Friday, 29 June 2012

Cambridge Chemistry Challenge: Encouraging Young Skeptics

Mention the words 'chemistry exam' to someone and you'll usually be met with a grimace or a look of pure horror, but there is one recent examination paper which brings very welcome news indeed: the June 2012 Cambridge Chemistry Challenge.

While most science examination papers tend to cover fairly routine topics included in a given syllabus, these questions are specifically designed to challenge students by presenting them with new scenarios and topics. The first question in the paper asks students to investigate the production and composition of a white arsenic homeopathic solution as well as the average number of bottles required to contain one atom of the substance (285 million, incidentally).

It's no surprise that the findings are not in homeopathy's favour, but what is important about this question is that it encourages students to logically investigate the claims put forward by people who claim to hold authority in this stubbornly persistent branch of alternative medicine. Scientific investigation should be as unbiased as possible but there are scientists out there who attempt to keep their subjects shrouded in secrecy, such as the Burzynski clinic treatments, and others still who use defensive tactics such as emotional blackmail and intellectual shaming.

I should admit at this point that I spent some time as an undercover quack scientist in my final year of sixth-form last year as part of an extended project qualification. And yes, I, too, have shamed far too many people into believing my ridiculous claims with overly complicated wording and a particularly shiny pair of perspex safety goggles. I returned to my previous skeptic self after the project deadline had passed, but the findings of my admittedly low-level studies were interesting.

My finest moment as a not-entirely-honest scientist would be the time I manipulated 89% of my survey group into wanting to regulate or ban the humble apple through scaremongering and hiding behind obscure terminology rather than using plain English to describe the situation. The sample size was relatively small at 64 people, but having 57 respondants submit to these tactics shows that people are prone to believing scare stories when they aren't supplied with the full facts of a situation.

More worrying still was the fact that 25% of the sample were willing to take the article at face value without asking any questions in the space provided, an attitude which can occasionally be seen being mirrored in the comments following certain news articles. This sort of apathy creates a fertile breeding ground for misinformation to spread and, depending on the current agenda of a particular publication, this can eventually create potential harm by encouraging people to go for 'natural' medications such as homeopathy and herbal preparations rather than treatments with a proven record of efficacy.

It should be made very clear that while there are relatively harmless obfuscations and misleading claims like my previous investigations, we should keep in mind that there are cases where a lack of skepticism can cause severe and lasting harm such as the since discredited studies of Andrew Wakefield and his proposed link between autism and the MMR vaccine. Even identifying possible sources of bias in these controvertial studies generated a considerable backlash, as seen in a 2009 Daily Mail article about an examination question on this topic. The lack of skepticism and unbalanced defence of these findings from certain publications caused a decline in the uptake of the MMR vaccine and a rise in measles cases which we are still recovering from in 2012. This event provides a clear illustration of why critical thinking and investigative skills hould be given more emphasis in examination criteria, as featured in the Cambridge Chemistry Challenge.

One particular approach to teaching skepticism I would recommend is asking students to follow an implausible claim to its logical conclusion. As a self-confessed geek I'm fine with reading through a pages-long report on why a particular assertion is incorrect (and I'm sure at least a few readers of this blog will say the same) but I appreciate that this isn't everyone's cup of tea - carrying out simple experiments with the students does far more to consolidate their understanding than just giving them a dry lecture on why the claim is incorrect.

Better still, get the students to explain what would happen in the world if the ideas behind a particular claim were correct - yes, we know it's ridiculous that water would be able to remember things or that we live on a 6000 year-old planet, but the imagined consequences of these theories can provide some very amusing and outlandish results. True, telling students a Brain Gym exercise may electrocute them isn't an everyday occurence, but it definitely caught their attention and allowed them to explain why this particular claim was false. Who ever said science wasn't exciting?

Skepticism has an unfortunate tendency to be mistaken by many people for negativity rather than a neutral and evidence-led position. While there is a need to encourage more students to engage with the sciences it would be wise to first encourage them to question and explore the claims they are given. After all, humans have always been curious beings - it would be a shame to stifle that instinct, especially when we could well be preventing harm by investigating suspect assertions.

No comments:

Post a Comment