Wanted: BS Detectors What science education should really teach.

Wanted: BS Detectors What science education should really teach.
Oct 28, 2010 10:45 AM EDT Gallery: Dumb Things
Americans Believe This column is about science education, but
teachers and curriculum designers should click away now rather
than risk apoplexy. Instead of making the usual boring plea for more
resources for K–12 science (or, as it is now trendily called, STEM, for
science, technology, engineering, and math), I hereby make the
heretical argument that it is time to stop cramming kids’ heads with
the Krebs cycle, Ohm’s law, and the myriad other facts that
constitute today’s science curricula. Instead, what we need to teach
is the ability to detect Bad Science—BS, if you will.
The reason we do science in the first place is so that “our own atomized experiences and prejudices” don’t mislead us,
as Ben Goldacre of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine puts it in his new book, Bad Science: Quacks,
Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks. Understanding what counts as evidence should therefore trump memorizing the
structural formulas for alkanes.
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“People can be wrong in so many ways,” Goldacre told me—and by
“people,” he includes scientists. All too many put too much
credence in observational studies, in which people who happen to
behave one way (eating a lot of olive oil, drinking in moderation)
have one health outcome, while people who choose to behave the
opposite way have a different health outcome. This is a reasonable
way to generate a hypothesis, but not something to guide your life
by, and certainly no basis for the health advice such scientists peddle. Take the claim that moderate drinkers have less
heart disease or obesity than teetotalers. Eye roll, please. Unless people are randomly assigned to drink or not drink,
those health outcomes are just as likely to reflect something inherent in the drinkers and teetotalers rather than the
behavior. Maybe teetotalers belong to ethnic groups that both disdain booze and have a genetic risk for obesity and
heart disease. Maybe they substitute even less healthy vices for alcohol. There’s no way you can tell from an
observational study. (Observational studies underpinned the advice that menopausal women should take hormone
therapy to avoid heart disease. A randomized study disproved that. There was something different—healthier—about
women in the observational studies who chose to take hormones.)
Few things mislead us more than failure to grasp simple statistical principles. A harmless example is the Sports Illustrated
jinx, in which being on the cover of that magazine supposedly causes an athlete to, say, tear his ACL in his next game
(quarterback Tom Brady, 2008) or otherwise founder. Fun as it may be to believe the media have spooky powers, the
reason for the “jinx” is that athletes make the SI cover when they are at the top of their game. Thanks to the statistical
principle called regression to the mean—basically, returning to average—peak performance, which always involves
some luck or random chance, eventually falls to earth. Hence pitcher Stephen Strasburg’s first loss the week he made
the SI cover last June.
Ignorance about regression to the mean can fool us about why we recover from illness. Many ailments, including colds
and pain, have a natural cycle. People tend to seek treatment when their symptoms are worst, which is also when,
thanks to regression to the mean, they are most likely to get better. Falsely attributing recovery to the treatment is far
from harmless. When the treatment is a quack remedy or a surgery for which there is no evidence of efficacy, crediting
the treatment reinforces wasteful medical spending; when the treatment is antibiotics for a cold, doing so reinforces a
practice that breeds drug-resistant bacteria and kills people. “People die at a biblical scale” because of such stupidity,
Goldacre says.
The most useful skill we could teach is the habit of asking oneself and others, how do you know? If knowledge comes
from intuition or anecdote, it is likely wrong. For one thing, the brain stinks at distinguishing patterns from randomness
(no wonder people can’t tell that the climate change now underway is not just another turn in the weather cycle). For
another, the brain overestimates causality. In one neat experiment, participants rewarded students’ punctuality or
punished tardiness for 15 days, then evaluated whether carrots or sticks worked better. Verdict: punishment.
Unbeknownst to the “teachers,” the exercise had been rigged: students arrived at random times (generated by
computer) unrelated to what teachers did. Yet the teachers believed their intervention had an effect. (A nickel says
parents fall for the same illusion.) Science is not a collection of facts but a way of interrogating the world. Let’s teach
kids to ask smarter questions.
Sharon Begley is the science columnist and science editor of Newsweek. She is the co-author of the 2002 book, The Mind
and the Brain, and the author of the 2007 book Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.
Questions: Answer on a separate sheet of paper using complete sentences and complete the
tasks asked in the questions.
1. What are 5 words in this article that would be helpful to look up the meaning in order
to understand it better. Circle them and write the definition in the margin.
2. What is the Gist of this article? (What is the main idea the article is trying to present as
explained in the 1st paragraph)
3. Explain the phrase “The reason we do science in the first place is so that ‘our own
atomized experiences and prejudices’ don’t mislead us”
4. What is an observational study and why does the author say we put too much credence
(emphasis) on these kinds of studies?
5. What is the flaw in the Sports Illustrated example?
6. What example is given on the ignorance about regression scenario and why is this one
so potentially dangerous?
7. What does the article mean when it says how do you know? What is the brain bad at
8. Explain in your own words the statement: Science is not a collection of facts but a way
of interrogating the world. In what ways to you think this course will help accomplish