My skepticism course, spring 2014

I'm teaching math and physics in a smallish city in rural Finland. Local high school has a "project week" every spring, where teachers can give an extracurricular course of their own design. Most popular courses are fitness and other sporty courses. I set a soft limit to 16 students, so that we could still easily use computer class as a part of the course. Eventually 19 students chose my course.

"Project week" lasts from thursday to wednesday, five hours each day. The first hurdle was the planning. If I didn't have enough material, I won't have enough time to make more during the project week. Even one 90 minute lecture takes me easily 4 hours to plan and write down. Second hurdle was estimating the talkativity of students. During the course it would easily make plus or minus five hours. I decided to make some extra stuff for every day, even if I couldn't use it. Eventually I left out the whole "Philosphy of science"-part (over ten hours of preparation, 68 slides), we had way more interesting stuff to go through.

Choosing the most interesting stuff wasn't easy either. I named the course "Skepticism and science", so I'd have to go through scientific method, statistical significance, peer review-system, different kinds of peer reviewed journals and different kinds of articles in those journals. That isn't taught in high school, but is assumed to be known in university and other schools.

I used the skeptic point of view to show why all the steps were so important in scientific method. On the first day we went through the scientific method and different kinds of cognitive biases. We also tried telepathy to show the meaning double blinding and statistics. I used JREF's "Do you have ESP?" classroom material as a basis for it. We tried it first without double blinding as the Receiver and
Transmitter were facing each other. Students got a bit better results when they were facing each other compared to the double blinded test. From 19 students one got barely significant result. This showed nicely what that p<0.05 actually means. At the end of the day they draw the outline of their hand, copied a poem, wrote down their date and place of birth and placed the paper in an envelope with some personal object. I said that I'm going to use one of those things to make a reading for them.

Next morning we started by checking the envelopes. I said that there was some really personal stuff on some of the readings and that everyone should just stick to their own papers. Students rated the reading to 4.4 on five star rating scale, even when they are on a skeptic course! Of course I had given them all exactly the same text. I used Derren Brown's Forer-text, which I translated and modified a bit to suit better for a Finnish 17 year old mainly by adding school stuff and not talking about a dead parent. After the "Changing the texts with other students"-routine, glassy stares and a nervous laughter, we took the text apart and discussed about cold, warm and hot reading, horoscopes and marketing.

Other stuff on the course involved different ways to be critical about media. Easiest example was to take a recent post about a baby dinosaur and do a google picture search on the photo in that news story. Turns out that it was a baby kangaroo. I also presented Andrew Hansfords Marblehead UFO debunking as an glowing example on what anyone can do with a computer and some time. We practised the use of rbutr and talked a lot about red flags on the internet.

IMHO, paranormal things are a must on a course like this. I lectured about the psychology of pareidolia and we looked at different kinds of ghost/saint pictures. Auditory pareidolia was really fun as the students found more fun stuff at home. We tried to understand the messages without the subtitles, but we didn't get anything right. Even the famous Stairway to Heaven backwards was impossible to understand without subtitles. We played with Ouija-board, but didn't get that much movement. We even left the prayer part away to attract angry spirits. One Ouija-group got answer "no" to the question "Does ***'s father have pants on right now?" and another "no" when they asked if our english teacher's dead cat's spirit is in the room. Ok, they couldn't take this seriously, even though I read them some horror stories about Ouija-sessions gone wrong before we started. After disappointing Ouija-session we talked about dowsing, pendulums and other devices depending on ideomotor effect.

On the medicine side we talked a lot about quacks and popular beliefs. "Eletric hypersensitivity" and homeopathy have been hitting the news quite a lot in Finland during the past year. We talked about activist's claims and normal argumentation style. Students learned pretty quickly how to tell Gish Gallop apart from normal argumenting. Homeopathy advocates are relying heavily on ad ignorantium and ad populum, which quickly became the buzz words in class.

I don't know practically anything about magic, but I presented students with psychology of unawarness and assumed they have something in common. Simons & Chabris's Invisible Gorilla is an excellent read and I showed the students this version of the famous film. Nine out of 17 didn't see the thing, and everybody missed the rest. (I'm being vague, to not to spoil it for someone who hasn't seen it). We also looked into some magic tricks like the wonderful Cups and Balls Penn & Teller style. I've seen it tens of times and I'm still baffled.

On the last day I asked them seven questions about the course. They filled anonymous forms and I told them to be honest. Critical feedback would help me develope the material and perhaps change something for the next time. I got mainly praising feedback, of course.. ;)

Some of the students loved the logical fallacy stuff, but some of them didn't like it ("different kinds of fallacies difficult to remember"). Some loved the debunking stuff, some students wanted more real life examples and not those silly ghost stories. Pareidolia, arguments and ouija-board were liked the most. There wasn't a common disliked topic, but reading the scientific articles was tedious to them as were my quite dull powerpoint slides. Scientific articles have difficult words and sentences even for a native speaker, so I sort of knew that already.

Everybody said they would recommend the course. I'm relieved and happy. I think I might give this course again.


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