How to run a high school skeptical society (as far as I know)

A few weeks ago I held the last session of the McKinnon Secondary Sceptical Society for the year and I thought I’d write a little bit about what I’ve learnt from the experience.

The last session was the end of a six-week long look at cold reading. I have a few sources on cold reading (The Dance, Brad Henderson; The Skeptic’s Guide to the Paranormal, Lynne Kelly; 13 Steps to Mentalism, Tony Corinda) but most of my information was taken from Ian Rowland’s seminal work, The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading. I basically ran the session as a classroom,  teaching the students how to become fraudulent psychics with a step-by-step guide. Fortunately, the kids were really interested and quite a lot turned up. Unfortunately,  the students turned out to be very natural cold readers and I may have created a few monsters.

One of the things that has surprised me about the group was how young most of the students in it are. By far, the majority of students are in year 7 and 8. I typically have around 20 students at those levels each week and about 5 – 10 from other year levels. I was a little worried that this might lessen the amount of deep discussion we could have but, as you’ll read later, I needn’t have been.

It’s pretty hard to quantify something like this, but I’d say the group was a success on all fronts. It’s membership has stayed constant at about 30 kids a session (a mix of regulars and newcomers) and they were excited to hear that it would be continuing next year. Quite a few of the members have some vague belief in the supernatural and I think coming along each week is giving them enough knowledge and confidence to start to really question things. We had a real win involving a girl talking her parents out of sending her to a homeopath which I am especially proud of.

I gave a talk at the 2011 Melbourne SkeptiCamp where I highlighted six things that I thought were important about running a sceptical group at a high school. I’d like to share them with you here along with an explanation as to why I think they’re important. I would absolutely love it if other people tried to get groups like this started at a high school level. I am more than happy to share ideas and talk with anyone who is interested.

How to run a high school sceptical society (as far as I know)

1. Make the sessions fun and relevant

Hopefully this one is a no-brainer. Children are selfish, horrible beasts. If they’re not having fun, they won’t come back. Am I prostituting my dignity in order to manipulate the kids into coming back? Yes, I sure am. Do I care? Not really. None of my kids have to turn up. They’re forced to be in my maths classes so I can be as boring as I like but the sceptical society is totally optional. This is why I try to make my PowerPoint slides funny. It’s why I throw in as many jokes as I can. If you’re being funny, kids will listen because they want to hear the next joke. And if you can sneak in a bit of good stuff between the jokes they’ll probably learn something too.

There are plenty of fun activities around the internet that you can run. There’s an ESP experiment on the JREF site and Richard Saunders has videos up of water dowsing and ‘can you tell if somebody is staring at you?’ experiments. There are lots of astrological ideas as well, such as having astrological descriptors up around the room and asking students to try to guess which one is theirs. Activities like this can be real drawcards and get kids coming along who might not have ordinarily been interested.

Relevancy is also important. We talked about Power Balance bands because all of the kids knew about them. They’re all aware of psychics, aliens and ghosts so those are topics that come up a lot. The vaccine debate probably isn’t at the front of their mind so it doesn’t come up as often (it does come up occasionally and you’ll be pleased to know that it makes them very angry). It’s important to follow the news (both sceptical and mainstream) and pick out things that you think will interest them.

2. Don’t make it a science club

Because science is like, boring and stuff.

Before I get bombarded with angry comments, be aware that to most teenagers the word ‘science’ means sitting in a classroom while a teacher talks about a bunch of crap that you don’t care about. Sure, you might get to do the odd experiment but there often isn’t that sense of mystery and beauty that we know science is all about.

So when I say don’t make it a science club, what I really mean is don’t make it an apparent science club. Sneak the science in. Make it a club about ghost hunting and astrology debunking and homeopathy ridiculing. While you’re doing that, briefly explain how you could use this thing called ‘single blinding’ to make an experiment to see if it really works. Then maybe throw in some ‘double blinding’ to highlight how to make it better. The next thing you know, your kids have learnt a bit of science and they’ve learnt why it’s important. If you’ve done your job right they’ll also have learnt why it’s just so damn cool.

3. Probably don’t make it a secular club

There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, I think it’s a really fast way to get yourself shut down. Even in Australia I wouldn’t risk it. Sure, a lot of schools have Christian, Muslim and Jewish societies so you could argue discrimination if you came under attack but I don’t think that’s how the world works. Sometimes it only takes one angry phone call from a parent to get something cancelled.

Secondly, you don’t want to exclude religious people from your group. A lot of the kids who come along to my club are Christian or Jewish. The last thing I want is for them to feel unwelcome because of their religious beliefs. In fact, I steer clear of any religious topic (unless somebody brings it up) for that reason alone. I’d love to talk about the inanity of creationism but that isn’t my battle to fight. These are children who may have parents that strongly fall into this belief system. Parents who could very quickly make a complaint and keep their kids from turning up. My kids all know that I believe in the big bang and the theory of evolution. My kids also know that I can have a respectful conversation with them about it, even if they disagree with me. There are plenty of other topics out there worth discussing.

4. Prepare to be asked about anything

One day I had an entire session planned around psychics. About five minutes in, a kid asked me if I thought it was alright to tell little kids that Santa exists. Normally I would have told them to wait till the end but most people in the room seemed genuinely interested in my answer. My answer then turned into a conversation about the history of Santa, the philosophy of lying and funny Santa stories.

Should I have stopped the discussion and gone back to psychics? Hell no. I knew I could always talk about psychics next week. Kids are like mongooses on speed. Their minds are always on the go and the most surprising things can interest them without warning. Go with it. The trick is to have as much knowledge as you can on many different topics. Being a specialist in a particular field is great, but it doesn’t really help when running something like this for kids. In my position it is better to know a little about a lot of topics, rather than vice versa. Of course, the more I know about as many topics as possible, the better I can do my job.

5. Don’t dumb things down

If there’s one thing that never ceases to amaze me about children, it is their almost unlimited capacity for impressively inventive cruelty. If there’s one other thing, it’s how much they actually understand. A couple of months ago I was talking to a group of students about transvestites. A boy wanted to know whether all transvestites were gay. A few others responded by saying that some of them probably are, but it’s not automatic. I sat back and watched the conversation, marvelling at how mature and understanding they were being. The thing that really impressed me was that these kids were 12.

Don’t assume that kids can’t handle “grown up” topics. Medical minutiae might go over their heads but it doesn’t mean that they can’t ponder the issues involved. Want to talk about the ethics involved in prescribing placebos? They can handle it. Want to discuss terminally ill people reaching out to alternative-medicine as a last resort? Go for it, just be prepared to handle some potentially delicate questions.

6. Children are easily influenced, so influence wisely

Children pick up everything, from diseases to attitudes. Personally, I don’t want a bunch of angry, condescending sceptics running the show in a few years’ time. We all know that you don’t change people’s beliefs with anger, so why start developing those habits in kids now?

When we discussed homeopathy, some of my kids started laughing at people to use it. Obviously, anybody who believes in homeopathy is an idiot and deserves to be ridiculed. I don’t blame my kids for thinking this way because they are still very young, but it needed to be stamped out immediately. What if they were referred to a homeopath by a GP? What if they have no idea how it works? What if they’re at death’s door and are desperately trying something different as a last resort?

If you teach a child to look down on victims of pseudo-science, you are teaching them to be insensitive and arrogant. Kids (and some adults) need to understand that all people should be treated with respect and that everybody is worth listening to. Unless of course they’re a filthy scumbag con-artist who is knowingly ripping people off. In that case, go right ahead and tear them a new one.

Hopefully you’ve found something here worth reading. Hopefully some people will be in a position to run something like this yourself. Even so, I’d love to hear suggestions from you all. If you have any resources that you think I could use, please share them with me. If you are an expert on a topic and willing to have a Skype conference with us that would also be amazing. I’d like my students to see just how wonderful and generous the sceptical community is. I want them to feel like they’re a part of something bigger than just my little lunchtime club.

Thanks for reading,
Mr V


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