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How to Write Your Entry
WA Skeptics Awards for Young Critical Writers

The six steps below should be followed whether you are entering on your own or via a classroom activity. You have to write critically on any strange belief, giving the evidence for and against, and including your own test or survey. You can begin whenever you like but your entry must be in the mail to us by 30 June of the entry year. The Awards are not a competition and all entries achieving merit will receive a signed certificate in a frame ready for display, and (from 2015) a cheque for $200. Writing an entry is demanding (like life it wasn't meant to be easy) but it can be very rewarding (you have fun and learn a lot). Entries not achieving full merit status but having a notable feature deserving recognition will receive a signed Honourable Mention in a frame ready for display. Schools with successful entrants will receive a skeptic book and a year's subscription to the Skeptic for their library. Entry is absolutely free.

Step 1. Choose topic
Your topic can be any strange belief or claim or superstition. It need not be current or popular. Need ideas? The Skeptic's Dictionary at http://www.skepdic.com (not a typo) has short essays and references on more than four hundred strange beliefs. Your choice will partly depend on whether you are making a test or survey. A test requires some way of finding out whether your chosen belief is true or false. Some beliefs such as reincarnation are not yet testable and may never be testable. A survey is easier than a test but makes your entry eligible only for an Honourable Mention, whereas a test makes your entry eligible for a Certificate of Merit as well. Tests can also be more fun.

Topics chosen by entrants since 2006 are: the afterlife, Bloody Mary myth, chain letters, chewing and concentration, cold reading, crystal power, dumb blondes, feng shui, ghosts, graphology (2), hair colour stereotypes, horoscopes (4), I Ching, life on other planets, Moon landing hoax, Murphy's Law, ouija boards (3), palmistry, psychic powers, pyramid power, reincarnation, seances, subliminal messages, tarot cards, urban legends, voodoo. About half of the entries involved tests. Average sample sizes were 12 for tests (range 2-40) and 40 for surveys (range 10-100).

Step 2. Gather evidence for and against
Evidence can be informed opinions but is preferably the results of tests. Most strange beliefs have been tested but finding the results can be difficult. Either way, be thorough, be critical. Check school and public libraries, encyclopedias, the internet, talk to experts including librarians, follow all leads. Assess the evidence you have gathered using the guidelines given in Crash Course in Critical Thinking under Classroom Resources. Always give your sources. Your entry will be disqualified if you present the work of others as your own. A good example of evidence for and against is the article Case For and Against Astrology on http://www.astrology-and-science.com.

Step 3. Run your own test or survey to add to your evidence
It is not enough to cite existing tests or surveys. You must make your own. The more people you can test or survey the better. A test tries to find out if your chosen belief is true or false. Trying to disprove a belief is better than trying to prove it (the above Crash Course explains why). A survey asks questions about people's beliefs, opinions and experiences. Your questions should be concise, unambiguous (how do girls behave, not how do girls AND boys behave), unbiassed (was the behaviour better OR WORSE, not just was it better), answerable (how many times it rained last year is not something most people can accurately remember), and have clear instructions. Always test your questions beforehand on a few people to make sure they work. Writing good questions is harder than it looks.

Your test or survey can be an original one or a repeat of one already made by others. Either way, be inventive. Challenge your ingenuity. Spend time in a haunted place, see if an iridologist can spot your ingrowing toenail, grow carrot tops inside/outside a pyramid, ask smokers if their cigarettes are nonaddictive, see if friends can pick their own horoscope, quiz magicians about spoon-bending tricks, count the proportion of people mistaking Venus for a UFO, ask bookshops why they don't stock more skeptic books, survey classmates on how they would disprove the strange beliefs chosen by you, water divine full vs empty bottles hidden under a cover, ask parents trick questions to see how critical they really are. The possibilities are endless. Read the article Sixteen Examples for examples of previous tests and surveys. How many faults can you find?

Step 4. Start writing
Everybody can write but few can communicate. The golden rules are:

1. Tell readers what your entry is about. Don't deliver something else.
2. Set it out so they can follow it. Use sub-headings as in a newspaper.
3. Write it so they can understand it. Ask your enemies for their views.

For starters, organise your entry under the following sub-heading:

Introduction. Introduce your topic, state the problem.
Evidence for and against. Include the sources of your evidence.
Hypothesis. State the idea that you will be testing or surveying.
Method. Describe your test or survey. State your sample size.
Results. Give your results. Graphs and pictures are better than words.
Discussion. What your results mean, any deficiencies, possible improvements.
Conclusion. Be clear, be critical, be concise.
Sources. Where you found your information and evidence. They can be anything from books and magazines to newspapers and the internet. Always cite the exact page where the information came from. You can present your sources as a bibliography or as in-text references, whichever suits you best.

Never be content with your first draft. Rewrite. Rearrange. Revise. Be ruthless (a fresh pair of eyes can work wonders). Do all this knowing that there is no power greater than simple words. Then comes the difficult part -- writing your abstract. The abstract may not count for much in the classroom assessment of your work, but for the WA Skeptics Awards it is the most important part of your entry.

Step 5. Write your abstract
Your abstract tells us why you chose your topic, what you found in the way of evidence for and against, what you did, what your results were, and what you concluded. It should contain all the important stuff so we don't need to read your full report to get the idea. If your abstract has merit, we read the full report. If your abstract does not have merit, that is the end of it. So the abstract is the most important part of your entry.

Your abstract should not be longer than one page (if necessary you can use small type). Yes, it will be a challenge, but it can be done, see the appendix for a worked example. The first seven lines on the page must show the following info:

Line 1: Short title of entry.
Line 2: Name(s) of the entrant(s).
Line 3: Your school year and your ages.
Line 4: Name of your school.
Line 5: Your home or school address so we can acknowledge receipt.
Line 6: To read "I have verified that this entry is the original unaided work of the entrant".
Line 7: Signature of parent or teacher (state which). Include date.
Line 8: Abstract (now put your abstract on the rest of the page).

When your abstract is ready, go again through the above list to make sure nothing has been forgotten. You will probably find that a good abstract takes more time than expected. So don't leave it until the last minute.

Step 6. Send in your entry
Attach your abstract to the rest of your entry by stapling it in the top left corner. Please, no fancy covers -- your abstract should be your only cover. We do not return entries but you can send in a photocopy. Send your entry to: WA Skeptics Awards, Box 466, SUBIACO WA 6904. Put it in the mail no later than 30 June of the entry year. Entry is free.

All entries will be acknowledged. The Awards are not a competition and there is no fixed number of Awards. All entries that achieve merit will receive a signed certificate and their school library will receive a skeptic book chosen from the world's best, plus a year's subscription to the national skeptic magazine the Skeptic, which each year features a summary of the entries. Entries not achieving full merit status but having a notable feature deserving recognition will receive a signed Honourable Mention. Awards are presented in Perth by a prominent skeptic, usually in August, or are posted to winners unable to attend.

Appendix: Writing your abstract

To see how it works, look at these two abstracts from the year 10 entries in 2006:

Zener Cards Abstract
The purpose of our investigation is to prove that Zener cards do not hold any paranormal power. Our independent variables were the religious beliefs of the participants, the belief in Zener cards, experience with using Zener cards, their ability and experience in predicting the future. Our dependent variables were the types of Zener cards. In conclusion our results proved that Zener cards do not hold any paranormal powere, as there was no difference in the correct predictions of the blank cards, actual Zener cards, or numbered cards.

Problems: The abstract does not explain what Zener cards are or what the problem is, nor does it say what was done or what the sample size was. To find out, we have to read the entry, and even then it is often not clear. The abstract below is longer (290 words vs 90 words) and seems well laid out, but is it better?

Feng Shui Abstract
For our skeptics project, our group investigated an aspect of feng shui and its effect on life. Claim: This particular claim relating to Feng shui states that by attaching or including an image relating to a positive aspect of life to a person's workspace, the life of the individual will improve in this area. Our Hypothesis: We believed that our survey would show results irrelevant to the image we attached to the school desk of the individual. Whether they see the image beforehand or not, we thought it most likely that a simple image stuck to a desk would not influence their life. The Results: The results proved our hypothesis accurate. We distributed a survey throughout the class asking whether their life had improved, worsened, or not changed, and in what aspect. We repeated this twice more afterwards, this time including images. In one of the two repeats, the individual would not see the image of the certain life aspect. In the final trial, the image would be revealed. For each of the runs of the experiment, the same survey was given to each person. It was filled out respectively, however results showed that, whether an aspect of their life had altered or not, the image attached to each desk played no influence. Our results therefore proved to be random, and indeed, irrelevant to the image we attached to each persons desk. Therefore this particular practise of Feng Shui would not be an accurate way to enhance an aspect of life. It may help in creating a motivation. However, as our experiment has concluded, it does not improve luck and aspects of the life of an individual.

Answer: Yes, the above abstract is better than the previous one (the entry received an Honourable Mention) but it still has problems -- no sample size, no indication of the type of images, the questions asked, where the images were hidden, how long they were in place, the actual results, or a review of existing tests. All of these missed items, and more, can easily be included without excessive length by careful choice of words, as you can see from the following revised version (480 words, was 290 words). Revision took several hours:

Revised Feng Shui Abstract
Feng shui, the Chinese art of placing things to promote harmony and balance, is said to be more than 3000 years old. It makes many claims such as "living in the countryside makes people less stressed", which is supported by lower suicide rates than are found in cities, but does this make it true? Evidence for and against: We found at least three different sets of feng shui rules that disagreed on the direction (N,S,E,W) linked to particular areas of life such as health and relationships, which after 3000 years is not encouraging. Some psychologists see the use of feng shui as a reaction against the insecurities of our times. It would be impossible for us to test all of feng shui's claims. But one seems easily testable, namely the claim that displaying a positive image in a person's workspace will improve their life in the area shown in the image. Our hypothesis: Displaying feng shui images in our classroom will not improve students' lives. Our test: As a control, we gave the members of our Year 10 English class (N=22) a questionnaire asking whether their life had improved, worsened, or was unchanged during the past day in any one of the nine areas of life claimed to be covered by feng shui (briefly: knowledge, career, friends, health, pleasure, creativity, wealth, fame, relationships). When our survey was finished, we attached an image underneath each school desk where it would be unseen, and repeated our survey the following day. Each image was relevant to one of the nine areas. When that survey was finished, we re-attached each image to the desktop where it would be seen, and repeated our survey the following day. The reason for our surveys was not explained until afterwards to avoid biassing the answers. Our results: We found that, whether an area of life had changed or not, the image had no positive effect. The numbers of "yes" responses were as follows:

                                         Control  Unseen  Seen
I feel that my life has improved today 10 5 9
I feel that my life has worsened today 3 7 7
I feel that my life hasn't changed today 11 6 6
---- ---- ----
Total students (some did not answer) 17 18 22

Our survey showed that life had improved for 59% of the class with no images, for 28% with unseen images, and 41% with seen images. If anything the feng shui images had made life worse. Conclusion: Our hypothesis was confirmed. In our classroom, feng shui images did not improve an area of life, although they may help to motivate people. It is possible that images displayed for a longer time might have an effect, but we were unable to test this. During this experiment we have learnt many things. We planned well, each did our job properly, and everyone participated. 2300 words, 0 page of graphs, 1 page of pictures, 11 references.

Abstract still fits one page Even in 14 point Times the above
abstract still fits on to one A4 page.
At the top are the seven lines specified
earlier, starting with the short title.

Then comes the abstract proper,
stepping in turn through introductory
comments, evidence for and against,
hypothesis, test, results, and conclusion.

If you need space, put your headings
in bold face and don't bother with
paragraphs except for any tables. As
here, the result is still easy to read.

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