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Summer School Spotlight: Science and Pseudoscience

May 24, 2012
By cnp
Posted in Academics

Summer school classes are a great way to pick up some extra credit hours, and they often focus on topics that might not be offered at any other time. The classes cover in 3 to 6 weeks what would take 16 weeks during the regular semester. In this series, we'll take a look at some of the courses offered during the 2012 summer terms, starting with PHS 2783 - Science and Pseudoscience.

"Science and Pseudoscience" makes scientific method fun

Science is an ever-changing field of study, and many times, ideas are presented as being scientific, or as being subject to the rules of science, when they are not.

Ozarks offers a course which helps students understand the difference. In "Science and Pseudoscience," Associate Professor of Chemistry Dr. Brian McFarland uses a wide array of unusual pop culture phenomena to teach his students how the scientific method works, and how to apply that method.

"I have taught this class for five years," said McFarland, who is teaching it as a summer course and will teach it again in the fall. "In this class, we discuss subjects like astrology, biorhythms, the effects of the full moon, as well as phenomena like the Ouija board, dowsing, telekinesis, parapsychology, ESP, ghosts, witchcraft, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, and Cryptozoology, which is the study of creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. In the beginning I always do a little intro where I differentiate between science and pseudoscience, which is where people appear to be doing science but aren’t really."

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Teresa Calderon and John Bannon explore the mystical world of the tarot as an assignment in “Science and Pseudoscience.” The course teaches the scientific method through a study of the popular phenomena like UFOs and ghost hunting.

McFarland says the course starts with a clear definition of the scientific method. "We teach them how to actually identify a question that they want to answer and to be able to scientifically test that and get an answer. You have to come up with a clearly outlined question or problem. You can’t scientifically test ‘What is the meaning of life?’, but there are many things you can test. So we do that the first day. They learn how to set up a research question that can be measured. The fact you can do an experiment repeatedly and get verifiable results is a mark of real science."

He says the course is well suited for summer school, because several of the activities take time to do, and the two-and-a-half hour time block of summer courses allows students to do their experiments and discuss afterward. "That’s good because we can get it all done while it’s all fresh on our minds," he said. "In the fall semester it works out okay as well, although I have to arrange things a little differently."

McFarland said occasionally someone has misunderstood the nature of the course. "I would never want anyone to think I am teaching an introductory class in the subject matter itself," he said. "In fact, I always allow students to opt out of certain parts of the class if they are uncomfortable, for example using the Ouija board. The point is that people have often claimed to have ‘proven’ scientifically the validity of some of these topics, when in fact often times they are making the most basic sorts of mistakes in their science. My goal, however odd the subject matter might seem on the surface, is that the students learn the difference in good and bad science."

At the end of the course, the students get to put all they’ve learned into practice. "I have them do a sort of mini-’Mythbusters’," he said, referring to the popular Discovery Channel science entertainment TV program. "I divide them into groups and give them some sort of urban legend or old wives tale, and they have to use the scientific method and come up with a reliable way of testing to see whether their question can be confirmed, busted, or if it falls into the gray area of ‘plausible but not proven.’"

"It’s all pretty great," said class member Mackenzie McGehee of Ft. Smith. "You can disprove a lot of things people believe in. For example, TV psychics who can read people’s minds are using something called ‘cold reading,’ where they use little cues from the person to make it seem like they’re talking to their departed family members. If someone gets something comforting from that, okay, but that doesn’t make it real."

Nicole Hamilton of Bentonville agreed. "We have learned how to tell the difference in real science and pseudoscience. There are explanations for so-called supernatural phenomena beyond just ‘Well, it was a ghost.’ Films can be faked. Your eyes can play tricks on you. It takes away the fear you normally feel over such things."