Thursday, August 27, 2009

Critical Thinking

I have seen all 400 some students twice through so far... 370 some of them again tomorrow, then drive off to Edison New Jersey.

I'm tired.

I have some interested and interesting students. The campus is crowded. Enrollment is up. I have already had students in my office hours, and have already have a handful just walk in outside of my office hours. I have put up a sign asking students to please respect office hours, or to set up an appointment. If they continue to wander in randomly I'm going to be in trouble. How will I manage my lab, make sure my lectures are prepped, my homework assignments, quizzes, and tests written and graded if some percent of my 400+ students wander in to "just ask a question" randomly throughout the day? Something tells me that this is going to be a hard term.

I have been talking about science and the scientific method to all my freshmen (around 330) and assorted other people, students and not. I am tired right now, so this will probably be less than coherent. I may edit it later. I am one of those people who goes back and edits posts.

I was reading somewhere that we scientists are doing people a disservice by being too politically correct and not promoting evidence-based information and critical thinking for fear of offending people's belief systems.

The public is largely uninformed about the scientific method and how to sort the good (well-founded and researched) information from the bad (opinions without evidential support).

If you don't know the difference than all become equal and distinguished only by emotion and belief. Emotion and belief can be powerful forces for good, yes, but also for ill.

We used to have a good non-majors class at my Unversity that I helped design and teach. We abandoned it just this year due to lack of personel to teach it, organize it and financial support. It was a science course for non-majors and thousands of students took it every year. We would teach over 30 sectios of it every term. In any case in the part I designed I had a section on science vs pseudoscience.

Science is based on trying to understand and explain natural phenomena. Pseudoscience is anything that tries to pass itself off as science but does not meet all the criteria that science meets.

A scientific statement is testable. It always has the possibility of being wrong. To be accepted by the majority of scientists it needs to be repeatedly tested. It should be tested in many ways with as many alternative explanations as possible accounted for. Many scientific tests involve controls. Control groups are the same as the tested group with the exception of the variable tested. In medicine, double-blind testing is typically employed so that neither the patient nor the scientist making observation has any idea whther the patient is in the test (placebo) group or control. There have been some very interesting studies of dramatic effects caused by things other than what you think you are testing. Red pills may work better than blue pills, pills that are thought to be expensive work better than pills that are thought to be cheap. Pills work better than no pills. All of this involving pills with no active ingredients.

So, how do you tell good science from pseudoscience?

Real Science:
Has logical explanations that are based on what we know about the real world.
Is testable, and can be shown to be wrong or can be supported.
Has been tested, using substantial different trials, and well controlled studies, which possibilities of bias removed as much as is possible.
Rarely makes large claims (for example, a good new cholesterol drug may lower cholesterol 10%)
Is verifiable through studies published in good scientific peer reviewed journals.
If it is about something ingested, it has been approved by the FDA.
It is easy to look up the scientists and research institutions that have studied it.

Does not admit to the possibility of being wrong.
Relies on testimonials instead of scientific studies.
Is not easy to find data about (numbers, study results).
Makes wild claims (Always works! 100%, miraclulous!)
Appeals to emotion, not reason
Does not have approval from FDA or other independent testing agency.
Often claims “leading scientists” or “Space age technology” or “ancient Chinese wisdom” or some such, but sources are not identifiable or clear.
Often wants money up front.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Fall term 2009

Tomorrow the new term starts. This term I have over 400 students in 4 lecture classes. My University has recently been reclassified as an Urban Research University, and we are under pressure to do more research and publish more. I have 3 undergrad researchers and 2 or three grad students in my lab, and my Dean did not even know that I have a research program. I have the heaviest teaching load in my department, I think it is even more than the full time temp we have who only teaches. The PTBs in my department have little or no respect for me in spite of the fact that I have probably the best research training in my department. Indeed my research goes very, very slowly. It is hard to keep the lab and it’s members functional when I am tied up in classes like I am.

Nonetheless, I am looking forward to the start of the term. Our enrollment is substantially up, we have students who have transferred in from excellent private schools all over the country. State schools are benefiting from this economic downturn on the student front. The State is cutting our funds of course. Oh well. No silver lining lacks a cloud.

I hope that this year my students will want to learn. Maybe this year the majority will study. Perhaps this year they won’t be angry that I cannot somehow inject them with the information and problem solving skills that they seem to expect simply from paying tuition.

I look forward to the bright, motivated students that I will meet this year!