Physics Journal Club: Bad Science

This was the theme for the second physics journal club (PJC) I am running as an enrichment activity at the large sixth form I work at.


Me, with the Origins stand. ‘Proven by Science’. Plus short hair and heavily pregnant which is completely irrelevant here! 

I decided on the very general theme of Bad Science and broadly considered how best to get us talking about fraudulent science, badly done science and pseudoscience. I struggled to narrow down my source material because there’s so much good information out there about this topic. I considered using Ben Goldacre’s TED talk or Bad Science book or articles, but decided against it just because it is much more based on the pharmaceutical industry and I wanted to lean slightly more towards physics. Instead I decided to go with Carl Sagan and his baloney detection kit. I couldn’t resist trying to force part of my favourite science book on my students. 😉 This meant the discussion would be much more about pseudoscience and the importance of having a scientifically literate society.

I also wanted to get them to read about a specific case of science done badly, where the usual scientific checking process was not followed. I chose the cold fusion experiment in the 1980s for this. Had I not wanted a physics example I think I would have used MMR.

Finally, I wanted us to think about media representations of science. How scientific results are often reported in sensational ways that barely have anything to do with the actual research. Also, how things are made to appear scientific when they are not (hello beauty industry!)

Source Material

I sent my students a copy of a chapter from Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark. I also sent them a newspaper article about cold fusion. Finally, a link to the tally of things that cause or cure cancer, according to the Daily Mail.

How did it go?

Several students, who couldn’t make it this time, told me they had enjoyed the book chapter and found it really interesting (yeeeeeesssss!). Around 10 students turned up to the meeting. Lunchtime on the last day of the half term, so happy with this.

I did very well in my role as discussion facilitator and biscuits provider. I asked questions if the discussion stalled. I tried my best to stfu and let them talk (well done me, mostly successful!). I made sure everyone got a word in and helped some quieter students get a word in when it looked like they were struggling to get in on the discussion.

We ended up talking about life after death, quantum mechanics, wave particle duality, religion, the many worlds interpretation of QM, MMR, the Daily Mail (aaarghhhh!), ancient Greece and steam engines (unexpected 😉 ), Schrodinger’s Cat, clinical trials, the tobacco industry, spurious correlations and much more.

We easily talked for 45 minutes and I think we could have continued. A success and hopefully the attending students enjoyed it (and I hope some will read the rest of the Sagan book).

Next time?

Nobel prize special! topology and phase transitions.


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