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How To Teach a Healthy Dose of Skepticism? 880

c0d3h4x0r writes "It's no accident that 'whatcouldpossiblygowrong' is one of the most common tags applied by this community to stories about proposed ideas or laws. The ability to spot and predict faults is a big part of what makes a great engineer. It starts with having a healthy skepticism about the world, which leads to actual critical thinking. Many books and courses teach critical thinking skills, but what is the best way to encourage and teach someone to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism? Is it even a teachable skill, or is it just an innate part of the geek personality?"
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How To Teach a Healthy Dose of Skepticism?

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  • Fail a lot? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by NIckGorton ( 974753 ) * on Friday June 13, 2008 @10:59AM (#23778417)
    The best way is personal experience. Have a strongly held belief effectively challenged and have an epic fail. Then don't do what most of humanity does and use cognitive dissonance defenses to justify why you are still incredibly smart despite the fact you were in this regard a complete tool.

    Generalize from your own experience and realize we are all flaming idiots but by using tools such as logic and the scientific method we can start to approach a modicum of cleverness. Then from that point on trust only 10% of what you hear and 50% of what you see, break a bunch of stuff while learning how not to break stuff as badly, and apply your skills to future problems.

    Oh, and I would recommend reading 'Why People Believe Weird Things' by Michael Shermer. He describes this in great detail and even describes one of his own epic failures (he was abducted by aliens - kinda hard to own up to for a skeptic.)
    • Re:Fail a lot? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by mimada ( 1252792 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:03AM (#23778483)
      Reminds me of a quote: Judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from poor judgment.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by HTH NE1 ( 675604 )
        I prefer this quote:

        (It was, of course, as a result of the Great Ventilation and Telephone Riots of SrDt 3454, that all mechanical or electrical or quantum-mechanical or hydraulic or even wind, steam or piston-driven devices, are now required to have a certain legend emblazoned on them somewhere. It doesn't matter how small the object is, the designers of the object have got to find a way of squeezing the legend in somewhere, because it is their attention which is being drawn to it rather than necessarily that of the user's.

        The legend is this:

        "The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.")

        Alas, that legend is too long to fit in a Slashdot tag.

      • Re:Fail a lot? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Smidge204 ( 605297 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:59AM (#23779577) Journal
        "Fools you are who say you like to learn from your mistakes. I prefer to learn from the mistakes of others, and avoid the cost of my own".

        -Otto von Bismarck

    • Re:Fail a lot? (Score:5, Informative)

      by SputnikPanic ( 927985 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:05AM (#23778523)

      Oh, and I would recommend reading 'Why People Believe Weird Things' by Michael Shermer.
      The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan is another good one.

      • Re:Fail a lot? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohn AT gmail DOT com> on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:19AM (#23778837) Journal

        Oh, and I would recommend reading 'Why People Believe Weird Things' by Michael Shermer.
        The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan is another good one.
        Agreed. If I remember correctly, the opening [] of that particular book starts out with a dragon in my garage. You might be incredulous at first, but I assure you, the dragon is there. You open the door to my garage but you don't see anything. Of course not, I say ... because the dragon is invisible.

        And so it goes to smell, touch, heat from breath, all these things are what you rely on to detect the dragon. But I have convenient mechanisms implemented to thwart your attempts at detecting my dragon.

        This leads to a great quote:

        "Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?"
        And from that point on, I kind of recognized similar mechanisms in most religions ... designed to require no scientific or even empirical evidence of a higher being.

        But I digress on religion, it applies to so much more than that. This book did instill an advanced "see it to believe it" mentality on me and I thank Sagan for that. What's even more shocking is how much I remember of the book since I read it when it came out around 1998.

        Really though, I'd just teach people to question everything internally. Be smart about it and seek more information or data if there's any doubt. And really question those who get upset when you question them.
        • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:26AM (#23778967)

          "Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?"

          Which is why I don't believe that invisible monsters could possibly make fresh tomatoes bad for you.

          Um... hang on a second, I need to go visit the little boys room.
        • by HTH NE1 ( 675604 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:30AM (#23779015)
          Everyone knows invisible dragons aren't really invisible. They only look that way.
        • Re:Fail a lot? (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Reverend528 ( 585549 ) * on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:48AM (#23779339) Homepage

          "Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?"

          I don't know. What's the difference between a universe full of other races that we've never heard from and a universe inhabited solely by us.

          I'm a fan of Carl Sagan, but I do find it kind of amusing that he would easily reject one idea that there is no evidence for (God), but so willingly embrace another idea for which there is no evidence (intelligent extraterrestrial life).

          • Re:Fail a lot? (Score:5, Insightful)

            by kanweg ( 771128 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @12:04PM (#23779667)
            In the absence of any proof of a god and with 100% certainty that intelligent life developed once, it is only guessing that among the billions of galaxies it could have happened at least one more time. If I have to set a bet, I know where I'd put my money.

          • Re:Fail a lot? (Score:5, Insightful)

            by smooth wombat ( 796938 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @12:19PM (#23779959) Journal
            I'm a fan of Carl Sagan, but I do find it kind of amusing that he would easily reject one idea that there is no evidence for (God), but so willingly embrace another idea for which there is no evidence (intelligent extraterrestrial life).

            Why amusing? It's a perfectly logical, rational conclusion based on the available evidence. No one has ever provided any evidence or test to show that there is a supreme, omnipotent being watching over us. Nor has anyone ever provided any evidence to indicate how such a being could come into existence in the first place. The best anyone has ever offered is simply, "God/Vishnu/Chutulu/whatever has always existed." That is no evidence.

            On the other hand, we have absolute, concrete evidence for what it takes for life to form. Granted, we have only a single data point, our planet, but using that as our reference, we can now search the cosmos for other bodies which exhibit similar conditions and explore them for signs of life, intelligent or otherwise. We can of course also listen for signs of intelligent life through radio waves or other sources. In other words, we are looking for evidence of other beings because we know that at least in one case, our planet, such beings exist and if intelligent life exists on this ball of rock, then there is a probability that life exists somewhere else under similar conditions.

            This is where skepticism comes into play. If someone says "X product can do Y job better, and more cheaply, than a name brand product", they have to prove it. Until such time, people should remain skeptical of unsubstantiated claims. Why do you think the folks who produce supplements are so adamant about not having to prove the claims they make? They know that if subjected to scientific testing, their products would be shown not to do what the manufacturer claims.

            The same thing occurs with Sagan's (and others) stances on religion and why ID is not a scientific principle. Those concepts do not stand up to scientific rigor. If you want to believe that there is a God (or Gods), then by all means, go ahead. But don't equate a belief in something for which there is zero evidence to support said belief with an idea for which evidence already exists.

        • Re:Fail a lot? (Score:4, Insightful)

          by JebusIsLord ( 566856 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:50AM (#23779371)
          I also read that book back in high school, and it definitely put me on the path towards science (and later atheism).

          Another good recent read was "God Is Not Great" by Christopher Hitchens. He discusses briefly the idea that human credulity is a biological adaptation to help us benefit from the placebo effect. Credulous individuals are religious, superstitious and generally happier and healthier than us miserable skeptics.
        • Re:Fail a lot? (Score:4, Insightful)

          by wcrowe ( 94389 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @12:00PM (#23779593)
          This book did instill an advanced "see it to believe it" mentality on me and I thank Sagan for that.

          I haven't read the book, so I can't really comment on it, but one must be careful with such a "see it to believe it" mentality. It can force people to restrict their thinking to "inside the box". This is why I say skepticism is just a starting point. Though we may be skeptical, we must not shut down, but continue to be open-minded, and allow for thinking outside the box. Because sometimes there really is a dragon in the garage.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by cromar ( 1103585 )
      True dat. The sooner you can look beyond your own "ego" and start looking at the world objectively, the better. Another couple of books I would recommend are the Tao Te Ching and of course Socrates. Also, a well rounded course of study in Maths, Theology/Mythology/Folklore (you don't have to believe but it puts the world's people in a more realistic perspective), Literature, The Arts, and of course Science and especially Computing, etc...
    • by GogglesPisano ( 199483 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:24AM (#23778929)
      One useful byproduct of a long series of failures is that it produces a well-developed sense of cynicism and sarcasm, which are essential skills required for posting snarky (yet insightful - insightful, dammit!) remarks on Slashdot.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Red Flayer ( 890720 )

      The best way is personal experience.

      And a person in an authority role (as a teacher, parent, coach, etc) canesily help build this experience.

      You can do your part by lying to them, by making promises and not delivering, by deliberately teaching them falshoods and then laughing when they fail their exams... the possibilities are endless.

      Seriously, though. What worked in my family 30 years ago probably works today. Tell the kids increasingly ridiculous bullshit until they figure out it's bullshit. Pretty

    • Re:Fail a lot? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by timholman ( 71886 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:42AM (#23779225)

      The best way is personal experience. Have a strongly held belief effectively challenged and have an epic fail. Then don't do what most of humanity does and use cognitive dissonance defenses to justify why you are still incredibly smart despite the fact you were in this regard a complete tool.

      James Randi has a very easy and entertaining experiment that he often uses on high school and college classes. He asks every student to provide their name and birthday, and in turn promises a personalized horoscope for each of them. A couple of days later, he shows up and passes out the horoscopes. Each student reads his/her horoscope, then Randi asks for a show of hands for the people who feel that their horoscope is very accurate. Typically an overwhelming majority of students raise their hands. Then Randi asks each student to switch horoscopes with the person next to them, and of course the horoscopes are all identical.

      The first step to skepticism is to show people how easily they can fool themselves by wishful thinking. Randi's experiment (or something similar) would be a great lesson for students.
    • It's a mantra in the electronics industry: 'If you want to succeed, increase your failure rate' - 'Just Do It' - 'It's not that you failed, it's what you learned from that failure'.

      I claim horseshit. Those mantras are only repeated by people who have managed to succeed after relatively small failures. Failure marks you in a puritan society. Failure marks you like a tattoo. Failure burns away all your trust in yourself and your energy.

      Learn or burn. Read or bleed. Let others
  • by oldspewey ( 1303305 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @10:59AM (#23778419)
    Skepticism is just an offshoot of experience and the wisdom that (hopefully) comes with experience. After witnessing and experiencing a few spectacular failures in this life, the natural and healthy outcome is to develop a skeptical streak.
  • Step 1 (Score:5, Informative)

    by seanellis ( 302682 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:00AM (#23778437) Homepage Journal
    Subscribe to the "The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe" [] podcast.
    • Re:Step 1 (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Otter ( 3800 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:18AM (#23778823) Journal
      In my experience, being a capital-S "Skeptic" about one's pet dislikes (people have trotted out religion and global warming already, but not a single complaint about Microsoft yet!?!) isn't nearly as well-correlated with objectivity and critical thinking about anything else as the "Skeptics" would like to think.
  • by mujadaddy ( 1238164 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:00AM (#23778439)
    ...invite your pupil over to kick your football...

    ...then, at the last possible second, pull it away!

    That'll teach em not to be so trusting!
  • by Stanistani ( 808333 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:02AM (#23778465) Homepage Journal
    I didn't let my kid watch television until he was old enough to talk to.

    Then I sat down with him, told him the rules for watching it, and emphasized one point:

    "This is fun to watch, but remember - people lie."

    At every level of life, when he was exposed to school, encountered any institution, or group, I would ask him, "How do you know this is true?"

    I introduced him to the concepts of logic while playing games, and we made our own puzzles based on these concepts.

    He is grown now, and has one awesome built-in BS detector.
  • by hackstraw ( 262471 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:02AM (#23778469)
    that would scream and yell at me until I blacked out if I ever made a mistake.

    As a systems engineer today, I rarely if ever make mistakes.

    So, yes, this is possible to teach these things, in "healthy dose" quanities, I have no experience with them.
  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:02AM (#23778471)
    But it won't be taught.

    The very simple reason is that people who think are harder to govern than people who don't. What is wanted is people who can do their job, preferably well, but don't have any interests outside of it.

    The reason why we get laws proposed that have glaring flaws is that those flaws are often what is wanted. The great majority of people does either not care or swallows the snakeoil and the promise of safety, simply because they were never taught to contemplate "what could possibly go wrong".

    It's pretty much how Homer put it. We elect politicians so we don't have to think. Unfortunately, he's not alone with this point of view.
    • by mr_mischief ( 456295 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:27AM (#23778979) Journal
      Unfortunately, while electing politicians so we don't have to think, we often elect them in our own image.

      It's terribly difficult to be a leader when you're following the opinion polls for all your decisions, for one thing. That's a big circle of people wanting the politician to do the thinking, and the politician wanting the people to do the thinking. Eventually we need to figure out that no thinking gets done that way, and only mimicry.

      Clinton was renowned for following polls while in office. G.W. Bush likely also follows polls, but from his narrowly selected portion of the total US constituency. I'm not sure we've had someone in the office of President who actually did any leading since Eisenhower. Perhaps Kennedy or Reagan lead, but most modern holders of the office have been followers elected to lead.
    • by Abcd1234 ( 188840 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @12:51PM (#23780643) Homepage
      The very simple reason is that people who think are harder to govern than people who don't.

      And ironically, this tin-foil-hat-style thinking is precisely the hallmark of someone who doesn't actually think skeptically...
  • Color me.. (Score:3, Funny)

    by prakslash ( 681585 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:03AM (#23778491)

    I skeptical that such a skill can be taught.

  • by Krinsath ( 1048838 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:04AM (#23778505)
    But you have to find someone who wants to live in a rational, logical world first. That's a lot harder than you might think, and probably explains why computer-saavy people tend to be more skeptical because logic is such a dominating facet of computing. "Normal" people, on the other hand, like their fairy tales and myths and "magic remedies" and so forth and tend to not appreciate it when you point out that what they're doing either doesn't work or has some other, more mundane, explanation...especially if that mundane explanation means they can't charge money for tours or Jesus-shaped bread.

    Back to the question though, I find a healthy dose of skepticism from reading the various newsletters out there to be quite useful.

    The James Randi Education Foundation (JREF) at [] has a weekly column they put out that is usually a good read discussing various "woo-woo" ideas and why, rationally, they fail as well as links to other such things. It's a decent enough starting point I suppose.
  • by Anne_Nonymous ( 313852 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:04AM (#23778513) Homepage Journal
    >> what is the best way to encourage and teach someone to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism?

    Teaching skepticism? I doubt it.
  • by mongoose(!no) ( 719125 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:05AM (#23778545)
    Interesting book by Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish statistics professor. It has a lot of ancidotes about environmental policies and looking at the real impact of them. I don't agree with everything the author has to say, but it I thought it did a good job teaching critical thinking and encouraging people not to accept statistics at face value.
  • Keyword: *Healthy* (Score:3, Insightful)

    by CheeseTroll ( 696413 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:07AM (#23778593)
    A better question might be: How can one learn a sense of 'healthy' skepticism without going overboard and becoming outright cynical?

    It's the difference between "let's be careful before we dive into something new & shiny" and "Get off my lawn!"
  • In the UK we have this newspaper called the Daily Mail. Some people call it the Daily Hate Mail, because that's basically how it sells - it makes the reader angry. Every story is blatantly biased, designed to make your blood boil. There is always someone doing something stupid, someone to blame for every problem in the world. It's really obvious that it's actually a load of rubbish, but people seem to just have a natural tendency to like that sort of thing.

    Herman Gering admitted that the Nazi party used basically the same trick. The argument that you are being attacked, that other people are the cause of all your problems seems to be very compelling, perhaps because evolution makes the world competitive by nature and because if it's someone else's fault, it's not yours.

    A lot of men in particular seem to have a hard time admitting they are wrong too. Even if you point out how stupid their beliefs are, people have a hard time accepting it. So, when ideas come along that are even quite blatantly stupid people tend to latch on to them if they support their existing point of view.

    I think the only way to counter it is to teach philosophy and rational thinking from an early age. People seem to literally not know how to think, how to form a logical argument or dissect one in a rational manner.
  • Build something (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Thelasko ( 1196535 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:09AM (#23778637) Journal
    When I was in high school, we had two upper level physics class, AP Physics, and Electro-physics. I took the electro-physics class because we got to build things instead of study for a stupid test all year.

    I learned quite a bit about electronics, but I think the most important thing I learned was failure mode analysis. The class had so many projects that required you to build things (physical things, not just circuits) that I, and everyone else in the class became very good at it. The projects started very simple and progressed in difficulty throughout the year.

    At the end of the year, the Electro-physics class challenged the AP physics class to a sort of competitive science project, building a catapult. That's where our experience in construction paid off. Our project was heavily researched, carefully designed, and we even left a day to debug it (which proved extremely helpful). In the end, we won the competition.
  • by Torinaga-Sama ( 189890 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:09AM (#23778647) Homepage
    True skeptics aren't taught, they are usually forged through their own mistakes and misjudgments. In education it would behoove us to encourage mistake making as a learning tool instead of the current academic paradigm of grades and rankings.

    Of course I am a graduate of The Evergreen State College which has no grade system so apply salt liberally.
  • Read books on it (Score:5, Interesting)

    by AdamHaun ( 43173 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:12AM (#23778709) Journal
    I don't think geeks are much more skeptical than other groups of people. Everyone thinks groupthink and bias don't apply to them, but the reality is a lot more subtle. A good book I've found for learning about innate human biases is How We Know What Isn't So [] by Thomas Gilovich. It's filled with examples of how pattern detection and reasoning are skewed by the same heuristics that make our brains so effective in the first place.

  • Carl Sagan (Score:5, Informative)

    by GreggBz ( 777373 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:13AM (#23778731) Homepage
    The best book I ever read on this subject is here. []

    This book gives you a deep fundamental understanding of science and the scientific method. The chapters focus on debunking a variety of outrageous pseudoscience. Ideas from UFOs to conspiracy theories to the Lost City of Atlantis are swept away by convincing arguments. Once you read enough of this, the higher meaning presents itself. Don't let the nonsense comfort you falsely. Be skeptical and trust in science. It is the most reliable methodology for getting to the truth.

    Few books really changed my outlook in life. This is one of them. Read the reviews at Amazon. You will see I'm not alone. For me, in this crazy world, science really has become a candle in the dark.
  • Science classes (Score:5, Interesting)

    by backwardMechanic ( 959818 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:18AM (#23778829) Homepage
    I've often thought about running a science class in schools with deliberately miscalibrated rulers. Or maybe an undergrad lab, where a selection of the instruments are 'off'. See how long it takes the kids to figure it out. (My colleague just lost a weeks work because he didn't bother to test his fancy fibre-optic temperature probes by sticking them in a glass of water with a thermometer. He'll remember that lesson!)
    • Re:Science classes (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Cutie Pi ( 588366 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:28AM (#23778987)
      I TA'ed a hands-on statistics class with a lab component in which the prof did exactly that. In this case, it wasn't rulers, but digital thermocouples tied into a spiffy Labview temperature monitoring interface. The students were asked to report data from two thermocouples: one gave nice, consistent results, and the other was rigged to produce highly unreliable data. Many of them had a hard time reconciling what they saw (bad data!! OMG!) with their pre-conceived notions (digital controllers are always accurate). In the end it made them better engineers though.
  • by Cutie Pi ( 588366 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:19AM (#23778839)
    In my experience there are two forms of skepticism-- true skepticism, which is healthy and sadly lacking in most people, and what I call "pseudo-skepticism" which is in great abundance. Pseudo-skepticism goes right along with pseudo-science and as is often used as a foundation for a belief system. Example: the 9/11 conspiracy theorists are rabidly skeptical of anything presented by the government or mainstream media (which is good, to a degree), but are completely accepting of the most crackpot theories imaginable. (The more crazy the idea, the better IMHO). They do this while covering their ears and singing LA-LA-LA anytime any one tries to debunk their theories with science or counter-evidence. Both sides of the global warming debate contain pseudo-skeptics as well, and unfortunately, they are the ones making the most noise.

    A true skeptic is skeptical of both points of view, and does the critical thinking necessary to form his/her own opinion. This is harder to teach since it comes from experience, which is harder to come by in this sheltered world of ours.
  • by ScentCone ( 795499 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:20AM (#23778861)
    It's not about teaching skepticism and critical thinking. It's about not squashing those natural talents by teaching kids about the empty power of magical thinking, house-of-cards hollow self esteem disconnected from actual achievement, and the endless wallowing in platitudes about "having faith" and "just believe, and you can do anything!" etc. The cultural institutions that rely on such stuff are always at odds with critical thinking. Kids are natural scientists - they understand the need to test causality, and are always curious. It's a shame that so many people completely misunderstand the nature of ethics, and seem to think that mysticism (the enemy of critical thinking) is required in order to derive a sound moral framework.

    Parents are too quick to pass the baton to religion, new-age hokum, or just feel-good Oprah-ness in order to make their kids feel good about the world. They just want things to be easy, and don't have the personal fortitude to usher their kids through the slightly challenging phase of learning to apply their natural reasoning skills to topics that are somewhat less immediately tangible than what happens when you touch something hot. Issues like "what happens when one state taxes high tech entrepeneurs more than the the state next door" or "what happens when you let a gene pool get too shallow" or "what happens when you use GOTO statements in your code because it lets you get to lunch earlier that day" aren't any different than "what happens when you dump a hot oatmeal bowl in your lap," but require a little more discipline to digest.

    The platform for rational thought is already there. You have to kill it, though, or slowly suffocate it throughout child development, in order to make it something that it feels like work to wake it back up later. Just keep it alive in the first place, and we wouldn't have such a mixed bag cultural messes to deal with. We wouldn't be seeing the strange, sad dance of a politician twisting and turning while explaining why he's suddenly between churches while running for president... since he wouldn't have been glued to a crazy church in the first place. Think how much less noise and distraction we'd have without all that nonsense.
  • by pileated ( 53605 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:26AM (#23778973)
    In my experience skepticism is the one quality that most agitates employers, sad to say.
  • by somegeekynick ( 1011759 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:33AM (#23779071)
    This was posted at the blog a couple of days ago.

    [Sceptic] Brian Dunning has put together a video on how to think critically. Itâ(TM)s called Here Be Dragons, and itâ(TM)s a pretty good primer into how to think. Itâ(TM)s about 40 minutes long, and free to use (with some caveats; see the site). I think this would do well in a classroom. Any teachers out there? I know itâ(TM)s too late for most school sessions, but you can download the movie (and a high-res version too) and keep it handy for the next year. []
  • by wcrowe ( 94389 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:38AM (#23779141)
    One thing that needs to be taught is that being skeptical is not the same as an argument. It's fine to have a hunch that an idea is bad, wrong, or won't work, but it's only a starting point. Too many people believe that their work ends at being skeptical. Such "skeptics" are among the most closed minded people in society.

  • by eepok ( 545733 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:42AM (#23779219) Homepage
    My advice is to lie. A lot. Yes, I'm serious.

    The only way to teach others to be skeptical is to give reasons for skepticism. With middle school students (experience teaching algebra/pre-algebra), I would start off easy:

    Me: What's the square root of ?
    Students: *Silence*
    Me: Thought so. The answer is "flower".
    Students: *laughter*
    Me: What? Something wrong?
    Student: Ya, "flower" is not a number.
    Me: And?
    Student: A square root needs to be a number.
    Me: Does it?
    Student: YA! Duhhh!
    Me: Prove it. Show me how multiplying two flowers doesn't make .

    It's humorous, but I threw silly things like that in all the time. Answers the students knew couldn't be right. That gave them the courage to call me out when they thought I was wrong. I then required more of them:

    Me: is the correct answer to Students: How do you know?
    Me: I just know. I'm the teacher.
    Students: Ya, but you lie sometimes.
    Me: I do. So what do you do when you think I'm lying?
    Student: We show you why we think you're lying. Me: So show me.
    Student: *walks up to the board and does the math*

    In this situation, it doesn't matter whether or not the student is right in her/his distrust, but that s/he was willing to check my work.

    This is a tactic I use to teach and ingrain skepticism in every class I've ever taught.
  • Teaching to question (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Bayoudegradeable ( 1003768 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:42AM (#23779233)
    I am no perfect teacher, nor am I claiming to be an expert. I do teach middle schoolers (ages 10-13 at my school) and I try to show and teach them on a daily basis to question the world around them. Why do things happen? What really is cause and effect? What are the other options? What happens if we do this? (A great question not just for science) As a social studies teacher I get the "Why are we in Iraq?" question all the time. It gets difficult at times not to jump on a soapbox, so instead, in my best Socratic questioning, I ask the kids to look at the situation. Is this good? Is this bad? How do we stop terrorism? If it's broke, how can we fix it? If we're wrong (hard to say with a straight face!)what can we learn so as not to do this again? How should we solve problems?

    While I will admit I try to encourage skepticism about things like warrantless wiretaps, Gitmo, PATRIOT ACT (from a Constitutional viewpoint, as yesterday shows us, these programs are open to more than one interpretation) I hope that getting the kids to look at our (US) government policies leads them to ask themselves if they agree, if they "work", if they disagree, what else we could do, etc. Devil's advocate is a useful tool for me and I hope by presenting different views and getting them to think it over for themselves they can form their own opinions. I realize at age 10 this is near impossible as abstract thinking skills just aren't there yet, but the 7th graders can handle quite a bit of these topics and I only hope they are walking away with the ability to question their world in a meaningful way.

    So to teach skepticism I actively look back at U.S. history (and world history) and get them to question why we did what we did. What were the outcomes? What were the motivations? Why did this happen? Could things have been different? If I wanted them to parrot God Bless America and engage in hero worship of their leaders, I guess I could teach things much differently, and in effect REMOVE all skepticism... but that's not teaching, that's conditioning. While I admit all teaching really is conditioning, I hope they condition themselves more than spit back my opinions, which I try to mask with varying degrees of success. Does it work? Guess we'll have to wait and see :)
  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:44AM (#23779255) Homepage

    It's not hard. One classic approach for use in schools is to take some political issue which was a big deal in its day but is forgotten now. Obtain material written about the subject from many points of view, some sensible, some totally bogus, and with various degrees of stridency. Have students read through all the material and then write a brief evaluation of the various positions, listing the arguments, which ones they think are good, which ones seem bogus, and explain how they made that decision.

    The Free Silver issue is a good example. Once upon a time, the "free and unlimited coinage of silver" was a big issue. This was an early attempt at an "economic stimulus package" in a hard-money system. There's a famous speech by William Jennings Bryan ("I will not allow this nation to be crucified upon a cross of gold"), there were political cartoons, and there's plenty of material available. This is for high school level students.

    In earlier grades, teach skepticism of advertising. Teach how to read an ad. What are they trying to sell you? What are they telling you? What aren't they telling you? Use old TV commercials from the Internet Archive as teaching tools. Teacher handbook: "Ogilvy on Advertising".

  • My wife says... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by AttillaTheNun ( 618721 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @11:51AM (#23779411)
    I'm too negative. I tend to agree. I consider it a valuable asset to my engineering discipline (routing out potential issues/failures, etc), but it tends to overflow into my general outlook on life, which is not such a good thing.

    It's a work-Life balance thing that we often need to spend more effort on than people in other disciplines.

  • by netsavior ( 627338 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @12:14PM (#23779875)
    I have had some success teaching my kids skepticism just by virtue of my parenting strategy. I don't ever really expect them to accept "Because I said so" I think that really hinders a person to be taught from a young age that if someone of authority says it, than it must be true.

    Instead I approach every disagreement as an opportunity for a proof. "Why do I have to eat my broccli?" "Well I guess you don't, but it is pretty hard to find iron that is more easily digestable. You need iron levels in your blood to be high enough so it can process oxygen more efficiently or you will find yourself lacking energy, being tired, and even potentially becoming pale and sick. There are other ways to get the vitamins you need, but to me Broccli is worth it because it is actually pretty good, and convenient because it is right her on the table."

    Sure he may still not eat the broccli, but at least I tried to appeal to his logical side and gave him a reasonable and easy to understand stance. Always honoring his questions, and answering with real logic and real science means that whenever someone CAN'T answer with something real, he will imediatly have red flags.

    While "Because I said so" would probably make a lot of kids get their nutrition today, my approach will hopefully inspire him to THINK about his nutrition, and question risk/reward and give hom practice evaluating trade-offs.
  • by flnca ( 1022891 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @12:18PM (#23779945) Journal
    So, in the USA, are science and religion still fighting? Why not let people have their beliefs?

    And how many people that believe in the scientific method expose themselves to the theater of science business?

    A former professional scientist once told me, that scepticism is so big that it's difficult to introduce new ideas.

    But when it's difficult to introduce new ideas, you have basically the same thing that stifled progress in the Dark Ages: Stagnation. Some scientists fear so much for their reputation that they barely dare to publish new ideas.

    Having a healthy dose of scepticism is good, but if it's overdone, it doesn't help either.
  • by EWAdams ( 953502 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @12:24PM (#23780081) Homepage

    Don't even think of trying to teach logic or critical thinking to our children, you satanic commie traitor!

  • by pm_rat_poison ( 1295589 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @12:30PM (#23780215)
    Provide a lot of sources. Always teach both sides of the argument. Prefer primary sources than commented material and leave critical analysis to yourself / your students.
    Spend sometime understanding the argumentative process and teach / learn how to identify bad arguments. []
    I only know one thing: That I know nothing. (brought to you by Socrates
    You have two ears and one mouth. Listen twice, speak once
    The basic meaning is to teach / learn that no matter how much you know and you've studied, you should always treat yourself as if you know nothing. In a sense, you always do.
  • by johnrpenner ( 40054 ) on Friday June 13, 2008 @12:48PM (#23780575) Homepage

    while it is important to foster a healthy skepticism (for obvious reasons),
    the other half of this is that without a natural wonder and reverence,
    much knowledge of the world may never be revealed to the pure skeptic.

        "Reverence awakens... a sympathetic power through which we attract
          qualities... around us, which would otherwise remain concealed" (HTKHW)

e-credibility: the non-guaranteeable likelihood that the electronic data you're seeing is genuine rather than somebody's made-up crap. - Karl Lehenbauer