Student Notebook

Science Versus Pseudoscience: Educating the Public Via the Bookstore Project

Does the average citizen understand the difference between science and pseudoscience? A recent report on the state of public understanding in science conducted by the National Science Foundation1 suggests that belief in pseudoscience is widespread in America. Of the 1,574 adults that were surveyed, only one-third understood and could accurately describe the scientific process. Many Americans also agreed with a variety of pseudoscientific beliefs such as the existence of UFOs (30 percent), astrology (40 percent), and psychic powers (60 percent).

Obstacles such as a lack of available information on scientific research in combination with the media’s misrepresentation of science, particularly psychological science, impede public understanding and contribute to an erroneous belief in pseudoscientific ideas and practices. Surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center found that only 2 percent of the most heavily publicized news stories were science-related. Just 16 percent of Americans followed news related to the completion of the mapping of the human genome. When asked whether they considered themselves to be well-informed about scientific research, only 15 percent of NSF survey respondents said yes.

The results of the NSF study suggest that the American public is lacking in their knowledge of scientific processes. Some may argue that scientific illiteracy is insignificant to the individual or society as a whole. However, skeptical and critical thinking is certainly useful in making decisions in all aspects of life. An inability to distinguish between a scientifically validated product and an invalidated one could lead to the purchase of useless or even harmful products. Consider the individual who receives an empirically unsupported psychological treatment, and as a result, loses countless amounts of time and money. These resources could have been better used towards an empirically supported treatment that could actually prove effective in treating their disorder. The consequences of scientific illiteracy are clearly important.

What can the scientific community do to improve the public’s ability to recognize the difference between actual scientific research and pseudoscientific ideas and practices? How can the public be better educated on the distinction between psychological science and that of pop psychologists or TV talk show hosts with little or no research training in psychological science? APS is currently making a significant step toward this goal through the implementation of the Bookstore Project.

When the Bookstore Project Committee (Tracy Caldwell, University of Illinois at Chicago; and Brenda McDaniel, Oklahoma State University; and myself) began working on this project, we had several questions that we wanted to address: 1) What sorts of books would we find when conducting various psychology-related keyword searches at online bookstores? 2) Would we be able to distinguish between empirically-based psychology books and non-empirical psychology books based on their online descriptions? 3) What were the current shelving practices in brick-and-mortar bookstores? 4) Were scientific psychology books available in bookstores? 5) Finally, what would be the most fruitful and feasible course of action for the committee to take in achieving our overarching goal of increased awareness and availability of scientific psychology books to the public?

With these questions in mind, we developed a coding scheme to assess levels of empiricism and conducted an informal “State of Affairs” study on the current categorization practices of psychology books in online and brick-and-mortar bookstores to assess exactly what we were up against. In general, this is what we found. Online searches using keywords such as “clinical psychology” generated a wide variety of books ranging from textbooks and empirically-based books to fluff and pop psychology books. All of these books were lumped together with no clear-cut distinction among them. As psychological scientists, we had difficulty judging the empiricism of many books based on their online descriptions, which casts serious doubt on the public’s ability to do so. In brick-and-mortar stores (i.e., Barnes and Noble), we found that the few psychology books we judged to be empirical were shelved alongside pop psychology books. Furthermore, empirically-based psychology books were relatively scarce. In conclusion, a lot of work needs to be done.

What should be the next step? In order to assess the availability of scientific psychology books in bookstores and form a category of scientific psychology books, a formal evaluation of what books qualify as empirically-based should be conducted. As members of an organization dedicated to the study and support of empirical research in the field of psychology, we are in an excellent position to make this evaluation. We have developed a survey to be sent to all APS members. Each member will be asked to rate a list of books within their specialty field as to their degree of empiricism and accessibility to the general public. After this data is collected and analyzed, we can then assess the status of the “APS-approved” books in bookstores and decide how to approach bookstores, if necessary. Our ultimate goals include a greater availability of psychological science literature in bookstores and a clearer distinction of empirical from non-empirical psychology books in bookstores whether this entails a change in the shelving of these books or a separate online category.

The Bookstore Project Survey is scheduled to be finalized at the beginning of 2003. All APS members will be alerted when the online survey is available. The results will help to narrow the gap between our understanding of science as psychological researchers and the general public’s understanding of science. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, please feel free to contact me at [email protected].

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