Post 4: Scientific Competence

As I was putting my syllabus together it occurred to me that while I had designed the PSY 397 Advanced Lab course to build research skills, it would also be good to reflect on the higher purpose of the course. Only a tiny percentage of students want to be psychological researchers, an even smaller number want to be cognitive researchers, and it is unlikely that anyone will use the exact experimental designs I’m teaching in their future job. But, all of them will work in fields that use or rely on the principles and methods we’ll be discussing, and every single student will benefit from the critical thinking skills and broad understanding of “how things work” behind the scenes.

While thinking about this, I couldn’t help but notice that CNN was playing a report about a certain science-denying creationist building a replica (or what he believes to be a replica) of Noah’s Ark in Kentucky. Controversy has arisen because this clearly religious organization has received millions in tax breaks and free land from the government despite the fact that there is absolutely no science – nor any logic or common sense – to back up their positions. I don’t want to get too far into the details, but this person believes that the earth is about 6,000 years old, and that a 600-year-old Noah built a boat that held two members of every species for 40 days. He also requires all employees to sign a statement disavowing homosexuality, same-sex marriage, pre-marital sex, and accepting what they call a “literal” interpretation of the bible.

I’m sure anyone reading this could look up the details on their own and figure out that these claims and ideas are nonsensical and incorrect. Or could you?

After seeing the news article, and to prepare to write this blog post, I imagined I knew nothing about this issue and googled “how old is the earth”. To their credit, the search engine had – in a big box at the top – the correct age of Earth, the Milky Way, the Moon, and Mars, all accompanied by pictures, statistics, and a link to Wikipedia. But…the next two results were from creationist websites that contain a mix of incorrect information, pseudoscience, propaganda, and nonsense. In fact, of the 11 results on the first page: 4 were creationist propaganda, 3 discussed the supposed “controversy” and gave the impression there is some debate, and 4 gave the correct answer (including the box at the top and the same Wikipedia entry listed again far down the page). If I was a high school or college student or politician who was uninformed about the issue, I would certainly get the impression that there is a controversy.

This is pretty sad. How does such clearly incorrect information get so much attention? More importantly, how can this be fixed?

Without education in scientific research methods, I don’t think it is possible. Even a smart person without training in critical thinking and the scientific method would have a tough time figuring out that one position here is completely and totally incorrect. To any person who has learned the scientific method, it is perfectly obvious.

Luckily, education is mostly moving in the right direction. In this particular case the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) clearly supports the science of the age of the earth, as well as the fact of evolution, and encourages not caving to pressures to teach non-science or fallacious “arguments” against evolution. The reasoning is simple. Science starts with an idea and tries to disprove it. After trying time and time again to disprove their idea, with every possible thing you can think of, if the idea still survives then it is probably correct. Non-science starts with an idea and tries to PROVE it. It is all too easy to find or twist evidence to support a claim, and if you start off “knowing” the conclusion in advance then you will always find reasons to support your idea (even if they are wrong or silly). In fact, it is pointless to even investigate if you’re determined to have your idea work no matter the evidence. Of course, the NSTA has members who are educated in science. It is somewhat more difficult to reach people who haven’t had this education. All scientists should think about reaching those people, but in the mean time we should make sure that our students are highly proficient in the scientific method and logical reasoning so that they don’t fall victim to propaganda or pseudoscience.

And of course, it isn’t just the age of the earth or evolution. Right after the CNN story I saw a commercial for a product “made with 100% ground beef”. Now does that mean it is 100% beef – even though logic and critical thinking would suggest that there are at least spices in there that make it less than 100% beef – or does it mean something else? There is currently litigation about whether 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese is made with 100% Parmesan Cheese or if it just means the product is 100% Grated. These are smaller things, but they are examples of issues that every single person faces every day, often without even knowing it. This is not to mention the false or misleading claims from drug companies that are often loosely based on science, or that fact that I live in Pennsylvania where everything is labeled “All Natural” even though that phrase is meaningless. Only scientific competence can help people make decisions about these things that are in their best interests.

So, I suppose the conclusion is that, though there will be very advanced and technical methods in my course, the main goal will be to create liberal arts graduates who are scientifically competent and can distinguish true facts from falsehoods. My course is particularly well suited because it looks at metacognition, including your ability to reflect on your own certainty in any belief.

Finally, I would note that the actual story of Noah, and the stories in all religions, and even deceptive advertising, have great value. There are morals and themes that can be tremendously informative in many classes including my own. But, they should not be used as an excuse to “not believe” in the factual truth of science or to be critically lazy. As the Dalai Lama said of his religion, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims”. He has even done so, moving from being intolerant of homosexuality to having a more nuanced (though still not fully correct) view based on science. And indeed, most mainstream religions accept science as fact. Unfortunately, though, too many people – some with good intentions, some with bad – simply do not have the knowledge and skills necessary to distinguish fact from bias, science from falsehood. We should do all we can to fix this, because it would in turn fix many of the issues our society faces.

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