End of Semester Wrap-Up: Science and Pseudoscience

In my “Science and Pseudoscience” class this fall, my students and I looked at a lot of crazy stuff masquerading as science, including ghost hunting, cryptozoology, chiropractic, homeopathy, dowsing, astrology, and intelligent design. While I find these beliefs and their assorted practices fascinating and could happily spend an entire semester discussing their source, I felt that it was important that my students put pseudosciences into a larger context, namely, to compare the practices of pseudoscientists to the practices of scientists.

One of the important things that I have picked up over the last few years when researching and teaching about this topic is that pseudoscholarship of all types thrives in the presence of incomplete information, and as a sort of counterpoint to the type of woo that I drew on for most of my examples, I decided to try to expose my students to real science as it is practiced on campus. I suspected that the reasons why cereology (the study of crop circles) fails to qualify as a genuine science and why running around in the dark with an EMF detector is unlikely to yield any useful information about the paranormal would pop into sharp relief as they were compared to how science is practiced by researchers at Georgia Tech. The result was Laboratories and Research at TECH (LabRAT), an assignment that brought two sections of my English 1101 student into laboratories in the basic, social, and applied sciences at Georgia Tech.

My hopes for this project were many. I wanted my first-year students to see and write about how science really happens, from grant application to publication or implementation, as it were. I wanted them to meet members of research groups, tour labs and see how research was performed on a day-to-day basis. I wanted them to write singly and in groups about difficult technical and abstract topics for general audiences. In the end, ten research groups generously offered to let my students into their labs.

Barbara Henry, Director of the Office of Research Compliance, opened her office to help illuminate how the process of governance and the controls imposed by the Institute and the law protect research subjects and safeguard the school’s mission. The student group assigned at random to cover the bureaucratic and procedural aspects of scientific research devised a clever and engaging introduction to the ORC in the form of a boardroom dialog between Georgina Technopolis and the ubiquitous George P Burdell in an Xtranormal animation:

[vimeo clip_id=”17449285″]

This group also submitted the original protocol of Stanley Milgram’s infamous “obedience” test to a member of Georgia’s Institutional Review Boards (IRB) to see how a modern oversight board would respond to it. According to Georgia Tech’s website, the IRB “facilitates ethical conduct of research through advance and continuing protocol review; monitoring and reporting; convening regular meetings for review of proposed and continuing research; and providing educational programs for faculty, staff, and students.”  You will be happy to hear that the IRB member would have rejected the experiment out of hand for a number of reasons.

One group of students visited the Duffy Lab, where researchers study the biochemistry and ecology of host/parasite interactions. One of the first things that the students realized in the Duffy Lab was that setting up a scientific study–in this case, a study of a tiny crustacean called Daphnia–requires careful planning and organization. Indeed, the students adopted the system of color coded stickers that the lab uses to track variables in its experiments as the visual motif for their website. (In the video on the students’ webpage, you can see that the dots are ubiquitous.)

Another group visited Dr. Paul Verhaeghen’s Cognition in Adulthood and Late Life Lab, where researchers are exploring changes in cognitive functions with an eye to improving the process of aging. The students focused on studies of depression, cognitive control and memory. One student participated in a cognitive control study and wrote about what it was like to participate in a psychology experiment. The group also used what they learned in Dr. Verhaeghen’s lab to produce an original and humorous instructive multimedia feature about strategies for remaining cognitively fit.

Dr. Steve Potter, who runs the Potter Group in the Laboratory for Neuroengineering, introduced my students to the engineering sciences. Neurolab is a cross-disciplinary, inter-university laboratory that is housed on the Emory and Georgia Tech campuses. Neurolab lies at the intersection of psychology, biology and computer science. Some of the most intriguing research is on in vitro neurological networks, which culminated in the scientific-artistic project Silent Barrage, which took mammalian neurons and grew them on an array of electrodes, signals form the electrodes stimulated the cells, which then formed new neural connections in reaction to the stimuli.

The original signals that stimulate these neurons, however, come from an audience on the other side of the planet, and the audience is reacting to robotic motions generated by the mammalian cells, creating a feedback loop that models learning and opens up questions not only about how cells work together to generate personality, but also about the nature of art and consciousness.

Over the break, I will be collecting student websites into a single permanent LabRAT website. I was extremely pleased to see how often students responded positively to what they were encountering in these labs. Students who went to these labs encountered fields of knowledge that they did not know existed. In order to understand what what happening in these labs, the students had to perform background research to familiarize themselves with the concepts and terminologies in the field. Then they had to integrate that knowledge with what they learned in the labs themselves and communicate that to outside audiences. At the same time, these students came away from the project with an understanding of the dimensions of chasm that separates cutting edge science from the pseudosciences.

Of course, next year we are totally making crop circles.

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  1. Pingback: TECHStyle | Blog | End of Semester Wrap-Up: Fall 2010 Edition

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