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How to Study Weird Things

Article

Frank Trocco

Volume 22.5, September / October 1998

Many students are asking to study unconventional topics. There are strategies for working with these students that increase their critical aptitude and analytical reasoning without disenchanting them with science and traditional disciplines.

As a science teacher in an interdisciplinary undergraduate program, I often encounter students who want to study topics that many of my colleagues would find nonacademic, and certainly unscientific, such as astrology, Reiki, channeling, Tarot, homeopathy, and ESP. What can an instructor, working within the western scientific tradition, do with such requests? One approach is to clearly explain to the student that these topics “aren't science,” and they are not going to learn anything from researching them. I think that this gets a student nowhere, and it is just such an attitude that makes many afraid to pursue unconventional interests. This position also reinforces the students’ mistrust of science, professors, and academia, an attitude that they will find no shortage of in the books written on the unconventional subjects of their choice.

A few years ago I stopped fighting the New Age educational tide. I asked myself if there were ways that I could turn a student’s curiosity to pedagogical advantage. These students were coming to me with enormous enthusiasm for study and research. How could I maneuver this interest into credible, academic work, which would also appear credible and academic to my colleagues? I realized that if I framed their scholastic approach creatively it would be an opportunity for these students to begin learning about science, the scientific method, and critical thinking.

Since then I have tried to help students take subjects that they are already interested in, regardless of how eccentric they may seem from the standpoint of traditional academia, and complicate them. I help them to fashion their interest into a traditional study by choosing an analytical approach we are both satisfied with. Sometimes this is easy, but sometimes it takes quite a bit of creativity. My first step is to ask the students if they want their studies to be credible. For many, this is a pivotal question, as they may be intending to eventually practice the discipline they want to study. For others, this work may be tied to deeply held beliefs. Typically, the question of credibility begins to encourage an openness towards broadening their work.

Is Studying Weird Subjects Credible?

Even though students may intensely want to research an unconventional topic, they are often unaware that it may not be possible to grant credit for studying these areas by reading the books and articles written by the field’s practitioners and proponents. As defined and interpreted by the “believers,” these are subjects that accrediting institutions and most faculty will not see as academically admissible.

One student asked me about this in regard to her topic, Polarity Therapy. I told her that although she can go to an institution like the American Polarity Therapy Association (APTA), and take legitimate and respected courses, they are only “legitimate and respected” within a narrow spectrum of schools. Accredited colleges and universities attempt to say something different from the APTA. They claim that what an individual is learning in their classrooms, although open to critique and correction, is reliable and broadly applicable. It is the best that the western analytical model has come up with through comprehensive research. If someone wants to investigate something unconventional, the challenge is to transform the study into work that is rigorous and scholarly. How can we accomplish this?

An initial approach is to look at the unorthodox subject through the lens of an established discipline, using the epistemological and methodological foundations and standards of that system. With this procedure, any subject can be examined and becomes credible by traditional academic standards. For instance, if we look at Polarity Therapy (PT) through the lens of history, sociology, or psychology, we can use these disciplines to lend their credibility to our studies, asking legitimate research questions such as: How and where did PT originate? Are there demographic differences in the patients who use PT? Do alternative medical modalities satisfy patients in ways that allopathic medicine does not? Students are often intrigued by scholastic questions closely tied to their unconventional pursuits.

This approach is useful in interdisciplinary programs, where students need credits in a variety of areas. In my work I primarily use the discipline of science studies to meet conventional criteria. In this case, the questions might be: Are the techniques of PT scientific? How does PT compare with scientifically established medical techniques? Even students who claim that they “do not agree with science” are eager to look at these questions in an attempt to justify their beliefs.

The basic idea is to provide the student with a method to examine their subject as an objective outsider, free of unavoidable misconceptions inherent in exploring a subject from too close a perspective.

Using a Book List in Reverse

After we have established an investigative discipline and an appropriate research question, I encourage students to read the skeptical literature on their subject. These are the books that can offer them a challenging perspective from which to examine unconventional topics, deepening their studies. It is helpful to have them read something that looks at a broad range of critical thinking as it applies to unconventional ideas (e.g., Gilovich 1991; Randi 1982; Schick and Vaughn 1995; Shermer 1997), although it is sometimes difficult for non-science-oriented students to completely work their way through one of these texts. Since my students are all working on independent studies, and not in a classroom, they do not have an instructor immediately available to help them through difficult intellectual terrain. In this case, specific articles on their topic taken out of anthologies (e.g., Frazier 1991) or journal reprints from skeptical journals are most helpful.

This material can often be a frontal assault on their beliefs, which is helpful only for some students. After all, most of them are interested in proving that their unconventional topic has research merit and ultimate validity. In this case, I alter the research approach, using an ancient rhetorical strategy for building an argument. I explain to them that, curiously, skeptical articles and books actually include potentially corroborative insights about unorthodox science and medicine. These skeptical resources are a good place to probe unconventional topics, by letting the debunkers do the background research.

Let us say that you are interested in channeling, and you read a number of the articles that Martin Gardner has written on this subject (e.g., Gardner 1996). Of course, the thrust of his rhetoric will be to challenge mediums and channelers; however, in order to do this effectively he will first tell you all about them, including the history of channeling, biographies of famous channelers and unexplained channeling sessions, why channelers themselves think channeling works, stories about exposed channeling frauds, former channelers who have exposed fraudulent channeling, magicians who have replicated the techniques of mediums and psychics, and (importantly) any celebrated (albeit controversial) results coming from conventional laboratories. All this will be followed by citations for books and articles where you can follow up on his sources.

If students are seriously interested in channeling, Gardner may have just saved them a frustrating day of basic library research. They can repeat this process for almost any unconventional topic. Even though these skeptical authors are frequently debunking this research, some of what they are challenging are findings by scientists in reputable university laboratories. Research results can be interpreted in a multitude of ways, and dubious methodology eventually verified or disputed. There is no reason why a student cannot find these articles and cite them in reverse of the skeptics.

Some educators may protest that these students are reading this material for the wrong reasons and missing the point. In my experience, however, students gradually change how they view their topics. An individual may not alter her fundamental beliefs in the efficacy of channeling, but she will learn that its truth value and applicability are not obvious, and that the phenomena may simply be due to natural, unrecognized determinants (e.g., an active imagination). This leads the student to further inquiry. Importantly, students using skeptical reports and analysis in reverse, and in support of their hypotheses, have engaged themselves in the research process.

Once students begin their research it is important to move them beyond the opinions of the believers into scholarly references. Simply because information is in a book does not mean that you can quote the opinion or research and it will substantiate your position. For instance, students can quote the Bible to support a point they are making about the existence of God, and although this may have purchase with a minority of their readers, its value as evidence would be lost on most. Books that scholars do not find credible can be used as long as proper disclaimers and a critical review are added. This distinction between valid and invalid references can be discouraging to students who may feel they are on the right research track, only to discover their resources are of dubious distinction.

Sandy’s Talking Goldfish

Sandy is a woman who is intensely interested in nature and animals. She works at a nature center where it is her job to take people on walks and introduce them to the local plants, animals, and ecology. She is also someone who believes fervently that people can communicate with animals and that animals have something interesting to tell us about ourselves. Her writing often includes anecdotes describing conversations with her goldfish.

When I asked Sandy if she wanted to appear credible, I could see her eyes light up. “Of course,” she said. Since she already had experiences with the public, she knew how difficult it was to explain the ideas she sincerely believed in. It was not difficult encouraging her to read skeptical authors, so she would know “the other side of the story.” I suggested that she read Schick and Vaughn’s How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age.

At an informal discussion in the middle of the semester some students, all of whom were involved in unconventional studies, were sitting around discussing the books they had been reading. Suddenly, Sandy launched into an hysterical tirade against “Schick and Vaughn.” She proudly told the others that she had finished the book and continued, “I was so frustrated. I wanted to tell them a thing or two. I'd be reading it in my living room and I'd say out loud, ‘Schick and Vaughn, do you believe in anything?' There were so many times I took my pen and underlined things and wrote in the margin: Yeah, Schick and Vaughn, I'd like to see you prove something!”

We all laughed at this harangue, but I was smiling contentedly inside. Sandy was irritated by the book, and probably had not gotten the full message that the authors intended her to receive, but she was intensely involved with the book and its ideas. It was an interactive workbook for her, and its lesson and cautions about examining fringe beliefs became subtle parts of her perspective, obvious in her essays and analyses.

“Why Do I Have to Address the Skeptics Anyway?”

This statement is the way one irritated student, who was working on Traditional Chinese Medicine, complained about looking into the skeptical viewpoint. I had two immediate responses. First, it indicates thorough research and scholarship about a subject to know its weaknesses, as well as the claims of the proponents. And second, it will help you to establish your credibility.

“To whom?” he asked, since he did not want to fight over concepts and energies that he believed were not measurable. I suggested to him that there were many possible situations in his future where knowing the science, criticism, and full spectrum of issues behind his unconventional subject would be of assistance. For example: 1) With clients who are trying to make a decision between an unconventional therapy and orthodox medicine; 2) At professional meetings where research is critiqued; 3) When writing papers, either popular or scholarly; 4) For protection, as some day someone in power may decide that the unconventional modality he is practicing is dangerous and declare that it is against the law. (I often use the examples of herbs and midwifery, both threatened by government control.); or, 5) To prepare himself for newspaper or radio interviews.

These are all forums where it helps students to have done their homework faithfully. They may not presently see themselves in these situations, but if they stay in an unconventional field the chances are high that they will find themselves there eventually.

Hard Evidence

I once had a student say that she was not interested in arguing with the skeptics, but that she wanted to find “hard evidence” for her beliefs, in this case astrology. I agreed with her that many people do not like to assume an adversarial posture. I pointed out that she did not need to be familiar with all the issues, claims, and counter-claims surrounding astrology so that she could debate with the skeptics. Critically reviewing unorthodox claims is not necessarily about argument, but about fully understanding what you are investigating so you can articulate it clearly and competently.

Students worry that including the skeptical viewpoint in an essay will weaken their position with the reader. In fact, it will have just the opposite effect. Including disparate views will indicate that their research has been thorough, and that they are not afraid of controversial or disconfirming data. In most essays, it is not necessary to completely refute skeptical hypotheses. Simply acknowledging them will often add strength to the student’s argument.

I told the student who was interested in astrology that if she was really committed to looking for the “hard evidence” then she could not avoid examining skeptical perspectives. It is the skeptics who attempt to make unconventional evidence “soft.” For instance, she wanted to cite an astrological researcher. I suggested she go ahead and quote his data, opinions, and findings, but to not take them completely at face value. Ask some probing questions: Is his work reputable? How do you know it is? What are reasons skeptics offer to question his results? If a student is looking for substantive evidence he or she cannot avoid these questions. It is the difference between deciding that something feels right, and knowing that it is right.

Looking into the skeptical side of things does not have to take away from the student’s interests or primary work. Skeptical inquiry should not be something that redirects a student from his or her passion; instead it should enrich their work. Although sometimes scholarship demands us to look into things that seem to take us far afield, it is ultimately useful if this work and time help us to strengthen our analysis. When I suggest that a student look at the skeptical side of things I mean: 1) Reading an article about their subject written by a critical author; 2) Interviewing a researcher who does not agree with the student’s approach; 3) Looking at some of the general objections to unorthodox modalities; or, 4) Reading a book that would help them think critically about unconventional topics. This is not a large commitment, it is simply a beginning.

Mr. Whitewing: Openness to the Unconventional

I try to empathize with students attempting unconventional studies, and to treat their work like any conventional research project. By doing this I let them know that I realize the complexities of the world that we share. Occasionally, it is helpful to point out situations where you, as an instructor, are confronted by a mysterious world, and then suggest the ordinary explanations that you are considering. The following story helped one of my students, who was studying the intelligence of ravens, understand that I could relate to her ideas, and also form alternative explanations for seemingly inexplicable phenomena. I told her:

“I was sitting in the physics library reading. Actually, I was staring out the window watching two ravens hop around the parking lot. One of them turned sideways and I noticed that it had a conspicuous white patch of feathers at the top of its wing. When it turned, I noticed that it had a corresponding patch on the other wing. When this unusual bird flew off, its epaulets left a striking pattern of flashing white freckles.

Days later, I was in a different building, sitting in my office, reading your paper about intelligence in ravens. You claimed that, even without scientific evidence, you realized certain things about ravens by intuition. As I read, I marked the places where I thought you should have provided corroborative evidence. I muttered, ‘No, this won't do,' or ‘This isn't convincing,' writing my comments in the margins. Suddenly, I looked up and out my window, which overlooks some roof tops. There was Mr. Whitewing, unmistakably perched on the roof right outside, staring in the window at me! He hopped around for quite some time, as if not to let me forget about his presence too quickly.”

My student was impressed by this extraordinary anecdote. However, as I told her later, I discovered that the ornithology department on campus was marking ravens in this way to keep track of them. It was not a natural coloration, and perhaps, not even the same Mr. Whitewing at my window. It is helpful to demonstrate that your intellect can be broad when thinking about the boundary between the real and the imaginary, but that the line between magic and science is not always impossible to distinguish.

There are some scholars, however, who believe that the demarcation between science and magic is completely ambiguous. In this view, science is a narrative, similar to any other cultural mythology. This critique of science is one approach for students with unconventional studies to use in their analyses. After all, if science itself is built on an insecure foundation, how can it make any epistemic demands on what it classifies as pseudoscience? Unfortunately, this provocative intellectual observation, besides being confusing for many students, can turn hopelessly relativistic, which is ultimately unhelpful for a student seeking credibility. It is necessary to guide students with care along the path of scientific deconstruction, so that all of western theory and expertise are not abandoned.

Pedagogical Kindness

For those of us who have happily worked with science and analytical thinking for years, it is difficult to realize how frustrating it may be for students to look at challenging ideas. Students can be resistant to opinions that have the potential to upset their worldview; even if they embrace the quest it can lead to upsetting realizations about themselves and their world. As educators, it is important to work with students in a process-oriented and developmental model. It does not help to be condescending or pejorative about their deeply held beliefs, even if these beliefs seem totally absurd. Anyone who has worked with students who hold unconventional views, or who believe in seemingly useless health modalities, knows how deeply these ideas are felt. It is important to realize that students who follow your suggestions, carefully reading critical books and thinking about the skeptical approach, can experience a minor existential crisis. Suddenly they will not know what to believe, and many things they have based their lives on may be insecure. It behooves you, at these moments, to be an ally.

Studying Things That Don’t Exist

It is common for students to approach science educators with the intention to study phenomena that the instructor may not believe exists. Where does this leave you as their guide on this unconventional academic expedition? Remember to avoid the temptation of trying to talk students out of the things they believe in. The objective is to share a process of thinking and careful research. An instructor’s questions and critique should be an attempt to strengthen the student’s approach, not squelch their enthusiasm.

I once had a student who was interested in astrology tell me: “Those scientists and skeptics are so closed-minded. They'll never change their beliefs.”

I said, “Do you think you are closed-minded?”

“Of course not. I'm not a scientist.”

“So, you're willing to change your beliefs? Are you open to the idea that, perhaps, astrology is a lot of wishful thinking?”

She thought about this for a long moment and finally said, “Yeah, I guess that’s real open-mindedness, isn't it?”

I pointed out that if she were truly open-minded she would read the skeptical objections to astrology, and try to come to an impartial decision about its merits. This is the fundamental intention of good science.

However, open-mindedness only works when it goes both ways. For most unconventional studies, completely clear and final solutions to the questions students want to answer do not exist. The best we can do as educators is to help them work on diligently thinking about their subjects, so when they are challenged by a skeptical inquiry they will have an educated response.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Judith Beth Cohen and Marjorie Farrell for commenting on a draft of this paper.

References

Frank Trocco

Frank Trocco leads students into the pleasures and complexities of controversial science, critical thinking, and skepticism at Lesley College, Massachusetts, and Vermont College, Vermont. He can be reached at: RFD#2, Box 801, Montville, ME 04941.