By Teachers, For Teachers
As science continues to make discoveries and develop technologies to make our lives easier, universal scientific literacy becomes more and more critical to the functioning of our democracy. The products of scientific research are integral parts of our lives, and yet so many fail to understand the most fundamental principles of the scientific method.
A recent Pew Research Center poll found that most Americans appreciate the positive impact of science on their lives and have a high opinion of scientists. These facts paint a picture of a progressive, rational society.
And that is why I am always shocked at the willingness of the American populace to accept pseudoscientific claims as fact.
We seem to fall for any story that tugs at our heart strings or plays to our national pride. Worse yet, we seem to trust many individuals who have no scientific training, only a level of celebrity akin to Oprah Winfrey. In any democracy, a well-informed citizenry is the most important element, but in the United States a lack of scientific literacy continues to lead the public astray.
Psuedoscience Causes Real Problems
One example of our willingness to trust almost anyone is the case of former Playboy centerfold Jenny McCarthy and her spurious claims that vaccines cause childhood autism. Her organization, Generation Rescue, and similar ones have tried to connect the mercury-containing compound thimerosal, found in many vaccines, to increased autism diagnoses. No scientific study has ever found evidence that mercury in vaccines cause any serious medical problems.
McCarthy’s claims, on the other hand, have far-reaching consequences for the entire human population. As misguided parents make the decision not to have their children vaccinated, we have begun to see an increase in the occurrence of several childhood diseases. Unlike these pseudoscientists, however, real scientists won’t make the claim that misinformation is causing the rise of these diseases until conclusive scientific proof is found.
Worse yet, Generation Rescue advocates a dietary treatment that is designed to chelate cellular mercury and remove it from the body. McCarthy claims to have cured her own son’s autism using this method. My biggest fear and frustration is that scientifically unproven and inaccurate claims will actually cause more harm as parents attempt to treat their autistic children without the advice of a trained physician. And what of the push to raise money for autism research? Some would argue that this is unnecessary if a change in diet is all that is needed to eradicate this disease.
There are dozens of other examples of pseudoscientific claims that continue to slow the progress of real science and cause all sorts of harm to the American people.
We need to enact a concerted plan to educate all Americans, but particularly the young, in the dangers of trusting unproven claims. It is our civic duty to create a population with the ability to critically evaluate what they hear and see, safeguarding our democracy.
What examples have you witnessed of pseudosciene being promoted in our culture? How do you teach the proper scientific method to your students? Share in the comments section!