Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Importance of Skepticism in Education

James "the Amazing" Randi

Teaching is a profession with heavy responsibility. Students, especially younger ones, are all too eager to believe or accept what you say as fact. They want to know that what you say is true. They want to know that what they see is true. Most of us are generally willing to join in that mode of thought.  The only problem with thinking this way is that it gets to be too easy. Without an attitude of skepticism we risk believing in mistakes or outright lies. In our eagerness to accept the truths that are being given, we lose our responsibility to be demanding of the information being presented to us. 

Consider in your own circle of influence how many well-meaning people have shared information in social media without checking in any way for verification. Is this a problem? It should be. In addition to wasting time and energy, you announce to your friends, coworkers, and associates that you're lazy at best, and a gullible chump at worst. In the same time it takes to share the article, you could easily run the topic through a fact-checking site such as snopes, and then you'd at least know that you're possibly about to perpetuate and carry on a hoax. 

In the classroom I can always count on getting everyone's attention by showing them a video clip of something interesting and seemingly impossible. The reaction is predictable. There is a lot of noise from the camp of disbelievers, and an equal amount of talk from those who express their disbelief yet clearly have accepted what they just saw. When David Blaine had produced his first big tv special, he included an illusion that he was levitating. In those first shows he had taken on this tv persona of the authentic mystic. He later, thankfully, abandoned that role for the more honest and effective fully exposed illusionist and street magician. But back to levitation. 

I remember talking with my students at that time about their reactions to the claim of levitation and then to the apparent visual proof of it. Some students were angry with me that I made the suggestion that it was anything other than what it seemed to be. They wanted to believe it. So I asked them why. Why do you believe that this man, a man who is promoting and selling his own tv show, actually has the impossible ability to defy gravity? You don't know him. He is not even claiming to have these abilities via any supernatural means. He just arrives and performs the trick. What happened to questioning or investigation? I talked with them about the dubious camera work and the overproduced quality of something that was supposed to be a live recording. We learned about post production editing tricks. Still, there were some who struggled with the idea that they had been duped. 

The Amazing Randi has had a standing offer for many years that offers a million dollars to anyone who claims to have paranormal or supernatural abilities and is willing to undergo scientific testing to have them verified and proven.  No one has collected on that offer. James Randi is a magician himself as well as a skeptic. It is because of his skeptical nature that have often used him as an example in teaching. I try to teach about what it is to be a skeptic. It does not mean you believe nothing, trust nothing, or accept nothing. It does mean that you should learn to question and investigate rather than blindly accepting everything. You should  especially investigate or question things that seem to be untrue, unlikely, or impossible. 

Skepticism is really about having a profound concern for truth. This search for truth extends into daily life. Advertising of products is a constant game of truth and lies. Teaching people to question is not the same as teaching them not to trust. What we should teach is that trust is something that should be earned.

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