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Talking Skepticism to Generation Y


Justin Trottier

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 33.6, November / December 2009

If anyone ever wonders just what impression a skeptic’s words, stories, explanations, and arguments have, there’s no better test than a live performance in front of wide-eyed sixteen-year-olds—natural critics, skeptics, and oftentimes cynics. I was put through a grueling ordeal recently when I gave two back-to-back presentations explaining my worldview to the private Greenwood College School in Toronto.

I started with the premise that critical thinking as a methodology is the main divide between skeptical inquirers and scientific naturalists and those whose worldview is based on other ways of knowing. I then explained how such a methodology, when applied to different scopes of inquiry, leads to both the secular humanist worldview and skepticism of the paranormal.

As it turned out, the students were proficient critical thinkers, although critics might be a more apt label. Here are some dos and don’ts they taught me that might be of use to anyone attempting to introduce skeptical thinking to Generation Y, or, as some call them, the Entitlement Generation.

DO explain the major tools for critical thinking and argumentation. No high school I know of has a course in critical thinking, and few do a good job of introducing the real spirit of how science approaches questions beyond the stale list of steps given almost as the doctrine of the Scientific Method. These independent presentations are therefore ideal opportunities to rectify that lacking. However . . . 

DO NOT engage in long blackboard lessons. My attempt to introduce the concept of skepticism and critical thinking through a history of the various schools of philosophy going back to the ancient Greek Pyrrhonians did not go over well. The presentation was too detailed and abstract and probably too similar to an everyday classroom lesson. Clearly the students were anticipating a break from that and wanted engagement in more interactive discussions.     

DO incorporate multimedia where appropriate. My presentations included excerpts from Richard Dawkins’s Enemies of Reason, featuring a simple double-blind test debunking water dowsing and a short interview on the dangers of spiritualism addiction with famous magician Darren Brown, with whom many of the students were familiar. We listened to a clip from a Point of Inquiry episode featuring Andrew Fraknoi on our body’s cosmic history. Finally, we watched an excerpt from Here Be Dragons, a video that serves as a critical thinking primer from Skeptoid podcast host Brian Dunning. This led into a discussion of the red flags and keywords of pseudoscience, such as “ancient wisdom,” “energy fields,” “all natural,” or simply ads featuring a man in a lab coat.

DO incorporate interactive games. To investigate the veracity of the newspaper horoscopes many of the students read, students were divided along the wall of the room based on zodiac sign. The day’s horoscope was then read from a local newspaper and each student was asked to identify whether the descriptions did or did not apply to their day. Unbeknown to the students, a deception was taking place, for students in fact read from the horoscope that corresponded not to their own sign but to the one following theirs. Upon completion, we tallied the number of “hits” and “misses,” compared them to what might be expected by chance, and then announced the deception.

DO NOT read FAQs directly. I prepared well-articulated answers to a self-created list of Frequently Asked Questions, such as “Why are you concerned with people’s personal beliefs” and “Would any evidence convince you of paranormal activities beyond science?” Although these made me feel I had gone through all my material comprehensively, it left little time for answering the student’s own questions and probably made me appear overly distant. So . . .

DO interact directly with the students. It would be much better to first entertain questions from students in order to respond to the exact nuance and examples given by a questioner and then read from any remaining FAQs that have not been covered. Other more creative interactive activities might have the students reflect on the possible bias or misrepresentation of particular science articles in the newspaper or ask them to apply critical thinking to a contemporary political issue or the recent speech of a local politician.

DO personalize the presentation. I provided a short background to the events that lead me to adopt a skeptical and secular humanist worldview. I included a slide with names and photos of famous skeptics and freethinkers from lots of different fields—scientists, philosophers, authors, lawyers, politicians, activists, and celebrities.

DO take the opportunity to promote the wonders of science.  This is a good opportunity to excite students by explaining how science affects our lives and our society. I covered the scientific outlook, focusing on science that speaks to our biggest questions—evolution, cosmology, and neuroscience—as well as the scientific revolution’s historical ties to notions of democracy, freedom, and progress. Much of this science is covered in technical detail in classes but would never have been tied to these larger societal issues.

DO define new terms like skepticism, atheism, secularism, naturalism, and methodology, but . . .

DO NOT over-define. Differentiating between weak and strong atheism, for example, will probably confuse the bigger issues.

DO NOT leave students with homework, but . . .

DO leave students with handouts. I ended by passing out copies of the Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry magazines, skepticism-themed stickers, excerpts from Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World, and a list of books, podcasts, and films of interest.

Justin Trottier

Justin Trottier is the director of CFI Ontario.