Science Education Is No Guarantee of Skepticism

By Walker, W. Richard; Hoekstra, Steven J. et al. | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Science Education Is No Guarantee of Skepticism


Walker, W. Richard, Hoekstra, Steven J., Vogl, Rodney J., Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


MANY SKEPTICS TAKE A MEASURED AMOUNT of pleasure in the kinds of tasks often set before them: evaluating blurry photographs, conducting laboratory experiments that reduce or eliminate trickery, critiquing flawed science and pseudo-science, and countering the claims of obvious charlatans. Of course, skeptics hope that their efforts aid in advancing science education. (1) In spite of these efforts, survey data from several sources suggests that paranormal belief and pseudoscientific thinking continue to be commonplace. (2)

Skeptics often use these findings to reinforce arguments for more science education. Their argument is based upon the largely untested assumption that increased science knowledge reduces the number of paranormal beliefs an individual holds. However, this assumption may not be valid. Andrew Ede recently argued that science education may do little to raise the level of rational thinking and may, in fact, actually deter it! (3) Recent debates about including creation science and/or eliminating evolution from high school biology curricula (4) are a case in point indicating that many policy makers, members of the public, and a few educators are confused about how to critique and compare theories in order to separate facts from beliefs. Ede identified three reasons why this may be true. (5)

1. Science classes, broadly defined, primarily teach technical skills rather than emphasizing critical thinking. Labs are conducted in which there is a "right answer" that the instructor knows, and it is up to the student to manipulate the project until the "right answer" is realized.

2. Science classes typically review research findings without placing the research in the proper context. This can lead to incorrect assumptions or overgeneralizations.

3. Science implicitly emphasizes its elite status over other points of view. Therefore, data and graphs are accepted uncritically because they are based on "scientific," "clinical," or "laboratory" studies. A lab coat guarantees an aura of expertise.

The overall result is that teaching scientific "facts" is emphasized, while individuals are not given the skills with which to critically evaluate the claims that are presented to them. People are placed in the position of accepting or rejecting claims based on what they are told to believe, rather than being able to critically evaluate the evidence. (6)

A quick inspection of introductory college textbooks supports Ede's basic arguments. As an example, most introductory psychology texts are now in excess of 500 pages, yet fewer than 15 pages are typically spent on research issues. Little or no discussion is given to the importance of evidence or how scientific methods can be used to weigh evidence. Instead, the primary emphasis of many texts is to enumerate as many scientific findings as possible. Since it is reasonable to suspect that many instructors follow the basic format of the text that has been selected for class, it is likely that class lectures spend more time on specific research findings than on the more abstract topics of empiricism and skepticism. Hence, 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. Fortunately, there is recently a stronger push in introductory psychology texts to correct this oversight, most strikingly b y Carole Wade and Carol Tavris, (7) but it still remains the exception to the rule.

Assessing Science Knowledge and Pseudoscientific Beliefs

The primary goal of this paper is to examine the relationship between science knowledge and paranormal beliefs. We reasoned that if Ede's argument is true, then a person's scientific knowledge base should be unrelated to pseudoscientific beliefs. If, on the other hand, science leads to skepticism about pseudoscience, science knowledge and paranormal beliefs should be inversely related. …

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