Adam van Langenberg gives practical suggestions on how to run a high school skeptical society, based on his own successful experience.
In late 2010 I was fortunate enough to see noted US skeptics Rebecca Watson and Brian Dunning speak at the La Notte restaurant in Melbourne. As entertaining as these talks were, what really grabbed my attention was local skeptic Richard Saunders’ demonstration of the Power Balance scam. The more he demonstrated, the angrier I became. Angry because I’m a high school teacher and a lot of my students (and a few of our teachers) were wearing these things. Five minutes earlier I didn’t even know what they were; I had assumed they were one of those charity bands you see everywhere. Now my protective instincts were kicking in and I wanted to help my kids from getting sucked into this scam.
At school the next day I showed several of my classes the applied kinesiology techniques the salespeople were using. The students thought the tricks were very cool and a lot of embarrassed bracelet wearers suddenly started justifying their fashion choices:
“It was a gift!”
“I found it on the footpath!”
Mostly, though, they stopped wearing them.
The success of this led me to create the McKinnon Secondary Sceptical Society. We meet once a week and spend our lunch hour discussing specific pseudosciences, critical thinking techniques and debating the merits of scepticism. A brief speech at a school assembly brought over 100 students to the first sessions (a mass Zener ESP experiment) but numbers are now more stable with 20 – 40 kids on average.
One of the things that has surprised me about the group is how young most of the students in it are. By far, the majority 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.
Favourite topics so far have included three weeks on logical fallacies and a month spent teaching the children how to cold read. I may have created some monsters here because they turned out to be quite gifted at it.
I truly believe that critical thinking and scepticism belongs in our school’s curriculum. Until that day comes, we are relying on teachers to inject it into their classrooms themselves. Unfortunately I don’t see a lot of this. I know at least one science teacher who fervently believes that aliens have been landing on the Earth for many years and I worry about how many of their students have been taught to believe this.
I think that a sceptical society is the next best thing, as it brings the concept of scepticism into the community. People refer to me as “Mr Sceptic” (and occasionally “the dream crusher”) and many students and teachers have approached me for my thoughts on various ideas. “Sceptical” is now a word being used more and more at my school. My ultimate goal is to have every student understand what scepticism is and just how rewarding it can be.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I consider to be important when running a group like this. What follows are my ideas.
Make the sessions fun and relevant
Hopefully this one is a no-brainer. Children can have very short attention spans and if they’re not enjoying themselves, why would they continue? 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 talks 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.
That’s a key point – a ‘sceptical society’ probably won’t draw a huge crowd, but an experiment to see if anybody is psychic probably will.
Relevancy is also very important. We talked about Power Balance bands because all of the kids knew about them. They’ll all be 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 minds and it doesn’t come up as often, but it does come up occasionally and you’ll be pleased to know that the anti-vaccination mindset makes them very angry.
It’s important to follow the news and select the things that you think will interest them.
Don’t make it a science club
Be aware that to most teenagers ‘science’ means sitting in a classroom while a teacher talks about a bunch of boring stuff. 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 obvious 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. Then maybe throw in some ‘double blinding’ to show them 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.
Probably don’t make it a secular club
A few people from the sceptical community have gotten upset with me about this, some suggesting that if I’m not actively turning my students against religion then I’m basically wasting my time. Let me explain why I think this is a bad idea.
First of all, I think it’s a really fast way to get yourself shut down. 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 you’d get very far. Sometimes it only takes one angry phone call from a parent to get something cancelled.
More importantly, 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. I steer clear of religious topics for that reason alone. If somebody brings up testable religious claims (such as creationism) I’m always happy to discuss them, but I will never make them the focus of the session.
A lot of my children come from very religious families, who could quickly make a complaint and ban 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.
Prepare to be asked about anything
One day I had an entire session planned around psychics. About five minutes in, a kid asked me if I thought it was alright to tell little kids that Santa exists. Normally I would have told them to wait until the end but most people in the room seemed genuinely interested in my answer. This answer 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 the psychics? Absolutely not. I knew I could always talk about psychics next week. Children’s minds are so inquisitive and always on the go. 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 much as possible, the better I can do my job.
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 a boy in my class started talking about transvestites. He wanted to know whether all transvestites were gay. A few others responded by suggesting that some of them probably are but not all of them. What followed was a wonderfully respectful and inquisitive classroom discussion. I sat back and watched, marvelling at how mature and understanding they were being. What really impressed me was that these children 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.
Children are easily influenced, so influence wisely
Children pick up everything, from diseases to attitudes. I don’t like angry, condescending adults so I don’t want my kids turning into them. We all know that you don’t change people’s beliefs with ridicule and personal attacks, so why start developing those habits in kids now?
When we discussed homeopathy, some of my students started laughing at people who use it. Obviously, anybody who believes in homeopathy is an idiot and deserves to be ridiculed. I don?t blame them for thinking this way because they are still very young, but it needed to be stamped out immediately. What if the patients 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 kids to look down on victims of pseudoscience, you are teaching them to be insensitive and arrogant. Kids 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.