Skeptical Resources for the Classroom July 28, 2011

Skeptical Resources for the Classroom

My friend Matt Lowry is a Physics teacher in Illinois and he recently gave a talk about “Skepticism in the Classroom” at The Amazing Meeting 9 with Barbara Drescher and JREF’s Michael Blanford.

Some of the resources from that workshop are now available and they’re really fantastic if you’re an educator. A few of my favorites are below:

An Astrology activity (PDF) to demonstrate the Forer effect:

Explaining common reasoning errors (PDF) for a probability/statistics class:

While we’re talking about prob/stats, might as well get into cognitive biases (PDF):

And for the elementary students out there, why not introduce them to the classic duck/rabbit illusion?

There are several more resources here. Check them out!

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  • Anonymous

    These are pretty cool. I wish these had been presented to me in school. I did some of the problems and most of my answers were outside the expected majority, but then I’m twice the age of the target audience. I don’t suppose my high-school self would have been quite as sharp.

  • Michael

    The Cognitive Biases exercise demonstrates the human tendency to discount small chances. For example, a game where you have a cent, then on a coin toss you either take the money and leave, or double it and continue to play.  Without cognitive bias, it is entirely rational to pay thousands of dollars to play this game, since the average payout is huge. In practice the payout will never get into dollars and you could play hourly until the end of the world and not see a thousand-dollar payout.

  • I did not provide a demonstration of this, so I am not sure which exercise you are referring to, but the tendency to minimize small probabilities depends on context.  If you look at the presentation, there are explanations of the purpose of each exercise.

  • Randall

    The funny thing is, with lotteries all choices of numbers aren’t equally good. Not because there’s a different chance of any set winning, but because if you do win, you want to split the jackpot among the smallest group of people as possible. So the challenge is to pick which set of numbers is the least likely for other people to pick…knowing that many of those you’re competing with are trying to use the same strategy.

  • Infophile

    There are far more people who pick their own lucky numbers, which are most often birthdates, or otherwise pretty low. With this in mind, ticket C is probably the best bet. Adding in the cognitive biases of other people that make this sequence seem less likely, and it actually becomes the best bet.

  • Going to steal these for Camp Quest of Minnesota next year.  It’s great to have quick lessons to have in your back pocket if it rains.

  • Anti_supernaturalist

    never too early to copy Wittgenstein

    Could those kids provide a better translation of die Philosophische Betractungen while they’re at it?

    • down the duck-rabbit hole

    The notorious ‘duck-rabbit’ — now a cliche, was employed by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his major (duck-rabbit-chimera) work, Philosophical Investigations.

    The duck-rabbit is of course an oddly shaped 2-D black ink blob. Someone with a proper conceptual background can interpret it either as a not very convincing representation of a duck’s head and beak or as a not very convincing representation of a rabbit’s ears and face. Wittgenstein called the duck-rabbit “an ambiguous figure.”

    There’s no question, however, that Wittgenstein was “an ambiguous figure” himself and a very “queer” (odd) duck as well.

    the anti_supernaturalist

  • This is true,  however, it relies on winning at all. The bigger problem with the lottery is not the astronomically small probability of winning, but the fact that the payout is so small in comparison (expected outcome) that it’s a supermegamonolith sucker’s bet. 

    But, the low risk ($1 per ticket) and the high payout obscure the expected value enough to make even the scoffers think “What the hell”.  It’s the roulette wheel on a cosmic scale.

  • “Adding in the cognitive biases of other people that make this sequence seem less likely, and it actually becomes the best bet.”

    This doesn’t make sense unless you, like Randall, are talking about sharing a jackpot. What other people choose doesn’t have anything to do with which numbers will be winners. There is no “best bet”. There are only better choices in terms of sharing a jackpot if you win (the chance of which is lower than dying in an auto accident on your way to buy the ticket). In that case, any set of consecutive numbers or other pattern is better than random, but there is little difference in which set or pattern you choose.

  • Chana Messinger

    Love these! A friend wrote a blog post that has an even more radical approach, integrating critical thinking into the very backbone of how we organize knowledge and learning. Can be found at

    Either way I would certainly have appreciated these in elementary, middle and high school, and they would probably be very well received, especially if they’re fun. There are tons of books with exciting examples to use.

    Finally, this guy seems great. We need more teachers like him and Hemant.

     – Chana

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