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WA Skeptics Awards 2011
Young critical writers embrace new topics

Presentation

Leo Igwe, founder of the Nigerian Skeptics Society, director of the International Humanist and Ethical Union in West and Southern Africa, and representative of West and Southern Africa on the African Commission on Human and People's Rights, presents a framed Certificate of Merit to Christopher Ng, a Year 10 student at Shenton College.

New topics
This year's entries continued the trend towards new topics and also towards a better showing by male students. The challenge is to choose a strange belief or claim, gather evidence for and against, and devise a test or survey that adds to that evidence. As in previous years, the entries relied heavily on the web for information, and on schoolmates for survey responses. But in some cases the choice of questions could have been better, which meant that the effort needed to make the survey could have been more productive (and thus more likely to be successful).

As required by the rules, all entries provided a comprehensive abstract on the cover page, and all involved either a test or a survey. Length varied between 5 and 8 pages. The topics and findings were as follows:

Year 10 (4 entries from 7 students)
Alien Abductions. A summary of the 1961 story by Betty and Barney Hill, the first Americans to claim they were abducted, with critical comments and four web-based references. Of 60 schoolmates aged 14-15 (half were female), 80% believed aliens existed, 63% believed they had visited earth, but only 23% believed in alien abductions. The survey would have been more informative had it also asked WHY they believed, which would have taken almost no extra effort. For example did believers believe because of a TV programme, a book, a friend, or personal experience? Knowing WHY could have made all the difference, so the survey was a missed opportunity.

Unicorns are extinct. A literature review with five pictures and four web-based references. Of 26 classmates aged 14-15, half believed unicorns were real and half believed they were imaginary. Of 10 adults, all believed they were imaginary. (Dictionaries describe unicorns as a mythological animal resembling a white horse with a single horn on its forehead.) As in the previous entry, these surveys would have been more informative had they also asked WHY they believed. For example a belief based on personal experience would have been astonishing and well worth following up. The author concludes that single-horn creatures once existed (as do rhinos today) but are now extinct.

The Crystal Pendulum's Surreal Powers. An investigation with three web-based references but unfortunately without reference to the large critical literature on crystals and pendulums. Each of the three authors (believers) and each of three disbelievers, all of them girls, used a crystal pendulum to answer five questions about their name, whether it was daytime, whether they had had lunch, have a pet, and like the weather. So all the answers were known. How accurate was the pendulum? For the three believers the pendulum worked every time. For the three unbelievers the pendulum did not work. Conclusion: a pendulum merely reflects a person's belief, which then subconsciously controls the swing to match whatever is subconsciously wanted. An interesting test and (according to the critical literature) a correct conclusion, but with three authors at the helm it could have been better described.

Are you able to watch [the film] 2012 in 2013? A test with seven figures and 14 references (of which all but two were web-based). The Mayans predict the world will end on 21 December 2012, which is hardly testable in advance, but it is accompanied by three other predictions that are testable:

- A sunspot maximum (problem: not likely).
- Earthquakes (problem: they happen all the time).
- A galactic alignment affecting human health (see next).

In a galactic alignment the centre of the Milky Way lies in a straight line with the Earth and sun. It occurs every year in December and is therefore testable. So did the 2010 alignment affect human health? To find out, the author surveyed 100 schoolmates including himself to see if they visited a doctor more often in December 2010 than the WA average for young people in 2009. They did not (7% vs an average of 6%-7%). The author could not discover the exact date of the 2010 alignment (it was 19 December), so he was unable to see if it coincided with a clear peak in his data (it didn't, three others were as prominent, see below).

Number of young people visiting a doctor

Conclusion: this finding together with the sunspot and earthquake evidence suggests that the world will not end in 2012. But we wait and see. This entry received a Certificate of Merit for its presentation and survey size.

Comment. The Maya had two calendars, of 260 days and 365 days, that ran in parallel and came together every 52 years. A coming together (of which December 2012 was but one of many examples) was seen as signifying a fresh start, not the end of the world, but as usual the media didn't let that get in the way of a good story.

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