A SKEPTICAL APPROACH IN THE COLLEGE SCIENCE AND

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A SKEPTICAL APPROACH IN THE COLLEGE SCIENCE AND MATH
CURRICULUM
EDWIN VAZQUEZ
University of Puerto Rico at Cayey, Biology Department, Cayey, PR 00737
[email protected]
The CETP Project at the Cayey Campus of the University of Puerto Rico has been
actively involved in the ongoing curricular renovation of the general education
component at this institution. As part of this process we have proposed the
development of critical thinking skills among our students that incorporate a
skeptical approach to the interpretation of data and to the evaluation of naturally
occurring phenomena. This approach is an integral part of the scientific process.
In a survey at our institution it was found that as many as 60% of our students
believe in communicating with the dead, 54% believe that we can move objects
with our minds and 59% that we are being visited by extraterrestrials.
Interestingly, four-year students were as “pseudoscientific” as freshmen,
indicating that our curriculum had no major impact in developing a skeptical
attitude, which is a trademark of scientific thought.
Overview
The Cayey Campus of the University of Puerto Rico is undergoing a curricular revision
that will pay attention to the need of a pedagogical framework of the general education
component that is interdisciplinary, current and pertinent to the realities of our society. This
general education should be characterized by the “interdisciplinary approach, an investigative
focus, the deliberate development of abilities and by a critical thinking attitude”. The latter has
been defined as “the thinking that examines itself and allows us to determine the validity,
foundation, context and values intrinsic of a belief, argument, fact or source”[1]. This in turn
defines a skeptical attitude, that which demands evidence, be it of a scientific, historical, social
or any other nature and that can be submitted to the rigorous scrutiny of its discipline.
Some scientists have observed that people who believe in paranormal phenomena have
difficulty discriminating between fantasy and reality [2]. Their beliefs may evidence a lack of
the critical thinking skills needed to make informed decisions in matters of social importance.
The problem is more serious if we consider that society is facing many situations that have
ethical and moral transcendence for which people must have a basic scientific base of
knowledge. Among the issues being considered are cloning of human beings, the use of
genetically engineered organisms in agriculture, and the effect on our environment of potentially
harmful chemicals. Attention to these problems requires not only the scientific knowledge, but
also the scientific attitude, which is, by its very nature, skeptical. There exists then a clear
distinction between scientific knowledge and scientific literacy. The latter requires not only
having the information but the ability to think logically, to reach conclusions and make decisions
based on the careful scrutiny of the facts and their analyses [3].
The concept of pseudoscience includes all the theories that are presented as scientific but
that cannot be submitted to the rigorous scrutiny that characterizes science and that are not
backed by adequate evidence. Some examples are the Lost City of Atlantis, the Bermuda
Triangle, alchemy, UFO’s, astrology and psychokinesis. In recent years, various surveys have
been made in the United States and other countries to assess which pseudoscientific theories are
been accepted by people. In a survey conducted among Columbia University graduate students
57% expressed belief in extrasensory perception (ESP), 47% believe in an aura and 25%
believed in the lost continent of Atlantis [4]. In another study, it was found that, out of 1,500
first year students, 48.5% of art students and 33.4% of science students consider astrology and
astronomy as branches of science [5]. People without a formal education tend to believe more in
pseudoscientific theories than those who have it [6].
A recent survey conducted at our institution among 410 students, representing 10% of the
student population, revealed similar results. For example, 59% believe that we are being visited
by extraterrestrials, 54% believe that we can move objects with our minds, 63% believe in
communicating with the dead and 48% believe in the prophecies of Nostradamus. There was no
significant difference when comparisons were made by year of study: first-year students
expressed similar belief patterns and were as superstitious as four-year students. [7]. This may
indicate that our curriculum had no major impact on their critical thinking skills.
The importance of incorporating a healthy skeptical approach in our science curriculum,
and for that matter, in all disciplines, cannot be overemphasized given the fact that the belief in
pseudoscientific theories can affect the ability to think critically, to make informed decisions,
and can result in a waste of valuable time in matters that have no social transcendence.
Acknowledgements
Vimary Vázquez-Dorbatt conducted the survey at our campus as part of her Honors Program
requisites. Vimary graduated recently from our Chemistry Department and is now at GlaxoWellcome, Pennsylvania. Samuel Figueroa, Chairman of the Social Sciences Department at our
Institution, helped with the data interpretation and made sense of the numbers in the survey. A
manuscript is in progress detailing this work.
Bio
Edwin Vázquez is Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the Cayey Campus of the
University of Puerto Rico and coordinator of the CETP Project at this institution. He recently
taught a course on Science and Pseudoscience.
References
[1] Habilidades y contenidos de la educación general, Curricular Renovation Project,
University of Puerto Rico at Cayey, 2001
[2] Maienschein, J., and students, "Commentary: To the Future. Argument for Scientific
Literacy." Science Communication (September)101:13. 1999.
[3] Angell, M., Science on Trial: The Clash of Medical Evidence and the Law in the Breast
Implant Case. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1996
[4] De Robertis, Delaney. “A survey of the Attitudes of University Students to Astrology and
Astronomy.” Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. 87(1):34-50,1993
[5] Irwin, H. “ A Study of the Measurement and the Correlates of Paranormal Belief.”
Journal of the Americas’ Society for Physical Research.79:301-26,1993
[6] Bi-annual report to the President for Congress “Science & Engineering Indicators,
2000.” Chapter 8
[7] Vázquez Vimary, “Pseudoscientific Beliefs among Students of the University of Puerto
Rico at Cayey”. Honors Program. University of Puerto Rico at Cayey, 2001
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