Debunking vs. Educating. This was the focus of a panel discussion featured at this this year’s Skeptrack at Dragon*Con. The panel, moderated by JREF President D.J. Grothe, explored the roles played by these different approaches in the classroom and the community. Does one method better serve the goals of skeptical educators and activists? How can we most effectively use both methods to increase the public’s awareness and understanding of the skeptical perspective? Afterward, I sat down with the JREF’s Director of Educational Program, Michael Blanford, to get his ideas and vision for the JREF’s educational programs.
Sadie Crabtree: One of the questions directed towards the Debunking vs. Educating panel was, is the intention of skeptical education to indoctrinate kids about what not to believe, or to teach them the process of evaluating claims?
Michael Blanford: This idea that skeptical educators or parents are in the business of indoctrinating kids is very difficult for me to understand. I have heard that misconception or accusation more than once. Sometimes it comes from those working to defend their own beliefs or ideologies from critique but also from folks who sincerely misunderstand what we value. Not only is promoting a particular set of beliefs not our aim, it runs counter to all the things we see as important. As long as it wasn’t dangerous, I would probably be more satisfied with a kid that arrived at a bad idea on his own terms than see him arrive at a good idea through coercion. What can you learn from that?
Some people ask, if the intent is the process and not the individual issues, then why do we have this laundry list of topics we cover, like dowsing and ghosts?
There is no doubt that we have a handful of topics that have long been associated with skeptical investigation and education. This is the case for a number of reasons, one being their educational value. They’re fun and interesting to young minds, and offer great teaching opportunities. I talk about ghost hunting and cryptozoology with kids all the time. I’m not doing it because I care whether or not some fifth graders believe in Bigfoot. I haven’t lost any sleep over the number of credulous Bigfoot hunters out there. But this doesn’t mean a discussion about monsters has nothing valuable to say. When we work together in the classroom to critically evaluate the evidence for this ghosts or chupacabras, we are using the same methods you apply to a question like: “This shark cartilage is said to cure cancer, should I do that instead of chemotherapy?”
I love that we have the luxury of getting to teach kids how to think more critically by looking through the lens of various unproven beliefs, if for no other reason than I’m fascinated them, and so are most students. Of course, JREF educational programs concentrate on paranormal and pseudoscientific claims not because they are popular but because our mission is more focused than just working to promote a general critical thinking. This is the core of our mission to focus on untested paranormal and speudoscientific claims, and this is because so many of tehse beliefs cause measurable harm. It does make it easier that our area of interest is already on the radar of students. There is no shortage of demand for the “bizarre” and “mysterious” and we unapologetically exploit that. If you doubt this level of appeal, just go to an elementary school library and look at how many books they have on on so-called unexplained phenomena, from the Loch Ness Monster to UFOs — there are usually dozens, and they are always heavily read. These books are better than they used to be, but still don’t have the real “goods” when it comes to giving kids a chance to explore the process of open inquiry and investigation into these claims, and to learn about science and the best way to evaluate claims in the process. That’s a shame because this is actually the most compelling part of the whole story, and often a great backdrop for discussing much bigger questions and exercising the muscles of critical thought. So there is already compelling content that students devour, but we just to make it count and use it effectively to help students evaluate it. It’s a great wedge — we get in the door because there are claims about things like alien abductions, and if we do it right, students looking into such topics get to go away with a few new intellectual tools.
We are about to release a new classroom guide to the Cottingley Fairies affair made famous by Arthur Conan Doyle. The topic may seem trivial, and in one sense it is: it’s a ninety year-old story about fairies, fake photographs, clever girls, and the creator of Sherlock Holmes. But it is also a very good story that draws students in, and tehre are important things to learn in the process that are as meaningful as ever. By examining the role of famous writer Author Conan Doyle, who was at the center of the affair, we start the discussion about the disproportionate value often given to opinions of celebrities in maters where they lack relevant expertise. Today we have a similar example in Jenny McCarthy selling anti-vaccine hysteria.
To give another example, dowsing for water with a forked stick may seem like a quaint and mostly harmless pastime. In that context, teaching kids about the ideomotor effect could seem antiquated and trivial. But when you connect that with the $80 million worth of fraudulent “bomb detectors” sold to the Iraqi military, it’s not so trivial anymore. And what’s most important is that students get to explore the topics in a hands-on way, in this case by creating dowsing rods, experiencing the effect for themselves, and then evaluated whether or not there seems to be much truth to the paranormal dowsing beliefs.
What do you think that means for the skeptical movement as a whole?
I do believe that we as a movement occasionally let down our guard and invite the accusation that we are most concerned with getting people to believe what we believe. The criticism is unfounded but still damaging to our goals. That doesn’t mean we should limit ourselves to promoting and teaching critical thinking without any focus on specific paranormal content. We can get behind issues, such as the harm that results from choosing homeopathy over science based medicine, or from refusing vaccines because of what you hear from misinformed activist-celebrities. There are plenty of topics we have strong opinions about and in many cases there is essentially a consensus position within our community on that issue. So there’s nothing wrong with that. We even at times advocate for these positions in ways that go beyond just promoting reasoned and rigorous inquiry in that area, and we do try to influence what people think and not just how they think. I mentioned vaccination safety as an example. As the skeptics movement, we have had a lot to say on this topic and have even had some impact on the public discourse. I’m all for this. We have arrived at a position justified by the evidence and have recognized what’s at stake here.
I just think we need to be careful not to abandon our commitment to the process or get sloppy in our thinking or language or get too comfortable being on the right side of an issue. I am often in conversations where a passionate skeptic and seasoned critical thinker talks about “stupid parents who don’t vaccinate.” That’s sad to hear because it’s bad strategy, and also reveals a lack of understanding of why those who believe in harmful nonsense believe it. Many of those who have decided not to vaccinate are intelligent, educated, well-intentioned, loving parents. They have often spent a lot of time doing what they think is diligent research. They ended up at an ill-informed, harmful and logically unsound position because they did not have the critical thinking tools to navigate the mind boggling maze of conflicting, confusing, and often dishonest information thrown at them from hundreds of websites, popular books, celebrities, family members, other parents, and the media, all of which are saying “vaccines will harm your children.” The point is that we can’t forget that whether we are skeptical educators or skeptical activists or both, we are most effective when we carefully examine the reasons people believe the things they do and help them develop the skills of to reliably evaluate the information around them. If we just think so-called “stupid people” have the monopoly on bad ideas, we are wasting our time and our limited resources.
Why aren’t schools already teaching critical thinking?
I know that I would like to see an educational system that spent more time teaching kids how to think and not just what to think. Sure, some schools are getting it right. I meet teachers all the time who are doing amazing things. And there are plenty of educators who would love to be able to do more work in this area. But there’s more and more pressure on teachers coming from a million directions, and ever-increasing focus on the results and not the process. To a large extent, public school teachers are expected to teach to the test, and the so-called “No Child Left Behind Act” has put education funding at risk for schools who try to do things differently. Kids are tested and evaluated on how well they read and follow instructions, not on how well they question and investigate and comprehend and evaluate claims. Getting new or different ideas or methods into the classroom is not easy. Time is precious. We are never going to be able to march in there and tell teachers we have a six-week critical thinking curriculum that we would like them to implement. Teachers are usually struggling to keep their heads above water just keeping up with mandatory content. And so we think they will be best served by our helping them to be a bit more effective at working critical thinking and skeptical perspectives into existing curricula or by offering a fun and useful classroom activity that’s easy easy to use and can be completed in an hour or two. These are the spots where our current and forthcoming JREF educational modules fit. We currently offer one on ESP and will soon have three more, on the fairies, dowsing, and astrology. We have others in the works for release in 2012. And we aim to make these available free to any teachers who ask for them through our “JREF In the Classroom” program.
Is this how the JREF is helping to make things better for educators and students?
We are very excited about the modules we are creating. Of course, creating the resource is only half of it. It’s not of value if it doesn’t work to help teachers achieve their goals. It’s very important that we do everything we can to assess the effectiveness of our work. There’s plenty of interest in the material and teachers have been very enthusiastically requesting our ESP module but we have only begun distributing them. This is really the first school year that it has been available. The modules mentioned above will be the first four of many. The modules will be a key component included in a bigger program that will provide interested teachers involved with our JREF in the Classroom program with a whole host of resources, both online and in print, to bring skepticism and critical thinking into their schools. We aim to provide a comprehensive suite of grade-level-specific resources, including 25 or maybe 30 classroom guides, to cover a whole spectrum related to scientific skepticism along with extensive supplemental audio and video content and interactive digital media geared to the increasingly technology-rich modern classroom. We also offer regional workshops on the topics we are interested in for the general public. There are usually are half-day hands-on programs with very inexpensive or free registration. We have an upcoming one on dowsing at the University of Maryland, and one on ESP in Atlanta. I am very excited to be in the planning stages for a series of teacher-specific workshops. These professional development programs will be offered by us through partnerships with various science outreach organizations like museums and technology centers. The focus will be on giving teachers practical and effective methods for working critical thinking content into existing curricula.
Formal programming and content creation is only part of what we do. I also spend a great deal of my time working with educators, parents, and even students in less formal ways. I receive inquiries every single day from those interested in the intersection of eduction and skepticism and turn to the JREF help. Part of every day is spent addressing these needs on the one-on-one level. This includes supplying content, suggesting research source material, addressing issues with school administrators, connecting teachers with others skeptics in their area, or tracking down an article that Randi wrote 25 years ago for some obscure newsletter to be used in a course or classroom.
What’s your vision for the JREF’s educational programs over the next few years? Any new programs that the JREF wants to launch, or goals within the education arena that you hope to achieve?
Historically, the JREF has been the logical place for people to turn to for information related to skepticism in education. We are a prominent organization founded by one of most important figures in the history of scientific skepticism. We also have the resources that come the community of leading thinkers, dedicated educators, and passionate activists that are connected to the Foundation in many ways. We will always be and do those things, but we also want to be a source for high-quality skeptical and educational content. It’s exciting to see the first modules rolling out along with the publishing of the important books of skepticism as e-books for the iPad, Nook and Kindle, and our new mobile apps, and free online video lectures and other content. The is just the beginning, and the production of material like this should begin to accelerate as we go forward.
I want JREF to be able to have an impact in thousands of classrooms, museums, summer camps, and community centers. I think we can best accomplish this by bringing our mission and message of skepticism into the all of these educational settings through easily accessible, compelling, media-rich, and diverse content that is built around the needs of educators. This is an exciting time at the James Randi Educational Foundation, because we are positioning ourselves so that we can ever more effectively do just this sort of work, and if any of our readers have ideas or can help, we would love to hear from them. I can be reached at mblanford [at] randi.org.