Biology professor Dr. James Wilson makes examples of ghosts, Bigfoot, mermaids, and local legends to encourage students to think more like scientists.
Associate Professor of Biology,University of Nebraska at Omaha
PhD in Zoology, BS and MS in Biological Sciences
James Wilson has nothing against the world of fantasy. The former Disneyland employee not only wears a different Star Wars T-shirt to class every day but he is also part of a Star Wars costumer’s club, and he has his own Wookiee suit, too. As a zoologist and biology professor, however, Dr. Wilson does not find it amusing that so many people confuse popular myths with scientific reality.
With that mindset, he created a course at the University of Nebraska at Omaha—called Science and Critical Thinking—to teach undergrads the ABCs of scientific reasoning and evidence so that they do not confuse the world of make-believe with the world they actually live in.
To illustrate the point, he will sometimes show up for class dressed as Chewbacca (the towering—and hirsute—Wookiee warrior). “Don’t always believe what you see,” he tells the startled class. “Even though Bigfoot is standing right in front of you, it is not Bigfoot. Not only do you need to see something and hear it, but you have to hold it in your hands, dissect it, and see if it’s a real animal—and not a human in a costume.”
On a larger scale, Wilson wants them to learn how to engage in the research and critical thinking to determine whether statements—outlandish or not—are true. To be able to do this, they need to understand what is good evidence and what is not. Below, Wilson shares his top strategies for turning 300 students per semester into nonbelievers.
Students often believe things with no evidentiary basis
People are often influenced by media, other people, or their own emotions to accept things that have no scientific foundation. Adding fuel to such misunderstanding are books and papers, written in a pseudoscientific style, that seem to give credence to supernatural phenomena. Accepting nonscientific beliefs can be harmful, says Wilson, leading to false understandings about the world.
Confront popular myths to build scientific understanding
Wilson designed his Science and Critical Thinking course to expose the fallacies behind myths and creatures of legend—and enhance the scientific literacy of his students. One by one, he homes in on weird phenomena (such as ghosts, ear-candling, vampires, and UFOs) to show why they cannot withstand a critical scientific assessment. His approach teaches students to become more thoughtful about the sources they accept as trustworthy.
“I started this class because I was mad that people thought mermaids were real. [My students] watch these Bigfoot shows but never hear the opposite side, which is that all DNA tests taken of these so-called monsters have failed miserably. What I want [students] to learn is how to know if statements are true and framed in hypotheses. There’s a real truth out there in the universe, and it’s objective.”
-James Wilson, PhD
Course description: Introduction to the fundamental laws and principles of science and practice using the scientific method in everyday life to distinguish between scientific evidence and pseudoscientific thinking. Students will examine the science underlying popular pseudoscientific subjects such as ghosts, psychics, Bigfoot and other monsters, and space aliens.
Wilson’s scientific approach to debunking popular myths
Wilson’s approach is designed to appeal to students who lack a strong background in science but are intrigued by folklore and pop culture. Some of the topics he covers regularly include Bigfoot, mermaids, ear-candling, cupping, and ghosts.
What follows are some of the methods he uses to craft a memorable journey through the world of make-believe—while slaying the specter of pseudoscience.
Encourage a healthy skepticism of trusted opinions
As a starting point, Wilson tries to imbue in students the principle of questioning everything. That includes information coming from sources they trust, such as parents, friends, teachers, and even their own perceptions of experiences. For example, their grandmother might swear by cupping or ear-candling—or a student might think a spirit is watching over them because they did not encounter a single red traffic light on the way to class. What they forget is the other thousands of times they hit every red light (or just one or two). “People remember the hits and forget the misses,” he tells them.
Provide evidence that humans are wired to be gullible
One of the points Wilson emphasizes is that humans are vulnerable to deception, and that this weakness can be traced to how the brain functions. He explains this to the class with the help of video clips that show how easily the brain can be tricked. “The clips I use are from a great series called Brain Games from the National Geographic channel. These videos use visual games that show how your brain makes (sometimes incorrect) assumptions about the world around you. They are designed to trick your brain, and this helps me show students that their perception can be wrong, especially in situations that are unusual—darkness, fear.”
Do some serious research into pseudoscience materials
There are books, blogs, and even “research papers” out there on every topic Wilson covers, and he admits that some of it can sound downright convincing. Materials are often presented in a deliberately pseudoscientific way, full of words and concepts that sound scientific but are used incorrectly or support broken logic.
“[As an educator,] you need to understand the other side in order to see how it doesn’t fit with the science,” says Wilson. “I teach [students] something called the Criteria of Adequacy, which consists of five components. First, testability: Can you actually test (or falsify) the thing you are wondering about? If you cannot test it, then it is likely false.
“Second, fruitfulness: Does the new knowledge predict new information that we didn’t even know about? For example, Darwin, through his theory of natural selection, predicted the existence of DNA, even though we had no idea that molecule existed (and we wouldn’t know for another 100 years). If new info predicts new information, then it is probably correct.
“Third, scope: How broadly does the new information apply? If it explains things all across the universe, then it is more likely to be correct than something that only explains a small, specific thing.
“Fourth, simplicity: The simpler an explanation is, the more likely it is to be true.
“Fifth, conservatism: If the new information fits within the knowledge we know is true, then it is likely to be true. This is where most paranormal things fail. For example, ghosts can be seen (or heard), and yet they can walk through walls. However, if you are solid enough to reflect light (and therefore be seen), then you are too solid to go through a wall—otherwise fog would come in buildings through the walls.”
Introduce real science to debunk the pseudo version
Wilson emphasizes the importance of evidence in making decisions about what is real and what is not. He wants students to know that careful, research-based assessments actually exist on many of these topics, so in class he tackles certain types of alternative medicine head-on, using scientific studies that disprove them. For example, he uses articles by Ernst, Polevoy, and the Australian government’s National Health and Medical Research Council to help students question the value of homeopathic treatment.
Take students on field trips to explore local urban legends
As a fun twist, Wilson sometimes takes his students to local sites of supposed paranormal activity. A favorite expedition is to the “magic” stairway of an Omaha park, where (according to legend) people do not count the same number of steps on the way up as they count on the way down. Wilson’s students give it a try, and the results are usually mixed, with many getting the same number of stairs each way but others failing to do so. Wilson then asks students to give a hypothesis as to why some people’s stair counts did not match on the way up and down—and the hypothesis cannot be related to ghosts or magic.
Throughout it all, Wilson continues to hammer home the underlying matter: that the scientific method is a way to remove biases and demonstrate that a hypothesis is true because it is the only way those results could happen and because those results are repeatable. He wants his students to know that however much fun it may be to believe otherwise, truth is not a matter of subjective perspective. “There’s a real truth out there in the universe,” says Wilson. “And it’s objective.”
After the course is over, Wilson often runs into students who tell him they have confronted family members or friends about fantastic beliefs that they no longer hold. And, on occasion, he encounters some who simply cannot reconcile their own beliefs (or religion) with the principles he is teaching. They may even suggest he has an ulterior motive for teaching the course. (“I do have an ulterior motive,” he says. “It’s promoting science!”) Either way, Wilson sees these strong responses as evidence that his approach prompts students to think hard about their own world views—which is, after all, a key goal of the course.