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Teaching Scientific Literacy: The Case of Medicinal Teas

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This post is coauthored by Josh Levy, historian of science and technology, and Jackie Katz, 2022 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow. It is one in a series focused on teaching scientific literacy by exploring the differences between science and pseudoscience using historical primary sources.

What’s the difference between science and pseudoscience? The designation of a discipline as a science indicates that it involves the study of observable, natural phenomena that can be better understood through tests that produce consistent and predictable results. The findings of these tests must always be considered tentative. If any of the above tenets are absent, the research is pseudoscientific.

Folk medicine is defined as traditional medicine practiced nonprofessionally, especially by people isolated from professional medical services and usually involving the use of plant-derived remedies on an empirical basis. Medicine and other scientific practices that take place outside of large institutions and organizations have sometimes been ignored by those institutions and by professional practitioners, or denigrated as pseudoscience. Is folk medicine pseudoscience?

Provide students with an excerpt from interviews conducted with formerly enslaved people on the topic of folk remedies and superstition. In the 1930s the Federal Writers Project, part of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration, launched the Slave Narrative project to gather more than 2,000 oral histories from formerly enslaved people across 17 states. Additional information about the interviewers, their training, and the way they transcribed speech can be found on the collection’s webpage. Ask students to study the excerpt and place the statements in one of three categories: scientific claim, emerging science, or pseudoscientific claim.

Text from Folk Remedies and Superstitions Slave narratives
From section of Volume Four, Slave Narratives from Georgia with Focus on Folk Remedies and Superstitions


Once students complete their sorting, ask them to justify their placements. This might lead the class to develop a definition for each of the three categories. Ask students if any of the statements fall between two categories, and why that might be. Are there any other examples of folk medicine that they can think of? Into which category would these examples fall?

Ask students how and why these remedies took hold in enslaved communities. Provide students with an excerpt from Harriet Collins’ interview, so they can learn where many of the remedies originated. What data collection method might enslaved communities have used to develop these remedies? How might those methods have differed from the professional doctors of the time, when the nation lacked a centralized system for issuing medical licenses, regulating medical care, or providing medical training?

Quotation from Harriet Collins Slave Narrative on folk remedies
Quote from Slave Narrative of Harriet Collins


Some of the remedies utilized by enslaved people and by indigenous and non-Western communities have been the focus of modern scientific inquiry, though many have been ignored by professional scientists. Ask students to research several of the treatments mentioned in Collins’ interview and trace their histories with a focus on the evidence that supported use of the treatment. This could provide an opportunity to direct students to additional historic primary sources and present-day scientific journal articles that recount studies of the medicinal properties of these plants.

For example, a historical exploration of mullein, a weedy plant native to Europe and parts of Africa and Asia, shows that it was used to treat consumption in the late 1880s and touted as a cure for the cold in the 1920s. Modern-day research conducted on mullein has supported its early use as antibacterial and antitumor treatment. With this historical perspective, would students alter any of their earlier classifications?

By discussing pseudoscientific concepts, students can build their scientific literacy and critical thinking skills, helping them consume the news of today with more confidence. Pseudoscientific concepts also provide an opportunity to have difficult conversations regarding bias in science, and its social impacts.

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