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Teachers explore Library of Congress primary sources. (Stephen Wesson/Library of Congress)

Teaching Scientific Literacy: The Case of the Imaginary Pianos

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This post is coauthored by Josh Levy, historian of science and technology, and Jacqueline Katz, the 2022-2023 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress. It is part of a series focused on teaching scientific literacy by assessing historical examples of pseudoscience.

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.

Nutrition, fitness, and diet have been topics of discourse inside and outside of the scientific community for hundreds of years. Eaters have been influenced by scientific studies and high-minded teachings, like the Bhagavad Gita’s broad guidance that “by eating pure food, the mind becomes pure,” to fad diets—like the vinegar diet of the 19th century, which promoted vinegar as an appetite suppressant and even ensnared Lord Byron. Today, diet, weight, and body image have become a large part of the media that our students consume. Consider using historic primary sources to help students develop the skills needed to scientifically evaluate the nutrition and fitness information they encounter.

How to Keep Fit. F. Christian Miller, Omaha Daily Bee, December 31st 1911

Present students with the headline from an article published in the Omaha Daily Bee on December 31, 1911 and have them identify cause and effect relationships that are described. Students will likely recognize that the author of the article, F. Christian Miller, is proposing that drinking water, getting fresh air, and lifting imaginary pianos will lead to fitness.

Divide students into groups and have each group read the article, create lists of the causal relationships the author suggests, and extract the scientific reasoning for those relationships. Challenge students to question the article’s assumptions, like the implied meaning of “fitness” and ideal body type, the relationship between femininity and physical activity, and the relationship between water temperature and health. Also challenge students to think about information that is not present in the article, but could provide support and reasoning for the claims. For example, a group focused on the claim about drinking two glasses of water on rising might extract their reasoning from the diagram of skin and pores. This group might want to know more about the process that moves ingested water to the cells of the skin, and whether the author’s description is accurate. Based on the reasoning and evidence provided in the article, would the students classify its claims as scientific or pseudoscientific?

Consider having your students research the social environment of early 20th century America as well. Why might this kind of advice have been marketed to women in particular?

To connect this 1911 article to the present day, challenge students to visit one of their social media channels to identify accounts and/or influencers who make claims about food, fitness, and the body. Do these posts contain the necessary evidence and reasoning to classify the claims as scientific? Where can the students go to find information that is missing from the current-day posts or 1911 article?

To uncover additional articles from this series, search F. Christian Miller in Chronicling America. To expand the conversation to additional exercise and nutrition trends consider exploring Chronicling America’s Recommended Topics: Exercise Tips for Women (1902-1921) and Yoga.

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