As James Randi continues his recovery from heart surgery, he's asked Hal Bidlack to line up some stellar guest writers for Swift.
This Week's Swift was written by Hal Bidlack, Mike McRae, and James Randi.
This week’s SWIFT turns to the challenge of education. Many people involved in the JREF are, or have been, teachers. Indeed, an ongoing desire of mine – Hal Bidlack’s – is to have a TAM workshop specifically targeted toward giving teachers at all levels the skills needed to carry forth the critical thinking battle. I have spent the majority of my military career as a professor at a military academy. I find Mike’s comments below resonate deeply with my own experience.
In my area, political science, all too often students are taught history as names and dates to be memorized. I think this is tragic. You can memorize that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066 and think yourself taught. But how much richer is your understanding of history to know that the Norman’s use of the simple stirrup, a cleverly twisted bit of metal allowing the rider to be more stable in the saddle, helped turn human history. You can memorize that the Battle of Monmouth was fought on June 28th, 1778, and that the good guys (the US) beat the bad guys (the Brits).* But isn’t it richer, more fun, to know that in part the battle was won due to George Washington’s temper? Upon being told by an incompetent general that the troops would not stand up to the British Regulars, Washington replied loudly, “You Damned poltroon, you never tried them!” and he leapt to the saddle and rode into the thick of the fighting, yelling “Stand fast, my boys, and receive your enemy!” The troops stopped running and began fighting. This bit of history is lost if one simply thinks it important to remember the dates.
Mr. Randi is, I think, a teacher before all else, and is no poltroon! Certainly, the work with the Challenge is critical, but it is in his writings and his talks, his phone calls and his emails, that he most effectively communicates and educates. I’ve heard him speak a great many times, and never once have I seen him read from a text a series of factoids for the consumer to memorize. Education is best when it is alive. And this living education is what the JREF is all about, methinks.
At TAM4, I had the pleasure of chatting with the smart folks from the MythBusters. I’m a huge fan, and so was quite pleased they were coming. In the course of a walk through the Stardust Casino, I happened to ask Jamie Hyneman “how is the fame thing going?” He remarked that it was a very odd feeling to be invited to give a talk at, say, the JPL, and have several hundred real rocket scientists go nuts when you walk in. But that happens, I suggest, because Jamie and Adam are now teachers of the first order. They communicate logic, evidence, and reason, in a brilliantly entertaining way. Plus, they blow up a lot of stuff.
Thus, teaching is the theme this week. We all do it, be it with our kids, our friends, or ourselves. Some, like Mr. Randi, do it for the masses. Some, like Mike, do it for classrooms. But we all do it on some level. And when we talk about Mr. Randi’s message, we do it in a very important way indeed.
*Note: if you are a citizen of the noble and great United Kingdom, feel free to mentally reverse the parenthetical notes to suit your fancy. If you reside elsewhere in the world, please do feel free to alter who was fighting whom to please your own view of things. The important part, after all, is that history is more than dates. (Plus, we won.)
I am most pleased this week to bring the thoughts of Mike McRae to you. Mike is from Down Under, where as I understand it from my elementary school education, everyone is upside down, and kangaroos run rampant. There is a small chance, however, that I was mis-educated. Mike has taught secondary school science in his home city of Brisbane and for the past two years in east-end London, and is currently studying science communications through the Australian National University in Canberra. He believes that state education can play a big role in creating a society more critical of the information they receive. Here’s Mike McRae…
My career paths have meandered a bit. I started off as a medical scientist in an Australian pathology firm, working “graveyards” by running tests and having the fortune of taking the patient’s blood myself. I ran tests on an infant who died soon after. Though the child was suffering from a treatable blood infection, the parents delayed medical intervention in favor of homeopathic treatment. This made me aware of the potential dangers of “alternative medicine,” a practice I had previously seen as rather innocuous.
I had always followed the philosophy that we are all entitled to make our own opinions, without realizing that we are not entitled to choose our own facts. Something had gone wrong and I wanted to fix it.
I abandoned pathology in favor of education. I wanted to change how people saw science, and encourage people to think critically about what they heard. I became a secondary school science teacher. It was a journey that has instead taught me a great deal about how we teach the future citizens of our society.
What are the responsibilities of an educator? Pedagogy – the science of teaching – is awash with philosophies arguing the merits of “lifelong learning” and “responsible thinking.” But in practice, how are educators supposed to create such thinkers who will be capable of making critical, well-informed decisions? Educators are often encouraged to consider the end results of their efforts, but the methods on how to accomplish this are left for many teachers to discover for themselves along the way.
First of all, I needed to learn what an educator was. The simple answer was “any person who influences the learning of another.” In other words, all of us – as social creatures – are educators. Teachers might be empowered with certain specialist knowledge, but to say they possess a monopoly on education is naive. In too many countries it is sufficient for a teacher to be a negotiator between young people and necessary skills required for tertiary education, with education being reduced to more trivia than skills.
This is most obvious in science disciplines. In the UK, where I found myself teaching, a student can typically pass their exams possessing little more than the knowledge they have gleaned from a text book. Too many teachers have never even heard of Occam’s Razor, or know the difference between Inductive and Deductive reasoning or the details of double-blind testing.
There is a misconception that many of our education systems are failing us in key areas of science literacy. The truth is somewhat surprising. Many, if not most, education systems in the world are well aware of the need to teach science literacy. The syllabi will often stress the need for it, although the terminology might vary from state to state, country to country. “Working scientifically,” “scientific thinking,” “analytical thinking,” “critical analysis”…although disguised, they all indicate a need to use the scientific method appropriately in the classroom.
So why do we have such a low opinion of our society’s ability to think critically if our laws essentially say we must teach it? The answer is complicated, and it is linked in with a pandemic reduction in all forms of literacy. Firstly, university education has increased in priority over the past few decades. Education is focused on producing good tertiary students over good citizens. Facts and figures needed for university entrance take priority in exams. Governments are mostly content with gloating over entrance figures to mark the success of their education policies. What gauge is there for the success of a system that produces garbage collectors who can think critically?
Secondly, few teachers have the skills to begin with. Rote learning was once a tool in most teachers’ tool boxes; from spelling to times-tables, students learned the basics through repetition. Recent decades have seen a change here as well; new methods such as “New Basics” and “Whole Word Learning” have come into vogue, with arguable success. However, it also means styles and methods of teaching change rapidly, with teachers finding that the way they were taught is now out of style. Many teachers simply are not armed with the skills needed to teach critical thinking, hence “working scientifically” is covered with the performance of a few miasmic experiments where the student obtains only a hazy concept of how to construct a “fair test.”
I hesitate to blame the teaching institutes for this oversight, for while there is a problem with many universities training teachers who come out nearly as illiterate as their future pupils, “reading illiteracy” is usually seen by society as a bigger problem than “scientific literacy.”
The solution lies in making it socially unacceptable to have people illiterate in science. Compare the following; at a party, a person laughs and says “I’m not very good at understanding anything even remotely scientific.” Compare this with, “I can’t add or subtract very well, and forget about me dividing anything.” Finally, hold those comments against, “I can’t read or spell anything more complicated than my name.”
Which of those comments would be quickly followed with people nodding and proudly agreeing?
I noticed that the first mistake many of us make is to do the obvious: teach. There is a misconception that to educate, we must dictate the truth as we see it. Teachers are all but forced to do this as a result of time restrictions and the contents of their curriculum. “Why do we have to know this?” is too commonly answered with, “Because it will be on the test.” Listen, write it down, remember it…even if it is objectively wrong, it will be marked “right” on the exam.
[Randi comments: In high school, confronted on a test with “Discuss how Galileo’s invention of the telescope was important,” I got full marks on that item when I wrote, “Galileo did not invent the telescope.” That was the decision of an inspired teacher…]
The “Appeal to Authority” fallacy is tattooed onto our brains from the first day of school. The notorious “map of the tongue” – a diagram designating what areas of the tongue are sensitive to a variety of taste stimulants – has been demonstrated to be wrong since the early 19th century, yet it continues to be printed in new text books. Thankfully, this very mistake can be used to demonstrate how an appeal to authority can be misleading, with a simple experiment involving several mixtures of salt, sugar and lemon juice and an eye dropper. However, if this were to be an exam question, the problems in disproving the “fact” become obvious. It is arguably easier just to teach it without question…
This fallacy is not in itself an error; it is impossible to learn much in today’s world without letting somebody else crunch the numbers and offer us explanations. And teachers are sources of necessary information. But how we choose our “authorities” and place a value on such information, is just another skill rarely taught in our education systems. It’s little wonder that to most folk, sound bites and talking heads are enough to count as experts.
So, again, where did that leave me as an educator? Teaching is reinforcing the appeal to authority, where anybody who seems more intelligent than you must ultimately be right.
I’ve slowly come to a shockingly simple conclusion. We educators must simply role-model critical thinking. Small actions can have massive implications. Educators themselves have to be prepared to show that “evidence” and “answers” are two separate things by firmly believing that, themselves. We cannot escape the test-based construct that is the education system, but we can demonstrate how to learn by being critical thinkers when it counts and by demonstrating that we are all capable of being wrong, student and educator both. It might not be as proactive as we would like, and may not change the system tomorrow, but when we consider that mankind has to learn science using a hunter-gatherer brain, we can afford to take some pleasure in that first time a student says, “Sir, I don’t believe you.”
I regret to say that the system did defeat me in the end. I felt like a single handkerchief trying to mop up a thunderstorm. I’ve since moved into science communications – yet another turn in my road of careers – in an effort to fight the battle from a different angle. But I still count myself as an educator. And as such, I continue to promote critical thinking just by being a critical thinker when it counts.
April 1st is here, and it's time to give out the coveted Pigasus Awards. The categories change somewhat from year to year, and this time we have five to share with you. As my readers will know, these are announced via ESP to the winners, who are of course allowed to predict their winning of this honor by precognition. The Flying Pig trophies are sent to the winners via psychokinesis. We send; if they don't receive, it's perhaps due to their lack of PK ability.
This year, the prizes for 2005 performances go to these lucky folks:
Category #1, to the scientist who said or did the silliest thing related to the supernatural, paranormal or occult: We've chosen Brenda Dunne as the scientist who's said the silliest things this year. Brenda is the PEAR Laboratory Manager, and is responsible for conducting studies on how humans can influence the movement of objects using only their minds. While by our definition this is as paranormal as it gets, Brenda says "We are not in the business of demonstrating 'paranormal' abilities." Really? Is there some normal explanation for these things? PEAR's website says: "...the experimental results display increases in information content that can only be attributed to the influence of the consciousness of the human operator." Only? To top it off, she claims that the JREF $1 Million prize is a "scam," which is easily disprovable, should she only care to look. So Brenda could win the prize by applying for the million and demonstrating these abilities, but today, she's winning a Pigasus instead. More info: www.randi.org/jr/072905beenthere.html#1.
Category #2, to the funding organization that supported the most useless study of a supernatural, paranormal or occult claim: We honor the Auckland City Council of Auckland, NZ for providing the Foundation For Spiritualist Mediums (FSM) with NZ$2500 (US$1800) of taxpayers' money to teach people to communicate with the dead. To quote one FSM councilor, "There are a lot of people who have problems communicating with the spirit world and don't know how to deal with it." Fortunately, some council members objected to this expenditure and had the amount reduced from the original NZ$4500. The defending members supported the decision as contributing "to Auckland city's community vision." Well, if they're already having visions, perhaps they don't need the assistance of the FSM. For more, check out www.randi.org/jr/052705a.html#3.
Category #3, to the media outlet that reported as factual the most outrageous supernatural, paranormal or occult claims: The prize goes to the US television network ABC for their airing of the "Primetime Live" specials on "John of God." This Brazilian "healer," named João Teixeira, continues to divert people with serious illnesses from conventional medical treatment. He provides them with such services as eyeball "scraping," forceps up-the-nose (TAM attendees saw Todd Robbins perform the same trick with a spike) and spirit trances. ABC was kind enough to interview me for the special, but instead of airing the interview I gave, they chose to show only a small bit of me quoting someone else. The rest of the "documentary" was concerned strictly with propping up this trickster. I was not contacted for the followup special. ABC had an opportunity to educate the public about a potentially dangerous scam, but demurred presumably in search of ratings.
We must question whether “John” and his retinue entered the USA as entertainers or as tourists. The former classification would require a formal working visa; the usual procedure of these “healers” is to not declare the real purpose of crossing the border – to swindle the desperately ill with carnival tricks and showmanship – but to enter as wide-eyed tourists.
This con artist has tightened conditions so that only the terminally gullible can gain admission to his show. There will be no media persons allowed in, he will do none of his up-the-nose or quick-slash miracles, and a daily rate of $130 – $360 for the whole three-day circus – rather limits admission to the desperate.
ABC-TV has exhibited no remorse, nor second thoughts, about their shameless endorsement of John of God, and no apologies to the hundreds of USA residents who – as a direct result of their sloppy coverage – likely made the futile journey to Brazil in search of cures.
ABC-TV remains mute.
Full details can be found at www.randi.org/jr/021805a.html.
Category #4, to the "psychic" performer who fooled the greatest number of people with the least talent: This year's award goes to Allison DuBois, whose conversations with the dead are depicted on the NBC-TV show "Medium." Allison is nothing special as "psychics" go, but by getting NBC to create a show "inspired by [her] real-life research," Allison gets credit for reaching an audience of millions without actually having to do much of anything. An example of Allison's "work" is found at www.randi.org/jr/012105the.html#5.
Category #5, for the most persistent refusal to face reality: This year's award goes to the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, for their refusal to denounce the infamous Cha/Wirth study in which it was "shown" that the fertility of Korean women increase two-fold when they were prayed for by long distance Christians. The designer of the study, Mr. Daniel Wirth, now resides in Federal prison. Despite the involvement of dozens of doctors and scientists, as well as the President of Columbia University, the Journal for Reproductive Medicine has still not retracted this obviously flawed experiment. More information can be found at www.randi.org/jr/2006-01/010606netherlands.html#i10 and www.randi.org/jr/200510/101405same.html#13. This study was mentioned in last year's Pigasus Awards, let's hope they don't make it a "three-peat."
In your spare time, take a look at www.butterfliesandwheels.com. This site "fights fashionable nonsense" by capturing articles and other files that concern those who prefer reality to pseudoscience and post-modern gibberish. The works of Dr. Michael Shermer and Dr. Richard Dawkins are often mentioned.
Also, for those of you concerned about my health, please refer to the results of this study: seattlepi.nwsource.com/health/1500AP_Prayer_Study.html which indicates that if anything, prayer can increase the complications from heart surgery. Since I seriously doubt it has any effect whatsoever, I'll recuperate just fine with a little help from friends like you. Thanks very much for your support while I continue my recovery.