CHARLESTON, W.Va. --Paul Miller, a professor of physics at West Virginia University, discussed human spontaneous combustion, telepathy and critical thinking during his address Wednesday evening to welcome student delegates to the National Youth Science Camp.
This is the West Virginia-based science camp's 50th year. For those five decades, the camp has gathered high school students who've excelled at science and mathematics.
Earlier Wednesday, student delegates flew into Yeager Airport.
Delegates spend one month learning from world-renowned scientists every summer at Camp Pocahontas -- a rustic outpost nestled among the Appalachians in Eastern West Virginia.
Miller told students to capitalize on the month they spend at Camp Pocahontas.
He encouraged them to examine evidence and think critically.
Science and technology, he said, have permeated modern life. Yet Miller noted that average Americans have very little basic scientific knowledge.
A sizeable portion of the general public even believes that telepathy, astrology and human spontaneous combustion exist, Miller said, which is a problem he calls "scientific illiteracy." Such illiteracy occurs because current scientific consensus is too complex or sophisticated for the general public to understand, he said.
According to Miller, people are genetically trained to look for certain patterns or rely on certain biases to process information.
"Our brains are highly suggestible," Miller said. "We quickly sort things. We use bias all the time to simplify our lives."
Those biases often yield illogical conclusions, like the idea that human spontaneous combustion and telepathy exist, he said. Young scientists can help mitigate that trend, Miller said.
Scientists can question established thought processes and thereby challenge untrue assumptions, he said, and he encouraged the students to rely on evidence and use critical thinking to approach scientific problems.
Miller also argued that professors should change the way that they teach science classes, to make information more easily understandable for students.
"We have to learn how to think," Miller said.