Teaching is a profession with heavy responsibility. Students, especially younger ones, are all too eager to believe or accept what you say as fact. They want to know that what you say is true. They want to know that what they see is true. Most of us are generally willing to join in that mode of thought. The only problem with thinking this way is that it gets to be too easy. Without an attitude of skepticism we risk believing in mistakes or outright lies. In our eagerness to accept the truths that are being given, we lose our responsibility to be demanding of the information being presented to us.
Consider your own circle of influence. How many well-meaning people have shared information in social media without checking in any way for verification? Is this a problem? It should be. In addition to wasting time and energy, you announce to your friends, coworkers, and associates that you’re lazy at best, and a likely gullible at worst. In the same time it takes to share the article, you could easily run the topic through a fact-checking site such as snopes, and then you’d at least know that you’re possibly about to perpetuate and carry on a hoax.
In the classroom I can always count on getting everyone’s attention by showing them a video clip of something interesting and seemingly impossible. The reaction is predictable. There is a lot of noise from the camp of disbelievers, and an equal amount of talk from those who express their disbelief, yet clearly have accepted what they just saw. When David Blaine had produced his first big tv special, he included the levitating man illusion. In those first shows he had taken on this tv persona of the authentic mystic. He later, thankfully, abandoned that role for the more honest and effective fully exposed illusionist and street magician. But back to levitation.
I remember talking with my students at that time about their reactions to the claim of levitation, and then to the apparent visual proof of it. Some students were angry with me that I made the suggestion that it was anything other than what it seemed to be. They wanted to believe it. So I asked them why. Why do you believe that this man, a man who is promoting and selling his own tv show, actually has the impossible ability to defy gravity? You don’t know him. He is not even claiming to have these abilities via any supernatural means. He just arrives and performs the trick. What happened to questioning or investigation? I talked with them about the outrageous and dubious camera work and the overproduced quality of something that was supposed to be a live recording. We learned about post production editing tricks. Still, there were some who struggled with the idea that they had been duped.
The Amazing Randi has had a standing offer for many years that offers a million dollars to anyone who claims to have paranormal or supernatural abilities and is willing to undergo scientific testing to have them verified and proven. No one has ever collected on that offer, and it has now since been stopped. James Randi is a magician himself as well as a skeptic. It is because of his skeptical nature that I have often used him as an example in teaching. I try to teach about what it is to be a skeptic. It does not mean you believe nothing, trust nothing, or accept nothing. It does mean that you should learn to question and investigate rather than blindly accepting everything. You should especially investigate or question things that seem to be untrue, unlikely, or impossible.
Skepticism is really about having a profound concern for truth. This search for truth extends into daily life. Advertising of products is a constant game of truth and lies. Teaching people to question is not the same as teaching them not to trust. What we should teach is that trust is something that should be earned.
With the nature of social media constantly moving toward more and more video content, and always shorter clips, it is increasingly important to stand for truth. Consider what happens when I ask students to watch a video for an online assignment, such as CNN10, a news summary program, then ask a few questions about the content. The news program is literally ten minutes long. Every time. Yet there are always students who will offer up answers that have nothing to do with the content of the program they were supposed to watch. Their answers are based on opinion, feelings, a tiktok video, or who knows? Did they even watch it? It’s impossible to say. And so what does skepticism demand of this situation? Answers need to be given with solid references to the content. The content itself can, of course, be questioned, too. But just avoiding the responsibility of thinking for yourself should not be an option.
It’s so hard to be critical in such a responsible way. But it is possible, and it must be taught. In the midst of a global pandemic, we must be demanding of our sources of information. Check sources. Demand to know what the sources are. Investigate before sharing. We have access to more information than anyone in history, but we are becoming overly trusting with those who present it to us.
When there are world leaders who are openly derisive of scientific data, it falls to us, the consumers of information, to have higher standards. It isn’t good enough to passively accept what you’re told or are shown. David Blaine wants you to believe that he can pass a long needle through his body and remove it, all without leaving a mark or spewing blood. If you believe in this, you haven’t done much harm to anyone. In fact, it’s entertaining to believe in the impossible. That’s how illusionists like Blaine make a living. But if your lack of critical thinking leads you to do things to harm yourself or others in your care, it becomes a problem that needs attention.
Where to begin? Educators must do more to teach about and then encourage civil discourse. We need to move away from the notion that we can’t be questioned. There are certainly good and bad ways to question, but this, too, is part of the teaching. Instead of being offended or viewing a contradiction as an attack, the effective teacher show the way. Demonstrate to the class how questioning can be done politely, respectfully, or also in a disrespectful manner. Do this well, and students learn that it isn’t the questioning itself that so often isn’t appreciated, but rather the manner of the questioning. The responses and manners of the teacher, of course, must match as well with this lesson. Parents can assume this same role in the home.
The path to knowledge, or even truth, must certainly be marked with questions. Keep on questioning. Keep on learning. To steal a tagline and paraphrase the great Cecil Adams, I’ve been fighting ignorance since 1993. It’s taking longer than I thought.