Using Pseudoscience as an Aid to Teaching General and Analytical Chemistry

Michael Epstein, Margaret Bullard, Brad Buehler, and Robin Kloster
Department of Science, Mount Saint Mary's College, Emmitsburg, Md 21727


      Why pseudoscience? 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".

Page prepared by: Mike Epstein
Last Modified: January 5, 2000

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.