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Lesson Plan Review: The Skeptic Society’s Skepticism 101 In-Class Exercises

I’m a nuts-and-bolts skeptic, which influences the kind of skeptical lessons I bring into my classrooms. I’m always looking for new ideas and other ways of presenting skepticism and critical thinking to students. I’ve been meaning to start reviewing skeptical curricular materials here at the School of Doubt, so why not start at a central location for nuts-and-bolts skepticism? The Skeptic Society is a U.S.-based non-profit organization, started by Michael Shermer in 1992. It publishes the magazine Skeptic, which includes the fabulous Junior Skeptic sections.

The Skeptic Society has long been involved in education presentations and outreach, through a lecture series, podcasts, its magazine, and educational materials. Today I want to examine the Skepticism 101 page from the Skeptic Society website, which includes materials, links, and reading lists for educators and students. Specifically, I’m interested today in the in-class exercises.

Sadly, the in-class exercises section only has 5 materials. Hardly enough to build an entire skeptical course, but the individual exercises may be enough to become part of a curriculum. The 5 exercises on the website (as of May 26, 2013) are:

The activities are presented as-is without much additional comment from the Skeptic Society. It looks like some educators decided to email their materials and the files were posted. That’s too bad, because while a few of these are ready-for-the-classroom, others would have to be significantly modified or have additional work done before a teacher could use them.

My favorite material here is the first one, “Critical & Scientific Thinking in the High School Classroom”. It hardly qualifies as an in-class exercise, as it is an essay and presentation set from a high school teacher about he promotes skepticism with his students. However, the essay/presentation does include descriptions of several in-class activities, some of which I have used myself with students. The author, Michael Dean, provides a lot of good basic critical thinking problems and skill-builders, which I think are appropriate for high school and college. The essay outlines six fallacies of thinking and logic which Dean uses as a scaffolding for his activities. I’ve used the lessons/activities on randomness and inattention blindness in my own class, with reasonable success.

The second material set comes from a college philosophy course. These are not in-class exercises. Rather, they are essay assignments and projects. These are college-level assignments with a lot of reading and writing involved. One of the assignments, “Truth Detection”, is intriguing. It requires a student to thoroughly analyze an extraordinary claim in modern society. The assignment encourages the student to attend meetings, go undercover, join groups, listen to pitches, etc. It has safety warnings about not going alone, not spending money, and so on, which caught my eye. I wonder how many students from this course put in an earnest effort to investigate, rather than just find some low-hanging fruit online?

The third material set is just two Power Point presentations introducing classic game theory dilemmas to students. These are presented on the website as plain slides, with no instructor guide. I’m not an expert on game theory, so I would personally have to do some additional legwork to prep this lesson before using it with students. It looks fun, though!

The fourth material, Homeopathy & Critical Thinking, is a doozy. It’s an assignment to critically analyze a sincere presentation of homeopathy, its principles and evidence, from a paper and poster. No critical analysis or contrary evidence is presented in those materials – students are expected to carefully determine counter-arguments, evaluate the claims and evidence, and write a 1200-word essay on their findings. This is also not an in-class assignment. I also find it the most problematic material listed on the Skeptic Society website. This is an advanced assignment, inappropriate for high school and most introductory college classes. I say its advanced, because the students have to be very motivated and knowledgeable to complete the assignment. Also, the teacher has to be even more knowledgeable, both in content and pedagogy, because this could easily backfire. Unless all of the homeopathy claims are properly countered, students could walk away from the assignment believing in homeopathy (at worst), or at least remembering aspects of the homeopathy paper as science. Even if a student understands in the end that homeopathy isn’t valid, they could easily form new misconceptions from incorporating ideas presented in the paper/poster. An instructor would need to be savvy and think carefully before assigning this paper as-is.

The fifth material may be the most “nuts-and-bolts” of all. It is the only true in-class exercise of the lot. It an ESP-testing module developed by the James Randi Educational Foundation, designed for high school students. However, I think it’s appropriate for any college student, too. It’s classroom-ready, and includes all the necessary background for students and instructors. It describes the claims behind ESP and the modern research behind it. The module includes instructions on how to set up a controlled test of ESP claims and how to statistically analyze them. I really like this exercise, and I’ve done assignments similar to this with students. This fall (2013), I’ll be teaching a skepticism course, so I think I’ll test this module out and report back here.

Conclusion

It is too bad that the “in-class exercises” section of the Skeptic Society’s Skepticism 101 website isn’t more developed. Many of these materials aren’t “in-class exercises”, and some are not classroom ready. All of them are worth looking at, but I’d like to see the Skeptic Society reach out to more educators and collect more materials and exercises.

The rest of the Skepticism 101 website has a collection of syllabi, reading lists, videos, and lectures, sorted by categories. Have you used any of these materials? What other type of skeptical material are you looking for that you haven’t found?

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P.E. Robinson

P.E. Robinson

Professor P.E. Robinson teaches astronomy to non-science majors at a 2-year college in the United States. He has a decade of experience teaching science in higher education, and providing professional development experiences to astronomers and other educators. Skepticism and critical thinking are key components of everything he teaches.

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