I teach seventh grade earth science in a rural school in northern Massachusetts. An important part of understanding science as a process, and not just a body of knowledge, is understanding the scientific method. So, for the past decade I have been introducing the scientific method in a rather unique way: I use the paranormal.
For the first few weeks of every school year, my class uses subjects of the paranormal to investigate the scientific method. We discuss UFOs, ghosts, Big Foot, the Loch Ness monster, Ouija, psychics, dowsing, the Bermuda Triangle, crop circles, and many other old favorites.
I begin the discussion of each topic by having the students tell what they know, or think they know, about the phenomenon. They usually relate anecdotes about UFOs or ghosts or what they have learned on television (“Alien Autopsy,” Nostradamus, “Unsolved Mysteries,” etc.).
After looking at the quality of evidence for belief in the phenomenon, we shift to the skeptical viewpoint. For this, I use my complete set of back issues of Skeptical Inquirer and several titles published by Prometheus Books. The students can see that the evidence for the phenomenon dissipates rapidly when held up to a skeptical investigation. They also come to understand some of the many reasons why people make such claims; from honest mistakes to outright fraud.
Finally, we do a little experiment of our own with a Ouija board.
The Ouija Experiment
Many kids have played with Ouija boards, especially at sleepovers. In class, my students tell of their experiences, and many of them believe that something paranormal did happen.
To begin the experiment, I ask what the students believe was “paranormal” about their experiences. They say such things as, “The indicator moved by itself; we didn’t push it,” or, “There are spirits who know the answers to all questions, and it is they who move the indicator through our fingers.”
I then ask the two students who appear to be the most fervent believers to carry out the experiment. I explain that the question asked to the Ouija board will be one to which only I know the answer. (It’s usually something like, “Where was Mr. Barrieau’s maternal grandmother born?”) An envelope with the correct answer inside is then shown to the class and kept in my pocket.
To get the class to take this seriously, I announce that if the Ouija board answers the question precisely, I will give everyone in class an A for the year and they won’t have to come to class again. This definitely gets their attention!
The two students selected to operate the Ouija board then sit opposite each other. Two other students hold a large piece of oak tag under the operators’ chins so that the operators can’t see their own laps. I then place the Ouija board (one that a student has brought in and “works”) on their laps so that the orientation of the board is unknown to the operators. The indicator is put on the board and the students place their fingers on it. Another student is assigned to record where the indicator stops each time the operators say that it has. This recorder positions himself or herself to see the board while the operators cannot.
My question is given to one of the operators who asks it to the Ouija board. When the operators are satisfied that the answer has been given, the recorder writes the information on a piece of paper. Then I hand the envelope to the recorder, who opens it and writes my answer on the chalkboard. The recorder then writes the operators’ answer next to mine. A groan goes up after the first couple of letters are written. (They really wanted that A.)
Of course the Ouija has never even produced a word, much less an accurate answer. Protests are immediate: “It wasn’t dark!” “We didn’t have a candle!” “We weren’t in a circle!” This is when I introduce the idea of eliminating variables and invite them to set up their own experiments at home doing just that.
I realize that I am not a scientist and that this experiment has holes in it big enough for James Randi to levitate through. But with this age group, it seems to work very well.
As we discuss other paranormal subjects, I ask the students to think of ways they might test the claims. Many good answers surface, and discussion on how to eliminate variables gets lively. When we finish this section, I ask the students to make posters to illustrate the phrase Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. The poster voted the best is placed in a prominent spot on the wall for the rest of the year.
So, after this paranormal unit do all of my students become skeptics? Yeah, right. But some do become skeptical about some of the topics. And at least the seed has been planted in others, and we can only hope for future germination.
Drawbacks and Dangers
Obviously I am biased and really like this approach. Others are biased in different ways and really don’t like it.
Every year parents complain about my “teaching the paranormal.” Often, all they need is a face-to-face explanation of what is going on to calm their fears. But some parents complain to the administration and try to get me to cease and desist. I have been called “Satan’s tool,” “occultist,” “demonic,” and so on. The administration has given me support, and then withdrawn it under pressure.
It would be much easier to drop this section and introduce the scientific method in the standard textbook manner. But I’ve done it that way, and the students seem to understand and absorb at a much higher level with this approach.
If we give in to irrationality, the students and, I believe, the country will suffer.