One of the goals of effective thinking advocacy is to help people relieve themselves of some of their kooky notions. This is a goal that is shared with those in the skeptic movement, who think that spreading public understanding of science will help people reject pseudoscience and reach conclusions based on reason and evidence. It seems plausible enough: teach people about evolution, for example, and they should reach the conclusion that neither man nor beast really came from the mythical Garden of Eden.

Wouldn’t we expect that people exposed to some university-level coursework in science will be better equipped to evaluate scientific claims critically, and distinguish genuine scientific knowledge from pseudoscience and generic hokum? It turns out that it doesn’t, according to a new paper from Massimo Pigliucci. For rational skepticism to flourish, we need to do more than just teach science.

According to Pigliucci,

[none] of this argues that science literacy is not a worthy goal, but it certainly points out that—in itself—more general science education is not likely to significantly ameliorate the problem. The implication is that there must be other, so far less explored, factors playing into so much misunderstanding of science and acceptance of pseudoscience by the general public. My suggestion is that we need to consider three other, interconnected, spheres of influence: philosophy (particularly as it concerns critical thinking and informal logical fallacies), psychology (pertinent to people’s proneness to engage in cognitive biases and cognitive dissonance), and sociology (concerning the strength and dynamics of people’s ideological commitments). [Source]

While I disagree with some specifics of Pigliucci’s paper (e.g., the fuss about Penn and Teller), his overall point is well worth considering: acceptance of pseudoscience and misunderstandings of science are problems that are, at their root, related to a cultural deficit of critical thinking, broadly construed.