Pseudoscience examples for critical thinking skills

Snake oil, grapefruit diets, flat-earth theories—pseudoscience is something to be ignored, right? Not in science class! Studying pseudoscience is actually a great way to help students think like scientists, not to mention savvy citizens. We guarantee it, or your money back! (Kidding.)

By Amplify Staff | September 11, 2023


Quantum hair activation technology: This groundbreaking innovation goes beyond conventional science, delving into the realm of quantum energy to stimulate hair growth at the subatomic level. Blended with rare botanicals from ancient civilizations for luster and shine. Limited-time offer: Act now and receive a vial of stardust-infused hair serum!

Effective product…or pseudoscience? We’ll bet you guessed it. (Sorry, no stardust serum for you!)

While this hair product itself sounds like junk, reading about it can be a valuable experience for science students.

Teaching your students to identify pseudoscience in the world around them helps them learn to protect themselves from false claims that can be money-wasting at best, dangerous at worst.

And as they learn to discern, they also develop lifelong critical thinking skills!

“We say knowledge is power but it's not enough to know things, and there's too much to know. Being able to think and not fall for someone's bunk is my goal for my students.”

 —Melanie Trecek-King, biology professor and guest in Science Connections podcast Season 3, Episode 5: Thinking is power

Let’s explore how educators can use examples of pseudoscience to develop critical thinking skills—and incorporate NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) science and engineering practices into their approach.

What’s the difference between science and pseudoscience?

Science is grounded in empirical evidence, rigorous testing, and the scientific method. Pseudoscience presents itself as scientific but lacks the fundamental elements of genuine scientific inquiry: evidence, peer review, and the capacity to generate accurate predictions.

Though pseudoscience may make vague claims, it has clear characteristics. When something is pseudoscience, it:

  1. Can’t be proven wrong: Makes claims that are unobservable or too vague.
  2. Professes “proof” without presenting actual evidence: Presents only anecdotal evidence, if any.
  3. Uses technobabble: See: “Quantum hair activation technology.”

For more characteristics of pseudoscience, check out Melanie Trecek-King’s episode of Science Connections!

To be sure, not all pseudoscience is harmful—pursuits and activities such as aromatherapy and astrology can be positive experiences in people’s lives—it just should not be defined as or considered science.

How addressing pseudoscience encourages critical thinking

When you teach students to identify pseudoscience, you are teaching them to use an evidence- and research-based approach when analyzing claims. Which is…science!

You are also:

  • Teaching them to engage in thoughtful and educational argument/debate.
  • Encouraging them to use their knowledge of science in the real world.
  • Creating real-world impact.

When students learn to identify pseudoscience—faulty products, myths, and disprovable “discoveries”—they’ll be prepared and informed when making real-world decisions.

Critical thinking exercises inspired by pseudoscience

We’ve talked about “miracle” hair growth treatments, which are more commonly targeted to adults. Students may have more commonly encountered claims about or ads for alkaline water or detox diets, conspiracy theories and instances of science denial, astrology, and more. These examples offer great opportunities to discuss how to determine the difference between science and pseudoscience.

Suggested activities:

  • Pseudoscience Sherlock: Ask students to find examples of pseudoscience in real life via social media, products sold in stores, or on the internet. Tell them to pay close attention to “articles” that are really ads.
  • Pseudoscience lab: Prompt students to back up their claim that a given example represents pseudoscience with evidence: e.g., lack of empirical evidence, controlled experiments, or unbiased sample; absence of peer-reviewed research; reliance on anecdotes; hyperbolic and unprovable claims.
  • Snake oil! Ask students to practice identifying pseudoscience by creating their own advertisements, commercials, or news segments for fake products or scientific “advancements.”
  • Spread the word: Ask students to create flyers, PSAs, or articles on how to identify the characteristics of pseudoscience.

Other activities that incorporate the NGSS while also sniffing out pseudoscience:

  • Asking questions: Encourage students to ask probing questions about pseudoscientific claims. How does this claim defy our current understanding of the natural world? What empirical evidence is missing?
  • Developing and using models: Have students create models that illustrate the differences between a pseudoscientific claim and a well-established scientific concept. This visual representation supports understanding and critical analysis.
  • Engaging in argument from evidence: Arrange debates where students argue for or against a pseudoscientific claim using evidence-based reasoning. This practice sharpens their ability to critically evaluate information.
  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information: Ask students to research the history and impact of a specific pseudoscientific belief. Have them present their findings, highlighting how critical thinking could have prevented widespread acceptance of the claim.

Using examples of pseudoscience in your science classroom can help students learn to not only think like scientists, but navigate the real world, too.

Bertha Vasquez, former teacher and current director of education at the Center for Inquiry, has used these approaches with her students. As she shared on Season 3, Episode 6 of Science Connections: “I guarantee you that those students, when they walked into a store with their parents and they saw a product [with] a money-back guarantee [that] cures way too many things, and it’s based on ‘ancient plant wisdom’ and has ‘scientific’ language on the box, they may go, ‘Mom, I think these people are trying to sell you some pseudoscience.’”

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