Principles of Curiosity Review

Susan Gerbic

I had the privilege of attending a movie premiere for the new Skeptoid Media production, Principles of Curiosity, in Los Angeles on June 14, 2017. Disclaimer:  I’ve been following the creation of this crowd-sourced movie for some time; although I am not a donor, I’ve been a fan and friend of Brian Dunning for years. I find him creative, inspiring, and a powerful resource for science education. So, yes, I am biased.

It might be an odd thing to say that I feel discussions of UFOs, feral children, photographic memories, ghosts, and the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, are topics worthy of a science classroom, but they are a backdoor to understanding critical thinking and the weird world around us. And they are popular topics. You think that people are only discussing climate change and vaccines? I assure you that the paranormal is hot news.  Reality TV, YouTube, and social media fuel stories of the Dyatlov Pass incident, Berserkers, and the Minnesota Iceman. I’ll come back to this in a minute.

Photo Credit: Susan Gerbic, 2017

For many years, Dunning has been working on a classroom length, free for everyone, critical thinking video. In 2008, he gave us Here Be Dragons: An Introduction to Critical Thinking.  He states that the purpose was “to reach a much broader audience, and provide this general introduction to critical analysis of pop phenomena.”

One of several YouTube sites hosting the video has over 400K views and 978 comments. Here Be Dragons was designed to give viewers a general overview of critical thinking.  It is aimed at people who are not aware of the skeptic world of conferences, publications, and podcasts. Here be Dragons is captioned and translated into fifteen languages, including Hebrew, Norwegian, Lithuanian, Finnish, and Croatian. The production quality was good by 2008 standards coming from a podcaster with very little money to dedicate to creating a free product.

The YouTube comments are pretty typical, with the majority supporting the film. One reviewer, Jack Calvert, says, “Great video. The fundamental principles of critical thinking should be required curriculum in every primary and secondary school. We need to be teaching children not what to think, but how to think.” And then you have comments from people like cabadejo, who wrote, “Disinfo merchant. I did not reach 4 minutes of this paid disinfomercial. Big Pharma is about making money. 9/11 was a government operation. These are screamingly obvious. Fraudster nothing less.” Another commenter used the term “labcoats” as a derogatory term for scientists.  We skeptics obviously have a lot of work to do.  

In 2016, Dunning started gathering funds and people to work on a bigger project, which became Principles of Curiosity. Written by Brian Dunning and directed by Ryan C. Johnson, this forty-minute video has a different feel from Here be Dragons, not only in the production values but also in the attitude and approach. Here be Dragons had a provocative feel to it, with silly music playing in the background when people were talking about how crystals work to subtly tell viewers that the person on screen was speaking nonsense. Principles is less provocative, more intelligent, and less likely to insult viewers who believe in the paranormal. It is perfect for the random person who comes across it on YouTube or who is exposed to it in a classroom. Dunning states it was important to teach people how to “tell what is real from what is not, by understanding the science… and have fun doing it, with cool stories.”

The cinematography is beautiful. The drone video of Death Valley’s dry lake bed and the footage at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is incredible.  One brief clip features a toddler standing next to a window inside the airport, and you can see airplanes on the tarmac behind him. Something about that shot makes me say “adorable” each time I see it; you will just have to watch it to see what I mean.

Dunning explains how to evaluate a claim using the scientific method.  Instead of going through the normal steps, he explains it using what he calls the “3 C’s”: Challenge – Consider – Conclude.  He picks one claim to illustrate this method of thinking: Racetrack Playa.

Let’s look at these three C’s and how they apply to the Racetrack Playa mystery. The mystery concerns huge boulders, dubbed “sailing stones,” which seem to move across the sand on their own without an apparent natural cause, leaving clear tracks on the ground.

Consulting Wikipedia, we learn that the playa is a dry lake bed in Death Valley, California. The surface area is just over 2.7 square miles and is “exceptionally flat.” It is dry almost all year and has no vegetation. The area receives about three to four inches of rain a year. The sailing stones are “slabs of dolomite and syenite ranging from a few hundred grams to hundreds of kilograms [that] inscribe visible tracks as they slide across the playa surface.” These tracks are what give the area the name “racetrack.” Until recently, scientists did not know what caused the rocks to move and leave trails in the lake bed. This was the focus of the movie.

Dunning tells us that the we first need to Challenge the concept we are curious about using Hyman’s Maxim: “Do not try to explain something until you are sure there is something to explain.”  With the playa, it has been well documented that the rocks have, in fact, moved in the way described. This satisfied the first of the 3 C’s, “Challenge.”

Next, we need to Consider alternate explanations. “What work have other people done to solve this problem?” Near to my heart, Dunning states that Wikipedia may be a good starting point for an overview and says to read the citations to find “boring and exciting explanations.” He stresses that we should “go with the experts—people who have studied this subject for years…. When you are taking a flight, you want a trained pilot.” Then, “Collect ideas to consider,” keeping in mind the argument against “appealing to authority.” Note that many false authorities, celebrities and people wearing lab coats, may influence someone considering the claim when they have no expertise to make those claims. As far as the playa, people have claimed energy vortexes, UFOs, or the wind are causing the stones to move.

In 2002, Dunning and friends visited and filmed the playa right after sunrise on a very cold morning and found that there was a layer of ice on the lake. They concluded that the strong winds in the area push the ice into the boulders. Because the ground has become wet, the friction between the rocks and ground is reduced, allowing the seemingly immovable rocks to be pushed across the muddy ground. When the ice melts away, the motion stops, the lakebed dries out, and the tracks remain to document the motion of the rocks in the now dry lakebed.

Once you have considered the explanations, Conclude what explanation fits best.  Dunning explains Occam’s Razor, using some quite humorous graphics that will entertain viewers. With Occam’s Razor explained, the viewers are given the various explanations again and asked which seems most likely given what is known.

At the Q&A following the movie premiere, Dunning explained that he wanted a topic that had a scientifically testable explanation that had been recently solved but would not offend or challenge many people’s worldview.  Racetrack Playa was perfect to use in the film as it was a mystery that Dunning was instrumental in solving himself when he and friends visited and filmed the mysterious moving stones in 2002.  Ten years later, scientists proved Dunning’s hypothesis was accurate.

In 2012, researchers set up GPS markers on stones and observed and photographed the results. Over time they were able to prove Dunning’s theory that the stones were moving because of the combination of the ice and wind.

Interviewer Kyle Hill asked Dunning why he was giving the movie away for free. Dunning’s response was that he was most proud to have been able to create the movie completely “crowd-funded, with no business model behind it.” Apparently for years, educators around the world have been writing Dunning, telling him that they use the podcast episodes in their classrooms. Dunning knows that teachers often have to supplement teaching supplies out of their own pockets, and he didn’t want there to be barriers for them to have access to this movie. This movie was funded “by people who are on board with the [Skeptoid Media] mission.” There are twenty-five pages of curriculum that go along with the movie that are available for educators and are aimed at high school and college level students.

Director Ryan C. Johnson was asked what difficulties he ran into filming a movie like this on a tight budget. He said that they had to figure out how to explain difficult concepts like Occam’s Razor and make it appealing to look at. Johnson compliments Dunning, saying that he has a “tremendous ability to take an esoteric concept and distill it down,” breaking the idea into “manageable bite-sized concepts.”

Other questions Dunning answered at the Q&A were about how to get someone to change their mind about the paranormal. He said, “You have to start with common ground. You can get anyone to come around to almost any point of view if you do it starting from common ground.” Using a mystery like the sailing stones, which most people would agree with the solution, they will apply the steps they learned to their “sacred cow” beliefs.

On where Dunning gets his information from, he said it is a difficult question to answer, but he feels that when doing research, you should “seek out the information you disagree with as much as the information you do agree with,” and see what they say about the topic. “It’s a great way to learn the nuances on any topic.”

Before ending this review, I want to quickly support my claim that the paranormal is still quite popular. One of the best places to check to see if a topic is in the public sphere is to check Wikipedia page view stats. I chose the topics mentioned above from some of the Skeptoid podcast titles, not knowing what the results would be. These numbers are from the last ninety days. UFO (111,569 views), Feral Children (123,688 views), ghosts (219,487 views), Minnesota Iceman (5,380 views), Berserker (133,251 views), Dyatlov Pass incident (327,394 views), Mad Gasser of Mattoon (11,799 views), photographic memory (239,155 views), and finally the Racetrack Playa (9,331 views).

So please lend a hand and support the work Brian Dunning and Skeptoid Media are doing to better teach critical thinking and support educators. Share the movie, available at Encourage educators to use it, and subscribe to Skeptoid Media updates in order to learn about new upcoming opportunities you can become involved in. 

Let me close with a quote from the movie: “Making the right decisions is how humanity improves… The scientific method is a way to steer our curiosity.”

Susan Gerbic

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.