Susan Gerbic talks with Katie Dyer about her CSICon Experience

Susan Gerbic

Katie Dyer is an Associate Professor at California State University, Fresno. She works in Child and Family Science. She studies parent education and infant sleep. She also teaches research methods and talked about results of one of her studies this past October at CSICon 2016. Her presentation at the Sunday Papers was called, “Evaluating Education for Critical Thinking: Can College Classes Reduce Belief in Nonsense?”

Susan Gerbic: Katie, what a great time we had at CSICon 2016; I’m really looking forward to seeing you again this year. Same place I’m told, at the Excalibur, October 26–29, 2017. You have been coming to these skeptic conferences for only a few years, what keeps you coming back?

Katie Dyer: My first TAM was 2011, so I’ve been to four TAMs and one CSICon. I keep coming back because it is such great fun! A gathering of people who like to talk about intellectual things and the implications of logic and science? This is what I think about all the time. These are the issues that I read about, that I talk to my friends about. Professionally, I confront these issues every day. And they matter! Because I study children and families, I’m concerned about things like the anti-vax movement threatening the health and well-being of families across the globe. I’m concerned about how memories are formed and distorted because I’m concerned about finding the truth about child abuse allegations based on those memories. I want to protect grieving parents from so-called “psychics” who exploit them as they suffer. I’m concerned about taxpayer dollars being used to send classical music CDs to pregnant women out of a belief in the Mozart Effect when that money could be used to provide health care instead. These are the reasons I care about teaching my students about skepticism. And CSICon is a place where I can meet up with folks interested in the same things. It’s really great intellectual fun.

Photo by Karl Withakay.

Gerbic: Your paper presentation was about how college students with critical thinking “priming” can get more out of a class than those that do not. Is that a fair assessment? Can you please tell readers more about your study?

Dyer: You must know that researchers love nothing better than a request to talk about their research! So, thank you! My colleague Ray Hall and I studied the effectiveness of critical thinking classes in terms of reducing students’ epistemically unwarranted beliefs. We wondered if it is enough to teach students how science works. If they know how science works, will they automatically be able to spot the problem when something other than science is offered to support a claim? The answer based on our research was “no.” That’s just not enough. We studied about 800 college students, some in research methods classes, others in a critical thinking class that directly addresses pseudoscience, and the remainder a comparison group who received neither intervention. We found that students in the comparison group didn’t change their beliefs at all, but neither did the students in the research methods classes. Only students who were actively instructed about pseudoscience reported reduced belief in various kinds of epistemically unwarranted beliefs. We concluded that students do not easily transfer their understanding of science to issues where people are actively trying to fool them. Instead, it is necessary to explicitly discuss how pseudoscience works to fool people. When we show them exactly the tricks that are used (including the tricks our own brains play on us), then students do reduce their epistemically unwarranted beliefs. Critical thinking education must be explicit about instructing students what to watch out for.

Gerbic: Do you feel that universities can learn from this? Have you heard of others that are attempting to implement this in their classrooms?

Dyer: We teach at a university in the California State University (CSU) system, which is somewhat progressive on this point. The CSU system requires all students to take a critical thinking class before a bachelor’s degree will be awarded in any discipline. It is part of our General Education (GE). We suggest that classes that fulfill this GE requirement should explicitly address nonsense, use real-life examples of pseudoscience to instruct students about logical fallacies and problems with perception, rather than assuming that students will automatically infer these lessons.

And yes, we do know many others who are teaching critical thinking this way already. The many teachers who come to CSICon are doing this. We have met teachers at all levels who come to this conference. They are looking for inspiration, for encouragement, for material they can use in their own classrooms. Ray and I have been inspired to document these educational efforts, at least at the University level where we work, and empirically investigate the results so that all of us can continue to develop an evidence-based pedagogy.

Gerbic: How young should we be trying to teach critical thinking to children? Are there best practices that already exist?

Dyer: These are great questions, but ones to which I don’t have the answers, I’m afraid. One of the things that make these difficult questions is that scholars have not yet settled on any operational definitions of “critical thinking.” I think most would agree that it has to do with the ability to evaluate claims in such a way that false claims can be identified as false. But that is very broad as it is, and I hear lots of educational leaders talking about critical thinking as far more broad than that! So if we haven’t yet agreed on what critical thinking is, then it’s hard to nail down any of the other details. But research on cognitive development suggests that humans develop the capacity for scientific thought (the tradition of Jean Piaget refers to this as “formal operations” or “hypothetico-deductive reasoning”) in early adolescence. That is probably when kids become capable of these components of scientific thinking. I believe that the groundwork is often laid before that, but I can’t really test that claim until we get some agreement on what we’re actually talking about.

Photo by Susan Gerbic.

Gerbic: Let’s talk about CSICon 2016 now. Tell me about some of your favorite parts. (Katie, I want to hear about lectures and also at least one thing that happened outside the lectures, remember we are trying to encourage people to attend this year.)

Dyer: I know some TAM and CSICon attendees say that the magic happens in the hallways: meeting up with old friends, making new ones, the energy and camaraderie and such. I don’t disagree that the hallways are great, but personally I love the talks. It’s rare that I miss a single one. Often, I’m starstruck. We had some genuine heroes on site in 2016. Paul Offit. He does great work, tirelessly, for the health of our world. I think he’s a hero, and I loved seeing him give another talk. Same for Michael Mann. These two men have improved our world by working on behalf of truth. So to see them at CSICon makes me swell with pride at the movement of which I am a part. And I have some academic, intellectual heroes who attended too: Elizabeth Loftus, Carol Tavris, and Eugenie Scott. These professional women are my role models. I got to hear them each offer a professional address, and I was also able to chat them up a bit casually. Wow!

My other favorite part of the meeting is when I get surprised, when I learn about something I hadn’t expected. For instance, I really enjoyed Joe Schwarcz’s lunchtime talk about his work confronting nonsense in chemistry and Kevin Folta’s talk about pseudoscience in agriculture. The Sunday Papers always provide this and did so again in 2016. The sheer variety of the talks is very exciting. Algorithms, football, blood type, chemtrails, and courtroom drama! It was fabulous!

And of course, to have Mr. Randi and Deyvi in attendance, always free with hugs and conversation. That’s a treat.

Gerbic: CSICon has this fun element that makes it stand out from other skeptic conferences. That is that it happens near Halloween, and they do a fun Halloween party. I know you and your husband, Ray, came as social media? What was that all about?

Dyer: Yes, we did! Well, I think Halloween is great fun. I have a costume party in my department at Fresno State every year; my colleagues and I usually do it up big. My children (I have four daughters) have been in on this their whole lives, and we generally take our costumes very seriously, planning them out many months in advance. Every year, we try to find a group costume idea that we can all get on board with, and every year we can’t manage it. Until 2016, that is. Somehow, we settled on the idea of iPhone apps, and everyone agreed to participate. Ray was Instagram (because he posts there nearly every day as @physicsfun, sharing videos of physics toys with more than a half-million followers), and I was Facebook (for no comparable reason, it’s just something I use every day). My four daughters dressed up as Spotify, Neflix, SnapChat, and Ray’s son was Audible and his cousin was What’sApp?. It was a massive group costume success, and probably the only one we will ever have a family full of independent-minded people! Ray and I came to Vegas as a small envoy of our Family of Apps!

Gerbic: Can’t wait to see you and Ray at the next CSICon. Same place: Excalibur Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. Same weekend: October 26–29, 2017. Readers make sure you arrive in time for the Workshops on Thursday morning and stay until Monday. So much happens on Sunday night. CSICon has great lectures but the social aspect is something you should not miss, and socializing is happening all throughout, so get a lot of sleep before you arrive and expect to catch up on it Monday.

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.