The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Creating Skeptics: Why Every Kid Should Have a Teacher Like Matt Lowry

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 22, 2010

I wanted to toot my own horn a bit and repost a wonderful account of my recent talk at the Center For Inquiry Chicago titled “Teaching Freethought: How to Create a Skeptical Kid”. The account comes from Alan, a.k.a. the Jewish Atheist, who was in attendance at the event.  Alan’s other musings regarding myth, magic, and how easily believers allow themselves to be fooled are worth considering.  So, with that, I refer to you to Alan’s post…

Creating Skeptics: Why Every Kid Should Have a Teacher Like Matt Lowry

May 18th, 2010 by Alan

“Science, I maintain, is an absolutely essential tool for any society with the hope of surviving well into the next century with its fundamental values intact — not just science as engaged in by its practitioners, but science understood and embraced by the entire human community. And if scientists do not bring this about, who will?”

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

“We must trust to nothing but facts: these are presented to us by Nature, and cannot deceive. We ought, in every instance, to submit our reasoning to the test of experiment, and never to search for truth but by the natural road of experiment and observation.”

Antoine Lavoisier

Matt Lowry is the teacher you wish you had (and some of us were lucky to actually have had), be it in physics or literature. In Matt’s case it is physics, which he teaches in high school and college in Lake County, IL. I recently attended, in Chicago, his Center for Inquiry presentation on how he cultivates skepticism in high schoolers, through science.

His scientific knowledge is hugely impressive, as are his demonstrations – walking on burning coals, broken glass; lying on bed of nails – which powerfully hook kids on curiosity and skepticism. He teaches them Carl Sagan’s “Dragon in the Garage” analogy and lets them draw their own conclusions.

At Halloween he stages an interactive Haunted Physics Lab (including demonstration of the magnetic forces that make the Ouija Board seem to work), once again teaching kids that all magic is done by someone just a little smarter than you.

His high school students come from various religious backgrounds. Some actually believe the world is only a few thousand years old. Some come away enlightened (“My grandmother should hear this – she’s really into that Bible stuff”), others with only a seed of doubt planted. As Matt says, you cultivate wonder and skepticism and “take what you can get.”

I’ll come back to Matt’s clientele later (and remember, they’re somewhat self-selected — lots of kids stay away from physics classes; it takes an outstanding teacher to bring them in)….

A little smarter than you

The idea that the magician is only a little smarter than you (e.g., Matt looks for the dull patches of glass to step on and avoids sharp points as much as posible) never occurs to anybody on the receiving end of the religious scam. As Penn and Teller never tire of pointing out, a successful trick makes you think you’re seeing something else, while the explanation is often simple and mundane. But what if the shaman doesn’t tell the folks his trick? He could leverage it into enormous power (and lots of sex — the loathsome “right of the first night” persisted, at least into ancient times).

Since I’m a linguist, my favorite type of magic is the “cold read” – the psychic uses cues about your appearance and behavior and asks leading questions so skillfully as to be able to seem to know things about you.

Another example, this one from personal conversation with Matt, is the practitioners of martial arts who rely heavily on an imaginary energy called qi. As nearly as Matt and I can tell, this is a folie a deux, in which both parties must agree to believe in qi; otherwise, it won’t work.

They wanna believe

People SO want to believe. When Matt karate-chopped a few boards (the secret is partly the downward force aided by gravity, partly that he’s a black belt), students wanted him to autograph the pieces. How they long to create instant holy relics!!

One student asked, “Are you a shaman?” No, it’s a TRICK. And no, it’s not alien technology. Matt demonstrates how human beings could quite plausibly have built the Pyramids, given enough time and enough human beings.

I remarked at the meeting that the students’ reaction was a demonstration of how easy it is to start a religion.

Science, magic, religion

So science, magic, and religion evolved together, and even today it’s hard to separate them. Catholics believe the wafer and wine ACTUALLY become the body and blood. Aside from contradicting the laws of physics, it’s creepy, ghastly, and psychotic.

Back in the day, the medicine man was the high priest. He had, through SCIENCE, learned a little more about his world than everyone around him. He was thus in charge of the magic.

George Carlin wrote a hilarious piece about The Primitive Sergeant, the mid-level tribal bureaucrat who has to explain each new ritual for the first time. In this case, the Corn God required throwing virgins into the volcano. The Sergeant has to explain it to the tribe. They’re not happy. “Settle down, people! We’re going to phase this in gradually. We haven’t got that many virgins anyway.” Why virgins? “Have you ever seen the High Priest naked? ‘Nuff said.”

Early humans were not totally unscientific. As Sagan points out in The Demon Haunted World, primitive humans employed considerable scientific talents in learning how to live in their world – when to plant crops, expect lambs, etc. But when they went to look for first causes, they were lost and turned to gods.

Imagine what it to took to figure out that sex made babies (and imagine what an unscrupulous shaman could have done with that knowledge). You needed the mental capacity for several stages of linguistic complexity, roughly in the following order of sophistication: names; (nounlike structures); actions (verblike structures), subject- and object-relations; secondary/indirect object-relations – and, of course, the all-important hurdle, the ability to talk about things that had happened or would happen….and, of course, to imagine.

Need a cause

Humanity had to find a cause for everything; our brains had become wired for it. Those that were curious about causes of things survived, obviously, and passed on their genes. So, according to David Eller, writing in Secular Nation (Apr.-June ’10), even without gods, we would have found invisible causes for things – maybe animal spirits.

Astrology is another dead end in humanity’s frantic search for causes. Nevertheless, it was the state religion for a long time, and even today, astrologers outnumber astronomers 10:1 (Sagan, 2006). Or maybe divination would be the imaginary cause of choice. There are about 80 kinds of divination, so when God tells the Israelites to stay away from diviners, he means a whole raft of people (entrails, sticks, feces, etc., etc).

Major mojo

A few tricks, a few predictions, and you had major mojo. But since we take all this built-up knowledge for granted, we forget that someone, maybe multiple someones, had to figure each trick out for the first time.

Brick by brick, knowledge was accumulated. Eventually some people could predict eclipses — what power that knowledge must have brought! As long as people didn’t know why things happened, there was always room for gods or other imaginary causes.

Brick by brick

The same exhaustive, elaborate process applies to all human institutions. Medicine: how many “clinical trials” and failures did it take before humanity learned the healing or poisoning powers of plants, before we learned that willow bark lowers fever?

Mythology: think how long the stories that religions take for granted were under development before they were finally written down.

It is ridiculous to think that so-called holy texts were revealed as wholes, when we know that purely oral traditions can be quite fluid (Dennett, in Breaking the Spell, notes how the versions that preliterate people told to anthropologists would vary widely). In modern times, we have the examples of hearsay and gossip, during the transmission of which the story can change radically.

Maybe at some point there was a frog in the Garden of Eden, but then the snake seemed the most sinister. No one knows how many variations and iterations preceded the version(s) that got written down.

Take what you can get.

Back to Matt and his clientele. My heart sank a little when he said that you take what you can get. If it weren’t for the pernicious persistence of religion (and there are a LOT of reasons why it’s so powerful), their previous public education should have accomplished Matt’s task years ago. They should have arrived at skepticism along with adolescence, if not sooner.

I honestly thought my view of religion was obvious and am amazed to find so many young people who believe in deities, reincarnation, chakras, heaven, hell, and Angels. But, on second thought, given that their parents have first crack at them, not so surprising.

Robert Ballard, explorer, oceanographer and discoverer of the Titanic, said that “the battle [for the future of science] is won or lost by the time a kid gets into the eighth grade.”

A letter to Sagan, in response to his PARADE Magazine critique of American scientific education, said as much:

“The fundamentalist teaching of science is about ‘humanism’ and is to be mistrusted is the reason nobody understands science. Religions are afraid of the skeptical thinking part of science. Students are brainwashed to accept scientific thinking long before they get to college.”

If religion and education (and politics/war) were not so inextricably linked, Matt’s job would already be done, his students equipped with the tools of critical thinking and ready to further explore the wonders of the universe. It’s sad that “take what you can get” has to be the low bar.

New year, new minds

Every year will bring a new crop of minds for Matt to change – young minds, indoctrinated minds, minds unaccustomed to critical thinking. And each year Matt will, through this and his many other activities, continue to stand against the tidal wave of religious, New Age, and esoteric BS (e.g., aliens building Atlantis) that engulfs this society.

You’ve got to get them while they‘re young. They’re not all that young then Matt gets them, but there’s hope. Young atheist/secular groups are springing up all over. Maybe someday, one of us can aspire to be …President!

In the meantime, remember: the magician is only a little more clever than you; schools don’t do enough to teach critical thinking; too many are afraid to confront the Bible as fantasy; and too few students get a physics teacher who urges them to examine the evidence before they conclude that a house is haunted.

We need a lot more Matt Lowrys.

2 Responses to “Creating Skeptics: Why Every Kid Should Have a Teacher Like Matt Lowry”

  1. […] Creating Skeptics: Why Every Kid Should Have a Teacher Like Matt … […]

  2. Luanne Graham said

    I am on the front line in the “war on ignorance” every day in my classes (high school biology, physical science, and astronomy). What I find so hard to believe is the level of ignorance and lack of critical thinking that exists among my fellow teachers…science included. Excellent post…thanks.

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