Raymond Hall Featured

Dr. Raymond Hall on Physicsfun and Teaching Critical Thinking

September 10, 2020

One professor is using social media to remind us that physics is the real magic of the universe. Through showing off his massive collection of science gadgets and physics toys, Dr. Raymond Hall is teaching many, young and old, the wonderful world of physics and how everyday phenomena is just science in action.

In this episode of Point of Inquiry, Dr. Raymond Hall joins Jim Underdown as Hall explains how his physicsfun Instagram was started and how it launched into popularity, the power of social media to spread awareness of science, physics, and complex topics, Professor Hall’s research into why people believe in pseudoscience and magical thinking, and his quest to answer this question: does simply teaching science or methodology innoculate folks from believing misinformation and pseudoscience or do you need to do more?

Dr. Raymond Hall is a professor of Physics at California State University-Fresno. His work has involved working with a team that discovered the top quark, a fundamental particle of nature.

You can see more of his great physicsfun experiments on Instagram and Youtube.

We are proud to announce that this episode of Point of Inquiry was sponsored by the Wadsworth-Sheng Fund. Our friends, Spike Wadsworth and Sherry Sheng, are committed to ensuring that as many people as possible have access to thought-provoking content that addresses the big questions in science, religion, politics, and culture. We are grateful for their support.

If you would like to learn more about how to support Point of Inquiry or the work of its umbrella organization, the Center for Inquiry, please contact our Director of Development, Connie Skingel, at development@centerforinquiry.org.

Point of Inquiry has a listener survey available that we are asking you to complete! Visit the survey at bit.ly/poisurvey. Filling out the survey will help the show grow and improve as we understand the fine folks who listen. Thank you.

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“Idle Ways” by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0
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Hello, everybody, welcome to another episode of Point of Inquiry, I’m Jim Underdown your host. Today, we’re gonna talk to Ray Hall, Professor Ray Hall. 

He teaches physics at Cal State Fresno University. Ray has been an active part of the skeptics community for a long time now. He does two extraordinary things. One is that he produces videos for Instagram that teach little physics tidbits through visual methods. And if that sounds all academic and above your head, a lot of people hear the word physics and they like math. They just shut down. They freak out because it sounds complicated. But Ray’s videos are really cool. He shows you the weird thing and then sort of explains why the thing is happening. So that’s one of the big things he does. But he also teaches critical thinking and the difference between science and pseudo science and has been measuring what works like. Can you just teach science and protect people from believing wacky things or can you just teach methodology and protect people from believing in wacky things? He has been addressing these issues and has made some interesting discoveries about what works best for moving the needle, as he says, in pseudoscientific and wacky beliefs. He didn’t use the word wacky. I use the word wacky. I give, you know. Professor Ray Hall. 

Welcome to another edition of Point of Inquiry, I’m Jim Underdown in here today with us is Professor Ray Hall from Fresno State University. 

Is that right? 

Correct. CSU, Fresno, Fresno State. 

Ray is a physicist. And we’re going to talk about a little bit about physics. But don’t worry, people, we’re not going to make it do calculations or anything like that. This is going to be a accessible conversation about physics and a little bit about critical thinking as well, because it happens to be quite accomplished. Right. You and I, we’ve known each other, what, at least ten years now since those early retirement that. 

I mean, I’ve been go into these skeptic’s conferences and early on in the days of Tamme The Amazing Meaning James R&D. When did you start curating the the Sunday papers. 

Well that would have been Tamme number three. That’s because I submitted a paper on the very first hand and the second cam and how Bidlack noticed the trend and then kind of hooked me and then just kind of lead the paper sessions from that point on. Yeah. 

So you were in charge of choosing and organizing the papers on Sunday mornings, which was great because it gave the skeptic community at large a chance to jump in and kind of participate in the whole event. 

Yeah, this was an idea of how Bidlack, who was the emcee for those initial Tam’s and also a major force in organizing them. And he thought, let’s try to get academics to come. And if you can present a paper, then it’s more likely that your university will help fund your trip. But it also just opened up into this idea that every person that is concerned about the prevalence of pseudoscience and science denialism that does something vigorous and you don’t get some stage time and share with the audience some important finding on how to teach Pseudo-Science better or some particular pseudoscientific topic that needs to be made that the community needed to be made aware of things like that. And to this end, we’re still doing that for CFI, where we’re doing that for Psychon. And I think it’s still a hit. 

I’m always amazed and appreciative of how many people out there are doing such great work on the ground. In fact, it was it’s part of the idea by the Center for Inquiry Investigations Group. I saw all this talent sitting around and it’s like, wow, we’ve got smart people who are sort of on our on our side. 

And why not tap into them in a more organized fashion? Well, absolutely. 

Matter fact. I’m pretty sure that that. Your group has had numerous opportunities to be on the Sunday morning stage two, so it was a happy collaboration. It seems a nice dovetail fit of our strategies. And and I think they’re pretty effective. 

Now, let’s talk about your bag, your personal background a little bit. Have you always been into physics? I mean, has that been your whole academic career? Physics? 

Yeah, mostly. Somehow what I had to apply to go to college. And interestingly, I’m a I’m an alum of a president’s state. I got my undergraduate degree here. So it’s a little bit odd to be teaching physics in the classroom. I have the very first physics class in. It’s an honor to. But I kind of had this path. I had my my my grandfather was a huge fan of the space program and used to work on electronics. My father was just a big science buff himself. Loved to tinker in the garage, fix things. You worked for the Department of Water Power of Los Angeles. And my mom was always into science, more biology and such. But kind of my upbringing was science is really awesome and it definitely took with me. So I did get a degree in physics from President State. And then I went to grad school at UC Riverside, where I worked on a degree on high energy particle physics. So for about 20 years of my career, I participated in these large scale experiments like this taking place right now at CERN that I was working at a laboratory called Fermi National Laboratory out in the Chicago area, where at the time when I was a grad student at the world’s most powerful atom smasher, and it was there, I was part of a team without 700 other physicists and we collaborated. We’ve discovered the fundamental particle of nature called the top work. So that was one small cog in that big machine, a physicist that helped discover that particle. But it was a thrilling part of my career. 

I know Fermilab well. I grew up about 20 miles from Fermilab and at Fermilab in the western suburbs of Chicago. 

I didn’t realize that. So, yeah, I spent seven years of my life out there in the Naperville Warrenville area. Right. Tavia and the Fox River. And got a real solid taste of the Midwest, I feel. 

Yeah, well, there’s what aren’t there bison grazing in the middle of the accelerator? 

You know, that’s an interesting point. The Fermi lab is triggered by a gentleman named Robert Wilson, who’s a physicist. But he came, I believe he was from Wyoming and he had some cow. We’ve looked at him. And because most of the infrastructure is underground, he somehow had this idea of getting a bison herd. And it’s been there ever since. It’s kind of is his legacy. He also was kind of a amateur architect and had a lot to do with the arts and architecture that’s found on that amazing national laboratory, which is open to the public in the area. I highly recommend going and visiting the 16 storey Wilson Hall and seeing the displays they have about the physics that goes on there. 

Oh, yeah. The whole facility is just an awesome visit. I’ve been there a few times and it’s it’s fascinating. 

And I mean, so you worked at your part of the team that worked and found the top quark. For those of us and I include myself in this, who didn’t do well in physics over the course of time, but are huge fans of it. What is a quark and what is the top quark? 

That’s that’s yeah. We can go deep on that. But let’s just take it this way. So, you know, atoms of which the periodic table kind of identifies the word atom actually means indivisible. And it was a little premature to give an atom that B. Turns out atoms, of course, are made out of a nucleus which comprised of smaller things called neutrons and protons. And then electrons orbit these in these quantum mechanical strange orbits and make our atoms. It was in the 70s that it became clear that neutrons and protons were also a composite. They were made out of smaller entities and became known that these entities recall. We will hear Leam labeled quarks anyway. Interesting reference by a curious man name. Murray Gell-Mann, a Celtic physicist who played a huge role in identifying and kind of theorizing on what these smaller entities would look like and how they be held together. He came up with a think was Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. There’s some kind of three corks for muster, Mark, a strange kind of nonsense phrase, but the word three in there was kind of important form because protons and neutrons are. Three of these sub entities called Cork’s. And then as time went on and we made larger and larger and more powerful atom smashers, it became clear that these corks came in six different flavors. And at the end of the 70s, we had discovered five of them. And they have to come in Piers’s or something horribly wrong with our theory. So we were highly expecting a top cork is prepared to this thing called a bottom cork to exist. But it took something like 20 plus years to create a large enough, powerful enough accelerator and finally get the evidence. Now, it turns out top corks are a background phenomena to the kind of more interesting physics we’re searching for at CERN with these large experiments like CMBS and Atlas. And so we produce top quirk’s copiously in those experiments. And it’s kind of nice to sit back and read these papers without having to do all the hard work of building those. Leave that to the youth. But it’s been a fun ride. 

And that’s how you that’s how you’re finding these things. You’re smashing is it isn’t protons in the case of Fermilab smashing protons together. 

Interestingly, out at CERN with scoots go, there were our current you know, it was only well, it’s getting kind of a ways now. The Higgs particle, of course, was discovered and Nobel Prizes were awarded out there. CERN and they slam protons into protons. But when I was working at Fermilab, it turns out we only had one accelerator. They built two accelerators so they could out at CERN so they could accelerate protons in both directions. But getting Carl Rubia made an interesting note. He said he noticed that if you’ve made a proton accelerator in one direction, you’ve automatically made an anti proton accelerator in the opposite direction, and then you’d have to make a copious amount of antiprotons. And yes, antimatter is really a thing. And so the challenge at Fermilab was to create enough antiprotons, collect them together and get them in the same accelerator with the protons. And you could have these head-on collisions. It turns out that it’s kind of hard to make at a proton. So when they decided to make the machine out at CERN even more higher power, they knew that the most robust way to get a huge amount of proton or collisions is just to have two proton accelerators. So they just kind of doubled. What is it? Why buy one if you can make two for twice the price? That’s kind of what their strategy was to do work well. 

So that’s that’s like the super technical stuff you’ve worked on. But now it seems like an I don’t know how long you’ve been making these videos, but you have you’re making these physics fun videos. Is it just on Instagram? 

You know, it’s mostly on Instagram. That’s kind of the platform then. Initially, I got some traction and it actually Instagram kind of inspired it back in late 2015. I had an Instagram account because it was the thing to do. And Instagram was not owned by Facebook at the time. And it was kind of a platform where it was more visual. So if you’re a photographer or if you are an artist and you wanted to share your medium, it was more about would dispute the picture, do the talking. And there was a small place to put some verbiage or some captions, but completely deemphasize. So it was more of a sort of Facebook where you just write stuff and share means and stuff like that. Instagram was more this kind of visual. And initially they were competing with Vine and they were allowing little video snippets because bandwidth did finally increased on the Internet. And turns out that a lot of physics is not very well explained unless you have this kind of temporal component shows something changing over time. So short video content was kind of perfect for showing some of these interesting phenomena with physics. And I started posting just one or two a week. And I think I think what happened is that somebody was interested in it, posted it on Reddit, and then it went viral. And within maybe a month’s time, I went from having maybe a few hundred subscribers to my page to close to twenty thousand. And that’s when you decided, oh, this is interesting. I’ve actually got traction. People will tune in to Instagram to watch videos about science. And I just got me hooked. There’s more of a backstory on where these devices come from. I can share with you that. So that’s that’s been so just last month, I crossed the threshold and at one point nine million followers. 

Oh, fantastic. And that something I you mentioned that that word comes from because you have a. A pretty good size science toy collection at your house. 

All right, your next move to back when I was a grad student and I was teaching classes while working on the high energy physics experiments I was telling you about. I went into a toy store up in like Occidental, California, kite store, but they had lots of interesting wood toys, folk toys. And I came across a couple that I knew how they the physics principles were pretty obvious. Like maybe you’ve seen a toy where it looks like a pipe, a toy. Kids pipe. You blow into it in a little ball, however, you know, little foam down. So this this this shows the Bernoulli’s principle of the Kanata effect. And I thought, oh, these toys might be an excellent way to get the students engaged in my lectures. So I bought a few of these toys. And then suddenly, once my eyes were open to this, every time I walked into a toy store, I saw something that had a physics principle, it seemed to me. So I started amassing a bit of a collection. Well, it’s gone a little haywire right now. I have got probably about six hundred individual kind of items. And there really you often see that the difference between hoarding and collecting is re area. Right. And so anyway, I collection and I do use them in my classroom, but it just seemed like I had this tremendous stockpile. And I think when I freeze it, when I talk about this, you know, when you collect something like this and you’re an avid collector, maybe you get in your mind, you know, someday my collection will be so important and so robust it be a museum would want to display it somewhere. Right. Like, maybe. 

But it turns out that even if I do collections like insect collections at Famous, you do. 

But if that’s the case, how many people actually see your collection and maybe could interact with it? Right. So the way I’ve kind of free my Instagram posts is it’s kind of like my social media museum. And in terms of if I were to have hope that people would see my collection and try to understand its context and try to win a collection like this can do is get people excited about science, maybe changed their minds about science. One point nine million followers, my my average post gets about 40000 thousand likes and reach seems to be worldwide. I have followers in India, in the Middle East and South South America. It’s it’s phenomenal. It’s like my my museum online has probably got more eyeballs looking at my Twitter collection than I ever could have imagined possible some kind of other, you know, brick and mortar museum. So that’s that’s kind of the inspiration. Just to have this online interactive museum. 

Yeah. And it’s I mean, it’s based on the simplest of notion that you look at something. I mean, because all your stuff I’ve seen lots of your videos and it’s all like you look at it and you say, wow, that’s weird, or that’s doesn’t look like it should happen. And then the next logical question is, well, how does it happen in and you address these things so people can actually learn something and those subtle messages. You know, there’s weird stuff that happens in nature that is consistent with the laws of physics happening all the time. And, you know, let’s just understand it and not be freaked out about it, like maybe some other beliefs. 

Oh, it’s a fantastic point. You know, my tag line for my Instagram is that physics is the real magic of the universe. And we accomplish we have amazing technology we’re using right now to have this conversation and record it and share it with others. And the fact that airplanes rarely fall out of the sky, just all the incredible things we can do if we just are serious and apply science, that the world is really a magical place and we don’t need to make up stuff. The real magic is really amazing and it’s even more amazing, actually. I mean, if you think about all of the bizarre ideas that have been out there in terms of science. Who would have ever really come up with some of the amazing things we actually accomplish? Manipulating single photons and guiding light through fiber optics. The amazing use of radio wave communications and trend. We use your cell phone down on a Starbucks counter and it charges rate astonishing and it’s real, slowing down the speed of light. 

I mean, that was one that blew my mind, right? Oh, sure. 

Of course you can do that with water. Of course, that’s. Refraction, so water error slows that down. But to get it as slow as they have recently, I mean, like, really slow. That’s. That’s a trick. That’s that’s a really good trick. And again, physics keeps amazing this wee wee. You know, the idea of absolute zero trying to get things to stop moving. Just all these concepts of how the world really works are so much more interesting and so much more intricate and I think exciting than any pseudoscience I’ve heard of. Really? 

Here are your videos are so much like just a cool museum that you could pop through. What was the quote? Nobody ever flunked a museum. 

And this one from Frank Oppenheimer, the brother of the famous Robert Oppenheimer buddy. He was a physicist that helped with Manhattan Project, became a passivist, gotten a bit of trouble during the red beating and McCarthyism nonsense. And he shifted from research to education. And turns out he’s the founder of the Exploratorium, the remarkable museum that I have some affiliation with in the San Francisco area. That was his driving principle, is it? Remember, nobody ever flunked a museum. And so, you know, when you invite somebody in your museum, have them investigate, have them become a scientist for the day, have them explore. Don’t dictate to them what they’re supposed to know. Have them discover it themselves and feel like a scientist for a while. 

Yeah. And just be curious and improve your knowledge. 

Hi. We are taking a quick break to announce that this episode of Point of Inquiry was made possible through the Weisbrot Bertha Xiang Fund. The fund was started by supporters of the show. Spike Wadsworth and Cherie Shang were both committed to critical thinking in making accessible thought-Provoking content that addresses the big questions in science, religion, politics and culture. Topics at Point of inquiry has been covering for the last 15 years. We are very grateful for their generous support. If you would also like to support a point of inquiry and learn more about the work of its umbrella organization, the Center for Inquiry. Please email CFI as Director of Development Carney single at development at Center for Inquiry that. Oh R.G.. 

All of your teaching involves critical thinking specifically, and I want to talk to talk about the difference between teaching, because this is this is what PSI Cop and the Center for Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer magazine for decades have been addressing like weird claims, extraordinary claims, paranormal claims, miracle claims. 

And for the longest time, we just sort of sent somebody out and did an investigation and came back and they they shared their findings. 

But we also like the idea of. 

Giving people the tools in general, because we can’t just run out and, you know, look over everybody’s shoulder as they surf the Internet. So we want to give people the tools to do some of this critical thinking on their own. And you found out some interesting things in the course of teaching critical thinking and addressing specific claims, a bit of background. 

When I first started my job at Fresno State back in nineteen ninety nine, the CSU system, which is this many schools, more than 20 universities in the California State University system, are visiting the CSU California state universities. And these are primarily designed to get people baccalaureate degrees. We also have, of course, our famous UC system, and that’s where doctoral research can take place and people get a doctoral degree. But the 20 plus campus CSU system system wide back in the 90s decided that every student must take a three unit critical thinking class. So my predecessor is now a maritime faculty at Fresno State in chemistry and physics, came up with a class that they called Science and Nonsense, where they kind of wanted to teach the difference between pseudoscience and science. And both these professors had an extensive library. I want to tell you of skeptical Inquirer magazine. And they were inspired by skeptical Power magazine to implement this class and teach critical thinking class. Based on this premise of that, they were very concerned about how much people believed in things like astrology and more harmful things like alternative medicine. And they devised this class. So when I got here, an option would be that I could teach one of these sections and I did. So I said, I’ve been doing it ever since. I I don’t think there’s been a semester where I haven’t taught at least a section of this critical thinking class. However, I’ve made a lot of pedagogical enhancements to the class and actually done some research that I’d like to share with you a little bit on that bit. So that’s the background that I’ve been teaching a critical thinking class for 20 years now, almost every single semester. And it’s been a really fun Rob. Now it turns out that if it weren’t for skeptical choir in all the research, the Joe Nichols out there going and recreating NCAA line images or pursuing some of the fraud out there and all the amazing verification, if you will, of what’s really going on in these instances. If it weren’t for that huge library, then my course would be a shell of what it really is, because it’s crucial to have the critical information about what’s really going on in these situations and the critical evaluation, because, as you know, if you Google a topic like vaccines and autism, you’re much more likely to find people that are, you know, science deniers and with compelling arguments to those that don’t understand how arguments can go awry. The actual real data out there is kind of drowned. So like the Skeptics Dictionary and the Library of Everything, that Skeptical Inquirer is done, that that resource is crucial in trying to teach the difference in science and pseudoscience. 

Yeah, because it that that that is where people have done the ground work to find out what is generally happening. But I would imagine I mean, so you want to give these kids and have the kids changed over the course of the 20 years you’ve been teaching those? 

You know, I have to tell you. Not really. So our son. Our best. No. Our high school system, for reasons we can discuss. You know, they don’t teach the critical thinking skills. And that’s why we decided as a collective whole as the CSU system. I think we’re at. Forty thousand students all requiring G. Now, it turns out, interestingly, not all critical thinking classes in this system were created equal. That effect, the learning outcomes as devised are so vague that any department can offer a critical thinking course. And so the they range from things like ours, where we talk about the logic of critical thinking, the philosophy of science. We talk about examples of good science, scientific methodology. But other courses that also will meet this requirement might be a communications course on rhetoric where they talk about, you know, argumentation mostly, but not necessarily evaluating evidence. And so not every student that takes this course is going to be exposed to the kind of strict strategies that we’ll be talking about here today. But even if I can impact a significant minority and try to get the word out that these are important things to do, that’s that’s the strategy that I’m working on right now. 

Well, yeah, and not to mention the fact that all of us on the skeptical side have over the past decade anyway, at least had to face a much larger and more sophisticated misinformation system. The YouTube videos that people produce about everything from psychics to the Earth being flat are much more sophisticated. And and they they mimic, of course, the look of real science videos because they know real science has credibility and a lot of people can tell the difference. 

Well, that is exactly the point that we bring up in this course, is that science has earned its cred. 

And so others will try to piggyback on that cred to sell you whatever thing they’re trying to sell you typically for monetary gain, or there are those out there that truly believe in their own their own conjectures, even though they’re not supported by, you know, logic or evidence. Most the time, it seems mostly there’s a lot of fraud out there. And perhaps you write that. I mean, flat earth ism. I so that that’s kind of shocking. And I, I, I’m kind of surprised. Were there. So that problem. Open my eyes is that this seems like a step backwards. I thought the flat earth is at least something we could point to and say that’s ridiculous. Nobody believes in that. Unfortunately that has actually recently. But I think that’s a I hope that’s kind of a minority. And it also lets us serve for my class. We can say, well, here’s how far outside of the mainstream people can get if they’re not versed and understand the challenges of vetting information. 

Yeah. Not so. You created some metrics to try to measure how people were progressing before and after these classes. 

Yes. So if we’re teaching about how to use science in the best way, we should use science in the best way to make sure we’re teaching about how to use science in the best way. Right. It turns out that this has been done a little bit, but not nearly to the extent. So if I’m using certain techniques in my class, I would really like to know, are these techniques fruitful? Are they really getting the point across? Are students meeting my class better suited to that information? Assess the logic. Assess the level of epic study. I always say we we kind of. Thinking about Pseudo-Science. We expanded the definition, we call them epistemically unwarranted beliefs, using that which means knowledge and specifically here epistemically warranted would mean is they’re using the best logic and best inferential methods, mostly from science. Does this hold water? Does this idea hold water? And so we use the word epistemically unwarranted belief or U.B.. Because a lot of conspiracy theories you can’t really see. That’s necessarily a pseudoscience, although they often challenge science. But we wanted to kind of a larger window of kind of unsubstantiated beliefs. So we use this term. And yeah, we designed basically just a survey survey instrument. Turns out that my collaborator is my lovely wife, Kathleen Dyer, who is basically a social scientist. She has a P. D in human development and family science for Mizu. And she she actually has a background in survey instrument construction. And so she was the perfect partner for this because I have a background in the natural sciences. But I was not as well versed as I am now after collaborating with her for a number of years on the kind of instruments that social scientists use. And this is all the statistics of like a novas and how to create a survey that doesn’t, you know, mislead or aim towards the results you want. So I designed this instrument, asks students just purely about their beliefs. And the I believe idea was if we also intermixed some actual scientific knowledge in there, like we have a lander on Mars. DNA is a double helix, spaces a vacuum, things like that. So we don’t get what’s called eya, the answer subset where they just assume that every answer should be no or I don’t believe in it. So we we mix those together. It’s about a 60 question survey and it could be filled out on a Likert scale. They just kind of. I agree or don’t agree or believe. I don’t believe. And yeah, we use this pre and post. We actually devised a study to go to more details, but we’re trying to be very careful about this. We actually. We’re testing hypotheses and then maybe they’ll be a good place to introduce, you know. Carl Sagan famously asserted that. That belief in pseudosciences inversely proportional to how well people understand science. If you heard that. Yeah. And it turns out I’ve been motivated by that quote for a long time. But interestingly, when we looked into the scientific research on why people believe weird things, we found it that doesn’t necessarily always hold. There is some in our literature review of our paper published in twenty eighteen. We found that those with college educations are likely, more likely than those without a court to believe in astrology, for instance. So astrology. The more education you have. It does seem to hurt whether or not you believe in it. But it turns out that there are a number of things, especially paranormal things, that college degrees might actually enhance your belief. And so we find that an understanding of science isn’t necessarily correlated with a disbelief in pseudo science. 

Well, I mean, we’ve known for a long time that smart people believe wacky things all the time. 

Even scientists. Right. I mean, we could point to a few famous scientists who went down embarrassingly wrong roads, especially when they’re talking about areas outside of their expertize. So you can get kind of narrow and and sort of lose sight in other areas. It’s easy to say, like Carl Sagan implied, that, you know, all we need to just have better science classes and that will make us immune from these wacky ideas. 

Then turns out it doesn’t work, sadly. Just that alone. So what what is a better strategy? Better. I also, though, the things that were out there were kind of correlations. We wanted to actually do some science and find out. Well, does teaching good science reduce belief in pseudo pseudoscience? And so Katie and I set out to test the hypothesis. We actually had a couple of things we were testing. One is, can a course like the one I teach, which we call science and nonsense, where we directly target pseudoscience and show how critical thinking is used and how if you are careful about evaluating evidence that most of these pseudosciences are seriously discredited. Right. So that’s one strategy. And this course isn’t just taught by me for about three or four other faculty here that teach the course with a similar pedagogy, similar materials. So we call that an intervention. We call that an anti pseudo science intervention is to take this class. But we also teach courses on this campus. Of course, that is required by all psychology majors. Some sociology or social scientists type majors have to take a class called research methods. And these are the methods that are used on what is a controlled sample. How do you survey things carefully? All the statistics that you need to understand how to conduct a scientific enterprise in the social sciences. So these research method classes are also one of the more challenging. Since you have to pass this class before you’re allowed to declare yourself a psychology major. Right. Otherwise, you’re psychology. So these are rather rigorous classes. And they actually not only teach about science, but they are the methods by which science is done. So we thought, let’s also incorporate that. Let’s do our pre post pseudo science belief servais pre and post the intervention class that I teach about how to use critical thinking and where I’m targeting pseudo science. And let’s also do a pre and post on our research methods class. Once a student takes this course and has learned how science really works. Does that reduce their belief in pseudo science? And of course, to be careful and mythological, we have some G courses that were basically courses that did not involve necessarily rigorous critical thinking skills, although every course should use critical thinking at some level that these are learning outcomes were not directly related to critical thinking. And we use those as a pre and post just to make sure that, you know, there wasn’t some interesting effect going on here. So we needed some control group, just to be clear. 

So in your science, a nonsense class you are, as well as talking about general methodology, you’re talking about specific beliefs and why these specific ideas do not meet the standards of of good science. 

So you’re that is your address area. So the critical thinking course, because as G is not as rigorous, we don’t, for instance, go into a couple or three or four weeks on statistical analysis in how to do correlation coefficients and things like that. So that’s we do talk a little bit about statistics and P values and things like that, but it’s not a core component of the course. So it’s not as rigorous in these kind of going in depth and scientific. But that the dollar G. We absolutely talk about scientific methodologies, the different swim, deductive and inductive ways of knowing what is good evidence. All of those things. We talk about it a bit of a more approachable level for the G student. That’s not necessarily going to be a researcher. But yeah, in the research methods classes, I don’t believe pseudosciences are mentioned at all, really. At least they work. They weren’t at the time of our study. And so, yeah, we we there was this is a fairly large sample. We had eight hundred students in something like 20 different classes. We had seven of the seven courses of seven different classes of the intervention we call science nonsense. We had I think, three or four research methods, classes involved. And what we found is that the research methods class didn’t move the needle at all. No change, no scientific belief whatsoever. And of course, it did. Oh, I’m having the control group also didn’t change at all. But in terms of the control classes versus the research method classes that are conjecture here and again, I think there needs be more literature on this, is that you can teach students kills. What you haven’t shown them directly or explicitly is that these skills can be applied in everyday life. 

Authorities are awaiting any claim you think is somehow been based on science or simply speaking, a claim that they feel that the idea is based on science. 

The skills you learned in your research method class should be applied to those. And so you kind of call this a transference problem. They don’t realize or they’re not shown explicitly that the domain of knowledge they’ve been taught in this class is more widely applicable. Very importantly, widely applicable. And so we’ve kind of targeted that as an issue for people to think about when they’re teaching these classes. 

Well, yeah. I mean, some of these issues. My wife goes crazy sometimes. We sit there watching TV and I’m screaming at the television every time a commercial comes on for copper fed or whatever, the the the claim is that at least insinuates something that is not scientifically proven. Watch on a TV commercial saying an ad in a newspaper. Even deciding who to go out with on Friday night. 

These kids can benefit. Anybody can benefit greatly from having these general skills, that kind of question what they’re being told. 

It’s true. 

And to those lines, the first part of our papers, we just focused on the pretest, right. Looking at students. These range from freshman to seniors. Many of them have. I mean, first of all, these are students that have been allowed into the CSU system, and that’s a bit of a bar to jump. OK. So, you know, we don’t just accept you have to have a certain GPA and you have to do pretty well. The S.A.T., right, to get into Fresno State. 

Many of them are been here for a number of years. And so we looked at the student population and we asked, well, are these fairly well educated even at the time of entrance to Fresno State? Do they have any less likely to believe in pseudoscience? And, you know, we we basically s 40 questions about different kinds of pseudoscience that we use to a fairly sophisticated technique to lump them into categories of factor analysis. One thing in our paper, and we basically came down with basically on some category six categories, religious kind of pseudo science, health, pseudoscience, something we call extraordinarily life forms, which ranges from UFOs to Bigfoot, conspiracy theories. We have a special and called ghosts. Even though you might find that that might come into hauntings, this kind of paranormal behavior. And then we had just paranormal like ESPN, things like that. And what we saw was that students in our population admitted to Fresno State. They really looked like the kind of national polling in belief like we get from Gallup and other reputable polls. There really was no difference between our student populations, belief and pseudoscience and the kinds of pseudoscience they deleted and the general population that’s surveyed by Gallup. 

So that was our first kind of wake up call is doing. We are a student body who are probably more educated on average than the average person being pulled by Gallup. And their beliefs are really at the same levels. That’s basically the take away. So we feel like, well, if they graduate from Fresno State and we haven’t moved the needle on this map on the wall. 

Yeah. OK. So you find again. I mean, you would think that they they. Any group of smart college kids, even freshmen, should skew a little bit smarter than the overall population with the beliefs. But OK, so that doesn’t happen. You find out that the methodology class doesn’t really change that much either. So what have you done anything about it? Is there a way to change the way that one is taught? 

It’s based on our finding of the actual intervention. What we call the pseudo science instruction group. And that is so it was myself teaching two sections, a colleague of mine who’s now retired, teaching three sections and a colleague of mine in chemistry who taught one section. And so we have some diversity in teaching. We all had the similar techniques in how we taught it. Although our teaching styles were dramatically different. By, for instance, my colleague who just retired. He hated PowerPoint. And so he just got up at the lectern and used a chalkboard and, you know, just. And it’s a really different teaching kind of strategy in terms of how he presented material to the class. But the similar readings, similar structure and having the right papers, similar. And it turns out that the pseudoscientific or pseudo science instruction group or are are critical thinking intervention classes actually move the needle. And according to our statistical analysis, meaningfully. So we we have we ran something called Minova. And it showed kind of pre and post taking these courses. And on almost every single category, we saw people use some pseudoscientific belief. Now, we didn’t eradicate to test. We belief. I think that’s too much to have. So it’s not a silver bullet. But, boy, it’s a it’s something close. We we feel that we have changed people’s minds. We reduced their belief in some of these topics. Most importantly, health, pseudoscience. We got people to change their minds quite a bit on that. And interestingly, religious pseudoscience, you know, like younger creationism, things like that, that really move the needle really moved on these. And it didn’t seem to be associated with their religious affiliation either, which is weird to think. We we had a bunch of other that the first survey at the beginning of semester. We also had them survey about things like how curious they are. There’s an instrument for measuring that. There was something called a religiosity measure. How often you go to church, things like that. So you can kind of get some gauge of of of some of these beliefs if they’re. And we found out that religiosity didn’t really play a factor into whether or not our intervention work, which is another nice a nice finding, I think. So actually, let me just highlight one important thing. We found the background of the student, their socio economic background. All of this didn’t really play a role in how much an effect there was. Their gender didn’t play a role. The their ethnicity didn’t play a role. It seemed like the our our course and how we taught it seemed to work on all students. However, the smarter the student, the higher the GPA the student had, the more effective it was. So we did find that skew. But other than that, I’m happy to say that this technique seems to work on students independent of their background, which is nice. So that’s the highlight, is that if you talk directly and use pseudoscience to show how critical thinking works and why the evidence presented by the pseudo scientist in the logic presented by the pseudo scientists fails, it’s a very productive strategy and getting them to change their minds about it. You asked about the research methods class. Yeah. Well, interestingly, that is the course that Katie teaches for her majors, child and family science majors. And she has now incorporated two modules that talk directly about pseudoscience in her field. Very important things in her field would be like. Anti vaccination. That’s huge. Why did they. You know, why is it wrong? Facilitated communication. She has a big section on that. 

What is good science? What is bad science for her? This whole guy. What is it? Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus. Right. Had a huge chunk of pseudoscience in the social science area. So she talks about the lack of credentials that that person has, how the science is not done. Right. In a matter of fact, when you do careful science, you find out that everything he writes in his books is actually wrong. She’s actually incorporated this and into the beginning levels of why is it we need to do science when we’re talking about child development and family science and understanding miracle relationships? 

If I’m going to be a counselor, a marriage counselor or a relationship counselor or I’m going to run a preschool, why do you need to be informed about science and pseudo science? And she kind of convinces them why this is important class to take, because here are some of the things that can go wrong. And here’s some of the harm that can be cut. So she’s actually was aghast that the research, the class did nothing. And she’s basically inserted and she feels like it’s only enhanced her course. It only helps them to understand how science works. When you see how well you don’t do science, what the consequences can be. 

It’s not just a methodology issue. It’s actually addressing specific beliefs and giving them information directly that illustrates why these techniques, mostly scientific techniques, are so effective. 

She should throw in a little L. Ron Hubbard. And there that’s a that’s a right man. She make a letter. 

Andrew Wakefield. Pretty heavily, right? Oh, yeah. Your review and why it’s so important how he committed fraud. That’s a beautiful one. Facilitate a communication to. That’s. That just keeps that keeps coming back. But you mentioned methodology and we’re trying to advocate that this is a methodology for teaching you. It’s crucial to incorporate and discuss why these pseudosciences are wrong and illustrate how they went wrong. 

What could they have done to not be misinformed? A lot of these folks are not necessarily like Wakefield was just outright fraud, but they’re just misguided and they don’t understand that they’re not using appropriate techniques and that their findings are not worthy of belief because they’ve made some they’ve created some error that we know makes your results unreliable. She’s thinking that this is a methodology matter fact. She’s writing it into a textbook that she’s now shopping around, offer research methods. And this is textbook is going to have this integrated, important methodological pedagogical approach of contrasting science with pseudo science. It makes the case of why is science important? 

Wow. You’re working on so much great stuff. So is Katie working people find your videos? 

My Simplist videos is just Instagram and I my my moniker is physics fun. I just took two words that people don’t usually associate. You know, I kind of welded them together. And so it’s a little silly, but. Yeah. Is fun on Instagram. Please join me there. I do have also if is expert on Facebook, where I post the highlights of youth videos every week. And I have a colleague who’s younger than I am who compiles my videos and post them on YouTube. And that’s physics fun as well. So just if you Google physics fun, I think I pop up a number of areas. 

Oh, I highly recommend it. And it’s it’s friendly for for anyone from it all but young. Three or four year olds could see some fun little stuff all the way up to as long as you can watch something and comprehend it. That’s right. It’s a great place to go. 

You appreciate that. MAN Eight to eighty or four, 90. I don’t know. It’s a huge range right now. Thanks so much for all your work. It’s been great talking to you. We’re not going to do Psychon this year, but we’ll see you next year. 

And on behalf of all the pro science skeptics in the world, we do appreciate what you do. Thanks much. 

Thanks for this opportunity. 

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Jim Underdown

Jim Underdown

Jim Underdown is executive director of Center for Inquiry–Los Angeles, and the founder of the Independent Investigations Group.