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Conversation #41: Michelle Francl on Pseudoscience

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Michelle Francl

A conversation with Dr. Michelle Francl of Bryn Mawr College on teaching, learning, and pseudoscience.

Dr. Francl's scholarly work is located in both chemistry, mathematics and the humanities. One area of research spans topology and chemistry, designing molecules with intriguing topologies. The second scholarly space she inhabits sits on the border between chemistry and the humanities, where her interests center on how chemists work and how they understand the work they do.

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Everson: I’m Bart Everson and today I’m speaking with Michelle Francl of Bryn Mawr College where she’s been on the faculty since 1986. She's a quantum physicist, she has published in areas ranging from the development of methods from computational  chemistry, to the structure of topologically intriguing molecules. She was selected a  fellow of the American Chemical Society in 2009 and Dr. Francl is also a writer whose essays on science, culture and policies have appeared in Site magazine, in Nature Chemistry, and several collections. So Dr. Fancl thanks for speaking with me  this morning. So I wanted to start the discussion with a recent experience I had. I had stumbled upon an article that made some assertions that seemed suspect to me. It seems that pseudoscience was linked to a peer review journal but the article that I was actually looking at seems to make all of these assumptions that didn't really support all that. So I started looking at the website on which it was published called Science 2.0. And it got me wondering if it was refutable. And so as a laman, I wondered how can you tell? How can I make that determination without formal training in the sciences? And so I was wondering if someone from around the block is having trouble with this, how can students and young people understand or tell the difference? And so that me looking on the internet for people who have thought about this and write about this which is what led me to you.

Francl: Well you’re starting by asking the right question, is this reliable information? Who put it out there? All of things we say to our students before picking up any information. When was it written? How was it written? Why was it written and for whom was it written for? So as soon as you start asking those things, it's already a little vaccination against pseudoscience.

Everson: Well good. Maybe, keeping in mind that some of our audience are of course well versed in sciences. But some like me are not. Can you give us a working definition of what is pseudoscience and why does it matter?

Francl: So pseudoscience is usually something that is cloaked in scientific language, looks like it could be scientific, but in some ways is really a satire on science or otherwise. So it will have exaggerated and untestable claims. It will be linked to antidote rather than data. And it often will be very close to evaluation from people outside the or in the field. So you might have someone talking about vaccines but refuses to talk to anyone who knows things about vaccines. Things like climate change, vaccines, what do we eat, are often hot topics. I think it's really important to give our students the tools to be aware of these things even if they aren’t going to be scientist. I teach at a liberal arts college. So maybe a third of my students will go on to be scientist but two thirds of them won’t. But I want them to leave having some bit of scientific imagination and be able to look at it and imagine how a scientist would be able to see or read it.

Everson: Right! Well one of the promises of the internet has been that it would lead to the democratization of media. I think that’s one of the phrases we used to hear. But I do wonder if the internet plays a role in the dissemination in this pseudoscience type stuff.

Francl: Oh yeah definitely. There’s a great paper about 15 years old who modeled the spread of urban myths as disease models. We talk about things going viral and it really is something that has gone viral. It works just like a measles virus. And so if you have a great vector or someone to spread it, it spreads well. I once put a child with chicken pox on an airplane. He had no spots and no temperature when we got on board. But 12 hours later, he had the chicken pox and we didn’t know, thereby exposing all of these other people that got on the airplanes. So same thing, you put things on the internet and it's got a great vector to spread. It also has a great vector for persistence. So you always have the things on the web that won’t go away. We tell students this all the time don’t post pictures of themselves that you don’t want your employer to see five years later. But it's true of these rumors as well. I relative sent me a picture saying “Today mars is going to be as big as the moon!”. And this shows up every year. So it has remarkable persistence. People debunk it  every year and it somehow comes back every year. There is a part in the universe where that is true but it's no where on earth. So it's that sort of amplification and persistence that the internet gives us. But the flip side is that it also gives you access to the good sources and being able to tell the good sources from the urban myth sources.

Everson: Yeah that’s very interesting. It seems like it raises a lot of questions about authority and legitimacy.

Francl: Yes it does. And authority is something a lot of people will claim based on anecdote but authority based on science also has to do with training and experience. And i think our current do it yourself atmosphere means that there is no gate keeping involved. And we often at times don't like to think of gatekeeping as a good idea. But because we have such a limited attention span, we do need some type of gatekeeping. It’s nice to still have the movies in the theaters that you can see versus the ones you can just stream. So there's some balance between authority based on training and experience and authority based on just claims. My child having chicken poxs does not make me have authority over chicken poxs. But people will claim that. So a piece of this is about authority. And as a science teacher, I do want to help my students claim some of their own authority. They now have some training. But you want to claim the authority that you have and helping them do that in a way that is not only accessible to them but also to the people who they are going to be talking to.

Everson: Right! Well you have written about this topic a number of time which is how I found you. And I'm curious to know how did you get interested in this area or this topic?

Francl: My students. So I started a long time ago. I tried to do a lot of things in the classroom that is context rich. So when we talked about oxidation-reduction, the classic topic in intro the chemistry, I asked them what is the largest natural disaster in the united states which turned out not to be a hurricane, which in New Orleans it may feel like that, but it's rust. We spend millions and millions of dollars on rust because when things rust bridges fall down and all sorts of terrible things happen. Rust is a oxidation-reduction reaction. So the course that I teach is very much embedded in the real world and how does what I teach relate to these classic topics. One day I had a student appear with a printed article that said how to test and see if there’s lead in your red lipstick. And so we talked about it in class and i asked them if it made sense to them. And the test involved taking a gold ring and running it across the lipstick and if the paper turned black that you put the lipstick on, then there was definitely lead in it. Which sounds like a oxidation-reduction where often you get things where metal shows up. So color changes go with oxidation-reduction. Except I said well what do you know about gold? And they said that nothing will oxidize gold. So I said “Ahh!” and from there they had all the necessary tools from general chemistry to debunk this. And so from that I began to do more of that in class. The food babe is great because a lot of that stuff is debunkable by any student with just a semester worth of classes of chemistry.

Everson: The “food babe”?

Francl: Yes the food babe. Who has a arm of people. She has a internet personality. She has a book out, youtube videos, she's pretty easy to find. But she's great because you don't need a lot to figure out what she’s saying makes no sense. So I began introducing it more and more in class and it appeared first in class by a student who came in waving it saying I know this wasn't right. And I eventually wrote an article for slate about the food babe and what she’s claiming. So that's how i first got into this. Through the classroom and helping develop students abilities to distinguish at an early stage science and pseudoscience.

Everson: And I do want to talk more about the classroom but I first wanted to ask if in your writing and criticisms have you gotten a lot of pushback?

Francl: Oh yes! People will tell you, you’re just a shell for fill in the blank. Just some big mystery. You must take money from here. And no I don’t. I get a salary from the college and that’s it. But the notion that people are going to have these entrenched ideas that are so entrenched you can’t get to them. So the Yale project on cognition talks about this. That if you know me, and I tell you, “Oh gee! This thing about the yoga mat chemical make no sense”, then you you might be more willing to believe me versus if I would have walked up to a person on the street. I was sitting next to someone at a conference that I don’t know talking about the food babe, and I thought “Should I say something”. And I said no. because her ideas were so entrenched and we had no relationship to build that on. So there is a lot of push backs. If you look at some of the comments I’ve written for slate, they can be pretty interesting and direct in telling you that clearly you don’t know anything. You just need a thick skin

Everson: Yeah I would imagine you do. Well it is very concerning to me and hopefully to some of our listeners, the state of dialogue nationally that we have on the issue of science. I read a letter to the editor just a few days ago in our local paper in New Orleans, the writer in the letter didn’t seem to have any qualifications but was very adamant in not only is there no such thing as global warming or climate change caused by humans, but there is also no such thing as a greenhouse effect. The carbon dioxide does not cause a greenhouse effect. And he even strung together some allegations that kind of sounded scientific. And so this proves that this isn't the case. I was astonished the they even published this letter that didn't even make any sense. But I guess anything goes.

Francl: Right. Pretty much anything goes and certainly even my local Philadelphia paper people have published scientific facts. And you are entitled to your opinion about things but you are not entitled to your own facts. So CO2 absorbs in infrared period no matter what you say. And if that heat is happening in an atmosphere that’s greenhouse period. This person made fun of how much carbon you burn out of a gallon of gasoline. You burn a pound of gasoline, you get a pounds of carbon dioxide that is far more than you would expect. And the person is just like “ Ha, ha, ha!” Did you know anything about conservation in mass and of course anyone who knows about combustion in chemistry knows that it combines with oxygen in the air which has a lot of mass. You  just don’t think about it because you can’t see it. But in fact, there is 10 to 14 pounds of air pressure over our heads all the time. We just don’t know that or recognize it as mass. And so this person is mocking science about the very basic fact that he is missing. And again it showed up in the paper and several people said this person needs to go back to elementary science before making these claims. And that’s the hard part because people don't want to stop and say, on what authority are you saying this, or even look up the chemical equation for the burning of gasoline. But it is hard because people will state things that are factually untrue. And I think we need to do a better job at pushing back. I already argued that scientist should take some responsibility for doing that. And letting the media know that it is wrong to publish incorrect facts.

Everson: Well that sounds like an opportunity for perhaps student engagement. So these are some really critical issues seems like with all of the things that is going on in our society. It seems like awareness and literacy in this regard is critically important. So what can we do in our teaching to engage the students in these issues? Do you have any tips for people who want to bring this into their teaching?

Francl: So one thing I do in the science realm is think about what are some of the big ideas that I am trying to get across that you can use on your own to make decisions about how molecules are made. So I’m teaching chemistry. Part of it is sort of isolating these big ideas because that’s what students are going to remember when they go five and ten years down the line I hope. They’re not going to remember the details of this reaction and that reaction but I want them to have the tools. And I think isolating them and helping students see how they play out in the science is one thing you can do. I think getting students to bring in these questions to the classroom and helping them see that they have the tools to assess the sources is helpful. It can be more helpful to bring in things such as the lipstick example than to bring in global warming or to bring in radiation at first because those things are less charged in the overall conversation. No one is going to argue about the lipstick example. We can debunk it ourselves and see that it’s not true. It's smaller and less emotionally charged. But I don’t think we do our students a favor if we completely ignore the emotionally charged issues either especially at a college level. And so we talk about why carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. We will talk about radiation and nuclear power in my class. And students may agree or disagree about the policies you might make based on the body of information we have but at least we can make them aware that there is a body of information out there that is authoritative and understood. And from that you can begin to make decisions. And so for me it's also about establishing trust in that class which goes back to cultural cognition.  So if I just stand up and assert something without any relationship to my class, they wouldn’t have ears to hear what I have to say.    

Everson: Alright! Thank you so much for sharing your perspectives on this. I think it’s time to kind of wind this up. When we publish this podcast, we can post some of the links there that you have spoken of and your blog and so forth and your articles that will help people find more information.

Francl: Well thank you so much for having me.

Everson: Well it’s been a pleasure and since I am speaking to you in late December, I will say happy holidays and a Happy New Year.

Francl: Thank you so much. And Happy New Year to you as well.

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