Pseudoscience Funding in Academia, To the Editor:
I am writing in response to Alan Scott’s article on pseudoscience funding in academia that appeared in the Fall 1999 newsletter. I think Professor Scott’s point is a valid one, but I think we must remain conscious of the fact that the line between science and pseudoscience is often blurred. Before I begin, I must tacitly state that I do not believe astrology is science. With that said, let me state that one of the most fundamental traits shared by many of the brightest scientists in history is an open mind. The realm of modern physics is loaded with concepts that defy logic and stretch the imagination. Many of these concepts have even been denounced as pseudoscientific or pure hogwash at some point in time. Einstein and Planck never fully accepted quantum physics and of course, Einstein was famous for referring to Heisenberg’s work as "playing dice" with the universe. Ironically, string theory, as well as some recent astronomical observations, could prove Einstein was more ahead of his time than previously realized.
Professor Scott includes acupuncture, albeit with a caveat, in the realm of pseudoscience despite the fact that the National Institutes of Health approved acupuncture as a legitimate medical treatment within the last five years. Just within the last few months the Radiological Society of North America acknowledged the benefits of acupuncture, though admitted not fully understanding the reasons behind its effectiveness. In light of these recent events, funding for acupuncture research at leading medical schools would seem to be an important object. However, it should be noted that to reach this point someone had to have funded the initial research to bring it into the eye of such institutions as the NIH and RSNA. This means someone had to have critically analyzed the merits of acupuncture instead of succumbing to popular belief that it was quack medicine.
Dealing with younger students (middle to high school) on a semi-regular basis, I must say that the problem, in my mind, is a glaring lack of critical thinking skills. Rather than teaching students a list of facts - e.g. astrology is pseudoscience, astronomy is science - we must teach them to use their critical thinking skills to deduce the facts and falsities inherent in each discipline. For example, Professor Scott includes a quote from the astrology seminar at UW-Stout: "Everything has a vibration and resonance and this influences or ‘imprints’ us at birth." There is a portion of truth in this statement. If string theory is correct, all subatomic particles such as quarks are merely fluctuations on some sort of cosmic string. Now, whether this has any effect on our ‘being’ other than causing us to simply exist, is certainly suspect.
But the point is, that instead of labeling disciplines (and, I claim, falsely in the case of acupuncture) as science or pseudoscience, we should concentrate on teaching students critical thinking skills which they may apply to any number of different situations. The fact is that, through the culture of the time, many students are limited in their exposure to certain things through parental guidance or other interference and are not given the opportunity to determine the validity of certain points and topics on their own. As such, we are not creating a generation capable of making important decisions but a generation ladened with often contradictory facts. Daniel Boorstein says the great obstacle to progress is the "illusion of knowledge." I say, it is the lack of critical thought. Who do we have to blame for either of these? From a curriculum standpoint, it is any system that emphasizes labeling and categorizing everything in the name of teaching facts rather than teaching the ability to determine fact from fiction. In fact, in the face of the vast amount of knowledge gained to this point in history, it is simply impractical to teach fact from fiction. There is simply too much of both.
Professor Scott is indeed right in lamenting the inability of students to determine science from pseudoscience. But he falls into the same trap by not delving into the deeper problem - that the line between science and pseudoscience is often blurred and the primary way of separating fact from fiction is through critical analysis and not merely labeling. In that sense academic funding of such things as astrology seminars might be a good thing in that it gives students an opportunity to test their critical thinking skills. Instead of asking students to state what they think science is (a debatable issue even among scientists), it might have been more helpful to ask students to attend such a seminar and critically analyze the stated ‘facts’ using the scientific method in an effort to determine their ability to effectively reason. In this way, instead of asking students to reach a conclusion on a philosophical, and still debated, issue, students would be allowed to demonstrate their inherent cognitive reasoning abilities and as such would demonstrate their level of understanding of the scientific method, which, for any scientist, is far more important than the ability to philosophize.
Ian T. Durham
Durham Research, Inc.
Send an Email | Website | Phone: (410) 562-0488
To the Editor:
I enjoyed the note by Alan Scott about Science/Pseudoscience (Fall 1999). The quote from Daniel Boorstein bears frequent repetition: "The great obstacle to progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge." What is pseudoscience? The prefix 'pseudo' derives from the Greek yeu dhs, false. The word 'science' derives from the Latin scire, to know. What is 'false knowledge'? Why do we use Greek+Latin mixtures? Because we didn't know it was a mixture?
In our university we have a Faculty of Arts and a Faculty of Science. The word 'art' derives from the Latin ars, skill in working something, physically or mentally.
Language is an Art. Departments of Languages are in Faculties of Arts. Mathematics is a Language is an Art. Mathematicians could have meaningful discussions about whether they are more suited mentally to the Faculty of Arts, but they are better funded in the Faculty of Science. Physicists, Chemists and others in Science make much use of the Language of Mathematics. But many 'Pure Mathematicians' consider themselves to be artists.
On occasion I admonish my Theoretical Physicist colleagues with "Don't confuse Mathematics with Physics!" An example? The BIG BANG Model is a composition in Mathematics that follows an assumed Act of Creation. There is little physics in it. The 3K background radiation, the H/He ratio, the clustering and stringing of galaxies, and the high angular momentum in the tips of spiral galaxies are obtainable from more esthetically pleasing models that are equally non-physics, but which contain physics. Another example? Trying to wrestle a Classical Mechanical Visualization of the behavior of Mattergy out of the Schroedinger Equation, as in the Bell Inequalities and the beautiful-language ramblings of David Mermin, is like trying to explain the structure of an electron by trying to translate a Haiku into English. Waves are waves. The square root of -1, i, has the unit 1/radian, and -i has the unit radian. You need those to visualize the Schroedinger Equation. A better question to address would be "How CAN a boson convert into two fermions?" or "How can one VISUALIZE h-bar?" When the latter question is answered, Bell's Inequalities will drop into the trivia buckets of those who haven't already dropped them there.
Does teaching BIG BANG Mathematics as Physics propagate pseudoscience? It is my observation that about half the interesting questions about what and where we are can be approached by tools of science that we hope to get. The other half of the questions need something else. Too many Physics and Chemistry Professors have the illusion that the questions they ask are enough to approach an understanding of Nature. They are handicapped by the illusion of knowledge.
I think it's a good idea to use a bit of Faculty of Arts money, tuition funds included, to sponsor discussions of Creation, Big Bang and Steady State Universe, Astrology, ESP, Religion, The Effects Of A Partially-Closed Minded Prof On Students.
I've taught about 5000 students, and listened to students in my office for many thousands of hours. I've also published over 400 articles in chemical physics. In addition to many theses in Chemistry and Physics, I've been the external examiner of a thesis in Music, and several in Engineering.
Department of Chemistry
University of Alberta
Nontechnical Chapter in Ph.D. Thesis, To the Editor:
I was appalled, but (alas) not at all shocked, by the negative reaction of Robert F. Heeter's thesis committee to his idea for a popular style for Chapter 1 of his Ph.D. dissertation. [Letter to the Editor, Forum on Education, Fall 1999, page 4: "Nontechnical Chapter in PhD Thesis?"] It is predictable, and yet very unfortunate, that attempts by academics of any rank to connect directly with the public that supports our science will be met with resistance (and, perhaps, with envy?) by much of the remainder of the academic community. The origin of the resistance, I think, is the fear that such academic scientists' view of themselves as awesome, special, and powerful priests will be compromised if science is conveyed without jargon. Many academics are, indeed, legends in their own minds.
I view Bob Heeter's questions at the end of his letter as being strictly rhetorical. Scientists' writing and presentation skills should be of a sort such that they can be used to address virtually any audience. We should be training our graduate students to assist in public outreach and education, and in the training of teachers, and in the enhancement of public science literacy. In the April 1995 issue of Physics Today, I published a letter ["Give Grad Students a Good Talking, Too"] describing how most of these tasks could be addressed with a single policy change among physics graduate departments.
Bob Heeter's thesis committee squandered a wonderful opportunity for the scientific community to serve the public that supports us. I can only be glad that, based on the tone of his letter, Bob Heeter has retained an enthusiastic impulse toward public outreach and has not had his public-oriented spirit crushed. Fight on!
Jeffrey Marque, Ph.D.
Senior Staff Physicist
Beckman Coulter, Inc.
Palo Alto, California
Phone: 650-859-1785 | Send an Email
To the Editor:
I read with much interest the letter by Robert F. Heeter regarding the desirability of a nontechnical chapter in Ph.D. theses. This is a very interesting and creative idea and I believe deserves serious consideration by all of us educating new Ph.D.'s. It is probably arguable where exactly in a thesis such a chapter belongs, however, I think the presentation of ideas to a general audience is important and should be encouraged. Perhaps sending this letter to Physics Today would give it a somewhat broader forum. In any case, I will ask my graduate students to produce such a document from now on.
University of California-San Diego
La Jolla, Ca. 92093-0319
Phone: 619-534-2540 | Send an Email
Should we give students formula sheets, To the editor:
In a recent editorial [Are Definitions and Formulas Important?, Fall 1999, p.7], Thomas Rossing expressed a qualified vote in favor of offering formula sheets to physics students as an aid during examinations. While I appreciate Rossing’s circumspect views on this subject, I’d like to offer my own rationale against allowing formula sheets to physics students. I object to this practice for both philosophical and practical reasons.
First, the philosophy. All teachers want their students to learn and eventually know their subject, but no one these days wants to require rote memorization, which is apparently acknowledged to be some kind of mindless anachronistic torture. Physicists, compared to our colleagues in other disciplines, appear to be strangely, even pathologically, concerned to avoid any appearance of advocating rote memorization. But surely asking students to know definitions and major theorems is only asking that they have minimally learned our subject. A similar standard of knowledge is not considered to be memorization by our colleagues in math or chemistry. Rossing draws a distinction between knowing definitions versus formulas, but on reflection, this distinction reveals itself to be a false dichotomy—definitions, important theorems, and minor results are all conveniently expressed as symbolic formulas. The relevant distinction to draw is between fundamental principles or theorems (like the conservation of momentum) and minor derived results (like the formulas giving the final velocities in a one-dimensional two-particle elastic collision). I require students to know the definitions, important theorems, and know (or be able to obtain on their own) simple derived results like the expression for gravitational potential energy, but I do not require that they know or be able to come up with more complicated specialty results, like the aforementioned elastic collision formulas. This simple principle obviates any need for a formula sheet. And it sends the message that students are expected to know the main substance of the course, and not to hold it off at arm’s length with crib sheets.
Nowadays, when low enrollment makes attracting students to the physics major seem more important than ever, it is easy to see formula sheets as a way to reduce examination anxiety, provide a more friendly physics experience, and potentially net more majors. I suggest that this strategy is all wrong, not just because of the reasoning above, but because it might be actually counter-effective. Most of our tests are problem-based, and to have a chance of solving problems correctly, students need to have practiced during homework and pre-exam study; having made a good-faith effort of this sort, students will naturally come to know the definitions and theorems they need without special attempts at memorization. If a student does not know a needed "formula", it is quite unlikely that he or she is familiar enough with that type of problem to have much chance of solving it anyway. But more insidiously, the existence of the formula sheet gives students an excuse not to study; after all, a student may reason, everything I need to know will be provided. I think it is highly plausible that this sort of wishful self- delusion reduces exam scores, although I am unaware of any systematic study proving it. In any event, when students know in advance that they will have no formula sheets, there is no handy excuse for not being prepared. So a tough but fair "no formula sheet" policy is not only a more intellectually honest statement, I believe it is a policy that actually boosts student achievement.
Department of Physics, Knox College
Galesburg, IL 61401
Phone: 309-341-7341 | Send an Email
Correction: Several paragraphs were inadvertently omitted from the article "Science Curriculum Goals at Odds with Academia Supported Pseudoscience," by Alan J. Scott, in the Fall issue of the FEd Newsletter (p. 5-6). We apologize for this error. The complete text of Professor Scott's article can be found at his website.