Science Versus Pseudoscience

The existence of life in planets other than Earth has been the subject of controversy for centuries. While skeptical until a few years ago, some scientists now believe that life in other planets is not only possible, but probable (Klotz, 2012). If scientists believe that extraterrestrial life is probable, it is only a matter of time until this subject makes its way into school curricula and raises new challenges for educators. The scientific community already started to assess the impact of the belief in alien life forms and its relationship to the teaching of science in schools. One particular article by Losh and Nzekwe (2011) lumps together preservice teacher beliefs about extraterrestrial life, beasts, magic and creationism in what it calls pseudoscience, looking for patterns that may indicate a lack of preparation in areas such as critical thinking and scientific rigor.

By defining pseudoscience as “cognitions about material phenomena that claim to be science, yet use non-scientific evidenciary processes [e.g.] authoritative assertion… anecdote…or unelaborated ‘natural’ causes” (p. 473), Losh and Nzekwe (2011) place these controversial beliefs in a category that can be labeled as abstract, whereas the opposite views (evolution, life on Earth only, etc.) can be labeled as concrete. For the authors, anything that is not mainstream science is not considered real science (e.g. alternative medicine), bringing rival, non-scientific views, to a level of abstractness that would indicate the rhetorical strategy employed in the article to be Order of Materiality.

Losh & Nzekwe (2011) begin by describing the prevalence of pseudoscience in the American culture, listing “horoscopes, science fiction, miracle cures, and invitations to ‘creation science’ museums” as examples of how entrenched non-scientific views and values have become in our country (p. 474). The main issue throughout the article is evolution versus creationism, and by listing creation science along with science fiction, the authors abstract creationist beliefs and compare such beliefs with what they believe to be the concrete, structurally sound theory of evolution.

In their attempt to abstract what they consider pseudoscience, Losh and Nzekwe (2011) also resort to using popular beliefs that may not be representative of the whole population, but may serve as a straw man argument for their stance that belief in pseudoscience is evidence of lack of preparation for making informed decisions and evaluating thoroughly the evidence at hand. By generalizing popular belief and affirming that “Alternative medicine can kill” or “psychics encourage fatalism,” the authors are letting their own bias show as they attempt to direct the reader to think that more commonly accepted (i.e. scientific) views, such as mainstream medicine, are more real (i.e. concrete) than pseudoscientific beliefs (p. 474).

Losh and Nzekwe (2011) state that “despite their legendary longevity, we know of no scientific evidence supporting ‘Bigfoot’, astrology, or extraterrestrials squirreled away from Roswell, New Mexico” (p. 481). The authors’ use of colloquialism (i.e. “squirreled away”) may be an indicator of their Interpersonal Intelligence/Learning style. This learning style presents many challenges to writers, including the overuse of informal language and emotional attachment to theories or ideas. This learning style helps explain why the authors’ emphasis on evolution in the article constantly contrasts that theory with creationism juxtaposed with more abstract ideas.

In their discussion of the experiment, Losh and Nzekwe (2011) stress the fact that science teachers have an enormous influence on their students, and that if they don’t have a solid scientific basis of knowledge and sharp decision-making skills, the teachers will leave their students at the mercy of pseudoscience. But, as the results show, most preservice teachers have pseudoscientific beliefs (i.e. abstract) that are not compatible with mainstream science (i.e. concrete). The authors then advocate for more critical thinking preparation for preservice teachers, citing a direct correlation between belief in evolution and higher education levels (p. 476). If teachers are not well-prepared to identify and reject pseudoscience, “their future pupils seem likely to have a shaky foundation for later science classes, and could find it difficult to reconcile the more ‘Biblical’ science they may have received in grade school with the science they are asked to learn” (p. 485). The concrete/abstract argument is even clearer as the authors open their next paragraph by stating that “preservice teachers also may have lacked the critical thinking skills to unequivocally reject astrology or alien landings” (p. 486). This contrast between the fossil record-validated evolutionary theory and the “delusional forms of pseudoscience” (p. 487) clearly is meant to give the reader the impression that one is on solid ground by embracing mainstream scientific beliefs, but may be treading on quicksand by considering pseudoscientific ideas.

Losh and Nzekwe (2011) attempt to show that the results of their research demonstrate the lack of preparation in critical thinking skills by preservice teachers, and that this lack of preparation is a serious threat to scientific teaching and learning in the present and future. The authors chose the rhetorical strategy of Order of Materiality to present a clear contrast between what they define as mainstream science and pseudoscientific beliefs, portraying the former as solid/concrete and the latter as fluid/abstract. In the process, the authors show a clear bias against pseudoscience, using colloquialisms and derogatory terms such as “ludicrous” (p. 488) to describe the claims of those who believe in various pseudoscientific assertions. This show of emotional attachment and use of colloquialisms may indicate that the authors’ intelligence/learning style is interpersonal.

Considering that my personal Intelligence/Learning style is intrapersonal, and that I have a background in historical studies, a chronological approach for my research may fit this topic well. With a rhetorical strategy structured around time, I should be able to trace the roots of beliefs about extraterrestrial life, the development of space exploration, the emergence of exobiological studies and, finally, how new discoveries and theories related to life in other planets are being discussed in the classroom. A systematic approach that outlines the evolution of thought and knowledge about alien life would be an important contribution to the field of Education and would allow teachers to have solid facts to back up or contradict their personal beliefs about this topic.

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References

Klotz, I. (2012, April 12). Mars Viking robots ‘found life’. DiscoveryNews. Retrieved from http://www.news.discovery.com/space/mars-life-viking-landers-discovery-120412.html

Losh, S., & Nzekwe, B. (2011). Creatures in the classroom: Preservice teacher beliefs about fantastic beasts, magic, extraterrestrials, evolution and creationism. Science & Education, 20(5/6), 473-489.

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