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Science literacy and homeopathy

When you're teaching to the public as a substitute or volunteer, you often have to dance around controversial topics, and other topics are just so taboo you don't mention them if at all possible. Evolution and sexual education are two very taboo topics that you are supposed to skim to meet regulations, but to go into detail often gets the community of "helicopter" parents up in arms.


While these controversial and taboo topics are nearly impossible to discuss in school settings, it's only slightly easier to discuss them openly in out of school environments. We are not instructed to avoid these topics, but we are cognizant of the bottom dollar, and we need to tread carefully to keep the customers, and thus the money, flowing in.


However, I also teach a science literacy class at a secular community center, so I thought I'd test the waters of teaching and discussing slightly controversial topics, which is a forgivable offense in the event that anyone is offended. I feel fairly comfortable and secure that I wouldn't lose my project and job if I stayed to the only slightly more controversial topics. I'm not ready to pit evolution against creationism yet, but homeopathy seemed a relatively safe topic to tackle.


April 15-21 was Homeopathy Awareness Week, and just happened to be the week after I started working with my science literacy group on critical thinking. My original plan was to assign a quick reading assignment of comparing and contrasting conventional (western) medicine systems to homeopathy. The students, however, surprised me. They wanted to try to do their own little mini Pugwash like event (check out my prior blog about Pugwash inspiring me to tackle these topics), and they volunteered to take it one step further with a mock session in which they divided themselves into two teams to compare, contrast, and debate conventional medicine and homeopathic medicines.


I was curious and admittedly astounded by their drive, so I gamely changed plans and allowed them to do their own research and mini Pugwash event. I should back up here to note that this science literacy group I teach are all post-high school age people with a desire to learn more and understand science, but never really had the desire or chance back in school. The main reason they are all there is to learn the fundamentals of science and how to apply it. That being said, this experiment went better than well, really.


My students found a creative, yet analytical way to discuss the controversial topic of homeopathic medicines. They explored the concepts of why people would turn to this method using interviews, they explored the history of homeopathy, they looked at where and how homeopathy can help, and they even delved into the legal problems of curing with homeopathic remedies. They then compared this with conventional medications, why they work, why they fail when not taken properly, and tied it all back into the fears and beliefs that drive people to turn to homeopathic remedies in the first place.


This showed me that with a little effort and time, I can teach others to think a little more critically about what they read, see the deeper meanings and connections, and learn to read beyond the biases. Most impressive of all about this experiment was that they did a really good job of teaching themselves and each other how to read and think about the issues at hand so they could make an informed decision later on.

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