The Skeptical Teacher

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

Skepticism in the Classroom

Over the years, I and others have presented much material on the topic of “Skepticism in the Classroom”, and I thought that it would be worthwhile to summarize it here. In the last few years, I worked closely with the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Educational Advisory Board to generate a number of skeptical lessons for classroom use. In addition, the JREF has recently released an e-book titled “Magic in the Classroom” to which I have made some contributions.

Concerning specific lessons that I have presented at national conferences, which I include below, some of the material is from my presentation at The Amaz!ng Meeting 9’s “Skepticism in the Classroom” workshop, while the rest comes from the American Association of Physics Teachers summer meeting in Omaha, Nebraska.  I have also continued making these presentations at more AAPT meetings, as well as the NSTA’s Winter 2015 Meeting in Chicago. I didn’t act alone in these endeavors, as I worked in conjunction with two of my skeptical teaching colleagues, Barbara Drescher and Dean Baird.

For reference, all of Barbara’s lessons from TAM are available at her ICBSeverywhere blog, and Dean’s lessons from AAPT and NSTA are available at this link over at his Blog of Phyz.  I share my lessons with you below, so feel free to use, adapt, and share them as you wish:

**START HERE** Theres’s a Dragon in My Garage! – This is a make-believe story I tell my students on the first day of school to get them to understand the nature of science, and we constantly refer back to it all year. I borrowed the story from Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World, a book I highly recommend 🙂

1. Astrology Debunking Activity  and Solutions – This activity allows you to test out the notion of astrology with your students in a controlled manner.  It illustrates pretty clearly that astrology doesn’t really work.

2. Bed of Nails – I’ve made a very detailed blog post already on the subject (at the link).  However, at the end of that blog post the Youtube video of the moron cutting his arm with a razor sharp machete doesn’t work – try this one instead [warning: not for the squeamish!]

3. Board Breaking & Karate – This is another subject on which I have written before (click the link).  However, included in my blog analysis of the topic are some additional materials: an article about the physics of karate and a notesheet that I use in my classes to illustrate the physical principles behind this not-so-miraculous feat.

4. Einstein Cranks – This is a link to a blog post I wrote earlier about how many physics cranks and pseudoscientists abuse physics and the rules of science in an attempt to promote their nonsense.

5. EMF Woo – These are a collection of blog posts I have made over the years regarding the nonsense and pseudoscience surrounding EMFs (electromagnetic fields).  These posts – and the lessons associated with them – range from addressing claims of low-frequency EMFs inducing cancer to ghost-hunting woo (and the companies that promote such nonsense).

6. ESP Claims – Here I have collected a couple of lessons dealing with the claims of ESP and psychics.  Most notable are the notesheet for James Randi’s Secrets of the Psychics video and an article from Skeptical Inquirer magazine I have my students read on the issue.  You can find Randi’s excellent video for free on Youtube…


7. Glasswalking – This is just a blog post and video of why it is that walking barefoot on broken glass won’t cut you, provided you don’t slide your feet.  Hint: nothing paranormal or supernatural is required!

8. Haunted Lab – Every year around Halloween I do a special, exploration-based lab that incorporates a lot of cool physics concepts in with some debunking of paranormal claims.  It’s great fun!


9. Hot Stuff! – In this collection of lessons I address pseudoscientific claims from the standpoint of thermal physics.  Specifically, I have my students learn about how firewalking isn’t paranormal, and I also have them look at the claims that a man uses his “chi” to avoid getting burned when he puts molten lead into his mouth!

10. Magnetic Therapy – This lesson is an article and notesheet regarding this time-honored classic of alternative “medicine” woo.

11. Mega-Woosh Water Slide – A couple of years ago, this Internet video went viral, supposedly showing a man making a near-impossible jump across a valley using a huge water slide.  Well, it wasn’t real, but a basic analysis of physics also shows it is highly implausible as well.

12. Neat Tricks – These include some nice, off-the-cuff critical thinking exercises for your students: my “Uncle Harry” card trick, and my self-tying knot trick (the solution is here).   Enjoy! 🙂

13. Optical Illusions – This is a really broad category: it includes a PowerPoint I give on illusions and pareidolia, an article I have my students read on so-called “mystery lights”, and some stuff about how spirit orbs are not what New Agers claim.

14. Ouija Board – At the link is a blog post I wrote on a lesson I use involving magnetic fields to get students to question the claims behind Ouija boards.

15. Pyramids & Aliens – These lessons focus on addressing claims by various UFOologists that aliens built the Egyptian pyramids.  I have my students read an article from Skeptical Inquirer on the subject, then I give them a lecture on the physics of how humans (using simple technology) can build a pyramid, given time and a large workforce.

16. Movie Physics – In this end-of-the-year lesson, I get my students to think a bit skeptically regarding the physics presented in various movies.

17. The Physics of Santa Claus – This is a humorous lesson about applying some critical thinking and the laws of physics to one of our most beloved myths, Santa Claus.  I have assembled a blog post on this lesson, and if you like you can access the PowerPoint file here.  Also, please note that there is an updated version here. (**Note: this PowerPoint file is not mine originally; I totally stole it – credit is given on the first slide)

It is our hope that through these workshops we can get more and more teachers to consider pursuing these skeptically-oriented topics in their own classrooms. If you have any questions or skeptical resources for education that you would like to share with me, please let me know by going to the Contact page.

7 Responses to “Skepticism in the Classroom”

  1. Glen Green said

    I love the Haunted Lab photo! I wish I had that when I was in school!

  2. Alan Wade said

    Hi Skeptical Teacher

    The reason for my reply on this occasion is the intriguing invitation to “Ask A Scientist”. Something I have been trying to do for many years without any success. I have written to most of the living scientists who’s names appear on my website and in my book “Chronicle of a Cassandra The Dark Matters of Science”

    It’s been a while since I posted a couple of questions on your website and at that time the only answer I received was the length of time another poster had been studying mathematics. I think I was supposed to be impressed and intimidated by his qualifications?

    I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the only hope for academic science is for it to cut the bluster and start telling the truth…but I’m not holding my breath.

    I can suggest a method by which my observations can be tested. Why not give your students Rupert Sheldrake’s latest book The Science Delusion (I’m not even asking anyone to read mine) and then invite them to ask questions – real critical thinking for a change?

    Alan Wade

    The Ten Dogmas Rupert Sheldrake
    Here are the ten core beliefs that most scientists take for granted.

    Everything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms with goals of their own. Even people are machines, ‘lumbering robots’, in Richard Dawkins’s vivid phrase, with brains that are like genetically programmed computers.

    All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view. Even human consciousness is an illusion produced by the material activities of brains.

    The total amount of matter and energy is always the same (with the exception of the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy of the universe suddenly appeared).

    The laws of nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning, and they will stay the same for ever.

    Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.

    All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.

    Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains. When you look at a tree, the image of the tree you are seeing is not ‘out there’, where it seems to be, but inside your brain.

    Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.

    Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.

    Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

    Together, these beliefs make up the philosophy or ideology of materialism, whose central assumption is that everything is essentially material or physical, even minds. This belief-system became dominant within science in the late nineteenth century, and is now taken for granted. Many scientists are unaware that materialism is an assumption: they simply think of it as science, or the scientific view of reality, or the scientific worldview. They are not actually taught about it, or given a chance to discuss it. They absorb it by a kind of intellectual osmosis.
    Rupert Sheldrake The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry

    • mattusmaximus said

      Well, given Sheldrake’s rather sloppy methodology and poor standards of “evidence” for psychic phenomena – outlined pretty clearly here: – I don’t think he’s a great cheerleader for your ideas. But if he’s the best you’ve got, which isn’t very good at all in my opinion, have at it.

      As for why you’re never invited to participate in the “Ask A Scientist” panel at CONvergence, perhaps you should take that up with the organizers of the CON? But I have to ask: what exactly *are* your scientific credentials?

      • Alan Wade said

        Greetings mattusmaximus

        I have tended to avoid Sheldrake and his work for many years, simply because he is a scientist and as such he is biased. However, I do find his extensive use of the word dogma interesting.

        Whilst thinking about a reply today, I was, for whatever reason, reminded of an event that occurred some years ago. I came upon a forum that I think was called UK Astronomy, or some such.

        I posted a question just for the hell of it: ‘Is it true that you astronomers are more interested in mathematics than you are in stargazing?’ ( I got the idea from Charles Fort)
        Every one of the posters who replied agreed that ‘yes’, that was the case.
        I posted another question about the influence of the Moon on the Earth’s tides, the last one that I ever wrote to the forum.

        I did follow the discussion however and to my surprise they were all arguing and insulting each other. (This had previously been one of the most boring forums online) The arguing culminated in one poster saying that another poster needed (I think ‘bitch slapping’ was the term he used). At this point the moderator stepped in and I think one or two were banned.

        The point of all this is simple, I had offered something new and they were ill equipped for things new. This is the result of an education that teaches them that the mythical heroes of science have long since sorted it all out. That they can only aspire to, but never equal the achievements of the heroes. They are made totally reliant on a group of heroes, that according to my own researches did not or do not exist. The man existed, but his achievements were not his own.

        I am at the moment, working on a list of about a dozen physics Nobel laureates who did nothing to deserve the award.

        As for my credentials, I don’t need to be a criminal to know that a crime has been committed.

        Alan Wade

      • mattusmaximus said

        So you have *no* scientific credentials and/or training? Hmmm… that might just be the reason why the organizers of CONvergence have never let you on the “Ask A Scientist” panel. Seems this mystery has been solved.

  3. Alan Wade said

    I don’t recall saying that I wanted contact with the organizers of CONvergence. I was making the point that scientists avoid answering questions by default. They make ex cathedra pontifications that we are all required to store in our memory banks as ‘facts’. Anything outside of such ‘facts’ automatically become pseudo science, binary and totally mindless, all part of the scientific dehumanisation process.

    Whilst on the subject of credentials, maybe you could enlighten me as to the credentials of The Amazing Randi who appears in your must-read list? Double standards?

    On the first page of The Skeptics Dictionary, also recommended as a must read, I find:
    “Alchemists may have tried out their ideas by devising experiments, but they never separated their methods from the supernatural, the magickal, and the superstitious. Perhaps that is why alchemy is still popular, even though it has accomplished practically nothing of lasting value.”

    I seem to recall that scholars are in agreement that Isaac Newton derived all of his ideas from Alchemy?
    Scientists have nominated Newton as having contributed more than any other to science.
    I also have a long list of alchemical discoveries that have been seconded by academic science.
    Cognitive dissonance?

    It would be enlightening to know just what is meant by the phrase ‘sceptical education'(teaching) as there is no qualification in scepticism nor even in scepticism. It is entirely an emotional path to opinion and not quantifiable scientifically.
    With a balanced education, free from authoritarian influence, it is entirely possible to identify such inconsistencies along with the contradictions of academic science and inform readers that such sources are unreliable.

    Alan Wade

  4. […] as part of the curriculum. Yes, all parts of the curriculum. Are there resources to get there? Yes, yes, and yes; just be as skeptical of resources as they are of their subjects. Even Popper’s […]

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