Author Topic: I started a high school sceptical society. Here's what I've learnt...  (Read 2662 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Offline vanAdamme

  • Not Enough Spare Time
  • **
  • Posts: 144
Hi all,

Last week I held the last session of the McKinnon Secondary Sceptical Society for the year and I thought I’d write a little bit about what I’ve learnt from the experience.

The last session was the end of a six-week long look at cold reading. I have a few sources on cold reading (The Dance, Brad Henderson; The Skeptic’s Guide to the Paranormal, Lynne Kelly; 13 Steps to Mentalism, Tony Corinda) but most of my information was taken from Ian Rowland’s seminal work, The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading. I basically ran the session as a classroom,  teaching the students how to become fraudulent psychics with a step-by-step guide. Fortunately, the kids were really interested and quite a lot turned up. Unfortunately,  the students turned out to be very natural cold readers and I may have created a few monsters.

One of the things that has surprised me about the group was how young most of the students in it are. By far, the majority of students are in year 7 and 8. I typically have around 20 students at those levels each week and about 5 – 10 from other year levels. I was a little worried that this might lessen the amount of deep discussion we could have but, as you’ll read later, I needn’t have been.

It’s pretty hard to quantify something like this, but I’d say the group was a success on all fronts. It’s membership has stayed constant at about 30 kids a session (a mix of regulars and newcomers) and they were excited to hear that it would be continuing next year. Quite a few of the members have some vague belief in the supernatural and I think coming along each week is giving them enough knowledge and confidence to start to really question things. We had a real win involving a girl talking her parents out of sending her to a homeopath which I am especially proud of.

I gave a talk at the 2011 Melbourne SkeptiCamp where I highlighted six things that I thought were important about running a sceptical group at a high school. I’d like to share them with you here along with an explanation as to why I think they’re important. I would absolutely love it if other people tried to get groups like this started at a high school level. I am more than happy to share ideas and talk with anyone who is interested.



How to run a high school sceptical society (as far as I know)

1. Make the sessions fun and relevant


Hopefully this one is a no-brainer. Children are selfish, horrible beasts. If they’re not having fun, they won’t come back. Am I prostituting my dignity in order to manipulate the kids into coming back? Yes, I sure am. Do I care? Not really. None of my kids have to turn up. They’re forced to be in my maths classes so I can be as boring as I like but the sceptical society is totally optional. This is why I try to make my PowerPoint slides funny. It’s why I throw in as many jokes as I can. If you’re being funny, kids will listen because they want to hear the next joke. And if you can sneak in a bit of good stuff between the jokes they’ll probably learn something too.

There are plenty of fun activities around the internet that you can run. There’s an ESP experiment on the JREF site and Richard Saunders has videos up of water dowsing and ‘can you tell if somebody is staring at you?’ experiments. There are lots of astrological ideas as well, such as having astrological descriptors up around the room and asking students to try to guess which one is theirs. Activities like this can be real drawcards and get kids coming along who might not have ordinarily been interested.

Relevancy is also important. We talked about Power Balance bands because all of the kids knew about them. They’re all aware of psychics, aliens and ghosts so those are topics that come up a lot. The vaccine debate probably isn’t at the front of their mind so it doesn’t come up as often (it does come up occasionally and you’ll be pleased to know that it makes them very angry). It’s important to follow the news (both sceptical and mainstream) and pick out things that you think will interest them.

2. Don’t make it a science club

Because science is like, boring and stuff.

Before I get bombarded with angry comments, be aware that to most teenagers the word ‘science’ means sitting in a classroom while a teacher talks about a bunch of crap that you don’t care about. Sure, you might get to do the odd experiment but there often isn’t that sense of mystery and beauty that we know science is all about.

So when I say don’t make it a science club, what I really mean is don’t make it an apparent science club. Sneak the science in. Make it a club about ghost hunting and astrology debunking and homeopathy ridiculing. While you’re doing that, briefly explain how you could use this thing called ‘single blinding’ to make an experiment to see if it really works. Then maybe throw in some ‘double blinding’ to highlight how to make it better. The next thing you know, your kids have learnt a bit of science and they’ve learnt why it’s important. If you’ve done your job right they’ll also have learnt why it’s just so damn cool.

3. Probably don’t make it a secular club

There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, I think it’s a really fast way to get yourself shut down. Even in Australia I wouldn’t risk it. Sure, a lot of schools have Christian, Muslim and Jewish societies so you could argue discrimination if you came under attack but I don’t think that’s how the world works. Sometimes it only takes one angry phone call from a parent to get something cancelled.

Secondly, you don’t want to exclude religious people from your group. A lot of the kids who come along to my club are Christian or Jewish. The last thing I want is for them to feel unwelcome because of their religious beliefs. In fact, I steer clear of any religious topic (unless somebody brings it up) for that reason alone. I’d love to talk about the inanity of creationism but that isn’t my battle to fight. These are children who may have parents that strongly fall into this belief system. Parents who could very quickly make a complaint and keep their kids from turning up. My kids all know that I believe in the big bang and the theory of evolution. My kids also know that I can have a respectful conversation with them about it, even if they disagree with me. There are plenty of other topics out there worth discussing.

4. Prepare to be asked about anything

One day I had an entire session planned around psychics. About five minutes in, a kid me asked me if I thought it was alright to tell little kids that Santa exists. Normally I would have told them to wait till the end but most people in the room seemed genuinely interested in my answer. My answer then turned into a conversation about the history of Santa, the philosophy of lying and funny Santa stories.

Should I have stopped the discussion and gone back to psychics? Hell no. I knew I could always talk about psychics next week. Kids are like mongooses on speed. Their minds are always on the go and the most surprising things can interest them without warning. Go with it. The trick is to have as much knowledge as you can on many different topics. Being a specialist in a particular field is great, but it doesn’t really help when running something like this for kids. In my position it is better to know a little about a lot of topics, rather than vice versa. Of course, the more I know about as many topics as possible, the better I can do my job.

5. Don’t dumb things down

If there’s one thing that never ceases to amaze me about children, it is their almost unlimited capacity for impressively inventive cruelty. If there’s one other thing, it’s how much they actually understand. A couple of months ago I was talking to a group of students about transvestites. A boy wanted to know whether all transvestites were gay. A few others responded by saying that some of them probably are, but it’s not automatic. I sat back and watched the conversation, marvelling at how mature and understanding they were being. The thing that really impressed me was that these kids were 12.

Don’t assume that kids can’t handle “grown up” topics. Medical minutiae might go over their heads but it doesn’t mean that they can’t ponder the issues involved. Want to talk about the ethics involved in prescribing placebos? They can handle it. Want to discuss terminally ill people reaching out to alternative-medicine as a last resort? Go for it, just be prepared to handle some potentially delicate questions.

6. Children are easily influenced, so influence wisely

Children pick up everything, from diseases to attitudes. Personally, I don’t want a bunch of angry, condescending sceptics running the show in a few years’ time. We all know that you don’t change people’s beliefs with anger, so why start developing those habits in kids now?

When we discussed homeopathy, some of my kids started laughing at people to use it. Obviously, anybody who believes in homeopathy is an idiot and deserves to be ridiculed. I don’t blame my kids for thinking this way because they are still very young, but it needed to be stamped out immediately. What if they were referred to a homeopath by a GP? What if they have no idea how it works? What if they’re at death’s door and are desperately trying something different as a last resort?

If you teach a child to look down on victims of pseudo-science, you are teaching them to be insensitive and arrogant. Kids (and some adults) need to understand that all people should be treated with respect and that everybody is worth listening to. Unless of course they’re a filthy scumbag con-artist who is knowingly ripping people off. In that case, go right ahead and tear them a new one.



Hopefully you've found something here worth reading. Hopefully some people will be in a position to run something like this yourself. Even so, I'd love to hear suggestions from you all. If you have any resources that you think I could use, please share them with me. If you are an expert on a topic and willing to have a Skype conference with us that would also be amazing. I'd like my students to see just how wonderful and generous the sceptical community is. I want them to feel like they're a part of something bigger than just my little lunchtime club.

Thanks for reading,
Mr V & the SceptiKids
(@vanAdamme)
vanAdamme - Nine out of ten dentists recommend him

Offline JuniorSpaceman

  • Seasoned Contributor
  • ****
  • Posts: 680
Re: I started a high school sceptical society. Here's what I've learnt...
« Reply #1 on: December 13, 2011, 11:19:22 PM »
Thanks for this, vanAdamme. There are some really interesting points, particularly as I've been thinking recently about how bad some of my science education was, and also how good some of it was, and that the 'good' science was not only about making things explode or look like old fashioned movie special effects.

The 'secular' issue seems a central one - the vast majority of religious children come from religious homes (I know a couple of exceptions, but they are rare), and many of them will still have an interest in critical thinking. I think we're cutting off our noses to spite our faces if we lose them by making them feel uncomfortable, for the sake of being more 'pure' as skeptics.

Offline Skeptress

  • Reef Tank Owner
  • *********
  • Posts: 8687
  • Arrested for voting.
Re: I started a high school sceptical society. Here's what I've learnt...
« Reply #2 on: December 13, 2011, 11:42:30 PM »
Thanks for this. I hope one day to be in a more permanent place where I can do a skeptics homeschool club.
"The America I loved still exists at the front desks of our public libraries."  -Kurt Vonnegut

Formerly known as funda62.

Offline worldslaziestbusker

  • Seasoned Contributor
  • ****
  • Posts: 738
  • Tomcat traps on number three wire
Re: I started a high school sceptical society. Here's what I've learnt...
« Reply #3 on: March 15, 2012, 07:34:16 AM »
Hello vanAdamme
I heard your interview on a recent episode of "The Skeptic Zone."  You mentioned that you weren't keen on taking up the homeopath on their offer of coming in to show your students an alternate perspective, but I think it presents an excellent teaching opportunity.
You could run a couple of sessions explaining the logical fallacies most common to homeopathy and get your students trained up on how to spot people trying to slip them in to support their positions.  Run some choice video clips of politicians working their agendas, some shampoo commercials making arguments from authority (New Pantene Hydrology: hydro - for water; ology - for science) and some astrologers talking bollox and see if the students can spot the fallacies on the fly.  If they can, you could have them make up flash cards to hold up at appropriate moments as the homeopath gives their spiel.  If it is too hard to get them operating at that speed, you could make up logical fallacy bingo cards with enough blank space that they can make notes as the presentation runs its course.  Even if no-one gets to yell "Bullshit Bingo," these could be a valuable focus for later discussion.
I've just re-read this and feel a little put out that what I'd imagined as an excellent teaching opportunity comes across sounding so much like a gleeful grasp at a chance to humiliate another person, but fuck it - homeopaths can have some respect when they show their expensive wares are efficacious.
Matt
WLB - malcontent badgerer: because being a content gerbiller held distasteful associations and didn't get answers.

Offline YouSayPotato

  • Off to a Start
  • *
  • Posts: 76
Re: I started a high school sceptical society. Here's what I've learnt...
« Reply #4 on: March 15, 2012, 11:13:06 AM »
Wow. Fab! That's a really heartening post. Best of luck, me old china!

"Who you jivin' with that cozmik debris?"
FZ

Offline jawmo

  • Congenitally Ostentatious
  • Frequent Poster
  • ******
  • Posts: 2421
  • Fast 'n bulbous
Re: I started a high school sceptical society. Here's what I've learnt...
« Reply #5 on: March 16, 2012, 03:53:22 AM »
Hi VanAdamme,
I think you got your priorities exactly right. You've got to make this stuff fun and interesting right from the jump, or else these kids will be texting their boy/girlfriends "OMG so boring :<" etc. From the looks of things I don't see any problem, even a few monsters isn't a bad thing.
Another resource you may find useful: Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things. It's a great primer for all ages, but I think a high schooler might find it particularly helpful.
Objectivity is sacrificed in the service of higher goals.
-- C. Sagan, "The Demon-Haunted World"

Offline vanAdamme

  • Not Enough Spare Time
  • **
  • Posts: 144
Re: I started a high school sceptical society. Here's what I've learnt...
« Reply #6 on: March 29, 2012, 01:15:29 AM »
I heard your interview on a recent episode of "The Skeptic Zone."  You mentioned that you weren't keen on taking up the homeopath on their offer of coming in to show your students an alternate perspective, but I think it presents an excellent teaching opportunity.

I'm actually starting to change my mind on that one. Part of what I'm doing is trying to teach the students to be more open-minded, to consider everybody's evidence, separate fact from crap and make informed decisions. It occurred to me recently that the only viewpoint they're really getting is my own. I now think that having a homeopath visit would be an excellent opportunity for them to practice their listening and questioning skills.

Of course, there's always the risk that they'll become homeopathic converts but given how smart they are I doubt it :)

If it goes ahead I will film it (with permission) and make it available.

Cheers,
vanAdamme
vanAdamme - Nine out of ten dentists recommend him

Offline Caffiene

  • Stopped Going Outside
  • *******
  • Posts: 5105
Re: I started a high school sceptical society. Here's what I've learnt...
« Reply #7 on: March 29, 2012, 01:37:49 AM »
Just be wary of a Gish Gallop... Given that you only have limited time for your sessions, if the homeopath really goes full bore you could easily run out of time in which to bring up all the claims in order to have your students think about them.

It would be a pity to have the students sit through a whole presentation full of pseudoscience and then only get a chance to address 1/10th of the claims... Seems like a bit of a waste of time if only a small part of the presentation ends up having educational value.
[Lurk Mode Disengage]

Offline Anders

  • Deleted
  • Poster of Extraordinary Magnitude
  • *
  • Posts: 13805
Re: I started a high school sceptical society. Here's what I've learnt...
« Reply #8 on: March 29, 2012, 04:26:04 AM »
If you debate homeopathy, try to get him to agree on one narrow topic beforehand. That limits the usefulness of the Gish Gallop. And that's why he'll say no.
“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” Charles Darwin

Offline Gerbig

  • Frequent Poster
  • ******
  • Posts: 3048
  • Stream Crosser
Re: I started a high school sceptical society. Here's what I've learnt...
« Reply #9 on: March 29, 2012, 05:08:39 AM »
very informative

Offline Ah.hell

  • Poster of Extraordinary Magnitude
  • **********
  • Posts: 13104
Re: I started a high school sceptical society. Here's what I've learnt...
« Reply #10 on: March 29, 2012, 02:02:41 PM »
Eventually, after you've run out of new we to talk about, science will be more interesting that skepticism.  Just saying, there's always a lot of rehashing old stuff because the same woo keeps coming around. 

Offline Jeremy's Sea

  • Kintsukuroi, baby.
  • Stopped Going Outside
  • *******
  • Posts: 4731
  • 667 - Neighbor of the beast.
Re: I started a high school sceptical society. Here's what I've learnt...
« Reply #11 on: March 29, 2012, 03:32:44 PM »
I heard your interview on a recent episode of "The Skeptic Zone."  You mentioned that you weren't keen on taking up the homeopath on their offer of coming in to show your students an alternate perspective, but I think it presents an excellent teaching opportunity.

I'm actually starting to change my mind on that one. Part of what I'm doing is trying to teach the students to be more open-minded, to consider everybody's evidence, separate fact from crap and make informed decisions. It occurred to me recently that the only viewpoint they're really getting is my own. I now think that having a homeopath visit would be an excellent opportunity for them to practice their listening and questioning skills.

Of course, there's always the risk that they'll become homeopathic converts but given how smart they are I doubt it :)

If it goes ahead I will film it (with permission) and make it available.

Cheers,
vanAdamme
You might even consider giving some lessons ahead of time on the typical logical fallacies that alt-med advocates use and how to think through them. You could almost make a game of it for the students to "name that logical fallacy" during the homeopaths presentation. Empowering the kids to see through the BS ahead of time might work. Obviously you won't be setting them up to ridicule, but showing them how to apply the lesson to a real world guinea pig. You'll probably get the kids to offer up some challenging (and uncomfortable) questions during the homeopath's presentation.
Knowledge is power. France is bacon.

Offline AQB24712

  • Not a Euphemism.
  • Global Moderatrix
  • Reef Tank Owner
  • *****
  • Posts: 8035
  • Did you just call me..."Bacon girl"?
Re: I started a high school sceptical society. Here's what I've learnt...
« Reply #12 on: March 29, 2012, 07:20:36 PM »
Ooh, logical fallacy bingo!
"There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind."  Kurt Vonnegut
"You can bet your last money it's all gonna be a stone gas, honey."  Don Cornelius
"Wow! You spark up my entire thinking faculty."  A scammer/bot on a dating site

Offline Ah.hell

  • Poster of Extraordinary Magnitude
  • **********
  • Posts: 13104
Re: I started a high school sceptical society. Here's what I've learnt...
« Reply #13 on: March 29, 2012, 07:23:13 PM »
You should call yourselves a science club and invite quacks to give presentations during which you play "name that logical fallacy Bingo."  You all have cards with common logical fallacies and when one comes up in the quack's presentation you get to check it off. 

Offline Boßel

  • Go away or I shall taunt you a second time.
  • Frequent Poster
  • ******
  • Posts: 2900
Re: I started a high school sceptical society. Here's what I've learnt...
« Reply #14 on: March 29, 2012, 07:34:37 PM »
I could be wrong, but I don't think he's going to debate the homeopath. I think he's just going to let the homeopath give their spiel and allow his students to ask questions.

I think this is the best way. Let the homeopath speak for the entire time with Q's and A's from the students and record it. During the next session he, and his students, dissect every claim made by the homeopath from the film.

 

personate-rain