientific evidence that this would help anybody else. They’re taking your money, unfortunately. And I also talk about how parents with children with significant developmental disability are often also at a point of desperation, where they’re sometimes ripe for this kind of thing too. One of the students in my class presented on hyperbaric oxygen chamber treatment, which of course is a great treatment if you have the bends after scuba diving, but is not effective for autism, though there is a market to sell people, these chambers for $20,000 to have a chamber in their homes so that they can put their child who has autism in the chamber on a daily basis, which for one thing is expensive and not effective in any way. But it’s also potentially also really scary for a child who doesn’t understand what is going on being shut up in the chamber every day. So, beyond the improved understanding of how the world works, there is, also real harm being done by some of these things. And we’re talking with students about the importance of a control group. Why does having a control group make all the difference? And talking about that repeatedly as these other examples come up, I really believe will help them to understand the world better, and become better consumers and self advocates.
John: One of the things you just mentioned is the importance of a strong social network and of human connections. How did you nurture that in this somewhat challenging circumstance of fall 2020 during the pandemic?
Kristin: That was really hard, because it’s something that I have never struggled with in class before. And it was a real struggle this semester. I don’t know if that was the case for you too, Paul, or Rebecca. But this is something that I consider to be an easy and normal thing in my teaching. But this semester, it was really a challenge to have students make peer-to-peer connections. I feel fairly comfortable that they felt a connection with me. And I certainly felt a connection with them. But getting them to connect peer to peer was a challenge. And I attribute that to first, not ever having done it this way before. I think if I had another chance I could do it better. Just like any kind of teaching, the second time around is usually better than the first. But part of it was that I was so responsive to students who felt like they needed the face-to-face interaction that I continued to meet face to face every day with them with a chunk of students on Zoom. And it would have been, given my teaching style, it would have been a better experience, I think, for all of us if we’d stayed in one together format more often, if that makes sense.
John: I think this is a problem we all faced, that student peer-to-peer connections were challenging, both because of the modality and because of the circumstances in which we’re all living right now. Paul?
Paul: This past fall, I taught a different course. And it was an upper-level honors course. So these are students who… they’re high achieving, they had figured college out. And it was, for me the easiest of all scenarios, because they were on task, and not that they weren’t necessarily happy with the way that the world was going, but from an academic standpoint, it was a fairly easy scenario to adapt to.
Rebecca: I wanted to circle back for a minute about the diversity of topics that you addressed in class, and what you’re using as hooks, and the value of the different kinds of topics as hooks for students. So there’s some that I think fit in the category of very outlandish, which are probably really easy for some students to really get into… find fun… and then there’s also some of the medical things that you’re talking about that I think students might relate to more directly, and they can see how it fits into their lives. Can you talk a little bit about how you chose the topics and how your students may be related to those topics?
Paul: Certainly, when you’re just talking about science, it is harder with a mixed audience of students who aren’t necessarily buying in from the start. In previous incarnations of this class, it was nominally a natural science course, but realistically, it was being taken by everybody. When I taught it as a first-year seminar course, there was a fair number of psych majors. But really, it was a complete mixture. So, I felt obligated to present a certain amount of science. Here’s a big idea in science, why do we think this? What’s the evidence for this? Why is this important? Why should you care? So I was able to get to things like creationism through the door of “Well, how is it that we know that the earth is as old as it is? And why is it that this is not just something that was handed to us, and we believe it, but it’s something that’s objectively demonstratable?” And beyond that, when you start talking about biological evolution? And okay, why is it that we believe that this is at least a reasonable description of what’s going on in nature? Okay, here’s some stuff that’s a little bit dry. But the end goal is being able to say, “Yeah, I can accept this beyond just having it handed to me.” Evolution is a good one, in that it integrates a lot of different things. So you can bring in the purely biological, you can bring in populational, you can bring in geological and physics, and you don’t have to dwell in any one particular spot to try to make the point. But nevertheless, there are portions of the class that are somewhat more pure sciency, and I try to front load those in the course to keep the carrot out there of “Oh, we’re going to be talking about psychical abilities soon, and we’re going to be talking about UFOs soon,” because that’s fun stuff and ghost hunting and all that. But yeah, the science is a critical underpinning for the course and trying to get it so that it’s not just: “Here’s the scientific method, memorize this,” …to have it be science is a process that we all are invested in, and when you stop investing in it, then there’s trouble. And I think that the past year has really underscored the fact that that’s something that everyone should be… certainly every college educated person… but really everyone, should be understanding of the fact that science is a critical tool. And it’s not just the sacred tablets that have been handed down from the clouds, it is something that has objectivity, and there are processes… and what makes a scientific paper. We keep talking about, “Well, this vaccine test was done, and it was published in The Lancet, or it was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Why do we care? Is it just we paid more to get our article in this journal that people quote? No, it’s that these journals actually have a high bar for what they accept as publishable. And if it’s published in there, it means something. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be true a week from now. I think in dealing with science, it’s good to emphasize that it’s not just something that is dusty books sitting on shelves. But by the same token, there’s an inherent danger when you expose the fact that we don’t know anything for certain. And it’s nice and comfortable to think that when you drop the apple, it’s going to fall at a certain rate. And when you get up tomorrow morning, the sun is going to be rising in the east. But when it comes to it, the more contentious the scientific question comes, perhaps, the bigger the scientific question becomes, the greater the likelihood that we’re going to continue to develop our understanding of things and rooting out the question of “Well, that’s just a theory.” Well, it’s not just a theory. If it’s a theory in science, it means something. It doesn’t mean that it’s a hunch. It means that this is something that we’ve put an awful lot of effort into, and awful lot of thought into. A lot of people have had their eyes on this. It’s not just one really smart person saying, “Okay, this is the deal.” …just the process by which we have to go in order to get to the point of saying, “Yes, we accept this as the way things work, whether it’s biological evolution, or whether it’s the verifiability of vaccine, or whether it’s anything.”
Kristin: And one of the things that you’re touching on there, I think, is also an important theme that comes out: that science is a continuing investigation, that it’s very comfortable for students, especially in K through 12, to think about scientists having answers instead of being an ongoing investigation. And typically the things that are taught in K-12 are the things science has answers for, not the things that are continually being investigated. So it can be scary for students who have that background to be confronted with news that our understanding of a virus is changing over time, because that’s the way understanding works. It changes over time as we learn more and more. This theme keeps coming up throughout the semester as well saying, “Hey, this is what we understand now. The state of our knowledge is this. The door isn’t closed to the state of our knowledge to be different in the future. It also gives us a good opportunity to bring in the importance of diverse voices as scientists. So one of the things that I talk about in my class is the roots of psychological assessment and intelligence testing, and how some of those roots have explicitly racist foundations among people who were explicitly racist and some probably unintentionally racist, but having racist impacts. And some of that is clearly because there were only white men doing work at that time in that area. And when you have only one perspective, it leads to one group of answers, that if you have a more diverse group of scientists who are studying a question, they expand the definition of the question, they expand the definition of what is possible evidence, the answers that they come up with are different and better answers because of the nature of scientific investigation. That it’s not just we have a question, and here’s the answer. It’s we have this question about the world, what does the question mean? Is that the right question? Is there a bigger question? How can we investigate it? Let’s look at different evidence, let’s expand our understanding. As part of that, we also talked about the foundations of photography, and what happens when you have only white people creating photographic film and processing. And what happens when you expand that into a more diverse group of people on a more diverse group of images, the same kind of idea. Although I have to say the horoscope and astrology stuff was the stuff that got the most excited,
Paul: Ah ha, the fallacy of personal validation. [LAUGHTER]
John: But I think we can also generalize what you were just talking about in that all of our disciplines involve in ongoing investigation, and that students come into our classes, thinking of them as these defined bodies of knowledge that they just have to memorize. And it is a bit of a shock and adjustment to students to see that there are many things we don’t know. And that takes a while to get them comfortable with that idea and accepting that idea.
Kristin: And that it’s not a flaw in the scientific process or the state of knowledge, the fact that it’s changing. That’s not a flaw, that’s actually a feature. Yeah, that’s a tough one.
Paul: And one of the things that I specifically talk about in the whole science, you know, what is science? What is pseudoscience? …is where things go wrong. And we talk about fraud. There are a number of times during the course where we’ll talk about “Well, this was published in this journal, and it was wrong.” And let’s see what happened later. And we talked about retraction and things like that. So the self- policing nature of science, when it’s working, right, it’s the best way to get to the point of feeling good about an explanation for something. It doesn’t necessarily mean that something is proved or something is fact. But we have this process in place, and as long as it’s a topic that people feel is important enough to have lots of eyes on it… well, there’s going to be no way of hiding that one set of results that doesn’t seem to agree with everybody else’s. And those things get found out, they get basically debunked, and the science moves on. So the idea that science is fallible, the idea that science isn’t perfect, it’s something that has to be embedded in that. But by the same token, because of the nature of the process, we can say that science is about as good as we can do when it comes to understanding and this was Carl Sagan… all that.
Rebecca: We always wrap up by asking what’s next?
Kristin: What’s next? What’s next… I’m looking forward to spring semester. I’m looking forward even more to the next fall semester. I think we all are in that position. I really do appreciate the experience that I have with my students and I’ll teach again next year, but since the universe is paying me to be Dean, I have to do that work as well this spring.
Paul: Well, my life has been leading up to this podcast. So really after this, there’s not a heck of a lot left for me. Now, it’s nice to know that CELT wasn’t destroyed by my being part of it once upon a time, and it actually seems to have improved since then. That’s a nice job.
John: Thank you. I think this is a fascinating course. And teaching students to more critically analyze what they read and hear in social media and in their social network is a really valuable skill. So I’m glad you’re working on that
Rebecca: It really does seem like what college is all about.
Kristin: Well, thank you. It was a lot of fun. And throughout the whole semester, I was grateful to Paul for the scaffolding that he gave me. He was able to answer all kinds of questions and gave me interesting materials to work off of. So thank you, Paul.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.