student skeptics

16 Aug

I recently received this email from a close relative who shall remain nameless:

Two moons on 27th August 2010
27th Aug the Whole World is waiting for………….

Planet Mars will be the brightest in the night sky starting August. It will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye. This will cultivate on Aug. 27 when Mars comes within 34.65M miles off earth. Be sure to watch the sky on Aug. 27 12:30 am. It will look like the earth has 2 moons.

Forwarding emails like this is basically the electronic version of regifting a crappy present. No one wants your label maker. This forward caught my eye though. Mars as big as the moon? Sounds fishy…Turning to a favorite website of mine for debunking silly email claims,,  my suspicions were confirmed, it was a hoax. In fact, as pointed out here, the picture isn’t even of our moon, but two moons of Saturn (see the rings at the bottom?)

Nonetheless, this got me thinking about the daily flood of “scientific” news, claims, and downright hoaxes. From the somewhat misleading claims of discovery of a  “____ (insert characteristic) gene,” to downright mischievous chain letters, sorting the good science from the bad can be quite a challenge.

I want to involve my students in the process of finding these questionable claims, and then working to validate/invalidate them. This presents a great opportunity to exercise the skill of evidence evaluation and critical thinking.

I recently came across Frank Noschese’s great physics blog Action-Reaction and his recent post on Physics Win? Fail? I love this idea and its right in line with what I’m imagining. This has got my gears spinning thinking of a comparable collection of biology fails. First to mind is all of the monster movies featuring creatures that push the limits of biomechanics (and physics…)

Checkout The Biology of B-movie monsters for a thorough and entertaining look at exactly that.

I welcome your suggestions for Biology Fails…


3 Responses to “student skeptics”

  1. grace August 16, 2010 at 12:33 pm #

    First hint that this is a hoax: misuse of the world “cultivate.”

    Thoughtful skepticism is such an important habit to cultivate and something I tried unsuccessfully to do in my AP Stats class. I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with!

  2. brunsell September 5, 2010 at 3:31 pm #

    I have used a couple of viral videos with my students. They RARELY ask critical questions. For example, I showed a video of a group popping popcorn with cellphones. Not a single student asked a question about the source or legitimacy of the video.

    • benpaulson September 5, 2010 at 6:39 pm #

      Yeah, I’ve been trying to do some of the same. I recently showed them the video about the new sport of “liquid mountaineering” where people run on water (we were talking about surface tension and water’s properties), but is actually a viral marketing video for some waterproof hiking shoes. If I hadn’t told them it was fake I probably would have gotten a few angry parent phone calls when their children ran into a lake. Hah!

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