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Victor Dominocielo: Let’s Teach Scientific Literacy at Every Age, Every Opportunity

Two scientists from Lawrence Livermore Labs excitedly called James Randi of the James Randi Educational Foundation and said he would have to forfeit the $1 million prize money that he offers for proof of any psychic phenomenon.

In this case, the scientists had “verified” an instance of telekinesis using only the power of the mind. Randi listened to their description and was immediately able to duplicate the trick that had fooled the Ph.D. physicists. Click here to view the video.

LLL is chock full of the best scientists on Earth. It is the poster child for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education, which is currently emphasized in our school system. The scientists who were fooled by the magician's trick are outstanding engineers, chemists and physicists in their particular fields of study.

But isn’t there something very wrong with this situation: Ph.D.-level scientists who can’t tell the difference between an astounding brain function discovery and a simple magic trick? My 13-year-old students would have known immediately that they were observing a trick. They might not have known how to explain the trick, but they would have known that it was a trick by simply asking the “What’s more likely?” question: What am I more likely observing, a new superpower of the mind or a magician's trick?

I can only conclude that being awarded a Ph.D. in a scientific field of study is no guarantee of scientific literacy. I can only fault myself and other science educators for producing Ph.D.-level scientists who are not able to distinguish between scientific and nonscientific processes. This is a blatant lapse of basic science education.

“It is possible for a student to accumulate a fairly sizable science knowledge base without learning how to properly distinguish between reputable science and pseudoscience” (“Science Education Is No Guarantee of Skepticism,” Walker, Hoekstra, Vogel).

Instead of being taught a broad understanding of the use of scientific thinking in everyday life, these scientists are the product of an educational system that focuses on the narrow application of laboratory skills. Experimental laboratory skills are certainly very important but not at the expense of ignoring the application of scientific thinking in all areas of life. What is needed is an appreciation and an in-depth understanding of scientific literacy.

Scientific literacy is a functional competency in the methodology of science. In a practical sense, it is comprised of:

» Awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of the basic tool used to gather scientific information: your brain. This includes common cognitive mistakes and fallacies that influence the gathering of scientific evidence.

» Ability to recognize the difference between scientific and nonscientific processes.

» Ability to apply the scientific process in the observation and examination of evidence.

» Ability to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and methods.

Ask any science teacher about the most important and critical skill in science, and each and every one of us would definitively say “experimentation.” As this rationale became incorporated into our educational system over the last 40 years, experimentation became the be all, end all, must do all, hands-on splinter skill. Sacrificed on the altar of “laboratory experimentation” was the rich history, development and the how and why of scientific thinking in everyday life that is scientific literacy.

“Science education, in its current form, seems to do little to offset pseudoscientific beliefs, and may in fact give students reason to accept science fiction as science fact” (Walker, et. al, 2012).

Every science course at every educational level should be teaching scientific literacy. Even coursework in nonscience courses such as English, history and social studies should include a generalized scientific methodology that can be applied to any question, investigation and the gathering of evidence in any field of study. Questions like: “How do historians gather evidence?”; “What are the hypotheses surrounding the writings of Shakespeare?”; “How do psychologists gather evidence given that people feel, believe and misperceive?”

In sciences courses, after being exposed to the specific experimental methodology in that field, students should learn the developmental history of that science, how mistakes were made and how scientific methodology kept pointing scientists to a more accurate understanding of our world.

The next stage of a deep and robust science education should include how the brain processes information and the strengths and weaknesses of this incredible tool. Understanding the limits of perception, memory and common cognitive fallacies produces a student less likely to fool themselves and confuse their beliefs and emotions with evidence.

Throughout every science class, students should learn how to examine the quality of evidence that they see every day on TV, the computer and social media in the form of advertising that makes unsupportable claims.

Let’s give everyone a good “Baloney Detection Kit,” originally penned by Carl Sagan in his book The Demon-Haunted World and refined here by Michael Shermer.

» 1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
» 2. Does the source make similar claims?
» 3. Have the claims been verified by someone else?
» 4. Does this fit with the way the world works?
» 5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
» 6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point?
» 7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?
» 8. Is the claimant providing positive evidence?
» 9. Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
» 10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim?

There is so much lack of scientific literacy in our world today. Sheer nonsense is given such credibility on the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and even National Geographic TV. Everything from ghosts, witchcraft, Bigfoot, space aliens, drinkable sunscreen, magical alternative medicine, crop circles, astrology, psychic readings, pyramid powers, crystals and energy auras are given pseudoscientific plausibility.

Let’s start changing this situation by teaching our children sense from nonsense. Let’s teach our children scientific literacy at every age and at every opportunity.

— Victor Dominocielo, M.A., a California-credentialed teacher for 37 years, is the human biology and health teacher at a local middle school. He earned his master of arts degree in education from UCSB. The opinions expressed are his own.

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