Isabel Daly is a student at Barnard College and a Community Engagement and Education intern at POV.
Bill Nye: Science Guy will have its broadcast premiere on POV in 2018. The documentary follows legendary science advocate and TV personality Bill Nye on his crusade against an age-old type of “fake news” — scientific misinformation. In the following lesson plan, students will learn to critically assess claims presented as scientific facts and identify the fallacious arguments often used in pseudoscience.
Climate change, vaccine effectiveness, and evolution: despite overwhelming scientific consensus, important topics like these are still up for debate in the American public and media. In this lesson, students will learn to spot fallacies in pseudoscience arguments and assess the validity of scientific claims. Students should have some understanding of the scientific method before the lesson.
In this lesson, students will:
- Learn to identify logical fallacies
- Write a short paper analyzing logical fallacies in a science debate
- Write a short paper disproving a common pseudoscience claim
- Practice analyzing whether sources of scientific information are reliable
- Internet access
- YouTube clips and equipment to show them
- Printed handouts
ESTIMATED TIME NEEDED
2-3 class periods plus homework
Step 1: Opening Activity: Dihydrogen Monoxide
Divide students into small groups and direct each group to the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division website. Ask each group to decide whether or not dihydrogen monoxide should be banned. Assure them that every fact on the website is true. Reconvene, discuss, and then take a class vote on whether or not dihydrogen monoxide should be banned. After the vote, it’s time for a dramatic reveal: dihydrogen monoxide is just water! If the class voted for the ban, ask if any of them changed their mind and why, considering that all of the information on the handout was true. Reflect for a moment on how we form false beliefs, then introduce the concept of logical fallacies.
Step 2: Logical Fallacies
Watch this video explaining the logical fallacy “Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc”. Connect the fallacy to the dihydrogen monoxide exercise, then ask students to think of other examples of this fallacy (for example: I took my dog on a walk, and then there was a lighting storm. Therefore, taking my dog out for a walk caused the lightning storm). Then, watch the following videos explaining Ad Hominem, Moving the Goal Posts, and the Straw Man Fallacy. Brainstorm examples of each fallacy. For homework, have them watch the debate between Bill Nye and Tucker Carlson, and write a one page paper analyzing the logical fallacies in their arguments.
Step 3: Reliable Sources
Begin by asking your students about where they learn about science news (television local news, newspapers, magazines, word of mouth, documentaries, scientific journals). Tell them that only three in ten Americans actively seek out science news, and Americans are most likely to get their science news from non-speciality sources, like documentaries, science magazines, or museums. Most Americans get their science news from general news outlets, like local news. Ask the class if anyone can think of a disadvantage to getting science news from a non-scientific source. Hand out a printed out copy of the John Bohannon article. Have students read the article aloud, changing readers every paragraph. (Note: the article is long, so you may choose to read an excerpt.) Discuss how the media could have verified the chocolate study, and whether or not their behavior was irresponsible. Then, watch this video that comically explains why certain studies are flawed.
Discuss how to find accurate science news (e.g. science journals, scientific authorities, documentaries) and how to tell if a study is valid (peer review, replication studies). Transition into a conversation about finding reliable sources on the internet (e.g. checking when the site was last updated, thinking about author bias and author credentials).
For homework, challenge your students to write a short paper about a popular, but incorrect belief about science. For example, students could write the perceived relationship autism and vaccines or the misconception that Vitamin C cures the common cold.
The Scientific Method: this video gives a brief demonstration of how to construct an experiment using the scientific method.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: this video provides an in depth analysis of flawed media coverage of science news.
POV: Media Literacy Questions for Analyzing POV Films
This list of questions provides a useful starting point for leading rich discussions that challenge students to think critically about documentaries.
Wynne Davis provides guidance for readers trying to discern reliably sourced news from propaganda.
This media literacy initiative offers lesson plans and materials for teaching media literacy.
Gottfried, Jeffrey and Cary Funk. “Most Americans get their science news from general outlets, but many doubt their accuracy.” Pew Research Center, 21 September 2017. Access online.
Gottfried, Jeffrey, Amy Mitchell, Cary Funk. “Science News and Information Today.” Pew Research Center, 20 September 2017. Access online.
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