As I’m putting the (hopefully) final touches on a short textbook that I’m writing entitled “Handbook on Science Literacy”, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to recommend a person go about systematically investigating a scientific issue without having any background in it. Sure, you can learn how to read and understand a scientific article, but let’s be honest—far too many people choose instead to do a quick web search and let that settle the question. This practice works okay in some instances, but in others it produces misleading or wrong answers.
I want to share with you my strategies for flunking out of the University of Google.
This is one instance where flunking is a good thing. A graduate of the University of Google chooses to accept only information that supports his or her position, and ignores or dismisses information in conflict with it. A graduate of the University of Google will not be able to answer the question “What kind of evidence would change your mind on this subject?” It’s insidious, because once their opinions are formed in this way, they tend to identify with other people who share those opinions, and any new information that comes their way will either be accepted or rejected on the basis of which position they’ve already taken (the cultural cognition effect)
None of us want to be that kind of person.
Flunking out requires a decent amount of work, and the willingness to accept that you might be wrong about a subject from time to time. You’ll need to become more aware of your own cognitive biases, and have some strategies for overcoming them.
So as a preliminary step down the road to science literacy, I’ve put my thoughts on this together into a guide to learning about a subject in which you have no background. It’s an exercise; please don’t shortcut the process and go to Wikipedia, or you’ll miss the whole point.
Colin is currently on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. He is emailing summaries of each day’s experiences to me for posting here on Violent Metaphors. This is the fourth day’s report. You can read Day 1 here, Day 2 here , Day 3 here, day 5 (part 1) here, day 5 (part 2) here , and an explanation for what he is doing here. If you would like to give him questions or advice, please comment on this post–I’ll make sure he sees it. –Jennifer
When I started this project, many (many many) people warned me to be careful and that I might be in danger. I didn’t take that possibility seriously then, and I don’t take it seriously now—I personally have never felt unsafe at this conference. But I am not the only writer here. And the others, who unlike me are professional journalists, will tell their stories eventually. Until then I’d like to share the events of the last couple of days. This is a story about a long series events taking place at a confusing and busy event; it’s going to be long and busy and confusing at times. Sorry. (Note: Colin emailed me two days’ worth of material in a single batch, and I split them up by day to make this post more manageable. You can read part 2 here.–Jennifer). You want clear and concise and comprehensible stories, read about a conference that doesn’t feature an antivaccine guru, a pistol-packing presidential candidate, a self-employed and self-declared “international judge” and an alchemist all on the same boat. What I’ve got is what they gave me. Continue reading →
Colin is currently on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. He is emailing summaries of each day’s experiences to me for posting here on Violent Metaphors. This is the third day’s report. You can find the first day’s report here, the second day’s report here, the fourth day’s report here, the fifth day’s report (part 1) here, day 5 (part 2) here , and an explanation for what he is doing here. If you would like to give him questions or advice, please comment on this post–I’ll make sure he sees it. –Jennifer
Today’s post will be relatively short, for a few reasons. Primarily it’s because even though I’m on a cruise ship, this is exhausting! Everything starts around 8 am and ends around 10 pm. The ship is full of amenities—bars, restaurants, minigolf, swimming pools, hot tubs, saunas, a library, coffee shops, massages, shopping, comedy shows, movie theaters, and god know what else. I don’t, because I haven’t used any of those things except a couple of restaurants, a coffee shop, and the treadmill. I’m not complaining, though, because the important stuff is here. I’m meeting fascinating people, and that’s not a euphemism. For the most part, the people here are pleasant and engaging and well worth getting to know. Continue reading →
Colin is currently on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. He is emailing summaries of each day’s experiences to me for posting here on Violent Metaphors. This is the second day’s report. You can find the first day’s report here, day 3 here, day 4 here, day 5 (part 1) here, day 5 (part 2) here and an explanation for what he is doing here. If you would like to give him questions or advice, please comment on this post–I’ll make sure he sees it. –Jennifer
This is Jennifer’s blog, and Jennifer is a scientist. So most of the posts here are about science in one way or another. And I love that, because I love science—the idea of it, the practice of it, and the success of it. So when we talk about irrationality and pseudoscience, it’s only natural that we’re mostly focused on pseudoarchaeology, pseudogenetics, anti-vaccine and anti-GMO irrationality. There’s plenty of that on this boat and I’m going to write about it, but so far it’s nothing new.
This post isn’t about pseudoscience. Not about anti-vaxers or GMO fearmongering. Lots of our readers come here for those topics, but don’t turn away just yet. I want to talk about something most of you have barely thought about, but something that may be more important than anti-vaccine pseudoscience—at least for its victims.
As much as I love science, I’m not a scientist. I’m a lawyer. I graduated from Harvard Law School, served as a staff clerk for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and clerked for a very respected federal judge in Texas. Before I left the practice I spent years litigating cases for an international law firm, doing things like suing a hedge fund for committing fraud in the securitization of esoteric financial instruments. I don’t say any of this stuff to put on airs. It never once got me a date when I was single. I just want to establish that while I’m not a famous legal scholar or law school professor or distinguished expert, I know more than a little something about how courts and laws work. That’s why this post isn’t about pseudoscience but pseudolaw.
And it matters. Pseudolaw isn’t harmless. It ruins lives. It sends people to prison. People die behind this, as you’ve seen happen in Oregon. The pseudolaw that’s happening on the boat is tame by comparison, but still has the potential to wreck the lives of well-meaning people. It’s important to take a break from pseudoscience to see how this slow-motion disaster is happening in front of our eyes, and then we’ll take a look at how it’s affecting the anti-vaccine movement.
This is a harsher post than I expected to write, and much harsher than I’ll be writing about the rest of the cruise. If you’re on the cruise with me and reading this, please do it with an open mind. This is what it means to seek the truth, which is what the cruise is supposed to be helping us all do. Continue reading →
Colin is currently on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. He is emailing summaries of each day’s experiences to me for posting here on Violent Metaphors. This is the first day’s report. You can find day 2 here, day 3 here, day 4 here, day 5 (part 1) here, and day 5 (part 2) here –Jennifer
Welcome to the first daily update on the ConspiraSea Cruise! This is the first full day of the cruise and we’re well underway. (That is a boat joke. I will make more. None of them will be very funny. That is how boat jokes work.) I’m going to try to write an update for every day of the cruise, with some final and more polished observations after I’m home. These updates will be relatively short given how much is happening simply because there’s not that much time to write. It’s well after midnight now, and since we cross a time zone and lose an hour tonight I’m not expecting much sleep. That’s OK, this isn’t a vacation!
If you aren’t familiar with the ConspiraSea Cruise, the organizers still have their promotional site up here. I’m sure they’ll take it down eventually though, so for archival purposes you can check out my GoFundMe page or our prior coverage at Violent Metaphors. And before we go any further, THANK YOU to all the GoFundMe supporters! Your interest in the culture of conspiracy theories not only made this trip possible, it’s inspirational as I continue to make slow but steady progress on my book about the dissemination of and debate over irrational ideas. Continue reading →
Edit: A reader informed me that the first source I cited (christwire.org) was actually a satirical site. How embarrassing! I’ve since updated the post with a legitimate example. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how one looks at things) it took me approximately 5 seconds to find it.
There’s a persistent belief in creationist circles that the theory of evolution is a house of cards that will collapse if an astute, open-minded person just looks at it hard enough. To facilitate this process, creationists pass around lists of questions which they are certain evolutionists “can’t answer.” The questions emphasized vary from group to group, but the suggested tactic is the same: publicly confront an evolutionist, ideally a professor or teacher, and confound him or her with questions that will expose the structural weaknesses of the theory. From Creation Today:
NOTE TO STUDENTS: Make a copy of this challenge to evolutionists and ask your teacher or professor to give you answers to these questions. If they cannot, you have a right to be skeptical that what they are teaching about evolution is true. Also, give copies to your fellow students so that they, too, will be aware that there are huge flaws in the theory of evolution. It is still a theory, not a “fact.
The questions from the source above include things like:
What are the odds that the evolutionary process, proceeding by random changes, would produce human beings, plus millions of species of animals, birds, fish and insects, all with symmetrical features, i.e., one side being a mirror image of the other? We take symmetry in all these creatures for granted, but is that a reasonable outcome for a random process?
Where are the trillions of fossils of such true transitional forms?
What are the odds that, of the millions of species of animals, birds, fish and insects, a male of each species developed at the same time and in the same place as a female of the same species, so that the species could propagate? Why are there two sexes anyhow?
Of course, anyone who has taken a high school introductory biology course should be able to answer questions like these (or point out exactly how they are flawed.) I say “should be able”, but unfortunately that is not always the case. This semester I taught an introductory university course in physical anthropology* in which we intensively studied human evolution, beginning with basic concepts in genetics and evolutionary theory and finishing with an overview of the hominin fossil record. (I used Clark Spencer Larsen’s “Our Origins” as the textbook). I discovered early in the semester that about half the class was not well prepared for this material: many knew absolutely nothing about human evolution, and a sizable number knew very little about evolution in general. It’s not the students’ fault. Science education in Kansas (where I teach) has been under attack for some time by a coalition of religious groups trying to prevent the teaching of evolution in public high schools, and I suspect that my students’ lack of preparation might be at least partially attributable to this. But that’s a subject of another, longer post in the future.
Regardless of how little they know coming in to the course, I want my students to walk out of the classroom with a solid knowledge of how evolution works. In five years’ time, they may have forgotten the morphological differences between the teeth of Australopithecus afarensis and Homo erectus , or the phylogenetic relationships of Denisovans to Neandertals and H. sapiens as inferred from ancient genomes (although I hope they don’t!), but if they have a basic understanding of how evolution works as a process, they should be able to understand the significance of new fossil or genetic discoveries. Similarly, if they understand the difference between science and pseudoscience, they should be able to evaluate factual claims. The difficulty for me was figuring out how to present these ideas when the course is already jam-packed with information the students needed to learn in order to advance.
So I tried something new. One of the questions that some creationists (and people who simply don’t know a lot about evolution) frequently ask to challenge evolution is: “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” (I see this question asked every single day on Twitter, thanks to the account of @TakeThatDarwin who retweets creationists). In the past I’ve simply rolled my eyes at how ridiculous the question is–in fact, several groups like Answers in Genesis, strongly urge their readership not to use it–but I recently realized that it nicely gets at some very serious and common misunderstandings about evolution. I decided to experiment with using it to further students’ critical thinking.
I gave this question to students to answer several times throughout the course. First, I used it as a means of (anonymously) assessing their knowledge about evolution as a process early in the course. About a fourth of the class gave confused answers to it, and another fourth could answer it partially but without sufficient detail. After we had gone through basic concepts of evolutionary theory, genetics, and primate phylogenies (but before we got into the hominin fossil record), I made it the subject of an in-class discussion, so students could learn from each other’s answers. At that point, they had the basic tools to answer the question, and those who participated in the discussion were able to answer it in some detail. Finally, as a means of reinforcing students’ knowledge at the end of the course, I gave it as the last extra credit question on the final exam. Nearly everyone who chose to answer this question received full credit.
I was looking for two parts in their response: 1. A recognition that we did not evolve from monkeys–or other living primates– but instead share a common primate ancestor. (Bonus points for recognizing that the category ‘monkey’ is paraphyletic and is a colloquial term, not a scientific taxon). 2. An understanding that evolution doesn’t work in a linear fashion, with one species replacing the last. There are many good analogies to use in teaching this concept; I like to use the analogy of a family tree: that is, I and my sister are both descended from the same parents, yet we exist at the same time.
This approach allowed the class to confront some of the major misconceptions of evolution, including the idea that modern animals transform into other kinds of modern animals, that there is a predetermined “order” to evolution, and that evolution is a “finished” process. It served as a platform to discuss several important concepts: adaptations, natural selection, heredity, and that evolution occurs in populations, not individuals. I saw a distinct progression in students’ reasoning on this question over the course of the semester, and I think that it proved to be pretty useful in the end.
Another approach I used to supplement the textbook (because the findings were so new they weren’t in the textbook) was to show students two video clips offering two very different perspectives on the newest hominin fossil, Homo naledi. The first was by Kent Hovind (I started at 9 minutes in, and we watched for about 10 minutes or so).
The second was by National Geographic, and included clips from paleoanthropologist Lee Berger who discovered H. naledi.
I asked students to identify two or three testable claims presented in each video, and think about what kinds of evidence would be needed to test these claims. This sparked a very lively and (I think) helpful discussion in class which covered radiometric dating methods and their limitations, how to interpret clues about behavior from the fossil record, and a brief discussion on how fossil discoveries are portrayed in the media. We ended by discussing how new information about human ancestors–derived from fossils, archaeology, and genetics– is evaluated by the scientific community.
While I’m on break, in addition to catching up on all the writing I didn’t have time for during the semester (how do people stay on top of all of this?), I’m looking for more materials that would be good for these kinds of exercises in critical thinking. I just found the Institute for Creation Research’s document summarizing the “scientific” case against evolution, and I think that there are some very useful instances of misconceptions that could work well as the basis for student research and discussion. For example, the following statement could serve as a useful starting point for students to think critically about taxonomy, evo-devo, and both early and later primate fossil records:
Fossil discoveries can muddle over attempts to construct simple evolutionary trees — fossils from key periods are often not intermediates, but rather hodge podges of defining features of many different groups. . . . Generally, it seems that major groups are not assembled in a simple linear or progressive manner — new features are often “cut and pasted” on different groups at different times.11
As far as ape/human intermediates are concerned, the same is true, although anthropologists have been eagerly searching for them for many years. Many have been proposed, but each has been rejected in turn.
But I’d like to find more. To any professors who teach evolution who read this blog, I want to ask: In addition to assigned readings, traditional lectures, and labs, what approaches do you use for teaching on the fundamentals of human evolution (or evolutionary theory)? Do you do something similar?
To anyone else who reads this blog, I want to ask: How did you first learn about evolution, and human evolution in particular? Have you ever changed your mind on the subject? If so, what caused you to change your mind?
*Regular readers of my blog may have noticed a precipitous drop in the frequency of postings over the last few months. This is why.
Last night’s G.O.P debate was notable for many reasons, but it was a particular low point for anyone concerned about public science literacy. It’s becoming increasingly evident that the G.O.P. candidates are being duped by a false narrative of political polarization on the issue of vaccine safety. And that is alarming.
The CNN moderator for the debate last night asked Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, to respond to Donald Trump’s often repeated assertion of a link between vaccines and autism. That link is a lie, but neither Dr. Carson nor Dr. Rand Paul (an ophthalmologist) called it out as such. Dr. Carson vaguely (but correctly) stated “There has — there have been numerous studies, and they have not demonstrated that there is any correlation between vaccinations and autism,” and “Vaccines are very important,” but then he qualified this by saying “Certain ones. The ones that would prevent death or crippling. There are others, there are a multitude of vaccines which probably don’t fit in that category, and there should be some discretion in those cases,” and “You know, a lot of this is — is — is pushed by big government.” Dr. Paul didn’t do much better, saying “I’m all for vaccines, but I’m also for freedom.”
Let’s be perfectly clear: None of the objections Trump raised to vaccines have the slightest basis in biology, medicine, or reality. None. Not one. Nor does the “too many too soon” argument that Dr. Carson floated. As Tara Haelle put it:
“The problem is, our country doesn’t make or recommend vaccines that aren’t important, that don’t prevent death. So, I have a question for Dr. Carson. Below are the vaccines recommended through age 18. I’d like to know which one of these we should “use discretion” with. Which ones are not important enough to administer?”
You can check out the list and the rest of her article here.
Trump will be Trump, but we deserve more from the two physicians in this race. To be honest, I believe that both of them understand and accept the science on vaccines, but they’re pandering to what they believe Republican voters want to hear. But study after study has shown that vaccines are not a partisan issue–the same proportions of conservatives and liberals both accept that they are safe, sound, and necessary to combat infectious disease. Carson and Paul are completely out of touch with conservatives on this issue, and unfortunately their assumption about what their base wants to hear on this issue may itself change those numbers. Colin McRoberts discussed the potential consequences of turning this into a partisan issue a few months ago:
“Right now, most people support vaccination and reject anti-vaccine talking points. (I know that can seem implausible, given how visible those hoary anti-science stories are online. But vaccination rates don’t lie—the vast majority of parents reject anti-vax scaremongering.) If we start drawing party lines on top of the vaccine debate, people will start to use their party affiliation to define their position on vaccines. They won’t realize they’re doing it. They’ll honestly think they’re making decisions about vaccines based on the facts. But they’ll be judging those facts based on the community they belong to, the way we all do. So we can’t let those communities be defined as anti-vax communities!”
Amy Davidson, writing for The New Yorker, nicely articulated the dangers of having presidential candidates giving legitimacy to dangerously unscientific positions:
“A lot of what Trump says—diplomacy by yelling, for example—would be dangerous if put into practice. But most of it, assuming he doesn’t actually get elected, won’t be put into practice. The refusal to inoculate children, though, is something that his admirers can try at home. No other candidate was willing to anger the ideologues by standing up for something as suspicious as science.”
We have seen the consequences of not vaccinating children earlier this year. Do we really want more outbreaks of preventable disease to threaten our communities? The use of vaccines to protect the health of our children is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. It’s not a liberal or conservative issue. It’s simply what the best science available overwhelmingly supports. I urge conservatives in the Republican party to make this point to your representatives. Only the base can hold the leadership to account, and this is one issue where we all need to take a united stand.
A large, diverse conference of people with very unusual beliefs is coming up. I want to attend as research for my book and blog posts on Violent Metaphors. Tickets are expensive, so we’re trying to keep costs down with a little crowdfunding. Please visit http://www.gofundme.com/ss29jrfk to donate if you can. If you can’t donate, just sharing the link is incredibly helpful. Pitch in, and let’s lay the groundwork for a deep discussion of far-out ideas next year! The following post is our original crowdfunding appeal.
Do you believe in acupuncture, alien abductions, ancient aliens, chi, crop circles, entity possession, “forbidden archaeology” or “forbidden religion,” homeopathy, near-death experiences, occult Nazi super-weapons, Planet X, poisoned vaccines, spiritual channeling, the new world order, or illegal immigrants from Zeta Reticuli? Do you go to bed worrying about the New World Order, the Vatican, the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, NASA, the WHO, the CDC, the UN, space aliens and/or demons conspiring against you and all right-thinking people? And are you convinced that the world is ruled from the Bohemian Grove, a secret bunker under the Denver airport, Bilderberg meetings, the Council on Foreign Relations, Buckingham Palace, alien worlds or other dimensions?
Probably not, or at least probably not all of it. But thousands of people do believe those things, and other things stranger than you can imagine. This January, dozens of experts these fields will gather together on a cruise ship called the Ruby Princess. It’s called, honestly and cleverly enough, the Conspira-Sea Cruise. They’ll spend seven days explaining, discussing, and even demonstrating their beliefs. Some of them are fairly famous, like Andy Wakefield and Sherri Tenpenny, who will be sharing their theories on vaccines. Others are relatively obscure, like Laura Magdalene Eisenhower, great-granddaughter of the former president, who claims to have been recruited for a secret Mars colonization effort and that stargates began opening around the Earth in 2012. For a full week, conspiracy theorists, dreamers, and snake-oil salesmen of every stripe will be preaching and peddling their wares.
I want to be there. You can help make that happen by visiting our Go Fund Me site: http://www.gofundme.com/ss29jrfk. We’re nearly halfway there!
I haven’t had the chance to write much here about vaccines recently, so I was delighted to participate in MHA@GW’s initiative to highlight vaccination for National Immunization Awareness Month with a series of posts from guest bloggers entitled “Why Immunize?” My post focused on science literacy, and how to communicate with others about this issue:
In all likelihood, parents have already made up their mind as to whether or not they’ll vaccinate themselves and their children. And in all likelihood, that decision was to vaccinate.
These parents are motivated by a shared concern for their children and community. They know that vaccines prevent many childhood diseases, and that by maintaining high vaccination rates in their community, they maintain herd immunity. Perhaps they’ve seen the comparison of morbidity rates in the pre- and post-vaccine era and understand the significant impact vaccines have made in preventing the worst childhood diseases. They may have been worried about the outbreak of measles among families who took their children to Disneyland earlier this year, which hit unvaccinated people the hardest . Regardless of how they came to this decision, the vast majority of parents understand that the risks of vaccines are low relative to their tremendous benefits.
This is good news for the health of our communities. It’s critical that we continue to talk about immunization, because vaccine opponents are relentless — see the comments on my piece here for many examples of the bad science and provocative rhetoric they employ.
Speaking up is the most important step, letting parents know that their decision to vaccinate is the safest and most common way people protect their children. The anti-vaccine minority is disproportionately loud, partly because vaccines are so safe, effective and ubiquitous that they become part of the background landscape of parenting. Fortunately, in reaction to harmful pseudoscientific scaremongering and events like the Disneyland outbreak, people are motivated to speak out in favor of vaccines.
But I was dismayed to see that just hours after my piece was posted, a mainstream news site posted an article purporting to give balanced coverage on “the vaccine debate”, but instead propagated the same old mistruths and pseudoscience that have been thoroughly debunked by the scientific community again and again. This article, which features comments from a “Montana mother” given the same weight as those from a trained physician, and concludes by telling parents how to get vaccine exemptions for their children before school starts, is utterly reprehensible journalism. It’s a depressing reminder that we can’t ever let up on our efforts to educate journalists, as well as the general public, on basic scientific and medical issues
So in honor of National Immunization Awareness Month, I’m asking all of you to make a small but meaningful contribution to this effort. Please share at least one example of good news coverage on vaccines with your online and in-person friends. Your voice makes a difference in this conversation.
Edit 9/3/15: The SAA has opened up this collection for public access! See my post on it here.
I was delighted to read at Jason Colavito’s excellent blog that the journal American Antiquity has just published a special section in its current issue that’s devoted to debunking popular pseudo-archaeological ideas. This is a fantastic example of the kind of outreach that I (and many others) would like to see academics and academic institutions engage in. I want to commend American Antiquity (and its parent organization, the Society for American Archaeology) for this. But with a caveat: outreach actually needs to, well, reach its intended audience. Right now, that’s not the case. Continue reading →