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WA Skeptics Awards 2007
Young critical writers bust more myths
The original article, of which this is an abridged and updated version,
appeared in the Skeptic 27(4), 8-11, 2007.
WA Skeptics President Dr John Happs, Professor Richard Wiseman, and some
of the successful entrants,
evidently as successful at busting male domination as at busting myths.
Looking on were mums, dads, and skeptics.
This year, to avoid the cost and effort of another snail-mailout, we
made an emailout to all secondary schools in WA with more than 50
students, a total of 230 schools and nearly 130,000 students. The email
gave the deadline (then four months away) and said that full details
including classroom resources for choosing topics and preparing entries,
an entry form, and the results for 2006 were downloadable from the
Australian Skeptics website. (The present website did not come on line
until November 2007, well after the deadline.)
The emailout did save much money and effort but was evidently a
mistake, for although 19 entries were received from a total of 47
students, double the 2006 response, all of them came from just one
school, namely Methodist Ladies' College in Claremont. The enthusiasm of
that particular school was easily explained because the driving force
there was Kylie Sturgess, runner-up for the 2006 Australian Skeptics
Prize for Critical Thinking, see the Skeptic, 26(4), 10, Summer 2006.
Why the other 229 schools to should show no enthusiasm is less easily
Results for 2007
By unanimous decision of the judges there were three Certificates of
Merit, three Honourable Mentions, and one near miss. CMs and HMs
received a signed certificate and their school received a year's
subscription to the Skeptic. CMs also received a skeptic shopping bag
and pen. Certificates were presented on 22 August 2007 by Professor
Richard Wiseman, eminent skeptic, magician, and holder of Britain's only
chair in the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of
Hertfordshire, who was in Perth as part of Science Week.
The presentation was well attended by students, mums, dads, and
skeptics. It was the first time Professor Wiseman had met secondary
students who had entered for awards in critical thinking (as opposed to
merely reading about it), which led to a lively exchange. In addition,
the presentations had a hidden twist. Before each certificate was
presented, a summary of the entry was read out but without the results,
which the skeptics present were invited to predict. The results were
then compared with their prediction, which was sometimes right and
sometimes wrong, a salutary warning against jumping to conclusions.
Year 9 (12 entries from 24 students)
Year 9 students (ages 13-14) chose astrology, crystal therapy,
graphology (twice), ghosts, Murphy's law, ouija boards, palmistry,
psychic powers, reincarnation, seances, and tarot cards. Interestingly,
the authors of the Murphy's Law entry (eg "Toast always lands butter
side down") experienced Murphy's Law for themselves when they wanted to
finish their entry in the school library on the last day of term, only
to find it closed due to staff illness. Certificates of Merit were
gained by the entries on graphology and palmistry, and an Honourable
Mentions by the entry on crystal therapy.
Cover pages from four entries. Left, the message did not get through --
the WA Skeptics Awards are not a competition.
From 2008 the cover page must be an abstract in the prescribed format,
see How to Write Your Entry.
Year 11 (7 entries from 23 students)
Year 11 students (ages 15-16) chose astrology, cold reading, dumb blonde
stereotyping, moon landing hoax, UFOs, urban legends, and voodoo. A
Certificate of Merit was gained by the entry on dumb blonde
stereotyping, and Honourable Mentions by the entries on cold reading and
urban legends. Year 11 entries tended to be more laboured than year 9
entries, probably because of curriculum demands, but all showed good
levels of critical thinking and very good awareness of where claims
could be deceptive. Altogether an excellent effort. One entry was a
considerable body of work (nearly 8000 words) with both a test and a
survey. But the demands of holidays and music lessons left the authors
with no time to remove obscurities, otherwise it would have received at
least an Honourable Mention.
More interesting than the usual school project
One notable point that arose during the exchange, and which was
confirmed by the mums and dads, was that going in for a WA Skeptics
Award engaged the student's interest rather more than the usual school
project. Our rules require the student to include their own test or
survey, and it was this element of personal mythbusting that attracted
their interest. Similar findings have been reported by others, for
example see Weep & Montgomery "Developing critical thinking through the
study of paranormal phenomena", Teaching in Psychology 25, 275-278,
Awardees speak up
The students said that their tests and surveys had led them to
appreciate the benefits of being critical, and that what they had learnt
would stay with them. Or as the proverb says, "to do is to remember, to
listen is to forget". We asked them what they liked most and least about
being entrants, for which the answers were much the same as in 2006,
namely "It was fun finding out" and "People not co-operating by not
answering out survey".
Perils of the internet
It would of course be wrong to judge young critical writers by the
standards that apply (or should apply) to adult critical writers. What
matters is that they should dig out the evidence for and against their
chosen curious belief and then check it with a test or survey of their
own devising. That their design or sample size or arguments fall short
of world standards is less important than actually doing something, as
opposed to merely talking about it. Nevertheless a common fault was too
much reliance on the internet as a source, and even then not searching
thoroughly, so that important sources were missed. Thus some authors
were fatally unaware that scientific tests of their topic existed.
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