Most students view the traditional topics of general chemistry
as dry and boring. The standard highlights in general chemistry
books on how household bleach or dry cell batteries work are not
very exciting for students or instructors. There is also rarely
any ethics training associated with introductory courses in the
chemical sciences. In an attempt to resolve these deficiencies,
I introduced the concepts of pseudoscience and the investigation
of anomalies into the curriculum of second-semester general and
analytical chemistry courses at Mount Saint Mary's College during
the spring semester of 1996. While the investigation of the unusual
and the unknown has sometimes led to great scientific discoveries,
it has more often led to great embarrassments. The appearance
of scientific anomalies most often results from a misunderstanding
of scientific principles, and culminates in what is termed "pseudoscience",
"pathological science", or "deviant science".
A study of the experimental procedures and motivation of the researchers
in cases of pseudoscience can be extremely instructive, and fits
in quite well with traditional topics in general and analytical
chemistry, such as pH, chemical kinetics, intermolecular bonding,
colligative properties, atomic structure, electrolysis and trace
element analysis. Students can learn how to properly approach
a scientific problem in a critical, but open-minded manner, thus
avoiding pseudoscientific pitfalls. They learn that the real scientific
discovery is not heralded by the cry "Eureka!" (and
the press conference), but by the murmur "that's strange?"
Here is science at work, for both good and bad, with a strong
moral and scientific message. Scientists are people and people
make mistakes. What separates the scientists from the pseudoscientists
is the ability to recognize and admit error.
While the examples of pseudoscience are a very small portion of these traditional courses in general and analytical chemistry, they will undoubtedly be some of the most memorable particulars that the students recall in future years. And if the examination of scientific foibles by these students helps to avoid future cases of pathological science on their part, we have gained much with little investment.
This paper briefly describes a four-level
approach to using pseudoscience and pathological science as tools
to further educational goals in second-semester general chemistry
and analytical chemistry courses. It provides detailed information
about five specific areas of pseudoscience, pathological science,
or anomaly investigations that are applicable to chemical education,
and describes two student special projects and student experiences
at a conference on controversial research. A compilation of further
instances of pseudoscience, pathological science and anomaly investigations,
and discussions of specific uses, can be found on the Reference Page.
The four-level approach involved the inclusion of pseudoscientific topics in (a) lecture, discussion, and examinations; (b) demonstrations; (c) laboratory experiments; and (d) student attendance at a conference where controversial research was presented by mainstream and fringe scientists. Levels (a) and (b) were used in both general chemistry and analytical chemistry classes, while levels (c) and (d) were used only in analytical chemistry, and only for the most motivated and highest achieving students.
The topics discussed in detail are:
The students found many of the topics fascinating and
those who participated in actual experimental work and attended the conference
on controversial research (levels c and d) found that the experience actually
helped to direct their career choices. In an evaluation essay, it was described
by one student as a "life-changing experience".
Advisory notice: This paper was originally presented as part of the CHEMCONF series of online chemistry conferences in 1997. The content of this manuscript represents only the opinions of the author, and not necessarily those of the faculty and staff of Mount Saint Mary's College.