The Cure For Pseudoscience? Clear Thinking
Helen Lee Bouygues
Too many people believe in pseudoscience. Today, 50 percent of all Americans think that people can have ESP. Many argue that witches—and telepathy—are real phenomena.
A study released this month maps out a potential solution to the problem of pseudoscientific beliefs, showing that rigorous critical thinking lessons can reduce specious convictions. According to the study, a one-semester course in critical thinking reduced pseudoscientific views by a whopping 45%.
The study was titled “Effect of Critical Thinking Education on Epistemically Unwarranted Beliefs in College Students,” and its implications are significant. Pseudoscientific beliefs can lead to weak or irresponsible decisions. Denying the robust science behind climate change, for instance, has long stifled efforts to fix an ongoing, potentially cataclysmic problem. Or consider that there have been more than 750 cases of measles in the United States this year alone.
Two California State University professors led the study, and they argue that a big part of the issue is K-12 education. Heated political disputes over once widely uncontested facts—evolution and climate change, for example—have resulted in school boards steering classrooms away from teaching such subjects. In turn, high school graduates often enter college—and the real world—ill-informed.
One remedy is to teach college students critical thinking skills. But the results of such efforts have varied largely because many education experts assume that students gain critical thinking skills implicitly when they take college-level courses in the humanities or sciences. So the study’s authors decided to look into the impact of more explicit instruction on pseudoscientific beliefs.
The study’s pretests of the students produced some alarming results. Of the more than 800 students in the study, 99% reported believing in at least one pseudoscientific idea including everything from crystal healing to psychokinesis to September 11 conspiracies. According to the authors, the most common pseudoscientific beliefs were health-related, while conspiracy theories had the fewest adherents.
As part of the research, the authors studied three groups of students. One group took a general education science course that did not explicitly cover critical thinking in any way. Another group took a course that included lessons in research methods. The third group took “Natural Science 4: Science and Nonsense.” The course, the authors write, “explicitly addresses common human errors of perception and logic by applying critical thinking skills to the claims of specific epistemically unwarranted beliefs.”
In the “Science and Nonsense” course, the professors had students make a class presentation on a pseudoscience topic each week. The presenters would share evidence and arguments on both sides of the issue, debating about the existence of Bigfoot or extra-terrestrial beings. Students would also write essays, which were graded on their use of reason, research and evidence.
As each week passed, the debate in the course became more sophisticated. Among the topics “were homeopathy and climate change denialism, where the evaluation of claims involves deeper knowledge, more intricate analysis, and strong personal beliefs are often challenged,” the authors write.
At the end of the semester, students from all three groups took a post-test. The students in the general education and research methods classes showed a small drop in pseudoscientific beliefs. In contrast, the unwarranted convictions of the students in the “Science and Nonsense” course plummeted by a massive 45 percent.
Interestingly, conspiracy theories—whose prevalence among the students was low to begin with—did not drop as much as other pseudoscientific convictions like a belief in the paranormal. “[T]he very nature of a conspiracy theory is to mistrust authorities and official sources of information,” the authors write. “Therefore, it is not surprising that such beliefs are difficult to change.”
Skepticism, of course, can be healthy. But not if it’s based on a hunch. And as this study shows, critical thinking doesn’t always come naturally. Rather, it requires explicit training.
This article first appeared on the website of Forbes.
Helen Lee Bouygues is the president of the Reboot Foundation and author of a forthcoming book on critical thinking.