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Learning Scientific Literacy Through the Worlds of Science and the Supernatural

Published on 28 October 2019

As the leaves begin to change and the sweaters come out, so do the witches, ghouls and ghost stories. The tradition of Halloween thrives on the supernatural, and at St. Louis College of Pharmacy, students are unpacking how the supernatural world works and how it relates to science through a history course titled Science and the Supernatural. 

"The course really grew out of a need to talk about scientific literacy in the curriculum,” said Brenda Gardenour Walter, Ph.D., professor of history at the College. "What it comes down to is the difference between the supernatural, with all of the invisible things that can’t be quantified and aren't tangible, and science which relies on quantifiable, tangible proof. This course not only teaches our students scientific literacy, but they also learn how to educate the public about scientific health issues."

The class begins with witches, wizards, magic and divination, all entry points into the cultural constructions of the body and other cultural structures in place in today's Western society. From there, students transition to "woo," which is spurious forms of healing that are supernatural in nature but make scientific claims.

"For instance magnetic healing," Gardenour Walter explained. "Believers in this claim that the magnets in, say a magnetic bracelet, can move the iron in your blood. Our students take anatomy. They know that blood isn't ferromagnetic, but they also understand that there are many people – patients – that don’t necessarily have that level of health literacy, and therefore buy into the pseudoscience. We talk about who sells it, who buys it, why do they believe it, and when does it become dangerous." 

For the students entering pharmacy and other fields in health care, patient questions about things like magnetic bracelets and crystal healing create opportunities to have meaningful conversations about how science and the body work.

"When it comes to people turning to alternative healing, it's not just because they can't get effective care," Gardenour Walter said. "It's because people can’t afford care, or they don’t have access to care. Often, they are trying to fulfill needs beyond the medical and into the spiritual. Our students, like most human beings, believe in supernatural forces. We talk about epistemologies such as observation experimentation, authority, faith and tradition. Tradition is so powerful because it is invisible — we just do things automatically, and we don't ask why. Through these conversations students begin to look at their assumptions when it comes to the supernatural."

The world of the supernatural is rich and complicated, and it turns out, a perfect vehicle to talk about what it means to meet people and patients where they are at with understanding and respect. Science and the Supernatural may be a 300-level history course at the College, but the health care lens through which it is taught is the very foundation for how St. Louis College of Pharmacy approaches the liberal arts.

"The supernatural is super fun, but it also leads to some serious conversations," Gardenour Walter explained. "These supernatural practices are meaningful practices. They just aren’t meaningful as science, but it doesn’t have to be science to be real."


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