The Monster That Devoured Cleveland

This article in a back-issue of Skeptic is referenced in a recent newsletter and it started me to think about thinking: “Science Education is No Guarantee of Skepticism” by Richard Walker, Steven J. Hoekstra, and Rodnet J. Vogl.

The premise of the article is in the first few paragraphs:

Many skeptics take a measured amount of pleasure in the kinds of tasks often set before them: evaluating blurry photographs, conducting laboratory experiments that reduce or eliminate trickery, critiquing flawed science and pseudoscience, and countering the claims of obvious charlatans. Of course, skeptics hope that their efforts aid in advancing science education.1 In spite of these efforts, survey data from several sources suggests that paranormal belief and pseudoscientific thinking continue to be commonplace.

Skeptics often use these findings to reinforce arguments for more science education. Their argument is based upon the largely untested assumption that increased science knowledge reduces the number of paranormal beliefs an individual holds. However, this assumption may not be valid. Andrew Ede recently argued that science education may do little to raise the level of rational thinking and may, in fact, actually deter it!3 Recent debates about including creation science and/or eliminating evolution from high school biology curricula4 are a case in point indicating that many policy makers, members of the public, and a few educators are confused about how to critique and compare theories in order to separate facts from beliefs. Ede identified three reasons why this may be true:

1. Science classes, broadly defined, primarily teach technical skills rather than emphasizing critical thinking. Labs are conducted in which there is a “right answer” that the instructor knows, and it is up to the student to manipulate the project until the “right answer” is realized.

2. Science classes typically review research findings without placing the research in the proper context. This can lead to incorrect assumptions or overgeneralizations.

3. Science implicitly emphasizes its elite status over other points of view. Therefore, data and graphs are accepted uncritically because they are based on “scientific,” “clinical,” or “laboratory” studies. A lab coat guarantees an aura of expertise.

The overall result is that teaching scientific “facts” is emphasized, while individuals are not given the skills with which to critically evaluate the claims that are presented to them. People are placed in the position of accepting or rejecting claims based on what they are told to believe, rather than being able to critically evaluate the evidence.

There is a great deal of relevant discussion in this argument, including a couple of quizzes. This is an interesting one; see how you score:

Please rate how much you believe the following statements. Use the 7-point scale provided.

1=I do not believe in this at all;
2=I doubt very much that this is real;
3=I doubt that this is real;
4=I am unsure if this is real or not;
5=I believe this may be real;
6=I believe this is real;
7=I strongly believe this is real

  • A person’s personality can be easily predicted by their handwriting.
  • A person can use their mind to see the future or read other people’s thoughts.
  • A person’s astrological sign can predict a person’s personality and their future.
  • An ape-like mammal, sometimes called Bigfoot, roams the forests of America.
  • The body can be healed by placing magnets on to the skin near injured areas.
  • Healing can be promoted by placing a wax candle in your ear and lighting it.
  • A dinosaur, sometimes called the Loch Ness Monster, lives in a Scottish lake.
  • Sending chain letters can bring you good luck.
  • The government is hiding evidence of alien visitors at places such as Area 51.
  • Voodoo curses are real and have been known to kill people.
  • A broken mirror can bring you bad luck for many years.
  • Houses can be haunted by the spirits of people who have died in tragic ways.
  • Water can be accurately detected by people using “Y”-shaped tree branches.
  • Animals, such as cats and dogs, are sensitive to the presence of ghosts.

I have always wondered how a rational thinker—a skeptic—tends to lose the ability to think critically when confronted by monsters or aliens in the movies. Is it temporary insanity, willing dispensation of disbelief, or just good cinematography?

The information for this post was obtained or suggested by a back-issue of Skeptic magazine, Vol. 9 No. 3 – A.I. and Theology of UFOs.

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