Pop Quiz

Pop Quiz: Reptilians Faked the Moon Landing to Cover Up JFK

Over the years that I’ve worked in high school education, I’ve learned many wonderful things from my students. I’ve seen young people suffer horrendous personal tragedies while still remaining focused on their school work. I’ve heard the most incredible life stories from the people I least expected to. I’ve seen individuals go on to become amazingly successful through their own hard work and dedication.

I’ve also learned that the moon landings were faked, that the US government orchestrated 9/11, and that there’s a place called Area 51 where stuff goes on that you wouldn’t BELIEVE.

Conspiracy theories and skepticism seem to go hand in hand and it’s always fun to pick apart the more outrageous claims of True Believers. However, as a teacher who promotes skeptical and critical thinking, I’ve found that conspiracy theories seem to occupy a very particular spot in the development of a young person’s skepticism.

That spot seems to lie somewhere just after a young person learns what skeptical thinking might involve, but somewhere before they really truly grasp how to approach the world that way. Every year, at least one of my students has appeared at my door with bright, excited eyes and exclaimed something along the lines of “Sir! Sir! I was doing some reading and I found out something AMAZING! You know those lines of vapour in the sky from planes? They’re actually chemicals! EVIL chemicals!” Don’t ask me why most Scottish high school pupils refer to all male teachers as “Sir,” by the way. It’s weird, it reeks more of habit than of any sort of deference, and no-one seems to know why it happens.

What seems to happen is that once a young person begins to form an understanding of what thinking skeptically about the world might mean, they start to tune in more to the kind of topics that attract that sort of thinking. However, if they haven’t yet developed their critical skills beyond the “question everything” point, it can be very easy for them to be attracted to ideas that seem at first glance to be skeptical but are actually anything but.

Let’s face it: lots of conspiracy theories sound awesome. Crashed aliens in the desert, shady government organisations, major world events being lies designed to hide the horrible truth. I loved this kind of stuff as a teenager and I totally understand the attraction. It’s only once someone has truly developed their critical thinking skills that they can see these theories for what they are. We’re used to evaluating evidence, to examining the quality of sources, to looking for the simplest rational explanations.

It can, however, be easy for a young person who is just beginning their journey into skepticism to view conspiracy theories as valid avenues of investigation. If someone’s critical skills are developed enough that they start to actively question the world around them but not yet enough to allow them to truly evaluate what they come across, researching a conspiracy theory can feel like great skepticism.

You told me about the importance of questioning the world around me. You told me to think for myself about the media I consume. I did what you said and I found out that the moon landings were faked in TV studios. Everyone else accepts the cover story without questioning it, but I see through that. I’m skeptical.

Dealing with this as a teacher can be difficult. If we simply smack down or ridicule that person’s idea, we run the risk of damaging their confidence in their own growing critical thinking skills. If we smile and nod along with them, or say nothing at all, we may end up validating outlandish ideas in that young person’s mind. When one of my students comes to me with a breathlessly excited explanation of the amazing cover-up they learned about last night, I try to use that situation to help that student work through the evidence (or lack of) behind whatever it is they’ve found. Conspiracy theories can be wonderful catalysts for the application and development of really detailed skeptical thinking.

However!

Enough from me. This is School of Doubt’s first Pop Quiz, and that means that I’d love to hear your views about this topic. Pop Quizzes will appear on the site pretty often and we would love to hear from you if you want to respond to any of the discussion questions that will be posed in each post.

 

Have you, perhaps as an educator or parent, ever been faced with a young person who passionately believes in a conspiracy theory?

Are there any particular conspiracy theories that seem especially attractive to young people?

Can we, as skeptical and critical educators, use the inherent “attractiveness” of certain conspiracy theories to promote and develop skeptical thinking in our students?

 

I’ll be hanging around the comments section, so please do feel free to add to the discussion!

Unless you’re a actually a reptilian, of course. We don’t want your type around here.

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 3pm ET.

Featured image credit: Catgunner

 

Previous post

School of Doubt is in Session!

Next post

Teaching the Social Construction of Sex

Alasdair

Alasdair

Alasdair is a high school English teacher in Scotland. He's a passionate skeptic and science fan, which is why he runs a discussion club for young skeptics in his school. He loves space and astronomy more than pretty much anything and is studying for a physics degree in his spare time in order to become qualified to teach science.

He lives with a cat made of distilled hatred and spikes.

14 Comments

  1. wnightshade
    March 1, 2013 at 1:34 pm —

    I came at this from the other side: when I was about 15/16, I saw JFK. It BLEW MY MIND. I was explaining all this to my dad, who gently suggested that all of what I saw might not be genuine. Nothing more. Just the suggestion that I might think further about it prompted me to do so, and I feel much more solidly informed about the JFK assassination now (it was totally Bigfoot from the grassy knoll). Most of the time, all it takes is a soft reminder that there are more sides to a story.

    • March 1, 2013 at 2:54 pm —

      That’s an excellent point. I’ve seen a fair few examples of blossoming young skeptics being attracted to conspiracy theories, mostly because it’s arisen in the context of a class specifically designed to develop critical thinking skills. However, there’s a lot to be said for using someone’s enthusiasm for one of these theories to kickstart some skepticism too. Also, I’ve never seen JFK; I never know whether or not to be ashamed by that.

  2. March 1, 2013 at 2:54 pm —

    Welcome to the Network! (Careful, that’s a conspiracy theory in the making all in itself!) So good to hear in this climate of excessive standardized testing that genuine critical thinking is being presented by some.

    I have a nephew, 9, who hasn’t quite reached true critical thinking. While he tends to be skeptical of things he’s told, he also tends to cling to ideas or preconceptions he’s formed. But I think he has a great deal of potential. (As his Unky I would think this… time will tell if I’m not being skeptical about this!)

  3. Kaloikagathoi
    March 1, 2013 at 5:42 pm —

    My 4-year-old was taught at an early age that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were fun make-believe, and I would pretend to believe in them so that she could patronizingly inform me that they’re really “Mummy and Daddy”.
    But the tooth fairy – ‘It’s REAL, Mummy!”. An older friend had told her so, and had shown shown her proof in the form of the money left under her pillow. The tooth fairy is fact, people.

  4. James Cameron
    March 1, 2013 at 5:49 pm —

    Are we more skeptical these days or less becuase of technology? A lot of these conspiracy theories can be disproven via actual science. Myth Busters solved the moon landing situation in their last season i believe. The skepitkal thinking im running into are the youthful gun advocates who always seem to reply “just in case” when asked why they need so many or such powerful weapons. I believe it use to be a joke but this whole zombie/Alien conspiracy is gaining trackion with many youth these days. Although technology can prove certain things theres no real explination for those UFO videos on Youtube, in conjunction with Web sites and talk show hosts that acknowledge Aliens and conspiracy theories I believe this fad will only get worse.

    • March 1, 2013 at 8:17 pm —

      This is a really interesting point. We don’t really have a gun culture in Scotland since they’re pretty much totally banned, so I have little familiarity with the issues you mention (other than what I’ve read online and heard from my American friends). I definitely agree with the zombie/alien thing, though. Barely a day seems to go by without one student or another mentioning the latest OMG TV PSYCHIC IN A TOTALLY HAUNTED HOUSE OOOOO show they’ve caught and bought into. I’m actually going to devote a post to this specific issue quite soon, so stay tuned!

  5. Mark (@LibraryOgre)
    March 1, 2013 at 5:55 pm —

    I get them fairly often in the library, and it really becomes a matter of picking your battles. You get the occasional person looking for information, and you can push them away from the crazies… give your elevator speech on why, while researching vaccines, you might want to be skeptical of Jenny McCarthy and Andrew Wakefield. On the other hand, you get the folks who’ve progressed beyond bright-eyed and into glazed (little ceramic humor, there) in their insistence that a secret treaty between King John and the Pope illustrates the lie behind all American government or some such thing… and you realize you have to point them towards the websites they’ve already read and step away from the crazy. It can sometimes be a matter of introducing one source into the mess of crazy they’ve got, and hope. Since library interactions are frequently fleeting, you have to get really good at the elevator speeches, and knowing where to push and when to disengage.

  6. March 1, 2013 at 6:14 pm —

    I was soooooo that kid in high school. I had access to the internet and cable tv for the the first time and they had me CONVINCED that aliens were real and being covered up. JFK? Totes a conspiracy. The internet was a wee bit smaller in the 90s, so maybe the skeptical resources weren’t as readily available? In any case, I lost interest in the “conspiracy theories” gradually, because a firm education in science led me to keep looking for the evidence, and eventually I was unimpressed. But it is surely an important step to go through for many young (or just new) critical thinkers. I agree with @wnightshade, a gentle reminder of all sides to the story is probably most helpful. Though the immediate reaction of saying “Uh, NO” is hard to overcome, at least outside the classroom.

    • March 1, 2013 at 9:23 pm —

      Oh, me too! Once you learn that the received wisdom can be questioned, it’s an instant ticket to questioning nearly all mainstream beliefs, even if these are pretty well justified. This can, unfortunately, lead to some dark places. I suspect that’s a big part of why you see a disproportionate number of ‘skeptical’ MRAs.

  7. Olivia
    March 1, 2013 at 7:41 pm —

    Hey welcome to Skepchick! I think this is a really good suggestion for dealing with those who are exploring skeptical thinking, however I am a little worried by the slightly ageist tone of this. I think it’s important to remember that not just young people go through this stage of exploration. Some people don’t get there until later in life, or they never make it out of this stage. Some people never go through this stage. While this is helpful advice for teachers, there are also students who will teach each other AND their teachers about new ways to be skeptical.

    • March 1, 2013 at 8:11 pm —

      Thanks for the welcome! I agree with you completely about people finding their way into skepticism at many different ages, and also about students teaching each other and their teachers. I’ve seen and experienced that many times.

      There was no ageism intended in my post, however. I’m a high school teacher so I can only really relate my teaching experiences to the students with whom I interact. My students range from eleven to eighteen and so that’s why I referred to “young people” so much. School of Doubt has contributors who deal with learners from early childhood through to adulthood and so there will be discussions that deal with the teaching of critical thinking at all ages and stages. This post just happened to be about young people developing a sense of skepticism in high school.

  8. March 2, 2013 at 8:59 am —

    I had friends in high school who were proto-conspiracy nuts. Since it was Texas, they were Young Republicans getting sucked into the whole John Birch Society theory of International Bankers (“not [necessarily] Jews; we’re not being anti-Semitic!”) controlling the world through the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission. I read some of their stuff and might have gotten sucked in as well had I not had an older brother who pointed out some of the internal flaws and bigotry in the theory. With my mind opened a bit, seeing the world of evidence instead of cherry-picked tidbits took care of the rest.

    As an aside, Some of My Best Friends® are Gorns, and they resent the anti-reptilian bent of today’s post.

  9. March 2, 2013 at 1:30 pm —

    Come to think of it, I’ve only had one student in 10 years who was a conspiracy true believer. This student believed the Moon Landing was faked, and was very firm on the topic. There wasn’t much I could there, as this student was also a Biblical literalist – they thought humans actually lived for hundreds of years “back in Biblical times”. This student had their mind blown when they realized that the solar system wasn’t the entire Universe. That last one is actually more common for people.

    Other times, I’ve had the “I’m just sayin'” crowd: 9-11 truther wannabes, alien landing cover-up folks, and even a student recently who asked me if I had heard of Chemtrails and if they were real (Answer: Yes, I have. No, they’re not.). Most of the time, the students don’t seem very serious or devoted to the conspiracy. Of course, I come down pretty hard on pseudoscience and certain conspiracy theories, so it could be that after I thoroughly go through the twisted logic of crop circle believers, some true believers just don’t engage. I get a pretty big laugh each semester when I point out that arguing with a conspiracy theorist is futile, because any evidence you present against the conspiracy, they will turn around and say is evidence FOR the conspiracy.

    The best we can do in most cases is plant the seed of doubt.

  10. March 2, 2013 at 1:38 pm —

    My students are students are 14 – 18 (in theory – sometimes they stick around until they’re 21 if they’re struggling). I’ve always found it interesting to watch the intellectual excitement they develop when they discover the world of conspiracies – fostering that excitement while steering them away from BS requires a delicate balance. I think sometimes I pull it off, but I always err on the side of favouring the excitement. I hope that if I plant a seed of doubt and give them some ideas about how to question ideas effectively, then they have a chance of tossing out the crap themselves later.

    What I find much harder is when they learn the bizarre beliefs at home – there’s no budding intellectualism to encourage, since they’re parroting their parents, and it’s almost impossible not to put them on the defensive in trying to pull apart the problems with their ideas. I had a student explain to me a few years ago that the government was encouraging us to get flu vaccines because they had found a way to liquefy tracking microchips and they wanted an excuse to secretly inject them. I started to ask her how the mechanics of that would actually work and she said, “I can’t remember – I’ll ask my mom.” What on Earth do I do with that?

Leave a reply