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WA Skeptics Awards 2008
Young critical writers widen their horizons

The original article, of which this is an abridged and updated version, appeared in the Skeptic 28(3), 44-45, 2008.


Dr Michael Shermer, founder of the US magazine Skeptic and author of the best-seller
Why People Believe Weird Things, presents an Applecross SHS student with her Certificate.

This year there were seven entries from a total of ten students and two schools, which resulted in two Certificates of Merit and one Honourable Mention. The poor response was largely our fault. Although we made contact with each school's science teachers via a two-page article "Innovations in the Classroom: Critical Thinking in Years 8-12" in the 25 April 2008 issue of their quarterly journal SCIOS, which has a circulation of more than 700, it appeared too close to our 31 May deadline to be effective. Note that the deadline for 2009 onwards will be 30 June.

Nevertheless we continued to receive words of appreciation. From Newman Senior High School in WA's remote northwest with about 350 secondary students, a teacher wrote: "I must thank you for producing such an inspiring critical writing task, which I have been using with academic extension students. The openness of subject choice and choice of individual or group work was extremely well received by both students and parents. It has also highlighted a number of areas in which these students need further guidance and skill development. Thank you."

Topics widen horizons
This year's entries showed a pleasing tendency to address social topics as well as purely paranormal topics, and were notable in including two entries from year 8 and the first entry from a male student. This year, for the first time, each entry had to provide a comprehensive abstract on its cover page. This greatly helped preliminary judging by making all the important information visible in one hit. The topics and findings (paraphrased by us) were as follows:

Year 8 (2 entries from 3 students)
Do violent video games cause real life violence? Four girls and two boys aged 9-16 played a moderately violent video game. Players became less calm and more competitive, but not physically violent. But they may do so if they play for a longer period of time, or if they play games more violent than the ones we were allowed to use. Can students detect messages in songs played backwards? Twenty classmates listened to Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to heaven" played backwards. It supposedly talks about Satan but nobody detected anything. Conclusion: such messages depend on being prompted and are not real, being all in the mind.

Year 9 (2 entries from 3 students)
Chain letters (described below). Does chewing increase concentration? Eighteen classmates chewed away but there were no consistent improvements.

Year 10 (3 entries from 4 students)
Pyramid power (described below). Hair colour stereotypes (based on a list of questions like "Do blondes have more fun?"). The Bloody Mary myth (described below).

Certificates of Merit
Do students believe in chain letters and are they effective? by two students in year 9. Hypothesis: chain letters are a scam and do not perform any kind of magic. The hypothesis was tested by surveying a year 9 class of 30 students. 64% knew what a chain letter was, of which 9% had received one (then ignored it) and 18% knew someone who had received one. Only 3% thought they could bring good luck. The hypothesis was confirmed. 4 pages with no references.

Investigating Myths about Pyramids by a student in year 10. Is it true that pyramids create dry air so that water evaporates faster and organic matter is preserved? A literature survey found dubious evidence for and more convincing evidence against. So a test was made using a small pyramid 10 cm high made of hardboard. Its effect was observed first on a small container of water vs a duplicate kept outside the pyramid as a control, and then on half a cherry tomato vs the other half outside the pyramid (the pyramid was too small to accommodate anything larger). Each was observed for a week. If anything there was less evaporation inside the pyramid, probably because it provided shelter from drafts, and the half-tomato inside went rotten faster than the control. Conclusion: pyramid effects are a myth. The entry was very readable and was a good example of initiative in the midst of indifference, being the only entry from one of the larger senior high schools in WA with 1300 secondary students. 10 pages with 6 references.

Honourable Mention
An Honourable Mention is an entry not achieving full merit status but having a novel feature deserving recognition.

Is the Bloody Mary myth true? by two students in year 10. As the legend goes, a young woman called Mary was executed because she practised the Black Arts. If, in a darkened room with a candle on either side of a mirror, you spin round chanting "Bloody Mary" she will appear in the reflection on the 13th chant and then scratch your face, or pull you into the mirror to live with her forever. It doesn't work for Catholics. The myth has been tested since the 1970s but with no record of it having been confirmed.


The authors put their knowledge of the Bloody Mary myth on to paper.
As usual, there is no requirement that entries be typed.

A survey of 62 students in year 10 showed that 35 had tried the myth and had lived, which is inconclusive. So we decided to make a proper test. The myth was tested with a mirror and two candles in a bathroom with 8 non-Catholic classmates (not us since we were Catholic). As each one started chanting we all pretty much stopped breathing, with shivers down our spines. When the 13th chant was reached we opened the door, and each time we saw with our own eyes that nothing had happened. We then tried variations like using only one candle, having the subjects try different chants like "Hell Mary", having them start by shouting "Bloody Mary come out", and having them start with a whisper and end up yelling. But still nothing happened. Finally we filled our bedroom with mirrors and reflective objects (it took a few days to set up without our parents knowing), and all eight subjects chanted together (it was a windy night and all of us were shaking in fright). But again nothing happened other than the wind howling. Conclusion: this hundred-year-old legend is just a scary myth. 5 pages with no references.

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