the guardian to skeptics: think of the children!

If skeptics are trying to win hearts and minds, they need to remember that teaching kids real science and critical thinking can't be sidelined.
girl in class
Photo by Pan Xiaozhen

Do you happen to remember Frank Swain’s lecture to skeptics which painted today’s skeptical movements as becoming more and more exclusive, hostile, cliquish, and focusing primarily on preaching to the choir? A recent article in the Guardian seems to have taken that lecture to heart and starts off by describing skeptical activists in the UK in the same unflattering ways as Swain. Only there’s a slight twist. The author admits to an exercise in skeptic-baiting to draw our attention to something on which I think every skeptic can agree. Instead of trying to reach people who are either so far gone into woo, nothing can bring them back, or make so much money from this woo, they can’t afford to ditch it, or preaching to the choir, argues Alom Shaha, we should be focused on reaching those who are just shaping their worldview and have truly open minds: children.

There is a genuine need to help young people improve their critical thinking skills. It seems to me that campaigning to make the teaching of critical thinking more important in schools, or creating resources to help schools teach it, might be useful things for skeptics to do. Tim Minchin’s Pope Song is a work of genius, but it’s hardly appropriate for use in schools. How about putting some of that imagination and creativity to work producing stuff that might get used in school…?

Perfectly valid point. If anything, the issue of education in schools goes to the very root of skepticism as we’re aware of it today. While this may sound odd, I never cease to be puzzled by the existence of skeptical groups and their necessity because the very things they seek to promote should already be taught to everyone in their science classes. So to me, the need for skeptical groups in the UK and the U.S. speaks of a problem with the educational systems of these nations more than anything. Really, past a certain age, we should know that no living human could possibly talk to the dead, that waiving your hands in the air and chanting will not cure your cold, flu, or worse, and that ghosts are often figments of people’s imagination after they’ve been scared in the middle of the night while alone and in a creepy place with the right backstory for a “haunting.” This is why you don’t see articles debunking ghosts and psychics on this blog, and the only dissections of New Age woo are taking issue with its butchery of perfectly good science for a profit or out of abject ignorance.

But as Shaha points out, kids don’t know any of that. They would be interested in a thorough demonstration of how to fake talking to the dead with cold reading and explanations of why people claim to see ghosts. Having a handle on why critical thinking is so important, equips kids to tackle science classes and life in general, so offering to teach them about skepticism is always a good idea. However, there’s an issue over which this very noble thought glosses over, an absolutely crucial issue for every skeptic who wants to teach kids about basic science: the woo fanatics who can’t be reached. When they’re the teachers, administrators, and school board members who set educational agendas, skeptics are not going to be welcome and neither is reason. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to find out that Weird Things would either be censored for students in Texas, or dismissed as the propaganda of a “godless communist preaching scientism” followed with a quick survey of my bio to point out that I was born in the former USSR and must thus be “a communist spy.” Just as skeptics want to encourage kids to question and demand evidence, the woo faithful want to submerge them into echo chambers and viciously fight to impose their will on school boards, often with great success.

# politics // education / educational standards / skepticism / skeptics

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