Educating Our Future:
The Young Skeptics Program

Last year, skeptics worldwide celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). In a quarter of a century, CSICOP has become recognized as a beacon of reason in a world threatened by ignorance and infected with superstition. The Skeptical Inquirer, CSICOP's flagship publication, celebrated with articles and remembrances by and about the remarkable men and women who founded the committee, and who continue the fight to keep it alive and well-outstanding skeptics like Paul Kurtz, Carl Sagan, Elizabeth Loftus, Isaac Asimov, Susan Blackmore, James Randi, and especially appropriate here, Bill Nye The Science Guy.

But now I'd like you to go (virtually, or in person) to that wonderful monument to American civilization, the Library of Congress. Read what it says over the (and excuse the alliteration) imposing, pillared portico: "The Past is Prologue." In our age of demotic English, it sounds almost like another language-and perhaps, to a kid in grade six, it is-a language with the dead echo of classical Greek.

How do you get through to that kid?

Well, you translate it into the language of the street, twenty-first century style:

"You ain't seen nothin' yet!"

In spite of the double negative, the kid will get the message. The point is, if we are going to convince the young of the value of skepticism, we are going to have to find a similar street-smart style to do it in.

This is where CSICOP's Young Skeptics Program (YOSKEP) comes in. Launched in 2001, our strengthened commitment to educational programming and development ushered in the new millennium. Not only did the professed end of the world pass us by once again but the dawn of skepticism lit up the skies across the globe.

YOSKEP is here to provide help and support to those people who will look upon those new marvels in amazement. We want to show them how to develop lifetime habits of critical and independent thinking-habits of exercising their brain cells to understand the world around them. Above all, we want to convince them that there is a deep and abiding pleasure in being guided by science and reason.

Science and Education

In America and elsewhere around the globe the educational sector is having a hard time at present. Science education in particular is compromised by communities which seek to ban the teaching of topics such as evolution and the Big Bang. At the same time paranormal issues, creationism, and other aspects of pseudoscience are treated as if they have some kind of rational basis, and should be given credibility and intellectual standing. What can we do? Let's take time out to consider those two important words: Science and education.

First, science-it's not simply a great invention of the human mind and a wonderful aspect of human civilization. Over the last 250 years or so, it has become the most powerful and pervasive influence in our daily lives. You cannot seriously understand modern history without an appreciation of the role science plays in our lives. Because of this, we need to encourage a certain minimum standard of scientific literacy amongst all our citizens. It's needed to empower the individual to follow the pros and cons in public discussions of nuclear power, the missile shield, stem cell research, climate change, genetic modification of crops, environmental contamination, and so on. In the twenty-first century, choices on such issues will have to be made, and it is best that we have an informed citizenry to help our politicians make those choices. That's what a democracy is all about.

Examine the word education and the refrain is the same. The nineteenth century idea of education for all, a wonderful, democratic ideal, is in trouble. You've all heard the scare stories, some of which are true enough to make us fearful that a decent education may not be available to all children now in school. Resources-financial, material, technical, and above all, human-are so stretched that some students may be graduating poorly prepared for the struggles of modern life. They wind up with few defenses against the claims and demands of the charlatans and con artists trying to sell them on one or another of their bogus claims or to convert them to the dogmas that dominate their existence. In the words of the deeply missed Carl Sagan, students need a reliable baloney detector. Where is it to be found? The answer, as before, is in an education that achieves the necessary minimum in scientific literacy. In that kind of an education, the reliable baloney detector turns up in the guise of . . . (if sound effects were possible, this is where I'd cue in the Fanfare for the Common Man) the scientific method.

The scientific method is worth a book (or a shelf full) in its own right. It's all about asking questions and searching for trustworthy answers. As a species, we've tried prayer, putting our trust in established authority, guesswork, philosophical navel gazing, even common sense-but nothing yet discovered or invented beats the scientific method for solving problems.

So, as we see it, the role of the Young Skeptics Program is to help anyone seeking reliable knowledge to learn about this marvelous technique. In promoting scientific literacy we work with students, teachers, family members and the community. We operate at all levels-local, regional, national, and international. We'll work with anybody open minded enough to accept a questioning, questing attitude to the world and our place in it.

Imagine the fresh, bright face of a boy or a girl, looking out on the wonder of life, a lone eyebrow skeptically raised and arched just so. It is a questioning, curious eyebrow, with maybe a wild hair or two shooting off into the air like a skeptical comet in a night sky of ignorance. That's us! The Young Skeptics!

The Educational Program

So our overall challenge for the new century is to help create and support an educational system that turns out healthily skeptical people with a good chance of coming unscathed through the flims and flams to which they are subjected. To this end, we aim to see that teachers are provided with the training, materials, and support to organize high-quality presentations and activities to help students navigate successfully amidst the confusion of our times. We will work to ensure that parents are able to find the products and opportunities that create entertaining and effective learning programs within the home environment and that provide balance to any ill-informed opinions they may come across. In addition, we seek to provide students with the scientific and skeptical background to resist irrational ideas and beliefs encountered within the various media or elsewhere.

Throughout our first year the Young Skeptics Program has amassed a veritable gold mine of syllabi from various sources. Go to our online collection and browse in the lush pastures there. You'll find pseudoscience and paranormal topics displayed and examined in a responsible manner-that is to say, from a perspective soundly based in science and skepticism. The collection houses lesson-modules as well as material and other resources that can be incorporated into, or used to supplement, classroom curricula at all age levels. It continues to grow, the result of systematic, hard work and the unselfish sharing of materials by educational professionals.

We have CSICOP's experience of twenty-five years to call on, an unparalleled record of skeptical investigations and research into the twilight world of the bogus. This priceless resource is ideal for demonstrating the power of the scientific method to open up magical and mysterious claims to the searchlight of skepticism. Educators in particular will find these materials useful in inspiring their students to ask searching questions and to demand reliable answers.

Right now, many developments are taking place that can be mentioned only in passing. We are creating course material and seminars in topics such as the techniques of critical thinking; we are expanding our Science vs. Pseudoscience Instructional Kit and developing further resources of this kind; we are creating and compiling a warehouse of activities, events and resources, including materials for self-education and continued learning; we are inviting guest specialists to give overviews of topics that are of interest to Young Skeptics; we are attending educational conventions and exploring new and mainstream venues where we can raise awareness and build support for our efforts; we are collaborating with other organizations and groups with similar goals; and so on-it boggles even the skeptical mind. Come to think of it, that's not a good choice of words. We're out to stimulate minds, not to boggle 'em.

Outside the Classroom

I may have given the impression that as far as our educational initiatives are concerned, the classroom is where it's at. In fact there are many possible venues. Sit down with a bunch of friends and brainstorm the issue. What other venues can you come up with? There are many worth considering for the educational opportunities they afford:

Do you know about bees in bonnets-favored ideas that you just have to pursue, come what may? Well, mine is the Exploring Imaginary Worlds Project. Yes, it may sound more like a bat in my belfry, but don't laugh, I think I'm on to something.

Go back a few months, to the premiere of the Harry Potter film. Remember all those kids who dragged their parents, screaming and kicking, to see it? (Many parents, of course, were as eager to view the film as their children were!) Amazingly, to begin with, those kids were turned on by the written word-by the written word in the form of an exciting, well-told tale of adventure. Many took their books along, the way fans of classical music take copies of the score to concerts. Those kids were incandescent with delight and wonder. We have to find a way to harness that energy-we could use it to light up the night sky of ignorance.

Now here's the idea. Works of authors such as J.K. Rowling, Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Edith Nesbit, and others, contain brilliantly realized worlds that young readers grow to know and love in minute detail. They provide a major highway into a person's imagination. I believe that an inspired guide could use that highway to communicate more readily with a young person than may be possible by more conventional means. The imagined world can be used in comparison with the actual world, to help young people distinguish between fantasy and reality-without ruining their enjoyment of either of course but in fact celebrating the wonders of both. You can show where the logic of the fictional creation jibes with the world we know, and where it falls apart. It's like doing an experiment with worlds, using the one we live in as the control, even exploring what properties a universe would require to allow one or another of the imaginary worlds to exist. It's a neat demonstration of the scientific method in other words.

A child's curiosity begins without boundaries. The very same characteristics that draw a young person to science might also lead to an interest in other areas-perhaps every area to be found within our glorious universe and many more besides! Many skeptics can relate to this unquenchable thirst for understanding and the desire to explore and discover everything, as Douglas Adams may have said. Parents can take comfort in knowing that the endless "whys" may be the first sign of this lifelong interest in learning-an interest, mind you, that is not synonymous with belief or credulity nor must it be devoid of all skepticism. We, dear readers, are proof of this.

Children enjoy traveling to magical places like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, make-believing they are great warriors battling the demons of the netherworld. They have fun spending entire afternoons searching for four-leaf clovers. They are delightfully frightened by the latest in horror or science fiction-suspending any disbelief they may have and jumping in fear at all the right moments. They may even dream about being a superhero one day, flying high in the sky, seeing through walls with their X-ray vision and saving the world from complete annihilation.

So what do we do about all of these fanciful notions?

We explore and we imagine right alongside them!

We pack our bags and travel to the lands of make-believe-comparing what we find with our own world, examining both the differences and similarities between fantasy and reality and discussing the discoveries of science that may effect what's possible and what's not in the particular universe we inhabit. We travel in all directions leaving no stone unturned.

But . . . like any good traveler we packed our bags carefully for our survival in the wilds of the imagination. We brought along our science, our creative and critical inquiry and most important of all, perhaps, our skepticism.

And what happens to our children? Why, they become the great comic book writers, explorers, movie directors, and scientists of tomorrow. In other words, they become our superheroes.

The Young Skeptics Program will be celebrating its first anniversary and showcasing the highlights of the program at the upcoming Fourth World Congress sponsored by CSICOP June 20-23 in Los Angeles, California.

The congress theme is entirely appropriate - The Future