How do we know this? Encouraging skepticism

28 Jul

I want my students to challenge me. Allow me to explain. I’m not saying I want to throw down in an arm wresting contest or some other feat of strength.

Arm wrestling: Ok for settling child custody disputes, Not ok for classroom icebreaker

Better yet, I want my students to question the information that is being presented to them as “facts.” Let me clarify. I don’t want my students disrespectfully challenging my authority (not my idea of fun). I do want my students to be skeptical, to demand evidence, and to be able to evaluate ideas based on a rational, scientific way of thinking about the world (fun!).

To me, this is the single most important skill I can help ALL of my students develop. The phrase “critical thinking” is tossed around in school mission statements and ed philosophies more often than a sea lion pup at a killer whale party, but in this case its use is entirely justified. Many of my students won’t go on to become engineers or doctors or scientists, but every student, regardless of career choice, will be faced with lots of choices throughout their lives that require an ability to critically evaluate evidence in a logical and rational way.

Richard Dawkins has likened children to “information caterpillars,” gobbling up knowledge about their world unquestioningly [1]. This makes evolutionary sense; a young child inclined to test the validity of a parent’s rule, e.g. “don’t leave the cave after dark or bears will eat you,” probably won’t be celebrating too many birthdays.

information is yummy!

Of course, caterpillars have to become butterflies and adults shouldn’t believe in Santa Claus or fairies. Enter the teenager and the development of this way of thinking.

I envision two key parts (in the classroom anyways) to the development of a bullshit detector scientific skepticism

  • Understanding the process of science. I’m not talking PHEOC, I’m talking science as a way of thinking about the world. A non-linear process of making observations, asking questions, collecting and interpreting data, hypothesis testing and revision, etc. [2]
  • Applying this way of thought to real-world examples. After all, practice makes perfect.

One way I’m planning to emphasize this theme is a weekly ‘How do we know this?’ feature. In the spirit of acronyms (WCYDWT?) I’m inventing a new one: HDWKT. This is still a WIP, and as such, I haven’t figured out exactly what form(s) this will take in the classroom. Things it may include:

  • Background research by me ahead of time on to compile some key experiments, history, etc of how we know what we know about the topic(s) of that week
  • Students contributing to the background research
  • Analyzing and evaluating actual data from key experiments
  • Discussing/debating current issues (e.g. evolution/ID, GMOs/organic, natural resource conservation/consumption, global warming, etc)
  • Evaluating product claims (e.g. 8-minute abs (why not 7 minute abs?), 5-hour energy, weight loss pills, homeopathic medicine, etc) either experimentally or via research literature
  • Pseudoscience debunking

COMING SOON…HDWKT #1: The Age of the Earth

Some great resources for skepticism:

[1] “Unweaving the Rainbow” by Richard Dawkins – a great read!
[2] The website www.undsci.berkeley.edu has some amazingly useful resources on the notion of “science as a process.” Full Disclosure: I will in no way benefit from you visiting the aforementioned website. On the other hand, your teaching probably will…
[3] Caterpillar image compliments of wikimedia commons. Baby image compliments of D Sharon Pruitt. Caterbaby hybrid compliments of Photoshop.

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