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WA Skeptics Awards 2006
Young critical writers have a field day

The original article, of which this is an abridged and updated version, appeared in the Skeptic 26(3), 18-25, 2006.


Dr John Happs, president of WA Skeptics, with three of the awardees and their English teacher Kylie Sturgess

Junior mythbusters rise to the challenge
After months of planning and discussion, the annual WA Skeptics Awards for Young Critical Writers was launched in February 2006. Aim: to encourage critical thinking and writing by students in Years 8-12 at WA secondary schools. Their task: write up to 2000 words on any curious belief including the results of their own test or survey.

Mailout Half a dozen brochures and
a covering letter were sent to
the principals of each of the 96
largest WA secondary schools
in metro and country areas (out
of a total of 369), representing
92,000 students aged 12-17 or
two-thirds of the total. Details
were also downloadable from
the Australian skeptics website.

Altogether a total of 27 entrants (1 in 3400 students) sent in a total of nine entries, of which seven were from non-Government schools. No entries were from years 11-12 or from male students. All entries had been word-processed and most had graphs or pictures. The most common fault was not clearly stating the sample size of the test or survey. No entries arrived until just before the deadline.

Six entries

Some cover pages. From left to right, Top the topics are horoscopes, testing psychic ability
with Zener cards, and ouija bouards. Bottom the topics are the I Ching, feng shui, and the afterlife.
From 2008 the cover page must be an abstract in the prescribed format, see How to Write Your Entry.

Our 27 junior mythbusters certainly rose to the skeptical challenge, which they found absorbing and fun. Their topics were generally old favourites, which they approached with youthful verve. In total their tests involved 70 people and their surveys 150 people. Two entries (on the I Ching, tarot cards) gained signed Certificates of Merit and two entries (on horoscopes, feng shui) gained signed Honourable Mentions. Successful entrants also received a skeptic shopping bag and their abridged entries were published in the Skeptic 26(3), 18-25, September 2006. Their schools received a year's subscription to the Skeptic, and in addition the school with the most entrants received a box of skeptic books for its library.

Shopping bags

Australian skeptic shopping bags were a big hit

Entries from Year 8
There were two entries from year 8, the youngest age group. A student aged 12 at Bunbury Catholic College found that daily horoscopes on the web could be "completely different" despite being "for the same star sign on the same day". Two students aged 12 at Narrogin Senior High School asked 10 people (apparently classmates) eight questions about their views on the afterlife, spirits, heaven and hell. The answers tended to reflect what the person had been taught or had seen on TV's Ghost Whisperer. Some questions were difficult to answer "because no one answering these questions have died so they are not sure". The authors concluded "This was a fun and entertaining experience to find these things out about the afterlife".

Honourable Mention Entries from Year 9
Two students aged 13 at Narrogin Senior
High School compared the newspaper
horoscope of "a willing subject" with the
observed behaviour, which was a welcome
change from the usual approach using self
ratings. They concluded "horoscopes don't
predict the truth". Their entry received an
Honourable Mention for the originality
of their approach.

Entries from Year 10
Groups of 3-5 students in the Methodist Ladies' College English class tested ouija boards using blindfolded believers vs non believers, with the boards right way up vs upside down; Zener cards using believers vs nonbelievers and genuine cards vs fake (blank) cards, I Ching readings using believers vs nonbelievers to rate their accuracy; the effect of feng shui images on daily life using images, no images, and hidden images. Their sample sizes were generally 10-20 and the outcomes were uniformly negative. Another group surveyed 100 students and staff to see if their belief in tarot cards varied with age or ethnicity (the least believing were teachers and Aussies). The entries on the I Ching and tarot cards gained Certificates of Merit, the entry on feng shui images gained an Honourable Mention.

MLC group

The Year 10 Zener team at Methodist Ladies' College. Photo: Kylie Sturgess

Awardees speak up
We asked some of the awardees how they chose their topic: "It was something the others weren't doing". Then what? "We found out about it". What did they like most about being entrants? "It was fun finding out". What did they like least? "People not co-operating by not answering our survey".

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