AS “Science For Public Understanding”

June 25th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science | 38 Comments »

I’m chatting to some teachers about this tomorrow. Although I am – of course – extremely suspicious of anything that veers away from simply teaching children about proper science (it’s not fusty, it’s retro) I find it very interesting to read what they’re up to. Here’s the link for the CAM page as an example, it’s an improvement on some of the astonishing GCSE stuff I’ve seen on alt med. Enjoy, and I’d be interested to hear and parasitise your thoughts.

www.scpub.org/resources/alternative-medicine,4,MO.html


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38 Responses



  1. Jut said,

    June 25, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    certaintly not as bad as the OCR physics and biology modules I taught over the last few months although that wouldn’t be hard.
    I believe most schools are using the OCR and AQA (T.Greys pet hate) courses though.

  2. pageantmalarkey said,

    June 25, 2007 at 7:29 pm

    You might want to check out GCSE History which covers the History of Medicine in some modules. Basically a Casebook of Quackery, but taught as such.

  3. jackpt said,

    June 25, 2007 at 8:17 pm

    Superficially it doesn’t look too bad, but I’m uncomfortable with some of the PDFs. Assigning pupils to research the principle behind much alt-med won’t necessarily lead to a critical evaluation of the evidence or the claims. Which goes to a deeper problem of how critical thinking, the ability to parse an argument for starters, is handled in schools. It may be that ‘principles’ equals ‘their claims’ but that’s not clear. I hope that’s covered in 3. and 4. but it seems a backward way of doing it.

  4. inicholson said,

    June 25, 2007 at 9:39 pm

    As a science teacher (I teach biology in Scotland) I’m pretty uncomfortable with this stuff.
    There seems to be a token argument against Alt. Med. but what kids will remember is all the materials which supply evidence of how effective assorted herbal remedies are (and maybe that “some scientists don’t like it” – but no evidence supplied!). I was a bit surprised that both pupils sheets I looked at were examples of herbal remedies proving effective – it’s not exactly a balanced view. If I had to teach this stuff I’d be making my own teaching materials.

  5. evidencebasedeating said,

    June 25, 2007 at 10:50 pm

    Similar comments on pdfs to above. Of course, being a dietitian makes me attuned to the subject of nutrition.

    Bit concerned to see ‘nutritional therapy’ unapposed to conventional Dietetics -which would of course prove to be an interesting debate….
    How do ‘nutritional therapists/nutritionists’ manage to translate the same advice into diametrically opposite advice to that of dietitians?

    And certain that my physio and OT colleagues would take offence at being considered part of ‘complementary medicine’ rather than bona fide healthcare practitioners.

    The 13 Allied Health Professionals are all regulated by law – unlike our self-styled cargo-cult woo therapists.

  6. crana said,

    June 25, 2007 at 11:22 pm

    It’s not “Science and Society”, it’s “Science for Public Understanding”.

    My favourite was from the “window shopping” activity, in which students have to make posters with various details about particular kinds of CAM.

    One of the major points the sheet suggests pupils include is “Whether there are any celebrities who use the therapy (see ‘Hello’, ‘OK’ and ‘Heat’!)”

  7. CYvonne said,

    June 25, 2007 at 11:36 pm

    As a research dietitian I’m really uncomfortable with this.

    The overall tone is very approving of CAM.

    Phrases like: “There is always a principle to account for the effect of an alternative therapy. It may not be one that is consistent with modern science” and “Having completed the introductions to different therapies and the scientific basis behind them, students should have a fair idea of how ‘accepted’ different therapies are.” reads to me as if a) the principles are likely to be valid and b) it doesn’t matter if the principles are not consistent with modern science they are still ‘scientific’.

    When asking the question “Given that most alternative remedies are widely used without such trials, do you think this sort of trial is worth doing? Explain your opinion.” one possible answer is “Too much scientific clinical evaluation might reduce the other benefit of alternative remedies, i.e. the longer, more personal consultations.” What does this mean? That it’s OK to sell snake oil as long as people get long consultations? That evidence-based medicine automatically leads to short consultations regardless of funding?

    I am not convinced that the activities are going to produce much in the way of critical evaluation of therapies. The only real stated problem with CAM is the use of the word ‘natural’ and a suggestion this could be discussed but no activities related to this, unlike the activities related to finding out more about different therapies or designing a poster describing a therapy – and no suggestions given that students consider any harmful effects the therapy has been shown to have or that the therapy may do nothing at all.

    Overall there seems to be very little encouragement for the CAM skeptic student here – how well would one do on this module?

    Oh and why do AHPs such as physios, OTs and podiatrists get listed in the “Complementary versus Conventional Medicine” but dietitians don’t? Nutritional therapists are listed. This is a group that is working very hard to make themselves more trusted by the public than dietitians . and their website is very professional and very plausible. Given that dietitians don’t get a mention it looks like they’re winning here.

  8. CYvonne said,

    June 25, 2007 at 11:38 pm

    As a research dietitian I’m really uncomfortable with this.

    The overall tone is very approving of CAM.

    Phrases like: “There is always a principle to account for the effect of an alternative therapy. It may not be one that is consistent with modern science” and “Having completed the introductions to different therapies and the scientific basis behind them, students should have a fair idea of how ‘accepted’ different therapies are.” reads to me as if a) the principles are likely to be valid and b) it doesn’t matter if the principles are not consistent with modern science they are still ‘scientific’.

    When asking the question “Given that most alternative remedies are widely used without such trials, do you think this sort of trial is worth doing? Explain your opinion.” one possible answer is “Too much scientific clinical evaluation might reduce the other benefit of alternative remedies, i.e. the longer, more personal consultations.” What does this mean? That it’s OK to sell snake oil as long as people get long consultations? That evidence-based medicine automatically leads to short consultations regardless of funding?

    I am not convinced that the activities are going to produce much in the way of critical evaluation of therapies. The only real stated problem with CAM is the use of the word ‘natural’ and a suggestion this could be discussed but no activities related to this, unlike the activities related to finding out more about different therapies or designing a poster describing a therapy – and no suggestions given that students consider any harmful effects the therapy has been shown to have or that the therapy may do nothing at all.

    Overall there seems to be very little encouragement for the CAM skeptic student here – how well would one do on this module?

    Oh and why do AHPs such as physios, OTs and podiatrists get listed in the “Complementary versus Conventional Medicine” but dietitians don’t? Nutritional therapists are listed. This group is working very hard to make themselves more trusted by the public than dietitians. and their website is very professional and very plausible. Given that dietitians don’t get a mention it looks like they’re winning here.

  9. CYvonne said,

    June 25, 2007 at 11:42 pm

    No, I have no idea why that went 3 times – sorry.

  10. Jut said,

    June 26, 2007 at 12:08 am

    btw ben, if you’re interested in having a look at some of the OCR units, let me know and I can send you a CD or something with the schemes of work and activity sheets on.

  11. SteveNaive said,

    June 26, 2007 at 8:36 am

    “one possible answer is “Too much scientific clinical evaluation might reduce the other benefit of alternative remedies, i.e. the longer, more personal consultations.”
    Suggesting that this could be a valid answer reveals an underlying misunderstanding of science. Spending more time with a patient may be a good thing because it increases the placebo effect, but one thing it almost certainly does NOT do is increase the potency of CAM ‘remedies’.

  12. apothecary said,

    June 26, 2007 at 9:10 am

    I think the biggest problem is the view point of the teacher using this stuff. I’m sure I (and anyone who’s already commented) could use this stuff as a basis for a valid lesson – pulling out things such as celebrity endorsement vs having good data, problems of trial design (small studies = big problems, MAs of small studies = even bigger problems). Re the latter, the DICE experiment I have previously mentioned on these pages would be a good simple experiment to do – could pull out eg funnel plots, whether P

  13. Persiflage said,

    June 26, 2007 at 9:36 am

    Ye gods and little fishes, this is *awful*. Are we really about to shovel this cobblers down our children’s throats along with the fish oil capsules and the homeopathic Wi-Fi remedies?

    The tone of the material is unashamedly woo-friendly:

    “Discuss the difference between a holistic approach and the more organ specific approach of western medicine.”

    You see, right there is bias. There’s nothing wrong with an holistic approach, but the implication is that alternative medicine is more concerned about your overall well-being than “western medicine”. Of course there’s also an implication that alternative medicine FRICKIN’ DOES SOMETHING, WHICH IT DOES NOT!

    WHY are they perpetuating the language of the woo-mongers? I’m sorry, I’m not normally a conspiracy theorist – particularly when general incompetence suffices for an explanation – but this looks deeply sinister to me.

    What’s with this “western medicine” nonsense, eh? HOMEOPATHY is “western”. Why don’t they say “real medicine”: that would be more to the point.

    The instruction should read “Discuss the difference between the claimed ‘holistic approach’ of alternative medicines with no measurable effect and the more organ-specific approach of medicine that is proven to achieve results.”

    I don’t think – with respect – that you lot sound worried ENOUGH about this. The language is deeply wrong, and reflects a conscious bias on the part of the compiler of this material.

    Consider this: “‘Natural’ is often used as a justification for the safety of alternative therapies. This claim could be examined critically with examples of natural poisons.”

    Sounds like an attempt at balance, yes? NO! It’s an argument that is easily countered and IS NOT relevant to the discussion at hand. You can’t tell me that’s not deliberate. Both “conventional” medicine and CAM make use of substances that are fundamentally toxic, so that “critical examination” can be hand-waved away and thus reinforce the idea that there’s something significant in all the woo babble.

    The discussion SHOULD be “‘Natural’ is often used as a justification for the safety of alternative therapies. This claim could be examined critically by considering what ‘natural’ is, the large-scale industrial processes involved in the production of these ‘natural’ remedies, and whether the implication that ill-health is by extension ‘unnatural’ is offensive to the very large section of the population suffering from ‘natural’ congenital disorders.”

    Do you see my point? The “discussion” suggested is a red herring and will only lead to students being led down the path of considering woo as a valid opposing viewpoint to science.

    I could deconstruct the entire thing here, but I don’t want to go into Ben’s “loser bin”!

  14. reasonableman said,

    June 26, 2007 at 11:53 am

    Hmm I can forsee problems with this ‘placebo’ experiment.

    Some child comes home and says ‘Mummy today we took part in a caffine trial’. I can imagine many parents would be concerned by this, so would contact the school.

    They’d be informed it wasn’t real caffine which would then raise the question of why were you lying to my child.

    Given conversations I’ve had with teachers they’d probably feel more comfortable performing this only after permission slips were signed, which may remove the effect.

  15. Andrew Clegg said,

    June 26, 2007 at 1:21 pm

    Persiflage raises some interesting points — and it’s worrying that while this material is supposed to enhance the public understanding of science, it may well end up painting a picture of science that’s a bit different from how it actually works.

    Re. the ‘caffeine’ placebo experiment, I thought it was actually quite well done, and presumably one could get around the ‘lying’ problem by telling the kids at the end what had really happened. In fact that would be an integral part of it, to prove the point. Interesting that they shy away from making it a three way trial, but then not many teachers would be up for the idea of giving kids caffeine in class, I suppose..!

    Andrew.

  16. RikkHill said,

    June 26, 2007 at 2:10 pm

    I’ve got an AS Level in Science for Public Understanding.

    Seriously, I’ve actually got one. They’ve been knocking about for the better part of a decade, and I selected it as an option when I was doing my A-Levels. It’s on my CV, and I always get asked about it in interviews.

    The idea isn’t to teach actual science content (chances are the student will also be studying a ‘hard’ science subject as well), but to address how science and scientific events in the public eye are put across and interpreted by people not of a scientific background.

    Topics we covered revolved around subjects that attracted a lot of media attention in the late 90s, and which still do: GM crops, climate change, ethics in medicine, alternative energy sources. A lot of the general fodder of Bad Science probably made a guest appearance at some point.

    You have to bear in mind that we were all opinionated 17 year olds. We weren’t unsullied and impressionable tabula rasa; all our opinions for later life had already been formed. We knew the science behind these subjects, but what Science for Public Understanding did was say “when _this_ event happens in science, _that_ is the likely public interpretation of it”.

    Most of our conclusions were “people don’t really understand, it’s a big mess, and although lots of arguments are going to take place between the people who make important legislative decisions on these matters, all those participating are probably unqualified to make meaningful discussion on the subject”.

    Pretty valuable life lesson if you ask me.

  17. superburger said,

    June 26, 2007 at 2:32 pm

    which parts of science aren’t for public understanding then?

  18. RikkHill said,

    June 26, 2007 at 2:47 pm

    Mean free path of a particle? Cepheid variables? Organic polymer semiconductors?

    I *guarantee* you’ll have lost the crowd before you get to “backbone of delocalised electron orbitals”.

  19. RikkHill said,

    June 26, 2007 at 4:17 pm

    Well, maths doesn’t really have much of a social context, politics has nothing but a social context, and computer sciences are usually lumped together with “science”, in that they tend to impact people’s lives in much the same way.

    I don’t know if it’s been made explicit, but it’s not a “science for dummies” course. It’s an examination of science in the public eye. Politics in the public eye is generally called “politics”.

  20. RikkHill said,

    June 26, 2007 at 4:20 pm

    Oh, and all three of those things came up in A-Levels c. 1998.

  21. ceec said,

    June 26, 2007 at 5:48 pm

    Interested in Persiflage’s point about using the phrase “western medicine” to mean “as used in hospitals” or whatever. Not only is it almost meaningless but it can also have slightly racist implications e.g.

    1. Non-western medicine is woo
    2. Non-westerners do not practice or help develop “real medicine”

    Hooray!

  22. SteveNaive said,

    June 26, 2007 at 8:02 pm

    I think evolution is an interesting example to raise when talking about public understanding. This is one field where there is no shortage of popular TV programmes and excellent books, but I get the impression that the majority of people (even those who think they understand it) have managed to get completely the wrong end of the stick. They think that evolution is linear and that it is somehow driven by the organism themselves – that it is within an animal’s grasp to evolve a longer neck or whatever. (I don’t think we can blame this basic misunderstanding on creationists.)

  23. Weirdbeard said,

    June 26, 2007 at 8:14 pm

    You don’t need to tell some of us who work in school science departments about this sort of thing. We’ve had to put up with it for the past year or more since the new syllabuses came in. They include little scientific enquiry but lots of discussion but, if my experience is anything to go by, most of the teachers think it’s great and close their ears when you argue against it. In fact, to argue against it is to be treated as some kind of left-over from the past. Opinion is now everything. If your opinion conflicts with scientific accuracy then, hey, that’s just tough because your opinion is just as valid as anyone elses isn’t it? If a bunch of real scientists express concern (as the Royal Society, the Institutes of Physics, Chemistry & Biology and numerous individual scientists have) then what the hell do they know anyway? Heck, Intelligent Design was only taken out of the OCR “21st Century Science” syllabus at something approaching the last minute.

  24. thomaswp said,

    June 26, 2007 at 9:06 pm

    I teach SPU. I met Ben today and enjoyed his talk. Thanks Ben. How did the Ri go? You looked knackered. After heckling you I guess I should now come clean and stop lurking.

    The whole point of SPU as I teach it is that you are developing opinions in immature young adults. I have to say that I do not look too closely at the curriculum material and concentrate more on the ideas. I try and teach the science as it is generally accepted – from the evidence. But I enjoy playing devils advocate and presenting biassed evidence with confidence as so many people do in the press. e.g. I like describing Pratchett’s Discworld as a World view and try and argue the point. When I am teaching it I am teaching people to think. I teach the physical side but I know for sure that our biologists are as sceptical as you would hope about alternative therapy and get the students to explore the “evidence” and make up their own minds. I think that science teaching is slowly changing (at least that is the hope!) to make the students actually THINK not learn by rote. But it is like turning a very large barge with a very small rudder.

    badscience.net is great for flagging up things to discuss. More power to its elbow.

  25. tom1 said,

    June 27, 2007 at 10:05 am

    Perhaps it would be politically a little insensitive, but I wonder whether in fact ‘Teaching the Debate’ might not be a good idea here. Evolution has a great historical narrative that goes to the heart of how scientific and pseudoscientific ideas are formed.

  26. Dr Aust said,

    June 27, 2007 at 11:22 am

    Interesting contrast, tom1.

    “Teaching the history of the debate” is subtly different to “teaching the debate”. It might actually be better, because giving the HISTORY of (e.g.) evolution plugs into a “ongoing march of time and ideas” context – the general idea that human understanding progresses and how science is a big part of that.

    Trouble is, it is possibly a bit “dusty” unless the teaching is very good, and (possibly more of a drawback) it would take time to do. On the plus side, as you say, it also helps to introduce some critical philosophy of science things, including “how scientific ideas arise, and are tested”.

    On balance I would think historical is the way to go for evolution. Would also work for homeopathy, I think. In fact they might make a pair of interestingly contrasting examples for the “interrogate the idea via its history” approach.

  27. tom1 said,

    June 27, 2007 at 11:46 am

    Absolutely, historical context is everything. One can at least glean from that the difference between being wrong, but scientifically sound and, being pseudoscientific.

    Is part of the problem a general suspicion with appeal to authority as a form of argument, whether in science or otherwise?

  28. tom1 said,

    June 27, 2007 at 1:05 pm

    Aside, and perhaps related to the appeal to authority issue, I wonder whether the course we’d like to be taught doesn’t require some kind of explicit acknowledgement that some ideas are to be preferred over others that is politically difficult to give? Isn’t selling homeopathy pills in Boots akin to flogging pyramidal investment schemes? It’s known to be rubbish, it’s demonstrably rubbish and yet people keep opening their wallets. If we need protecting from pyramidal investments, why not this? As mentioned elsewhere on this site, people do die from believing in this stuff.

    It being possible for all of us to be renaissance men and women, able to develop individual formed opinions on these topics without deference to authority is surely a myth? Perhaps I’m joining too many dots, but I wonder whether this isn’t part of the same cultural movement as patient choice and parent choice? When choice is handed down the line, so is responsibility. If I were Minister for , I’d probably want to let the proles chose too. This is all getting too much like a conspiracy theory. Maybe I should have the right to by homeopathy pills from Boots, I’m too depressed to form an opinion.

  29. Teek said,

    June 27, 2007 at 1:11 pm

    classic Blairite logic – take two things that are necessarily on an uneven keel (i.e. “western medicine” and sCAM, MMR and, single jabs, internal NHS markets and patient care) and, in the name of meritocracy, give them a level footing in what is represented as a debate.

    in the SPU course if kids were tought how to evaluate things objectively, using the power of evidence alone, and how to bring together lines of evidence to form coherent and falsifiable (sp?) theories, then they would automatically come to the conclusion that most alt. med “therapies” are nothing of the sort. giving the impression that pill peddlers and shaman/charlatan/sCAMsters have the right to a debate when placed against evidence-based, controlled and explicable medicine is a joke – i dread to think what our nation will look like in twenty years!!!

  30. Persiflage said,

    June 27, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    The tone of the Daily Mail editorial?

  31. superburger said,

    June 27, 2007 at 3:57 pm

    rickhill no.26 27

    I said AS level, not A-level, but i think most people agree that the exams are easier now than before.

    maths does have a social context, and there’s lots of maths the ‘public’ could ‘understand’ better.

    perhaps if people understood percentages and interest better carol vorderman wouldn’t be using her 3rd class degree and 2nd class looks to flog secured loans to people with massive unsecured debt.

    perhaps if people understood probability better the jury in the Sally Clark case wouldn’t have been misled.

    there’s plenty of misunderstood maths in the badscience archives…

    i wouldn’t belittle anyones qualifications, but I would be worried if admissions tutors were accepting an AS in this in lieu of a science AS level.

  32. tom1 said,

    June 27, 2007 at 4:39 pm

    Superburger,

    In so far as the Sally Clark thing goes, if nothing else it demonstrates that this isn’t simply an issue of being smart or dumb (depending on your view of judges and lawyers). To some extent this thread has disappeared off into talking about more general issues than this specific course.

    I watched a bunch of old James Randy debunking clips on YouTube last night. History has demonstrated that even showing how it’s done isn’t sufficient, but the odd moments where he got really fired up appealed. I wonder how the Amazing Goldacre’s close up magic is, the UK could do with some good old fashioned stage debunking.

  33. Dr Aust said,

    June 27, 2007 at 8:59 pm

    Re. 46, one of the best “but what are the real statistics?” stories (though not a “bad science” one exactly) is the one about the Swedes and the Lapland satellite evacuation. A good version of this story is in Michael O’Donnell’ excellent compendium “Medicine’s Strangest Cases”:

    www.amazon.co.uk/Medicines-Strangest-Cases-Michael-ODonnell/dp/1861055633/

    The story was that a satellite in a decaying orbit was thought to be likely to crash-land in an remote area of Lapland that was virtually unpopulated save for a few nomadic reindeer-herders.

    The Swedish Govt. offered to chopper the reindeer herders out of the area, at vast cost to the Swedish taxpayer.

    Hermann Bondi, a famous British statistician, crunched the numbers and pointed out that the probability of any reindeer herder who stayed put having the satellite land on them was several orders of magnitude less than the chance they would be killed in a helicopter crash on a routine flight.

    So the Swedish Govt’s decision was daft. Well, depends. On the statistics it was a wholly illogical decision. But Bondi said that the Swedes had factored in that if they didn’t offer to evacuate people, and the satellite killed someone when it landed, the headlines would scream “heartless and negligent Govt leaves reindeer herders to die”. While if the chopper crashed, the headline would be “tragic helicopter crash kills herders” and the Govt. would be off the hook.

    This story is often used to illustrate the difference between real and perceived risk.

    Not sure exactly what point I am making with it here, but it’s a useful little anecdote.

  34. DrJon said,

    June 28, 2007 at 11:54 am

    Only slightly related, but I notice that Ben’s old mate Rod Read (From electrosensitivity UK) has been posting on the Electrosensitivity wikipedia talk page, pushing his own brand of science for public (mis)understanding (link here. Apparently only ES sufferers are treated badly by us science types, which I find hard to believe as I advise them to see a real doctor while trying to be nice, but treat homoeopathic practitioners with (good natured) derision.

    Also, have we decided if sense about science is a good thing, or a one trick pony, or no good?

  35. DrJ said,

    June 28, 2007 at 2:22 pm

    DrJon, what is his wiki name

  36. Hambo said,

    June 28, 2007 at 2:23 pm

    When i first started teaching in 95 this course was knocking around as Science in Society, it’s been around for years. Most people didn’t take it seriously and used it to fill in time on their A level courses.
    They changed the name to Science for public understanding sometime around 2000 i think, it was essentially the same stuff.
    The course was really as good as the teacher was at enthusing 17 yr olds to think about how science developed and how it is really used.
    It was of course and still is an AS qualification so i suppose it is now good enough to get you onto a physics degree in the uk!

  37. Robert Carnegie said,

    June 29, 2007 at 12:02 am

    This isn’t what Richard Dawkins has got! Nevertheless – call it “public misunderstanding of science” and we’ve got something. ;-)

    Understanding science properly calls for doing it full time, I think, and no one has time for -all- of it. We should all resign ourselves to that. What does Stephen Hawking know about aerodynamics? Or, indeed, Richard Dawkins?

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