Using the Psychic Blue Dot to Teach about Science (and Pseudoscience)

Article excerpt

A new teaching method is described for teaching research methods in an Introductory Psychology curriculum with the goals of making the section on research methods more interesting, providing an active learning environment for research methods and to allow students to examine scientifically the claims of pseudoscience. Student groups created and conducted experiments to test the claims made of the psychic blue dot and described their projects in brief papers. An evaluation of the projects found that students did find the project interesting and the students felt that the project was useful in learning research methodology concepts. Students did not report being more wary of claims of pseudoscience.

**********

"Many postsecondary educators are concerned about the rising tide of pseudoscientific, fundamentally anti-intellectual belief among otherwise well educated American (Bates, 1991, p. 95).

These words began a 1991 article in Teaching of Psychology regarding a method to teach hypothesis testing by using a classroom demonstration of telepathy. Unfortunately, 13 years later not much has changed. Miss Cleo, an American telephone psychic, defrauded people of approximately one-half billion dollars (Ho, 2002) and John Edwards, an American television psychic, is currently on television and touring the country appearing at many concert hall venues (2006 Schedule of Events, 2006, March 7).

This lack of change may be quite understandable. In order to be prepared to evaluate the claim of pseudoscience, people--and especially psychology students--need to understand the basic concepts in research methodology and also have a facility with using these concepts. Teaching research methodology, especially in Introductory Psychology (potentially a college student's only exposure to a rigorous presentation of research methodology) can be difficult. For example, Hoffmaster (1986) stated that teaching research methodology is one of the driest subjects on earth.

In order to--simultaneously--make the study of research methodology in an Introductory Psychology curriculum more interesting, scientifically examine pseudoscientific claims and create a more active learning environment for the study of research methodology, I developed a semester-long project for my Introductory Psychology courses. Hopefully, by taking advantage of some of the benefits of active learning techniques, this new project will allow students to better understand and better apply research methodological concepts.

Active learning techniques have been shown to have a powerful impact upon student learning. Studies have shown that students prefer active learning to lecture; that active learning is comparable to lecture in terms of mastery of content, but active learning is superior to lectures in terms of thinking skills; and that many students have learning styles which may be served better by active learning techniques (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). One specific active learning technique is the group investigation technique (Sharan & Sharan, 1976). After a class orientation to an area or problem, students work in small groups and discuss and plan an individual project.

In the past, I have used smaller-scaled versions of the group investigation technique to augment my Introductory Psychology's courses lecture on research methodology. Specifically, I used a technique which involved students, in small groups, discussing and critiquing popular press articles about psychological research (Connor-Greene, 1993). While helpful to some students, this technique did not help students with more activity oriented learning styles. Thus, I elaborated upon Connor-Greene's ideas and designed a project which began with a discussion and critique of a popular press article on pseudoscience, and then students were required to take their original ideas and turn theses ideas into workable research proposals.

The centerpiece for all of these activities was a National Enquirer article about the Psychic Blue Dot (PBD). …