KSN - Vol 35, No 4 - April 1989: Pseudoscience of Animals and PlantsVolume 35, Number 4 - April 1989

Pseudoscience of Animals and Plants:
A Teacher's Guide to Non-Scientific Beliefs

by John Richard Schrock


2004 Reprint of April 1989 Issue

ISSN: 0022-877X
Circulation (1989): 1600
Second Press Run (2004): 5000
Press Composition: John Decker
Printed by: ESU Printing Services
Online edition by: TERRI WEAST

The Kansas School Naturalist is sent free of charge and upon request to teachers, school administrators, public and school librarians, youth leaders, conservationists, and others interested in natural history and nature education. In-print back issues are sent free as long as supply lasts. Out-of-print back issues are sent for one dollar photocopy and postage/handling charge per issue. A back issues list is sent free upon request. The Kansas School Naturalist is published on an irregular basis with one to four issues per year. The Kansas School Naturalist is sent by bulk mail to all U.S. zip codes, and first class mail to Mexico, Canada and overseas. The Kamas School Naturalist is edited and published by Emporia State University, Emporia, KS. Editor: John Richard Schrock, Department of Biological Sciences. Postage paid at Emporia, KS. Address all correspondence ro Kansas School Naturalist, Department of Biological Sciences, Box 4050, Emporia Stare University, Emporia, KS 66801-5087. Opinions and perspectives expressed are those of the aurhors and/or editor and do not reflect the official position or endorsement of E.S.U.

The Kansas School Naturalist is indexed in Wildlife Review/ Fisheries Review, BIOSIS and their Biological Abstracts, and selecred issues are indexed in the Zoological Record.

Many Kansas School Naturalist issues are available online at www.emporia.edulksn/


Dr. John Richard Schrock received his doctorate in entomology from the University of Kansas and is Professor of Biology at Emporia State University.

A Teacher's Guide to Non-Scientific Beliefs

by John Richard Schrock

Nearly every grocery check-out counter in the United States now displays tabloid newspapers that purvey as entertainment a wide array of assertions about movie stars, aliens from other planets, cancer cures.  Therefore it is common for a teacher who maintains an open and intellectually exciting classroom atmosphere to hear a wide range of questions from students: “Is such-and-such really true?”  And in many cases where the tabloids cite “scientists,” students will want to know: “Do scientists really say that?”

Since it may take considerable coursework and experience to develop a scientific viewpoint toward life, the teacher faces a difficult task providing students with a brief but correct glimpse of how "science" would approach such varied and specific items.  A proper response depends on knowing both how scientists operate in general and on some knowledge of the science involved.  This issue of the Kansas School Naturalist strives to help the public school teacher clarify some recent pseudoscience in the fields of zoology and botany.


When responding to a student’s question, “Is this really science?” or “Do scientists really say this?,” it is wise to consider placing claims in one of three groups.  This will not come naturally to most people, because (thanks to Aristotle) our Western tradition and language is set up to classify things as good or bad, up or down, and “science” and “non-science.”

First, there are claims that simply cannot be true if the world operates according to our current experiences and the rules as we have found present in the past (i.e. objects do not fall upward on the earth).  If such claims do not stand up to scrutiny and test, a teacher can feel fairly confident stating they are definitely not science.

On the other side are observations that do fit well with our present understanding; they have been observed and they are repeatable in lab or field situations.  This is solidly science.  of course it will take some science   knowledge on the part of the teacher and student, and an ability to search out the current literature, to determine both of these cases.

Definitely "outside science" as we understand it now "Unproven" but not impossible pending further evidence Definitely "within science"

The middle category is for problem phenomena that are rare or for which the evidence is not conclusive that "could" exist according to natural laws as we currently understand them; we just have to wait for enough instances to amass, or for a successful demonstration to occur, or for a conclusive test, to exclude these claims.


A science teacher has a complex task in helping students understand how a scientist operates.  Although there is a “method” described in textbooks as the “scientific method” composed of some formulation of observation-hypothesis-test-results-new hypothesis . . . etc., real science breakthroughs rarely conform to this formula and the teaching of this formula simply does not accelerate research.  If school students read detailed accounts of Fleming’s “discovery” of penicillin, Pasteur’s work with rabies, Watson and Crick’s DNA work, or most of the scientists profiled in past Scientific American articles, they would discover that it takes some stretching to make many of these ventures fit the “scientific method” formula.  On the other hand, these scientists did work with a general attitude toward the world, a complex attitude that is summarized on pages 8 and 9. 


Present some original experimental history that reveals how real human beings with human shortcomings worked on interesting puzzles until they found solutions that are today's science.  This history also often reveals the limitations of that understanding.

Real science is also considerably different from what is purveyed in textbooks.  Students who hear for the first time a scientist present a paper in a scientific meeting are surprised to hear researchers actually argue!  All of those set values in the text actually have some “wiggle” and there is a cutting edge of discovery that is constantly refining our understanding and providing exceptions to nearly every general rule!  Students can only perceive these important aspects of science if you introduce them to some original investigations or elaborate debates on real science occurring today.  Scientific American articles reporting research from before the 1970s and summary articles on current research in Science News will help provide the flavor of real science, too.  Textbooks will not.


Read text sample division problems and work out the assignment Teacher explains division problems and talks through examples  Audio-visuals animate division problems in diverse and entertaining ways   Teacher has class partition to become part of a division problem  Student riding in freight truck has to calculate gas/diesel mileage and determine amount of fuel for trip across desert      

English Vocabulary

Read "Red Badge of Courage" Teacher explicates text Students view movie version of book Students enact roles from book Student sent to participate in one day's Army exercise


Student reads sheet music to Beethoven's "Ode To Joy"  Teacher "sight reads" do-do-re-mi-mi-etc Student listens to tape of Beethoven's "Ode To Joy"   Student watches TV performance of Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" Student attends actual concert and fully observes or performs in the concert 


Read about leaves and how to identify them  Teacher explains how to identify leaves  Audio-visuals show leaf characters and students drill/practice Actual leaves used to see characters and students drill/practice Students on outward bound solo trek must select good plants as food to survive   

Social Studies

Read about U.S. Court and penal system Teacher explains judicial system Film "Twelve Angry Men" dramatizes jury decision ways  Student role-plays the steps in convicting a criminal Student attends real court sessions and spends night in protected cell


Minimize abstractions (such as wordy statements of science concepts) and keep students involved with real lab and field work so what you do talk about will be “meaningful.”  These real experiences provide opportunity for real interaction, they test true, and the student realizes that this phenomenon can lead to real consequences.

Minimizing abstractions means moving away from the common practices used in the classroom (reading, talking, showing slides and movies) and using real lab and field activities.  The goal is to practice students in securing real information from the real world.  (Be careful, not all “hands on” activities deal with the real world.)

Students who currently learn science as a written body of facts also correctly detect that the "facts" change over time.  We are actually teaching these students to view controversies as “book thumping” contests where one authority is challenging another.  Real science has nothing to do with “authority.”

Students also realize that all the abstract classroom methods are subject to fraud.  Texts, pictures, videotapes... all are easily contrived to show what an author or propagandist wishes to show.  The real phenomenon on the other hand has all the truth in it for investigation.  A good science student will develop a healthy disrespect for anything that is not based on direct evidence.


Force students to use reason to figure out the world around them by not giving them the “correct” answer.  Set up the problem and let them solve it, and help them maintain a rigorous and reasoned discussion.

Reason is developed by practice.  The sun may “appear” to rise in the east and set in the west, so observation of the real world alone does not insure the development of a “scientific attitude.”  By asking questions and pointing out additional student experiences, a teacher can help students recognize that this is an “apparent motion” of the sun better explained as due to the earth turning.


The following checklist may help some teachers steer away from science as an authoritarian body of knowledge:

-Use real specimens wherever possible to illustrate concrete objects.  This applies to all levels.  There is some educational mythology about abstractions being “better” for older students–it is unproved.

-Use real laboratory experiences where possible to demonstrate real interactions and real consequences.  Open (not cookbook) experiments and dissections are vital to provide the student with “meaning” for those terms and concepts and to sharpen the student’s powers of observation.

-Use field experiences wherever possible, minimizing the carry-along social subculture of the classroom and again focusing the student on the phenomena in nature.

-Do not rely heavily on dictionaries and encyclopedias to define terms for students; do not reply to questions with “Look it up,” but rather “Look and see” in the lab or field.  If the reality shows one result and the book another, the book loses!

-Avoid pressing students to make up their minds on an issue in the absence of real and first-hand evidence or before they have engaged in reasoned discussion with others; this usually results in the perpetuation of societal prejudices and forms a bad intellectual habit.

-Focus on students’ real experiences as a base for definition; capitalize on those students with first-hand experiences and encourage them to share what they know.  (Note: Courts only recognize first-hand testimony and reject hearsay evidence).

-Constantly point out the difference between the value of information from persons who are “book learned” but not testable witnesses (as teachers often are) and persons with first-hand experience who are testable witnesses.

-Point out cases where two students perceive the same picture, event, or situation differently and note how our previous experiences actually change the way we see things; capitalize on the perspective of foreign-born students in class.


Your grandparents would have laughed at the idea of playing music to your houseplants to help them grow.  However, with the publication of the best-selling The Secret Life of Plants in 1973 by Tompkins and Bird, a substantial number of Americans embraced some botanical nonsense and much of it still lingers in our public domain.  People who would never give credence to UFO’s were easily won over to the unlikely claim that plants can detect when you approach with a razor and herbicide on your mind, or that plants will grow to please you, or that humans and plants have force fields and auras!  “Do you sing to your plant” will more likely draw a sober reply than an incredulous chuckle.  Acceptance of this plant mysticism was high because the “Secret Life” book purported to report a wide array of solid “scientific experiments,” thus making this one of the most elaborate modern cases of pseudoscience known.  Some assertions and possible teacher strategies follow:

“Whether awake or asleep, we ought to never allow ourselves to be persuaded of the truth of anything unless on the evidence of our reason.  And it must be noted that I say of our reason, and not of our imagination or our senses.”

-Rene Descartes


. . . modified from Bronowski (1978), Diederich (1967), and Whaley & Surratt (1967).

  1. Empiricism.  Simply said, a scientist prefers to “look and see.”  You do not argue about whether it is raining outside--just stick a hand out the window.  Underlying this is the belief that there is one real world following constant rules in nature, and that we can probe that real world and build our understanding–it will not change on us.  Nor does the real world depend upon our understanding–we do not “vote” on science.

  2. Determinism.  “Cause-and-effect” underlie everything.  In simple mechanisms, an action causes a reaction, and effects do not occur without causes.  This does not mean that some processes are not random or chaotic.  But a causative agent does not alone produce one effect today and another effect tomorrow.

  3. A belief that problems have solutions.  Major problems have been tackled in the past, from the Manhattan Project to sending man to the moon.  Other problems such as pollution, war, poverty, and ignorance are seen as having real causes and are therefore solvable–perhaps not easily, but possible.

  4. Parsimony.  Prefer the simple explanation to the complex: when both the complex earth-centered system with epicycles and the simple Copernican sun-centered system explain apparent planetary motion, we chose the simpler.

  5. Scientific manipulation.  Any idea, even though it may be simple and conform to apparent observations, must usually be confirmed by work that teases out the possibility that the effects are caused by other factors.

  6. Skepticism.  Nearly all statements make assumptions of prior conditions.  A scientist often reaches a dead end in research and has to go back and determine if all of the assumptions made are true to how the world operates.

  7. Precision.  Scientists are impatient with vague statements: A virus causes disease?  How many viruses are needed to infect?  Are any hosts immune to the virus?  Scientists are very exact and very “picky.”

  8. Respect for paradigms.  A paradigm is our overall understanding about how the world works.  Does a new concept “fit” with our overall understanding or does it fail to weave in with our broad knowledge of the world.  If it doesn't fit, it is “bothersome” and the scientist goes to work to find out if the new concept is flawed or if the paradigm must now be altered.

  9. A respect for power of theoretical structure.  Diederich describes how a scientist is unlikely to adopt the attitude: “That is all right in theory but it won't work in practice.”  He notes that theory is “all right” only if it does work in practice.  Indeed the rightness of the theory is in the end what the scientist is working toward; no science facts are accumulated at random.  (This is an understanding that many science fair students must learn!)

  10. Willingness to change an opinion.  When Harold Urey, author of one textbook theory on the origin of the moon's surface, examined the moon rocks bought back from the Apollo mission, he immediately recognized this theory did not fit the hard facts laying before him.  “I’ve been wrong!” he proclaimed without any thought of defending the theory he had supported for decades.

  11. Loyalty to reality.  Dr. Urey above did not convert to just any new idea, but accepted a model that matched reality better.  He would never have considered holding to an old conclusion just because it was associated with his name.

  12. Aversion to superstition and an automatic preference for scientific explanation.  No scientist can know all of the experimental evidence underlying current science concepts and therefore must adopt some views without understanding their basis.  A scientist rejects superstition and prefers science paradigms out of an appreciation for the power of reality-based knowledge.

  13. A thirst for knowledge, an “intellectual drive.”  Scientists are addicted puzzle-solvers.  The little piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fit is the most interesting.  However, as Diederich notes, scientists are willing to live with incompleteness rather than “. . . fill the gaps with off-hand explanations.”

  14. Suspended judgment.  Again Diederich describes: “A scientist tries hard not to form an opinion on a given issue until he has investigated it, because it is so hard to give up opinions already formed, and they tend to make us find the facts that support the opinions . . .  There must be, however, a willingness to act on the best hypothesis that one has time or opportunity to form.”

  15. Awareness of assumptions.  Diederich describes how a good scientist starts by defining terms, making all assumptions very clear, and reducing necessary assumptions to the smallest number possible.  Often we want scientists to make broad statements about a complex world.  But usually scientists are very specific about what they “know” or will say with some certainty: “When these conditions hold true, the usual outcome is such-and-such.”

  16. Ability to separate fundamental concepts from the irrelevant or unimportant.  Some young science students get bogged down in observations and data that are of little importance to the concept they want to investigate.

  17. Respect for quantification and appreciation of mathematics as a language of science.  Many of nature's relationships are best revealed by patterns and mathematical relationships when reality is counted or measured; and this beauty often remains hidden without this tool.

  18. An appreciation of probabilities and statistics.  Correlations do not prove cause-and-effect, but some pseudoscience arises when a chance occurrence is taken as “proof.”  Individuals who insist on an all-or-none world and who have little experience with statistics will have difficulty understanding the concept of an event occurring by chance.

  19. An understanding that all knowledge has tolerance limits.  All careful analyses of the world reveal values that scatter at least slightly around an average point; a human's core body temperature is about so many degrees and objects fall with a certain rate of acceleration, but there is some variation.  There is no absolute certainty.

  20. Empathy for the human condition.  Contrary to popular belief, there is a value system in science, and it is based on humans being the only organisms that can “imagine” things that are not triggered by stimuli present at the immediate time in their environment; we are, therefore, the only creatures to “look” back to our past and plan forward to our future.  This is why when you read a moving book, you imagine yourself in the position of another person and you think “I know what the author means and feels.”  Practices that ignore this empathy and resultant value for human life produce inaccurate science.  (See Bronowski for more examples of this controversial “scientific attitude.”)

In 1966, a researcher named Backster connected a plant to a polygraph and reported that plants responded to his intent to damage the plant.  He reported that electrodes that usually measure galvanic skin response in humans were tracing a response to his decision to burn a leaf with a match before he reached for the book of matches!  The plant was obviously reacting to his thoughts, he concluded.

-Do polygraphs really indicate people’s thoughts when used as “lie detectors” aside from their use here?

-How “big” were the experimental results on the chart compared to random “noise”?

-Were the results repeatable?  Were readings the same when the same experimenter repeated identical runs?  Do other experimenters get the same readings as well?

-Is this proof for a cause-and-effect connection between a person’s thoughts and the plant’s purported reaction?

Backster demonstrated to a Yale group that a plant’s galvanometer response changes just before a spider scampers away from the researcher, and proclaimed “. . . each of the spider’s decisions to escape was being picked up by the plant, causing a reaction in the leaf.”

-Do spiders actually “decide” to escape just like humans consciously “decide” to act?

-Why would a plant respond to spider “thoughts” and not to the myriad decisions of the people in the room working the experiment?

When many researchers could not detect any galvanometer responses by plants, Backster “realized” that plants could be put into a faint by humans.

-Is this really evidence for this?

-Can we accept results as scientific if they only work for some people?

Backster measured the reactions of plants to his killing of brine shrimp in boiling water; they reacted “. . . in a ratio that was 5 to 1 against the possibility of chance.”

-Is 5-to-1 against the possibility of chance a “significant” indication that something didn't happen by chance?

. . . and so the book goes on and on reporting fabulous claims.


What community doesn’t have adherents to this claim–and they have their successful wells to prove it too!  When a scientific rationale is suggested for “water witching,” it may often allude to the observation that willow and other trees roots do grow toward a source of water–everyone with an old septic tank has Roto-Rooter bills to prove that!  Therefore, it is certainly “logical” that someone who is very sensitive should be able to sense this gentle “pull” of plant tissues toward water.

-People often think of water running in underground streams just like it does aboveground.  But, except in special limestone areas where streams do actually erode underground channels, water usually exists spread out in a water table above layers of impervious rock, more like an underground lake than a stream.  In most cases you would expect to hit water eventually on any drilling.

-Therefore, is hitting water a “proof” of “successful” witching if there are no additional drillings nearby as “controls?”

-What would happen to a nursery truck loaded with hundreds of willow saplings when it crossed a bridge over a river?  (You may need to be careful when using such extended reasoning with students, so as not to appear sarcastic.)


In April 1984, Technology Review, published by MIT, revealed the exciting news that a Russian scientist had secured egg cells from a frozen mammoth in Siberia.  Although this woolly relative of the elephant had been extinct for 10,000 years, the frozen DNA was alleged to be preserved sufficiently to allow, with some effort, fertilization by Asian elephant sperm and implantation into a surrogate mother elephant.  This supposedly led to the birth of two hybrid calves which were described in detail.  Since Technology Review is not a science fiction magazine, the story was picked up by newspapers from Chicago to Europe.  The article submitted on April 1, 1984, (hint, hint) by an MIT biochemistry student was a “good-natured prank,” and its history is detailed in the spring, 1985, ISC Newsletter.

As with much pseudoscience, the sensational story travels far, the revelation that it was a prank does not.  I still occasionally encounter colleagues who distantly heard about it and ask what became of the experiment.

A science teacher should be able to help students “smell a rat” here.

-It is difficult to verify the physical truth of such distant research, but in the time since 1985, a real discovery would have attracted the attention and visits of many researchers, along with a flurry of photos and headlines.

-While small cells and embryos can be fast-frozen and thawed, larger tissues form ice crystals from slow freezing that tear cell structures to ribbons.  Could cell structures, including DNA molecules, survive a freeze, a thaw, and 10,000 years in between?

-Would there be the same number of chromosomes between the two species?  Would the genes line up the same to permit a viable zygote?  How close does the DNA of the two related species have to be to permit a hybrid?

The supreme end of education is expert discernment in all things–the power to tell the good from the bad, the genuine from the counterfeit, and to prefer the good and the genuine to the bad and the counterfeit.

-Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

-A scientific name was purportedly given to the hybrid calves.  That requires a published description.  Where is it?

Acceptance of the story was undoubtedly greater because of the public's awareness of recent work in cloning various lower animals. And David Rorvik had published in 1978 In His Image: The Cloning of Man, another case of pseudoscience purporting to have actually produced clones of a wealthy patron.  Rorvik eventually admitted the book was fictitious, but the cloning of people has become part of our “pop-sci” culture.  By 1987, biologists confirmed in the June issue of Bioscience that “In mammals, there seems to be a unique and complementary contribution of male and female gametes . . . not true of other classes of animals.”  That means that we cannot clone mammals; Rorvik's scenario was impossible with current technology. [2001 Editor’s note: Advances in technology allowed cloning, including “Dolly” the sheep about one decade after this issue.]


In 1979, Lyell Watson authored the book Lifetide, which included several pages that reported on the transfer of a new learned behavior among troops of wild macaques on Japanese islands.  In 1953, a female monkey discovered that sand and grit could be washed from sweet potatoes.  This behavior was slowly learned by other members of the troop, and there is nothing unexpected or unusual in this process so far.  But Watson goes ahead to contend that the anecdotal evidence indicates that by 1958, when one additional monkey learned the new technique, a “critical mass” was reached and a group consciousness was formed that resulted in monkeys spontaneously learning how to wash potatoes, not just on this island, but on other islands and the mainland, too.

The term “100th monkey” comes from Watson's framing the claim on a hypothetical example that 99 monkeys learned the normal way but when the hundredth one joined in this knowledge, a new collective consciousness was formed.  This theme of “collective consciousness” has been picked up and promulgated by other authors for various purposes, greatly expanding the public’s awareness of this purported “scientific” finding.  To a young generation brought up on Star Wars (“May the Force be with you.”), isn’t this evidence for a “group mind?”

-Amundson, in The Skeptical Inquirer Summer 1985, returns to the Japanese primatologists’ original reports and finds absolutely no evidence of anything but one-animal-to-another learning--the “group mind” was Watson's conclusions from observations that did not provide such evidence.  Such intellectual footwork is very handy to teachers who aren't in the position to check original documents for every claim.

-Even without a researcher re-checking the original research, a class should be able to probe the implications of this claim.  Has any student tapped into revelations about meiosis in class because a huge number of classmates across the U.S. are also studying it each fall?  Or did their studying a lesson give someone else a mysterious insight?


The recent case of a moose wandering through Kansas, far from its normal range, is accepted because the wayward animal, distinctly recognizable as a moose, has been sporadically located by TV media who air footage of the critter and zoologists confirm “Yep, that is a moose.”  However, are all reports of extirpated animals (the cougar, timber wolf, bear, etc.) to be taken as fact?  The fact that they did at one time live here is offered as evidence that the climate and environment are appropriate or tolerable.

-How and why would an animal move from a distant area where it still exists to this location?  Are there barriers, from natural rivers to killer highways?

-How many are required per unit area to form a breeding population?

-How long would a single individual last if there was no breeding population?

-Do any circuses come through here that might have lost an animal?

-How could the animal(s) survive in the midst of human populations without being caught, killed, or seen more often?

A retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist R.L. Downing has noted that in Florida, several cougars are road-killed annually out of a total population of about 30, indicating that an area with much traffic but no road kills “. . . is unlikely to contain cougars” (ISC Newsletter Summer 1988).  Such exercises in reasoning will help students address such sightings in a logical manner and distinguish between extensions of normal ranges, exotic or outlying cases, and unlikely reports.


The coelacanth was an ancient fish only known from fossils until specimens were fished out of deep ocean near Madagascar.  The ivory-billed wood­pecker was considered extinct until recent observations in Cuba.  A rare bowerbird only known from three old museum specimens was recently found by an ornithologist.  So, why can’t reports of other extinct animals perhaps be true, since they did exist at one time, and many wild areas are so remote?  What about “Nessie” the Loch Ness monster as an aquatic dinosaur, Sasquatch as a surviving Neanderthal or Gigantopithecus, sea monsters as giant octopus or squid.  And maybe the Thylacine or Tasmanian Wolf is still around?

Such reports are indeed the very grist for the mills of the ISC Newsletter where such claims are made in enough detail that students can again exercise some reasoning skills to separate the unlikely from the impossible.


1.  Actual specimen or substantial parts sufficient to provide an undisputed identification.  Probably nothing less than this will be required for many claims, since it is possible for other forms of “evidence” below to be misidentified or even forged by individuals seeking publicity.  There are cases of such forgeries based on contrived partial evidence but a whole critter that can be directly inspected is fairly conclusive evidence that one exists.  That a specimen is not an aberrant form of something "normal" or that it represents a new species may require additional evidence, however.

2.  Fecal analysis.  Waste materials can be quite distinct for various animals but much is unresearched or undescribed and comparative material for extinct or unknown animals is usually not available.

3.  Footprints, “tracks,” or scratch marks.  Some fossil animals are described and known only from their tracks in ancient mud.  But deducing the animal that made the tracks is an uncertain task with many assumptions.  The Paluxy Creek report of man footprints alongside dinosaurs tracks revealed under additional examination, that the “human” prints belonged to a small dinosaur with claws!  The marks made by the giant squid on sperm whales are prints left on living tissue.  Because the whale continues to grow, the size of the sucker marks on the whale cannot be used to infer the size of giant squid (“The Giant Squid” Sci. Amer. April 1982 Reprint No. 1515).

4.  Sound recordings and sonar.  The range of the prairie mole cricket in Kansas, as well as the rediscovery of tropical birds presumed extinct, is often made on the basis of hearing their songs.  Because aberrant calls are possible, it may not provide the conclusive evidence for an animal’s existence that scientists would prefer.  And when a sonar sweep was made across the Loch Ness, failure to find anything did not provide the absolute disproof that some would require, either.

5.  Bones.  The Piltdown forgery went undetected for some time, but today's dating techniques and larger collections of vertebrate skeletons for comparison make bones better evidence.  The legendary “onza,” an animal varying from the standard mountain lion or cougar, did not gain acceptance based on one skeleton.  However, the killing and preserving of a whole specimen (ISC Newsletter Vol. 4 No. 4, Vol. 5 No. 1) may confirm its identity.

6.  Photographs.  Oftentimes there are problems with scale and interpretation even when the photos are submitted by witnesses in good faith.  And of course the technology to “fake” photos has advanced.

7.  Tissue analysis.  The new biochemical techniques are allowing fish and game officers to analyze and identify the meat of endangered species for illegal import cases, and may have growing use in cryptozoology.  However, these techniques usually require comparison tissues, tissues that are not available for extinct or unknown animals.

8.  Eyewitness reports.  The only “substance” of most National Enquirer articles, the eyewitness report, is rarely evidenced when it stands alone.  For example, several ornithologists reported seeing birds “anting,” a strange behavior where birds pick up formic acid ants in their beaks and probe through their feathers.  The process fumigates for lice, but was not accepted until more eyewitness accounts and photos were available. 

Pseudoscience is not always a  bothersome static that gets in the way of our conveying “proper” science facts.  It provides some excellent opportunities for students to develop rigor in thinking, gain an appreciation for that middle ground where we don't yet know, and see the tolerance limits to human knowledge.  Indeed, I think it would be difficult (and less exciting) to teach these mental gymnastics if all our students came to us with absolute reliance on the current dogma and no misconceptions, myths, or pseudoscience for us to work from.  What is disturbing is that so many graduate with no reduction in such fuzzy thinking, and that acceptance of misconceptions, myths, and pseudoscience in the U.S. is rampant and increasing.

A conscious effort has been made in compiling this issue of the Kansas School Naturalist to avoid offering any short-cut formula or easy answers for a teacher to use in countering pseudoscience in the classroom. 

Some sensational claims gain acceptance because they rely on a little knowledge of current science breakthroughs (i.e. the mammoth-elephant hybrids from frozen eggs in an era of in vitro fertilization and cloning).  Such cases illustrate how “a little science understanding can be dangerous.”  The solution is more understanding and more practice in reasoning.  There simply is no effective substitute for knowing absolutely all of the science you can possibly learn and applying your greatest powers of reason. The more practice students can gain examining the real world and engaging in intelligent discussion, the more likely they are to develop an attitude that will help them solve problems throughout their lives.  This “scientific” attitude is an excellent way of life, whether they enter a science career or not.


Bronowski, Jacob.  1978.  The Common Sense of Science.  Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts.  154 pages.

Diederich, Paul B.  1967.  “Components of the Scientific Attitude” The Science Teacher.  Vol. xx: 23-24.

Whaley, Donald L., and Sharon L. Surratt.  1967.  Attitudes of Science. Behaviordella: Kalamazoo, MI 3rd Edition, 278 pages.


The only way to insure that students will develop skills recognizing weak claims to science is to challenge students to make such distinctions in classwork.  While the National Enquirer and other tabloids provide a constant stream of near-nonsense, you may want students to bite off more difficult issues.  The following two publications will provide a year's supply of puzzling intermediate cases:

The ISC Newsletter appears four times a year, is published by the International Society of Cryptozoology and is available for $30 annually.  The organization also publishes the journal Cryptozoology although the newsletter will be of greater use to the classroom teacher.  In biology circles, this is a controversial publication, covering a range of items from bonafide discoveries of organisms thought extinct to musings over Sasquatch evidence.

Science Frontiers is published by William Corliss  who  specializes  in  extracting  notes  on anomalies that appear in bonafide science journals.  This bimonthly newsletter is $5 for six issues or free with a book purchase.  Corliss operates “The Sourcebook Project” that brings together reports on everything from ball lightning to Marfa lights . . . some of which are now understood in science, some outside science paradigms, and much yet to be confirmed and understood.  Order from: The Sourcebook Project, P.O. Box 107, Glen Arm, MD 21057.

Finally, the following publication concentrates on exposing claims of the paranormal and occasionally enters into arguments with The ISC Newsletter:

The Skeptical Inquirer is published by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and provides an excellent critique of nearly all pseudoscience issues (ESP. UFO's, face on Mars, etc.).  It is the best antidote for National Enquirer available.  Four issues per year cost $22.50,. $39 for two years and $54 for a three year subscription from: Skeptical Inquirer, Box 229, Buffalo, New York 14215.

IN-PRINT BACK ISSUES OF THE Kansas School Naturalist AS OF 2004.

Volume 31 (1) 1984-85 Thirty Years (History of KSN)

Volume 37(1) 1990-91 Scientific Names, Common Names

Volume 37(4) 1990-91 Checklist of Kansas Butterflies (color)

Volume 38(1) 1991-92 Bone Names

Volume 38(2) 1991-92 Snow Flies

Volume 39(1) 1992-93 Springtails (photocopies available in Chinese and Spanish)

Volume 39(2) 1992-93 Prairie Fires (color; classroom sets available)

Volume 40(2) 1993-94 Kansas Ants

Volume 41(1) 1994-95 Collecting/Studying Ants

Volume 41(2) 1994-95 Yucca Plant and Yucca Moth (2-color)

Volume 42(1) 1995-96 Muscle Names (2-color)

Volume 42(2) 1995-96 Backyard Birds (color)

Volume 43(1) 1996-97 Role of Animals in Succession (2-color)

Volume 43(2) 1996-97 Dragonflies of Kansas (color)

Volume 43(3) 1996-97 Tardigrades (photocopies available in Chinese and Spanish)

Volume 44(1) 1997-98 Damselflies of Kansas (color)

Volume 45(1) 1998-99 Greater Prairie Chicken (color)

Volume 45(2) 1998-99 Feral Pigeons (color)

Volume 45(3) 1998-99 Centipedes/Millipedes (color) (photocopies available in Chinese and Spanish)

Volume 45(4) 1998-99 Carpenter Ants (color)(photocopies available in Chinese and Spanish)

Volume 46(1) 1999-00 Permian Insect Fossils of Elmo Kansas

Volume 47(1) 2000-01 Kansas Jumping Spiders (color)

Volume 48(1) 2001-02 Scorpionflies, Hangingflies, and Other Mecoptera (color)

Volume 49(1) 2002-03 Kansas Crab Spiders (color)

Volume 50(1) 2003-04 Toxicology Primer for Student Inquiry

The Kansas School Naturalist Department of Biology 
  College of Liberal Arts & Sciences 
Send questions / comments to
Kansas School Naturalist.
 Emporia State University