Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Monday, November 01, 2004

Attitudes and Views of Medical Students toward Science and Pseudoscience

Attitudes and Views of Medical Students toward Science and Pseudoscience
Adolfo Peña, MD, Ofelia Paco, MD

San Marcos National University. Lima-Peru.

Objectives: To know opinions, attitudes and interest of medical students toward science and pseudoscience.
Design: A questionnaire was administered to 124 medical students of the San Marcos University in Lima, Peru.
Results: 173 students were surveyed. The response rate was 72%. Eighty-three percent (100/121) of respondents said that science is the best source of knowledge, 67% (82/123) said they were interested in science and technology news, 76% said they had not read any science magazine or book (other than medical texts and journals) in the last five years. Thirteen percent (16/124) of respondents said that astrology is “very scientific” and 40% (50/124) stated that it is “sort of scientific.” 50% of respondents shared the opinion that some people possess psychic powers.
Conclusions: Medical students' attitudes toward science are generally not favorable.

Keywords: Attitudes, views, scientific knowledge, medical education, scientific literacy.

Science has enabled successive generations to achieve an increasingly comprehensive and reliable understanding of the human species and its environment. In line with this assertion, medicine soon has had to be guided by science. Ever since the Flexner Report, a key objective of medical education has been making medicine a scientific profession.1

Nevertheless, the fact that uncertainty is inherent in medical practice,2 as well as, the existence of some procedural norms not based on the scientific method, reinforce the view of those who claim that medical practice is to be understood as both an art and a science. Therefore, the best way of defining medicine may be to consider it an applied science.3

If medicine is an applied science, it is desirable that physicians know and understand the theoretical foundations of science, so they may develop a critical and skeptical mentality. This mentality is characterized by a permanent willingness to apply scientific habits of mind in a wide range of social contexts.4 Also it subsumes attitudes, views, cognitive abilities, and behaviors coherent with science.5-6

An examination of the major goals for science education reveals unanimity of opinion that the development of scientific literacy includes the development of positive attitudes toward science.7 According to the National Science Education Standards5 a scientifically literate person should distinguish and recognize expertise, dogma, pseudoscience, epistemic limitations, the temporal nature of knowledge, effective argumentation and relationships among claims, evidence and warrants.

On the other hand, several studies remark that the public's interest and attitudes toward science are generally not favorable. For example, according to Pew Research Center surveys, only two percent of the most closely followed news stories of the past 15 years were about scientific breakthroughs, research, and space exploration.8

Pseudosciences are defined as “claims presented so that they appear (to be) scientific even though they lack supporting evidence and plausibility.”9 In contrast, science is “a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed and inferred phenomena, past or present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation. Pseudoscience topics include yogic flying, therapeutic touch, astrology, fire walking, voodoo magical thinking, Uri Geller, placebo, alternative medicine, channeling, Carlos hoax, psychic hotlines and detectives, near death experiences, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, homeopathy, faith healing, and reincarnation.10

Pseudosciences receive favorable ratings by university students. For example, a survey of 1,500 first-year college students found that 48.5 percent of arts and 33.4 percent of science students considered both astronomy and astrology as sciences.11 In one poll of students in Columbia’s graduate school of journalism, 57 percent of the student journalists believed in extrasensory perception, 57 percent believed in dousing and 47 percent in aura reading.12

Beliefs in the paranormal and pseudoscience may indicate a decline in scientific literacy and critical thinking,12-13 their prevalence among university students has motivated some to affirm that education in industrialized countries is not fulfilling its mission appropriately.14

Unfortunately, perhaps because it is assumed that today’s medicine and medical education are appropriately scientific, there are not studies assessing physicians’ or medical students’ attitudes toward science. However, the facts referred in the preceding paragraph, should invite us to reflect. This study intends to gain insight into medical students' opinions, attitudes and interest toward the scientific endeavor.