Bad Science teaching resources for schools

October 8th, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in teaching resources | 33 Comments »

A couple of years ago I made a bunch of school resources for teachers with the organisation NESTA and a group of teachers. Since I mentioned them in the book a couple of people have asked for them, so here they are:

I think they’re good fun, and informative, but there aren’t enough of them, and so if any teachers out there wanted to get together and collaborate on making some more, and bung them up for free online, I’d be very enthusiastic about that.

My reasoning is as follows:

1. Torpedoing bad ideas is the perfect way to teach good science because science is, after all, about critically appraising the evidence for a given claim.

2. There is a huge appetite for evidence based medicine: half of all science coverage in the media is medical, much of that is about what will kill or cure you (see also the Daily Mail’s project of dividing all the inanimate objects in the world into what causes or cures cancer), People are clearly fascinated by this stuff, and yet we are completely ignorant of the basics.

3. People often claim that creationism is really useful in schools, because it is a good way to teach about “controversy in science”. It is in fact a terrible example: disentangling the claims of the ID movement in particular requires a vast amount of highly technical and marginally useful detail, and the evidence for evolution requires a fair amount of effort too, when you get down to it. Creationism makes for a very unclean teaching case, and the explanations around it require a large amount of specialist knowledge that would not be generally useful.

4. Everybody is interested in MMR and the merits of fish oil pills or homeopathy, and more importantly, these are perfect opportunities to teach cleanly and clearly not just about the answers from science, but the process, the mechanics of how we can find out if something is good for you, or bad for you.

5. It is also a great opportunity to laugh at people like TV nutritionist Gillian McKeith, vitamin pill entrepreneur Patrick Holford, along with various other millionaires and, more importantly, national newspapers, all of whom pose as authority figures.

I’ve had quite a few emails from people who are using stories from the column or the book already in lessons, do please post below if you’ve any useful experiences of trying them out, pointers, or would like to get something a bit more organised together; pub or wiki is fine, and if there is a group like NESTA who want to coordinate and help get the stuff out for free under a creative commons license then all the better. Note to collaborators: I am overcommitted and unable to organise things, but willing / able / very fast working once stuck in.

Otherwise the classes above are there for the taking, here is an old story about a fun classroom activity where a teacher took on a big corporation over dodgy science and won, here are a few scatty notes (which, er, someone should update soon) on badscience activism, here is a good recent media story with links to the originals, and here is a website and book full of raw material for art.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

33 Responses

  1. Jamie Horder said,

    October 8, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    You should devote a column to Point 3 – absolutely right and it needs saying.

  2. alibim said,

    October 9, 2008 at 1:14 am

    Hear hear! I am so tired of hearing people say that teaching about creationism can be used to teach about controversy. (What controversy??) There are so many better ways to teach the nature of science.

    Excellent post, by the way – I’ve sent the link to all the science teachers that I work with.

  3. peterd102 said,

    October 9, 2008 at 1:22 am

    As someone who very recently did a GCSE double award in science (2 A*s Yay!) I would like to bring some stuff up on the education issue.

    The point i shall raise is that some of these things are covered in a classroom, homeopathy is disscussed and shown to be bullshit. It is, admitedly, kinder to it than that in print, but the message is there.

    There are some criticsims of Ben’s Opinions of Education in his book which i have addressed in my blog –
    – I do hope some of you read this, dont bother with much of the other posts -it is maninly about TF2 atm lolz.

    I would like to see more on Evidence in lessons, earlier than GCSEs. Teach reasoning in Primary Schools!

  4. topazg said,

    October 9, 2008 at 12:11 pm

    Actually, I’d love to pick you up on 3 too. It’s a great point that needs raising, but also one the does need properly addressing. For better or worse, creationism / ID (in its various forms) _does_ exist, and there will be plenty of interest and debate around it. Simply ignoring it because the debate requires complex understanding, and writing it off in schools as “outdated crap” will be more likely to engender teenagers to investigate it and give it undue prominence. There’s nothing children resent more than being told something is wrong or false without justification! How to address it of course is another matter entirely, but, to quote your first point, “torpedoing” it based on evidence based methods seems the better option to not including it in the curriculum.

  5. Ephiny said,

    October 9, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    I agree that creationism is a terrible example of a controversy in science, but can anyone suggest a good example?

  6. Oldfart said,

    October 9, 2008 at 3:50 pm

    Physics is full of controversies between scientists. Both Dark Matter and Dark Energy is controversial as is each of the competing forms of string theory. And, since Physics is the most basic of all sciences next to math, it’s about as straight forward as you can get.

  7. phayes said,

    October 9, 2008 at 5:28 pm

    Hehe… I sure wish I’d left school with a sufficient understanding of physics that I found consideration of current issues and controversies straightforward.

    phayes: “Hey Mum! Is it okay if I take my skateboard and go on over to Tom’s now?”

    Mum: “Have you done your homework yet phayes – you were only in your room for a few minutes?“

    phayes: “Sure I have, Mum. There was only physics homework today and it was easy – we just had to show that in the zero-slope limit, the heterotic string theory yields 10 dimensional supergravity coupled to a super Yang-Mills gauge multiplet with E₈⊗E₈ symmetry.”

    I agree with Ben on point 3 too.

  8. peterd102 said,

    October 9, 2008 at 5:50 pm

    Time for the XKCD comic i think –

    You do realise how awful creationism is when it isnt even a useful example of bad science.

    Stephen J. Gould and Richard Dawkins theories on gaps in the fossil records are interestiong to use. Bursts of Evolution or How the rocks were formed? (I must admit I am in the Dawkins camp myself). These are still fairly complex examples, I cant think of a really brillant example of ‘controversy’ in science off the top of my head. They’ll be one out there though.

  9. Jamie Horder said,

    October 9, 2008 at 8:26 pm

    “I agree that creationism is a terrible example of a controversy in science, but can anyone suggest a good example?”

    Er…hmm. Good question. I can think of plenty of controversies in my field (psychiatric neuroscience) but in order to understand the point of even one of them you’d need to read and understand at least a dozen research papers.

    Maybe that’s the whole point. There are no “neat” examples of scientific controveries that make good teaching material, because most genuine scientific debates are so messy and specific.

    In which case the best approach would be to teach students, in excruciating detail, all about some obscure historical controversy, and then tell them “…and the debate over evolution is even more boring, so to save you time, just remember that the evolution side won.”

  10. RS said,

    October 9, 2008 at 8:28 pm

    The chemical/electrical neuronal transmission controversy (Eccles, Dale etc) is a nice and clean but rather dated example.

  11. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 9, 2008 at 8:31 pm

    hang on, what’s wrong with my suggestion of fish oil claims, mmr, and homeopathy? those are popular “controversies”, and the background understanding needed to appreciate the story is basic evidence based medicine, which is useful for the rest of your life, every time you open a newspaper and see a claim about a pill, or a vegetable, or visit a doctor.

  12. Jamie Horder said,

    October 9, 2008 at 8:44 pm

    Oh yeah, those are great examples of controversies over whether X causes or cures Y. Which in the balance are probably the most relevant to the average citizen. I was thinking of “basic science” controversies, but then maybe only scientists need to worry about those anyway.

  13. The Biologista said,

    October 9, 2008 at 10:10 pm

    These are “basic science” misunderstandings… scientific debate (ie within the community as opposed to within the public domain) is another matter entirely. I would say that the MMR scare and its ilk represent perfect examples of public-relevant controversies. I agree with Ben on the creationism matter- it is far too complex a row and at any rate is not really relevant to most UK students.

  14. AntibodyBoy said,

    October 9, 2008 at 11:00 pm

    On the whole Bravo!
    But I’m concerned by the fact that we’re all going straight to point 3 (not to mention the whole Reiss thing), then ignoring the elephant. Its naive to think creationism is going to go away by merely ignoring it.
    Obviously all the IDers claims have been debunked & creationist misconcenceptions dispelled in myriad media over & over & over – yet it won’t die! It seems like we can’t afford to tire of refuting them & give up, smug in the knowledge that if you bother to go & read up, you see its a load of nonsense. A lot of people won’t do that & the education system will have failed them.
    I guess the fear is that we risk giving them a foothold by introducing their tosh as a ‘viable alternative theory’ in the classroom. Nevertheless, I don’t agree that the knowledge required to rebuke creationism can’t be reasonably presented to a GCSE or A-level student.

  15. peterd102 said,

    October 9, 2008 at 11:32 pm

    Yeh Im a A-Level student and its quite plainly Obvious that Creationsim is a pile of horseshit, and the rest of the students seem clever enough to grasp that the earth isnt 10,000 years old.

    These examples are examples of Wrong science, not a science controversy as others were thinking of. The evidence is swayed in one way for homeopathy ect. Is there a nice example where there is equal evidence on both sides?

  16. The Biologista said,

    October 9, 2008 at 11:47 pm

    Yes I think we have more subtle dangers to confront than creationism. I regularly engage in that particular debate, but at this time I think it’s not one of our main concerns in this part of the world. There are some moves towards teaching creationism in Northern Ireland, mind you.

  17. pv said,

    October 9, 2008 at 11:54 pm

    The only people who have ever suggested there was some sort of controversy, as far as I’m aware, are proponents of Intelligent Design (aka Creationists).
    I don’t know about controversies apart from Ben’s suggestions but Homeopathy would be a good example of pretend science or, in Feynman’s words, “Cargo Cult Science”. In fact I think Cargo Cult Science should be obligatory reading.

  18. AntibodyBoy said,

    October 10, 2008 at 9:58 am

    Ok, I see your point – I agree there is no controversy, just misunderstanding & pig-headed denial of evidence. Surely this is true of homeopathy, nutritionism, etc – I’ll stick my neck out here & point out that just about everything featured on this site is chosen precisely because their exists plentiful evidence to the contrary? Of course its all worthy stuff & should be used as teaching examples – but I guess I fundamentally dont see the ‘controversy’ in any of this – cargo cult is exactly what it is. Perhaps more useful ‘controversy’ is found in areas where science cant really help us to chose the ‘right’ path, like proliferation of cloning technology, abortion rights, etc.

  19. Ian H said,

    October 10, 2008 at 11:51 am

    I teach at a school which uses what is arguably the most challenging GCSE syllabus. And still the discussion of real science is rather limited in places. Constraints of time, syllabus and some students persistent refusal to consider anything that goes against their religious views is frustrating. For example:

    I’ve recently been teaching a bit of human biology to Year 11 kids, 15/16. We were looking at enzymes and the digestive system, trying to explain why it’s important we have a mucus lining in the stomach. I asked what people are made of, hoping to get the idea of protein (i.e. meat!). The answer I got? “Clay.” He’s been taught it and *had no idea* that this was a religious metaphor. Imagine how tricky evolution is!

    On a more positive note – and more relevant to Ben’s original post – I have a few resources, worksheets, activities, powerpoints – that I use to try and teach about the real processes of science and how we examine ideas to see if they are useful. Recent examples include “mobile phone masts cause cancer” and “results of the MMR hoax”. I’m happy to email them as attachments if someone can make them accessible to all, ideally with contributions from the many other teachers who are no doubt around…

  20. diogenes said,

    October 10, 2008 at 11:16 pm

    There may not be any good examples of questions in science which are both current and in which the evidence is equal on both sides. This is because in science if the evidence is the same on both sides it won’t stay that way for long, at least if the scientists have there way. They will find ways in which the two sides make different predictions and go and test them. If stalemate and entrenched dogma is what you’re after you might perhaps want to try philosophy…

  21. misterjohn said,

    October 10, 2008 at 11:24 pm

    If anyone wants some ideas, then is a good source.
    They have some new material about interpreting medical research papers.
    From their email today I quote:-

    Further information: what’s in the resource?

    The lesson plans cover a range of abilities from Key Stage 4 pupils up to A-level. These include:

    Roleplay: an exercise where pupils play the different roles of researcher, editor and reviewer, experiencing the different stages that a piece of research must pass through in order to be published.

    Science in the media: a look at how science stories are reported in the news using real-life examples such as mobile phones and cancer, cloning, and the HPV vaccine. Students are encouraged to question the nature of the research behind the story, identify who carried it out and most importantly, ask whether it has been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

    The Process and its Challenges: intended for advanced students, this exercise looks at the limitations of peer review. Students learn about real-life cases such as the scandal surrounding Korean cloning expert Hwang Woo-suk, and learn what role peer review has to play in these events.

    The resource fits into the curriculum requirement (introduced in 2006) that secondary school children must be taught “how uncertainties in scientific knowledge and scientific ideas change over time and the role of the scientific community in validating these changes.” As part of the new STEM Directories project, details of the resource will be distributed to schools throughout the country

    The resource is located at

  22. Robert Carnegie said,

    October 13, 2008 at 3:15 am

    Surely good science teaching is offtopic in the Bad Science discussion.

    Wonder Woman was made of clay. One version of the story has her as the reincarnation of the unborn child of a prehistoric murder vactiim, if I followed. The origin and constitution of other human beings is different.

    We’re mostly water – come to think that is not in the bible.

  23. McCruiskeen said,

    October 13, 2008 at 11:14 am

    Of course the ultimate “Bad Science Teaching Resource for Schools” has been sent out to 5,000 of them by one Tony Attwood of PR firm, Hamilton House.

    As a means of “improving” exam results, it strikes me as akin, in ethical considerations, to the cynical pocket-lining machinations that have led to the current financial crisis.

    I suspect that those responsible for the Durham “Fish Oil Farce” believe that ethics is a county near London.

  24. McCruiskeen said,

    October 13, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    Episode 6 of my Blog (David Ford Replies to Me) is now available.

  25. nick_127 said,

    October 13, 2008 at 9:58 pm

    Nothing to do with this article, but did anyone else get an email with an RSS feed for a Bad Science article that doesn’t seem to exist?

  26. McCruiskeen said,

    October 14, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    Thanks PV! I’m slowly learning.

    Chapter 7 is now available at:

  27. Ian H said,

    October 15, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    I’m not a member (and at £77 pa I’m not likely to be any time soon) but the Association for Science Education has some good resources. They run a separate website with a load of activities (link below), for teachers and pupils, and the list of partners include drug companies, the Institute of Physics and so on. Perhaps BadScience could become a partner? 🙂

    It would be good to have an online library of actual classroom activities, free access and all that. Like many teachers who may be reading, I’m afraid although it’s a great idea, I’d have no idea how to set it up or go about running it.

  28. DidIErr said,

    October 20, 2008 at 9:17 pm

    I could set up these resources as a wikibook. What do you think? Everyone could then adapt, expand and improve the work.

  29. Robert Carnegie said,

    October 22, 2008 at 2:38 am

    You get the impression sometimes that a scientific controversy is resolved by the last of the holdouts on the losing side finally dying. I expect that names will come to mind…

  30. sandy t said,

    October 27, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    I can think of one relatively simple science controversy that might be useful: the debate over whether stomach ulcers were caused by stress or bacteria. And as a plus, it offers an example of someone using extremely unconventional means to prove their theory!

  31. McCruiskeen said,

    November 5, 2008 at 6:34 pm

    Chapter 8 of the blog is done

  32. DidIErr said,

    November 17, 2008 at 9:55 pm

    The wikibook is up and limping along:

    There’s a few pages where the format needs sorting out, and the random number game defeats my efforts to transfer it, but it’s a start.

    Now, who’s going to be first to add a new topic? MMR? Fish oil ‘research’? Homeopathy?

  33. anonimos_non said,

    September 17, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    In regard to your reasoning point #3:

    “3. People often claim that creationism is really useful in schools, because it is a good way to teach about “controversy in science”. It is in fact a terrible example: disentangling the claims of the ID movement in particular requires a vast amount of highly technical and marginally useful detail, and the evidence for evolution requires a fair amount of effort too, when you get down to it. Creationism makes for a very unclean teaching case, and the explanations around it require a large amount of specialist knowledge that would not be generally useful.”

    What started out as a satire piece and a real letter to the Kansas School Board absolutely validates your point and reasoning.

    The Flying Spaghetti Monster

    The Letter to the Kansas School Board

    “Open Letter To Kansas School Board
    I am writing you with much concern after having read of your hearing to decide whether the alternative theory of Intelligent Design should be taught along with the theory of Evolution. I think we can all agree that it is important for students to hear multiple viewpoints so they can choose for themselves the theory that makes the most sense to them. I am concerned, however, that students will only hear one theory of Intelligent Design.

    Let us remember that there are multiple theories of Intelligent Design. I and many others around the world are of the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was He who created all that we see and all that we feel. We feel strongly that the overwhelming scientific evidence pointing towards evolutionary processes is nothing but a coincidence, put in place by Him.

    It is for this reason that I’m writing you today, to formally request that this alternative theory be taught in your schools, along with the other two theories. In fact, I will go so far as to say, if you do not agree to do this, we will be forced to proceed with legal action. I’m sure you see where we are coming from. If the Intelligent Design theory is not based on faith, but instead another scientific theory, as is claimed, then you must also allow our theory to be taught, as it is also based on science, not on faith.

    Some find that hard to believe, so it may be helpful to tell you a little more about our beliefs. We have evidence that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe. None of us, of course, were around to see it, but we have written accounts of it. We have several lengthy volumes explaining all details of His power. Also, you may be surprised to hear that there are over 10 million of us, and growing. We tend to be very secretive, as many people claim our beliefs are not substantiated by observable evidence.

    What these people don’t understand is that He built the world to make us think the earth is older than it really is. For example, a scientist may perform a carbon-dating process on an artifact. He finds that approximately 75% of the Carbon-14 has decayed by electron emission to Nitrogen-14, and infers that this artifact is approximately 10,000 years old, as the half-life of Carbon-14 appears to be 5,730 years. But what our scientist does not realize is that every time he makes a measurement, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is there changing the results with His Noodly Appendage. We have numerous texts that describe in detail how this can be possible and the reasons why He does this. He is of course invisible and can pass through normal matter with ease.

    I’m sure you now realize how important it is that your students are taught this alternate theory. It is absolutely imperative that they realize that observable evidence is at the discretion of a Flying Spaghetti Monster. Furthermore, it is disrespectful to teach our beliefs without wearing His chosen outfit, which of course is full pirate regalia. I cannot stress the importance of this enough, and unfortunately cannot describe in detail why this must be done as I fear this letter is already becoming too long. The concise explanation is that He becomes angry if we don’t.

    You may be interested to know that global warming, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters are a direct effect of the shrinking numbers of Pirates since the 1800s. For your interest, I have included a graph of the approximate number of pirates versus the average global temperature over the last 200 years. As you can see, there is a statistically significant inverse relationship between pirates and global temperature.

    In conclusion, thank you for taking the time to hear our views and beliefs. I hope I was able to convey the importance of teaching this theory to your students. We will of course be able to train the teachers in this alternate theory. I am eagerly awaiting your response, and hope dearly that no legal action will need to be taken. I think we can all look forward to the time when these three theories are given equal time in our science classrooms across the country, and eventually the world; One third time for Intelligent Design, one third time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism (Pastafarianism), and one third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence.

    Sincerely Yours,

    Bobby Henderson, concerned citizen.

    P.S. I have included an artistic drawing of Him creating a mountain, trees, and a midget. Remember, we are all His creatures.”

    Sometimes the the best way to debunk serious subjects is to descend into satire.