Australian Skeptics National Convention 2014

Are you available from the 28th till the 30th of November? Can you make it to Sydney? If you can I’d like to suggest that you head over to the Australian Skeptics National Convention 2014. It will be an amazing event including talks, drinks, dinner and even musical entertainment!

Speakers include:

  • Dr Karl Kruszelnicki
  • Robyn Williams
  • Dr Rachel Dunlop
  • Dick Smith
  • George Hrab
  • The Chaser (Julian Morrow, Kirsten Drysdale and Chas Licciardello)
  • The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (Dr Steven Novella, Bob Novella, Jay Novella, Evan Bernstein and Rebecca Watson)
  • Me

Check out the webpage, book your tickets and come say hi to me. If you want to follow things on Twitter, use the hashtag #AusSkepCon14.

Register here.


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How I manipulated my student’s memories

A few years ago Richard Saunders visited Sceptic School and gave the students a false word memory test. The test involves memorising words from a list then writing down as many as you can. Each word is related to a theme in some way. The idea of the test is to see how many people write down the thematic word. The catch is however, that word never appeared in the original list. When we see the words ‘cake’, ‘sugar’, ‘chocolate’ and ‘jam’, our brains immediately think ‘sweet’. A lot of students wound up writing ‘sweet’ in their list of remembered words.

Today I tried the test myself. Taking a hint from the work of Michael A. Stadler et. al., I used a list of words that reportedly had the highest chance of creating a false memory. Before I spoil anything, give the test below a try (click the play button to begin) and see how many words you can remember.

Memory Test















Did you write down the word ‘window’? About 50% of my students did. Does that mean that they’re stupid? Not at all. It just means that their memories are as fallible as everybody else’s. When we are remembering, the story telling part of our brain is actually doing a lot of work as well. Often we are simply creating a story to suit what we think our memory should contain.

The experiment led into a great discussion about human error, the use of eye-witnesses in court and the idea that if a lot of our memories are false, how real are we as people? Nothing like hitting the kids with a bit of existential dread.

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The Great Jinx Breaker

Whenever I drive anywhere I find myself too scared to admit that I’m having a good trip. If I dare to utter (or even think) a phrase like “Man, I haven’t hit a red light all drive” I just know that I’ll get stuck at the next intersection. The same is true if I think about how quiet a class is being. As soon as the thought occurs to me the kids start playing up like a pack of mind-reading hooligans.

Why do we think this? Do we really believe that the universe cares about what we say? Do we think that a vicious entity lurks about, just waiting for us to comment on how good life is? It is an unintentionally arrogant thing to believe. We have a natural tendency to believe that we matter. We want to think that the universe is aware of our existence, even if it means that it’s out to get us. For the same reason that many people believe in conspiracy theories, we would prefer a cruel yet organised world rather than a random one.

Since becoming a born-again sceptic I have made a conscious effort to stop doing this. I now delight in vocalising how smoothly things are going without fear of cosmic reprisal. I turn gleefully to the passengers in the car and loudly praise the run of green lights I’ve just experienced. Has this made any kind of difference in my life?

Yes, a little.

It certainly hasn’t affected how lucky I am. Red-lights still happen and students still lose control. Possibly my positive outlook has had an affect. Richard Wiseman suggests that people who think they are lucky often experience greater luck so perhaps I am experiencing something similar. The big change that I’ve noticed is how less worried I am about having bad things happen. It’s almost like by forcing myself to realise that silly things like jinxes don’t exist, then random fluctuations of luck have nothing to do with my behaviour. It’s like being told that you can eat as much junk food as you want without it affecting your weight.

As an experiment, my sceptikids will be going out of their way to jinx things. Comments like “I bet this test will be really easy” and “what’s the worst that can happen?” will be heard for the next fortnight in an effort to see how much better, worse or unchanged their lives get.

My prediction is that they will experience the same things I did. If not, at least I can’t be blamed for giving them bad luck.

On a side note, I haven’t posted in a very long time but the club is still running strong. Due to commitments which include other lunchtime activities, more involved classes and a new baby I have had to scale down to once a fortnight. I have a great new batch of junior students who are coming along regularly to learn about critical thinking and scepticism plus my regulars who like to throw their two-cents in every now and again.

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Pseudoscientists interview

It’s been a while since I’ve posted but rest assured the club is still going strong. An incredibly hectic school term plus a new baby in my life has limited my blogging time.

About two weeks ago, on the last day of term, Ted Janet came to McKinnon to conduct an interview with Liz Riaikkenen and me. Liz had just spoken for the Vic Skeptics and Ted was keen to spend a little more time listening to what she had to say.

The interview is available on the Young Australian Skeptics website but here is the direct link:

Interview with Ted Janet

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So I’ve only managed to see my SceptiKids twice this term. Sports days, exams, lunchtime meetings and the Queen’s birthday have made things a little tricky. Fortunately though we were able to meet and discuss a very special topic, one dear to most sceptic’s hearts.


In a discussion that made me feel very old, it turned out that most teenagers have no idea who Uri Gellar is. For those of us over the age of 18 we know him as the mentalist who decided to tell the world that his powers were genuine. A large sum of money later and he’s one of the most famous people in the world. Nowadays though his name has taken a bit of a back seat.  Fortunately for us the magicians most known by high schoolers are people like Derren Brown and Penn & Teller. This is a good thing.

Fortunately I’d done some homework on Mr. Gellar and was able to talk to the kids a little about him. Despite him being unknown to them they were still able to understand the ethical problems involved when a magician tells people their powers are real.

We see countless examples every day of how easy people are to fool. I wouldn’t see so many psychic readers on my way to school if they weren’t. It’s pure exploitation and anybody who knowingly deceives people in this way is guilty of it. Not just magicians but peddlers of alternatives to medicines, tarot readers, mediums and more. Sure some of these people genuinely believe in their abilities but their are plenty who don’t.

As Tim Minchin put it in his AMAZING spoken word piece, Storm:

Reading Auras is like reading minds
Or star-signs or tea-leaves or meridian lines
These people aren’t plying a skill,
They are either lying or mentally ill.

What’s great is that so many teenagers can see this. It may not be something that think about a lot but as soon as you ask them “Is it ok for a magician to make people think their powers are real?” you can be guaranteed of getting a great conversation out of them.


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Self-Help Myths

So I haven’t posted anything in over two months and my big questions now is, “Do I have any readers left?”

If the answer is yes then thanks for sticking around!

In case you were wondering, yes the club did continue to run last term. Unfortunately due to time constraints I haven’t had a spare moment to sit down and write anything. Hopefully I will be able to remedy this in the future and give you your weekly dose of whatever rubbish I put out.

Today was the first session for term 2 and it was a great start with around thirty kids present. I had been struggling to come up with a topic when Richard Wiseman saved my neck by sharing a link to an article that appeared in The Age last Thursday. The article was titled “Busting the self-help myths.”

Professor Wiseman has a wonderful book called 59 Seconds which is all about the bad advice given in self-help books. It conveniently offers some better tips and tricks based on actual psychological research. It’s the best book he’s written and one of my favourite non-fiction books.

The article in The Age briefly went over 10 myths and have been popularised by the self-help movement. Ideas such as positive visualisation, seizing the day and believing that anything is possible. While some of these ideas aren’t particularly bad (they’re just wrong), some of them are more likely to hinder rather than help. For example, in 59 Seconds Wiseman points out that visualising success can actually make you less likely to succeed. Better instead to visualise yourself taking the steps required to achieve your goal. Picture yourself actually writing your novel, training on the field or practising scale. For some reason, visualising this from a third person perspective is better!

I’ve put together a small PowerPoint presentation which is available on the Resources page.

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Welcome, 2013!

And we’re back!

After a few weeks of blissful freedom from noisy teenagers the government has demanded that we return to school and continue working. As painful as that usually is I at least know that it means spending more time with the SceptiKids.

We had our first session this afternoon and I was pleased to see a group of first timers. Instead of the normal twenty or so students there were almost forty crammed into the room today. A few were older kids who were aware of the club but hadn’t visited before and others were new year 7s. It’s always nice seeing new people coming along, whether they are friends of members or newbies who want to check it out.

This year we are starting by talking about aliens. From questions of their existence to evidence of UFOs. We began by discussing whether or not we thought aliens existed at all. We defined an alien as any living organism that was born on and had evolved to survive on another planet. Most people agreed that given how many planets there are estimated to be in the universe (roughly 1024) the chances of there being no life at all seems pretty slim. We weren’t even talking about sentient, communicating life either. We’d be happy with simple bacteria.

One important point we considered however was the fact that at this stage of human existence, nobody knows what the answer is. As unlikely as life is we have no yet of telling whether it’s out there or not. Some of the students have seen TV shows that have left them thinking that life was discovered on Titan but hopefully sessions like today will enable to recognise what is real and what is a ratings grabber.

At this stage the discussion changed somewhat. We had a meaningful conversation about whether a pregnant lady would have an alien if she gave birth on Mars which of course led to musings on the mechanics of zero-gravity labour.

Kids today.

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