skeptic - reaching out to young people
If you have ideas for the CSICOP effort to reach out to young
people, please contact Amanda Chesworth:
The following is from the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking
publication, Phactum - the August 2001 issue. It was written by
Eric Krieg with editing by Greg Lester. It may be reposted anywhere
I recently took advantage of the annual "Career and
Interest Day" at my younger daughter's middle school.
It is when they invite parents or friends of the
school to give presentations to students on a variety
of interesting topics. The guests generate the topics,
and the students get to sign up for whatever classes
that they find interesting. Of course, I thought it
was a good time to introduce these kids to the power
of skepticism. I was not the only PhACT-related guest,
by the way, our former speaker, Anna Forbes, also
signed up and spoke on the topic of fighting AIDS.
I presented my topic as the "Secrets of the
Paranormal" and carefully worded the description so as
not to betray my own inclination on the subject.
According to my daughter, the novelty value must have
been high, because she had talked to at least ten kids
who had signed up for it but could not make it in.
As the kids entered, I had an assistant quickly select
and groom a girl among them to be Psychic Girl.
Psychic Girl enabled me to conduct a quick overview of
the common belief that people can read minds. We
selected audience members to announce a random page
number from a science textbook while Psychic Girl
would concentrate and recite sentences from the page.
Then, after hearing the volunteers name, she would
recite their home phone number and address. The trick?
My cell phone, carefully concealed under her hair,
gave voice to Psychic Girl via my wife. They learned
that an accomplice with a copy of the science book and
the student registry may well have been more useful
Another quick demonstration was of sensing human
energy fields. After a good woo-woo talk on the
wonders of Touch Therapy (TT), I had volunteers come
up and put their hand behind their back. After about 8
samples of a simple "OK, is my hand above yours or
not?" test, the usefulness of TT was more apparent.
I then selected a volunteer to use dowsing sticks to
determine which of 10 numbered up-side down cups hid
either a small plastic vial of birdseed or water. I
was impressed how quickly the 6th through 8th graders
seemed to grasp the concept of what results were to be
expected by random chance.
Despite that skeptical lesson, it was easy to dazzle
the kids with a good astrology test nipped from The
Amazing Randis NOVA special. It involves handing our
astrological reports to each member of the classroom
based on their month. What I did not tell them was
that they each received the exact same reading, which
contained many vague good-for-everyone readings like,
"You have a good sense of humor but you are sometimes
worried about what people think of you."
When asked how close the readings were, they all
seemed to offer the same assessment, mostly along the
lines of "Wow, this sounds like me!"
A roomful of snickers followed the announcement that
they were all the same. The kids agreed that if were
there something to astrology, one would naturally
expect to isolate predictive value with tests. They
were interested to hear how astrologers rarely bother
to admit that all such tests come up with negative
Another attention getting stunt was announcing that I
was prepared to go to my bank that same day and bring
back $10,000 for the first person who could read
serial numbers one at a time that I was concentrating
on from a dollar bill.
But the most an enthusiastic response came from the
question and answer time. As you can imagine, they hit
all the popular targets: "What about ghosts?" "Do we
know how pyramids were made?" "How to you explain the
moving flag on the moon hoax show?" "Do you think
there are aliens?"
I had plenty of time to draw a distinction between
knee jerk nay saying and true scientific skepticism as
well as to explain how disingenuous money grubbing
media frequently stoop to promulgating misinformation
to make a buck.
There was also time for another choice bit of Randi
schtick: I quizzed them on the dangers of drug
overdose and poured out a complete vial of drugs from
a sealed container of medicine into my hand. I quickly
chugged them down and asked if anyone would have a
rational explanation in the event that I would not
shortly topple over. I then explained that this was a
homeopathic medicine, which brought up the whole
concept of homeopathy and how it was unlikely that I
had consumed even a single molecule of medication.
If I learned one thing it was that, in a world of
short attention spans, showmanship can be a plus.
Opening childrens minds to skepticism is rewarding,
but the ultimate reward was when my daughter told me
how some of the kids said it was "pretty cool."