I want my students to be sceptics. I believe that in the present age scepticism is more important than ever. Easy access to information, ease of publishing, scams and confidence tricksters combine to create a climate where blind trust is dangerous for our security, our finances and our knowledge bases. For students of all ages a healthy dose of scepticism is much needed not just so they may reveal falsehoods but to allow them to discover new truths.
One way that I encourage scepticism is by teaching my students about the dangerous and life threatening chemical Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO). An annual lesson on the topic has become a tradition for Year Six students. DHMO is described as a threat to life n the planet, a chemical used as frequently in the production of nuclear and chemical weapons as it is in agriculture. It is found in our foods, our rivers, our oceans and is the most significant contributor to global warming. It is found in the bodies of patients with all manner of serious diseases, is linked to the spread of malaria and the plague. DHMO is described as an unregulated chemical that like Chlorofluorocarbons should be banned or at least regulated. Students are shown websites such as http://www.dhmo.org/ and Ban DHMO along with a slideshow of facts. They are encouraged to take action and use their political voice to regulate this dangerous chemical. At this point they are not invited to conduct independent research and interestingly none ask for time to do this, they believe what they have been told and what they have read on two websites. Within thirty minutes they are preparing campaigns and drafting letters to politicians.
Before things go too far we reveal the truth. We unpack the chemistry - Di means two, hydrogen is an element, mono means one, oxide is a name for oxygen. After some thinking time and some questions it dawns on a few that indeed DHMO is water (H2O). The realisation quickly spreads. Some realise they have been tricked, others worry that they may never drink water again. The information is reviewed and the truth of each claim is addressed but now in a new light. Indeed DHMO is used to make weapons and is used in agriculture along with its use in almost every industry, after al it is water and water is commonly used in many processes. It is found in our foods and in in our bodies. It is found in very large quantities in rivers and oceans and yes fish are literally swimming in it. It does cause deaths due to inhalation, we even have a name for it as it is so common - drowning. As a gas (steam) it causes severe burns and in the atmosphere as water vapour and clouds it contributes to global warming.
At this point the students want to understand why they were lied to. Some get it on their own, others need to be told. We want you to be sceptical, we want you to question information, to look for truth and to check every source of data. We don’t want you to be easily fooled by information that is wrong, false or deliberately misleading. We don’t want you to be fooled by scams and tricksters who will use every tool they have available to convince you to trust them. Some of the students get it others need some more time. We look at other frauds and false websites, we look at internet memes such as bottle kittens and the strangely beautiful and mysterious tree octopus. We consider the benefits of dehydrated water and why this might be slightly impossible. By now most are getting the idea but I need to check their understanding so I ask one more question and discover that some are still not getting the message.
I ask the class can you trust information you find in a book. The answer from most is 'yes'. Books are trusted sources of information they have editors and publishers. That editors and publishers may be biased, might make mistakes, use unreliable sources of information, does not occur to these students. That books might be out of date, that the information may have changed, that the facts could have evolved since the book was written does not occur to the students. They have been taught not to trust Wikipedia but take as truth anything published in a book. This trust extends to other media too. If it is in a documentary on television it can be trusted. If it is on the news it can be trusted but it might be biased if it is political. Encyclopaedias are like dictionaries, never wrong. They need to become sceptics. They understand somewhat the need to uncover falsehood in certain places but do not yet grasp the need to question accepted wisdom, to ask, as it were 'how do we know the world is flat?'
My hope is that, from this discussion and the follow up that goes with it the students understand that they must check their facts and do so carefully; always. Trusting multiple sources alone is no guarantee. Using their instincts for what seems truthful and what seems far-fetched may help somewhat but not entirely. Asking questions that seek to uncover the truth or otherwise in the facts presented to them is a step in the right direction. Extending their use of tools for collaboration to making contact with experts can help. Knowing how to filter search results to specific sites, to universities, to specific countries or domains (e.g. .gov) are all useful strategies for students to use.
What begins to emerge is an understanding that with access to all of the world’s information, comes a responsibility to use it wisely and to use this access to check the validity of everything. To avoid the dangers that come with living in an information rich world we all need to be much more sceptical.
by Nigel Coutts