From www.undeceivingourselves.org       (1000 words 2 graphics)       Home       Fast-Find Index

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.

Presentation

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 explained.

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.

Covers of four entries

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, 1998.

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.

From www.undeceivingourselves.org       (1000 words 2 graphics)       Home       Fast-Find Index