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Flogging a dead horse: pseudoscience and school science education.

Pseudoscience is a ubiquitous aspect of popular culture which constitutes a direct challenge to science, and by association, to science education. With the exception of politically influential pseudosciences trying to impose themselves on official curricula such as creationism, science education authorities and professional organisations seem generally reticent about coming to grips with pseudoscience. This apathy is reflected by the low level of engagement in a comparative study undertaken by the author of this paper. The issue is contextualised with reference to the curricular priorities and classroom realities of school science education which leave little room for the extraneous subtleties pseudosciences present.


Pseudosciences are ubiquitous aspects ot popular culture. Do they constitute a challenge to science and to science education? Because they mimic science and occasionally come into direct competition with science, the answer would appear to be in the affirmative. The history of creationism in the USA is a case in point as is the plethora of health-related pseudoscientific scams that regularly come to light. These and other pseudoscientific success stories cast aspersions over the general level of public scientific literacy and thereby mass science education. How then does science education face up to pseudoscience, if indeed it should? In the view of Martin (1971, 1994), it ought to do so. The differences between science and pseudoscience being largely epistemological, and scientific epistemology ostensibly constituting a strong undercurrent in today's science curricula, the case for paying attention to pseudoscience in the science classroom is surely more compelling now than it was 40 years ago.

This paper arises from a comparative study to examine the pseudoscience status quo in six anglophone countries' secondary school science education systems and the views of a number of people involved in science education as members of curriculum units or science education/science teacher associations. As an academic study, it was a flop owing to the low level of engagement by would-be respondents, including the withdrawal of more than half of those who had agreed to participate - which in itself says a great deal about science education's uneasy ambivalence towards the pseudoscience bogey.


As noted in a seminal paper on the relationship between pseudoscience and science education (Martin, 1971), pseudoscience shares science's 'surface properties' - it looks like science, at least to the scientifically unsophisticated - but not its 'depth characteristics'. The pseudoscience syndrome includes a lack of verifiability, falsifiability and progressiveness, and a reliance on selective evidence and confirmation bias (Allchin, 2004; Lilienfeld, 2008; Lindeman, 1998; Thagard, 1978; Still & Dryden, 2004). A clear line of demarcation has, however, been elusive, with overlaps between science and pseudoscience being common (Derksen, 1993; Grove, 1985; Lugg, 1987; Reisch, 1998; Still & Dryden, 2004).

The very label 'pseudoscience' is a derogatory one; it has become part of the language of rhetoric (Still & Dryden, 2004). And yet some older established pseudosciences can boast a history of respectability. Chaucer's 'doctor of physic' in 'The Canterbury Tales/ 'kept a patient from the pall by horoscopes and magic natural'; astrology was part and parcel of science until well into the Enlightenment (Thagard, 1978). Judaeo-Christian aetiological myths were orthodox (if increasingly contentious) science until well into the 19th century, as evidenced by Ussher's chronology and Payley's 'natural theology'. Homeopathy gained respectability through the late 18th and early 19th centuries to the point of recognition by several European royal houses (and continues to receive official State support in India today; Mukherjee & Wahile, 2006 cf. Spurgeon, 2007; see also Geffen, 2005 for another instance of State-sponsored pseudoscience). Freudian psychoanalysis enjoyed scientific status until the second half of the last century (Derksen, 1993). Some disciplines can not be labelled as scientific or pseudoscientific as a whole; Gaia Theory presents a 'mixed bag' of scientific and non-scientific ideas (Do Carmo, Nunes-Neto & El-Hani, 2009) while acupuncture may come across as one or the other, depending on the claims about it that are being made (Lindeman, 1998). This line of argument shifts the focus of investigation into pseudoscience from the discipline to the need to evaluate specific claims thereof (Derksen, 1993; Lugg, 1998).

It is an open secret that many science graduates flirt with various pseudosciences; university qualifications in science do not immunise people to their appeal. Pseudosciences fulfil a basic need for many people in providing them with the intellectual tools they need to make sense of their lives; their preoccupation with 'deep meaning' extends their reach beyond that of science (Lindeman, 1998; Reisch, 1998; Still & Dryden, 2004). They are belief systems which belong to the realm of the metaphysical rather than the physical. It is accordingly arguable whether science as such has any business with pseudoscience, which is more akin to religion. At the same time, for science education to ignore pseudoscience seems blissfully naive.


School science education would appear to have three options: no response, confronting pseudoscience head-on, or a measured response whereby testable claims arising from pseudosciences are subjected to scrutiny.

The 'no response1 option presents the advantage of being able to devote all class time to conventional biology, chemistry, physics, and the earth and space sciences. In the light of content-intense curricula and the time constraints many science teachers face, the 'no response' option is likely to be an appealing one; however, it evades the issue central to this paper.

The confrontation option involves mainstreaming specific pseudosciences into the curriculum. This raises the vexing issue of which pseudosciences should be targeted, as there are too many to include them all, and leaves education authorities and teachers open to charges of victimising certain belief systems while ignoring others. In the case of politically influential pseudosciences such as creationism, classroom confrontations amount to an extremely high-risk strategy, and one that many teachers and school administrators would feel uncomfortable with whatever their private views. Lessons targeting specific pseudosciences are moreover likely to degenerate into verbal sparring matches with students who are sympathetic toward that pseudoscience.

A 'middle path' response option is to examine testable claims arising from various pseudosciences in the course of covering curricular units devoted to topics which are associated with particular pseudosciences, thereby avoiding the need to write named pseudosciences into the curriculum, while at the same time forging connections with conventional disciplines. Thus, some tenets of astrology could be examined during a unit on astronomy, of homeopathy during a chemistry unit on solutions and concentration, and of creationism during a unit on evolution. These investigations could occur as routine applications of scientific methodology and critical thinking towards any claim pertaining to the workings of the material universe. 'Epistemology' has become a 'buzz word' in academic science education circles over the past couple of decades. The point is a fundamental one in the context of this paper because what distinguishes science from pseudoscience is its epistemological basis. The ability to distinguish between a scientific claim and a pseudoscientific claim, arises from the acquisition of an insight into the operational mindset of modern science. Science education should provide students with that insight as a prime intellectual technology that can be applied to claims concerning the workings of the physical universe. Despite their often nebulous and empirically non-refutable central tenets, numerous pseudosciences do furnish us with such claims (Bates, 1991; Groves, 1985; Martin, 1994).


Targeted participants

Professional science education associations, curriculum units and scientific organisations with educational divisions in the UK, Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand were approached by email (directly to senior members where contact details were supplied on the organisation's website) or through internet enquiry forms about participating in the study. The number of eligible organisations differs considerably between countries - in the USA, for instance, every state appears to have a science teachers' association while there is only one national science teachers' association in the UK, and therefore not all of the former were approached. On the other hand, multiple approaches were made to major organisations when initial enquiries to specific people went unanswered. Altogether, over 100 invitations to participate were sent out.

The questionnaire

People who agreed to take part were sent questionnaires which sought to ascertain the status of pseudosciences in official secondary school curricula and/or the policy of respondents' science education organisations with respect to pseudoscience, and respondents' personal opinions on three issues:

* The response of science education to pseudosciences - whether they should be ignored, debunked, or treated as viable alternative viewpoints;

* Whether respondents saw any value in bringing practical investigations related to pseudosciences into the science classroom, using as examples the effect of vigorous agitation on the potency of dilute solutions, drawing up a natal horoscope, and conducting controlled ESP experiments (loosely based on Bates, 1991);

* Whether, in the opinion of respondents, their school science curriculum equips students with the intellectual skills to evaluate pseudoscientific claims, and if not, how they thought the situation could be improved.

A final question invited respondents to make additional comments on the issue of pseudoscience in school science education. It was stressed throughout the question form that respondents could answer with respect to pseudoscience in general or with respect to specific pseudosciences. The questions are reproduced under 'Responses to Questionnaire Items'.

Initial response

The response rate to the author's initial enquiry was low - about 20%. A handful of non-participants declined with statements such as, 'No thanks'. A UK respondent went a little further by explaining that, 'We only deal with the mainstream sciences - Biology, Chemistry and Physics'.

Fifteen people agreed to participate in the study. Eight of these subsequently withdrew from the study, three of whom furnished reasons - the remainder simply did not re-establish contact with the researcher after receiving the question forms. A Canadian respondent noted that.
  While your survey is interesting, there is no direct relationship
  between the questions you ask and [the] Sciences curriculum for
  Kindergarten to Grade 12 students. The Ministry of Education's
  curriculum is narrow in approach and does not include references to,
  or prescribed learning outcomes, for the pseudosciences. The
  provincial curriculum does, however, support the development of
  critical and analytical thinking skills in most subjects, including
  Sciences. Therefore, [the province's] students should be able to apply
  such skills to any number of topics which may not be specifically
  taught or referenced in the [provincial] curriculum, including
  pseudoscientific claims.

In a similar vein, an Australian respondent noted that, 'There are no references relating to pseudoscience in any of the [state's] Science syllabuses'. A ministerial directive to the effect that creationism was also excluded by the science curriculum was referred to.

An American respondent gave as the reason for withdrawal that, 'There are too many open ended and unclear responses that I would give you.' The final sample was made up of seven completed question forms from the UK, Australia, the USA and Canada (see Acknowledgements).

Responses to questionnaire items

(1) a) Are there any references to pseudoscience in general, or specific pseudosciences in particular, in your official secondary school science curriculum? If so, please note them.

None of the curricula in force were reported as containing any specific references to pseudoscience. However, a UK correspondent noted that a curricular key concept at lower secondary level concerning the ethical and moral implications of the use of science, provided teachers with 'the opportunity to touch on ideas which are on the periphery of science', while at middle secondary level there were curricular objectives pertaining to uncertainties in scientific knowledge and changes in scientific thinking over time, which provided teachers with further opportunities to invoke pseudosciences. Likewise, another respondent noted that teachers may allude to pseudoscience at early stages of high schooling when discussing the workings of science.

b) [included only on the science association version] Does your science education association have a policy on pseudosciences in general, or on any in particular? If so, please provide details.

The Association for Science Education has a policy statement on creationism. A UK correspondent noted that there had not been any policies on other pseudosciences for some years as 'these have had less media coverage'. Another respondent remarked that,
  The policy of the [association] is to support science education ... by
  connecting teachers with resources and with one another. Pseudoscience
  may be the topic of a seminar or a web log, but our focus is more the
  discussion than the example.

(2) a) In your opinion, how should science education respond to pseudosciences - ignore them, debunk them, or present them as viable alternative viewpoints? You may wish to refer to pseudosciences collectively, or to provide different answers for various pseudosciences.

Two respondents advocated an aggressive approach whereby pseudosciences would be identified and shown to be unscientific:
  Show students that they do not fit the criteria required for science
  knowledge such as their episfemological foundations. Also, pointing
  out studies that have attempted to authenticate the practice but have
  failed to produce positive results.
  Debunk them where appropriate. It a student raises a pseudosciencef it
  should be addressed. If it is discussed in popular culture, it may be
  appropriate for a teacher to initiate discussion.

The thrust of most comments was, however, that pseudosciences provide opportunities for the application of critical investigative methods:
  Science education serves foremost to teach students to think
  critically and well. Discussion directly of pseudosciences can serve
  as an exercise in critical thinking, as can the option of research and
  reporting on them. Science as a discipline questions statements and
  demands evidence before accepting an idea ... Science should ask
  students to consider any idea through the lens of rational thought and
  with the scepticism of evidence-based reasoning. Pseudosciences can
  provide clear and straightforward examples for students to work with.

  At appropriate points in the curriculum, or if initiated by pupils,
  the claims could be considered along with the evidence for the claims.
  This provides an opportunity to explore how empirical evidence could
  be collected. If no scientific test can be applied, then pupils should
  understand that these theories or claims lie outside the area of
  science and are not scientific in nature.

  Science education should respond to pseudoscience through a critical
  literacy approach. One of the goals of the ... curriculum is to make
  students informed critical thinkers.

  Students should be encouraged to discuss them and analyse their
  principles in a scientific way, but not as viable alternatives to
  established and well tested sciences.

One respondent noted that some pseudosciences are valuable in the historical backdrop that they provide for the study of science, citing astrology as an example. It was added, however that the inclusion of creationism in government school classrooms would be unacceptable.

b) How would you advise teachers to deal with pseudosciences when students raise them in class during conventional science topics? Again, you may answer generally or with respect to specific pseudosciences.

Comments were generally continuations or reiterations of those made in part (a). Additional remarks included the following:
  We advise teachers to deal with all aspects of science through a
  critical analysis lens. We have developed the curriculum around
  relating science to technology, society and the environment with the
  belief that to answer any question in science, one must make informed
  decisions. Teachers are expected to model these skills.

  Teachers should be clear about what is science and what is not
  science. It is not that we do not yet have the understanding or
  technology to explore these ideas. It is that the ideas lie outside

  An opportunity to demonstrate and participate in a scentiftc dialogue
  is useful. The dialogue needs to be based in evidence and reasoned

(3) a) A central tenet of homeopathy is that a very dilute solution increases in potency when subjected to vigorous shaking. This could be tested using dilute solutions of mineral acids and seeing whether the rate of reaction with magnesium ribbon changes as a function of prior agitation of the acid solution. Do you see any value in carrying out this investigation in a school science lab?

One respondent was enthusiastically supportive of the inclusion of this experiment, noting that, 'This activity could be a useful procedure for debunking homeopathy'. Another respondent, who was approving, added the caveat that this experiment should only be conducted if students had raised the issue. Three respondents were ambivalent two alluding to the lack of a connection to the curriculum. The remaining two respondents simply said, 'No', one adding, 'I do use homeopathy and have great faith in their abilities'.

b) Drawing up a notol horoscope showing the positions of the Sun, Moon and planets relative to someone's place and time of birth is a complex procedure involving the use of astronomical tables. Do you see any value in doing this as a science classroom activity? Would you furthermore see any value in getting students to interpret the horoscope with reference to the person's personality and character using widely used astrological interpretative principles?

Six of the seven respondents saw no value in this exercise. The seventh regarded the first part as useful, as it involves the use of astronomical data, but not the second.

c) Do you see any value in getting students to conduct controlled ESP experiments in class, such as those involving telepathy using random draws from a pack of cards?

Four respondents saw no value in this exercise. The other three regarded it as a possibly useful exercise in scientific methodology, although two were, at best, lukewarm.

(4) Do you believe that your school science curriculum adequately furnishes students with the critical thinking and analytical skills to evaluate pseudoscientific claims? If not how do you think this situation could be improved?

Three respondents replied in the affirmative, although it was clear from two of these responses, that it was the adequacy of the curriculum, rather than that of the students which was in their minds, as their responses focused on curricular content rather than any measured outcomes. A fourth was more circumspect:
  The cumcuium does provide the students with critical thinking and
  analytical skills at the level they are working. However,
  pseudoscientific claims are very complex, and unless you have tertiary
  qualifications in science, are difficult to evaluate.

The other three respondents replied in the negative. All mentioned the inadequate emphasis on scientific epistemology in school science. One discussed the link with high-stakes external examinations which engenders a preoccupation with science content rather than reasoning processes, noting that.
  If we could develop effective ways of assessing scientific doing and
  thinking, as well as scientific concepts, so these became important
  exam considerations, then the picture may change.
  However, teachers are in general, more confident in teaching science
  concepts than they are scientific thinking.

The other two alluded to the conceptual difficulties school students face when confronted with scientific thinking, one noting that, 'Students get caught up with concepts such as controlled experiments and "proof" and "the scientific method".'

(5) Please feel free to make any additional comments on the issue of pseudosciences in school science education. Kindly distinguish between official policy statements (which may be referred to specifically in the paper) and personal opinion (which may be paraphrased or quoted in the paper, but without any indication as to its source).

Four respondents left this item blank. One emphasised that pseudosciences should have no place in the science curriculum but that teachers should debunk them whenever appropriate classroom situations arose. Another noted that some teacher professional development activities made use of pseudosciences (water-divining was specified) as a vehicle for improving teachers' scientific enquiry skills. The final respondent opined that there exists a common 'category error' between 'what makes science scientific and what makes belief by knowing through revelation religion'.

In summary, it would appear to be the case that curriculum writers and science education associations assiduously ignore pseudosciences, except when one aggressively encroaches on what they regard as their territory, creationism being the recurring example. Opinions on how science education ought to respond to the challenge of pseudoscience varied, although if any consensus may be said to exist, it is that the best way to approach the issue is to inculcate in students the epistemological insights required to rationally investigate the claims of pseudosciences. Paradoxically, there appeared to be a reticence about writing this specific application of scientific reasoning into the school curriculum. The tendency to refer to curricular content as the arbiter of relevance came through markedly in responses to the proposed practical investigations; despite the emphasis on scientific reasoning processes, these appear to warrant serious attention only in the context of conventional science topics. Opinions on the adequacy of science education to effectively equip young people with the skills to evaluate pseudoscientific claims spanned the complete spectrum, although it was clear that those who answered in the affirmative were assuming that the objectives of the curriculum with regard to scientific thinking were indeed translated into reality - an optimistic (some would say naive) assumption.


In the words of Martin (1994, p.357), 'Learning to think critically about pseudoscientific and paranormal beliefs is part of being scientific'. Scientific reasoning processes enjoy a high profile in today's school science curricula, and there has long been a high level of consensus about the nature of science among science educators (McComas and Olson 1998, Siegel 1989). The question is not whether at least some pseudoscientific claims can be subjected to scientific investigation at school science level, but rather finding a curricular niche for them. To put it bluntly, if it's not written into the curriculum, it won't be covered. The quandary is that pseudoscience in general and pseudosciences, are not written into curricula, and so teachers can safely-advisedly. even-ignore rhem.

The differences between science and pseudoscience are intellectually subtle and require advanced cognitive processes on the part of learners. A 17-year-old is far better placed in this respect than a 13-year-old. However the 13 -year-old is probably enrolled in a general or integrated science course which presents teachers with some flexibility - the kind of flexibility tacitly demanded by suggestions that investigations arise from issues raised by learners - the 17-year-old science student is likely to be studying one or more sciences as separate subjects, often with a view to gaining qualifications geared to tertiary entry. This consideration is particularly pertinent in the context of systems culminating in external examinations such as the A-Levels and its numerous clones. Science curricula at these levels are necessarily heavily content-laden, and both teachers and students have more than enough to do to cover those curricula in the time available to them. The irony is that it is precisely those students aiming at university science programmes who are the most intellectually receptive to the epistemological niceties of science and pseudoscience.

It is an entrenched aspect of the culture of school science that 'experiments' (in practice, practical activities that are intended to reinforce taught theory) 'work', i.e. produce results which do just that (Hirvonen & Viiri, 2002; Kirschner, 1992). This 'verification' emphasis militates strongly against conducting experiments to tes pseudoscientific claims, which invariably do not 'work' and accordingly lead nowhere in terms of clarifying curricular content. Nevertheless, a niche could be found for investigations of pseudoscientific claims in 'hybrid' examination systems which incorporate marks arising from school-based assessments into the final score or grade for that subject. Making the topic a matter of student choice would circumvent the pitfalls of naming particular pseudosciences in official curricular documents.


The author extends his thanks to Ms Robyn Aitken, Science Teachers Association of Tasmania (Australia); Ms Maureen Callan, Ontario Ministry of Education (Canada); Mr Ian Christie, Victorian Space Science Education Centre (Australia); Mr Jonathan Doughty, Maine Science Teachers Association (USA); Dr David Lloyd, Australian Science Teachers Association; Mr Richard Needham, Association for Science Education (UK); and a member of a British awarding body who wished to remain anonymous.


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About the Author:

Barencl Vlaardingerbroek is Associate Professor in the Department of Education at the American University of Beirut.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Vlaardingerbroek, Barend
Publication:Teaching Science
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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