Skeptical Phil Makes An Appearance

10 07 2008

Phil Plait spoke at Governor’s School yesterday. I’m glad I was invited down to hear him speak. He did a wonderful job with the students and really demonstrated how cordial one can be while attacking dumb ideas.

As I mentioned before, it did worry me a bit that his enthusiasm for debunking myths, rumors, and lies might get him a somewhat less than glowing reception. Kids aren’t always ready to accept that the beliefs they have, regardless of their origins, could be wrong. (Grown-ups have the same problem!) But these kids have been told all their lives that they’re extra smart and then getting to Governor’s School gives them a sense that their education is on the right track. Telling a kid such as this that his reality has flaws will usually get you a harshly negative reaction. Contradiction is an affront to their intelligence.

We tell kids to use logic to divine truth from misconception, yet many misconceptions are in fact logical. If a kid can see on NASA TV for herself that astronauts are floating around, then there must not be gravity in space. Seems perfectly logical, ignoring the fact that it’s perfectly wrong.

Phil started his talk with his famous “Standing an egg on end” demonstration. Even though this misconception isn’t as widespread as it was a decade ago, it was a great opening. It was simple yet effective — and didn’t truly rattle anyone’s worldview. If he had dove right into the “missing day” myth then some kids would surely have turned him off. But even with a limited amount of time he made an effort to be civil and respectful of their senses. The opening gave him a chance to explain *how* a skeptic should be thinking about what he’s taught.

This led to a monologue about his career and his love of astronomy. Which segued into what attracted me to Phil’s website back around 1999 or so — showing bad science in movies! He showed a clip from Armageddon (which I’ve never actually seen) and then a clip from Deep Impact (which I saw in the theaters — and liked). What Phil probably couldn’t see from the stage lights is that the kids enjoyed the clip from Armageddon immensely. Then he started talking about the bad science. To me much of what he said was obvious, but the kids reacted like it never had occurred to them how bad of a movie it actually was. After bashing Armageddon really good he played the collision scene from Deep Impact. The kids started laughing almost immediately, even though that scene is pretty scientifically accurate. They thought they were supposed to mock it, so they did — without actually paying attention to what Phil was saying. They didn’t know how bad Armageddon was, so they thought it was enjoyable. They didn’t know how accurate Deep Impact was (at least that scene), so they laughed at it. I found this whole spectacle quite fascinating.

Its as though we’re driven by this intense desire to be accepted and only by embracing the reality that those around us have built can we feel connected. And *everyone* wants to feel connected.

From there he was easily able to steer his talk toward his new book, “Death From The Skies!” Smooth, Phil. :o)

Some of the faculty, Phil, and I then had lunch. Bad food. Good company. We chatted until he was late for his question-and-answer session with the science students.

At the end of his time a girl asked him, “Why don’t we just send a probe into a black hole and see what’s inside?” There are so many things wrong with her question that if she had asked me I would have felt obligated to make her re-phrase it. I mean, where do you start? But I watched Phil closely as he didn’t even flinch. He didn’t attempt to explain why her question was really, really bad; but instead briefly explained the disparity in distances between solar system objects and galactic objects. And that was it. He did a wonderful job in deducing what she really wanted to know — “NASA sends probes to other places, why not there?” — and then leaving the looming question of “What’s a black hole?” for her to ask someone else when both of them had more time. But most importantly the answer didn’t make her feel stupid. It was a well-worded response that, though incomplete, treated her as though her question was a good one. It was magic.

I made a comment to Phil earlier in the day about how he could inspire these kids as James Randi did with me on the same stage. But what I didn’t mention was how Randi was somewhat arrogant with the kids. This didn’t bother my class in 1989, nor did it bother the kids in prior years. But finally a year came in which the kids got too sensitive and for that reason The Amazing Randi was never invited back. I appreciate a bit of insolence in my heroes, but today’s youth can’t tolerate elitism — even if only perceived. I was very impressed with the way Phil handled the moment, and I’m quite sure the students went away with a very positive experience.

Phil and I will disagree on many things political, but I’m convinced he would make a great science teacher.




3 responses

10 07 2008
Nick Jones

That sounds like a really good time! None of the speakers were very good when I went to governor’s school. Phil… Mr.Plait sounds like a really cool guy. I love his website but I wasn’t sure how he was as a person; you can’t judge a book by its web page and what not.

11 07 2008
Nick Jones

I am sending this on behalf of Lauren. She does, in fact still love you. Her crappy computer crapped out on her, and she has been internetless for weeks now. She apologizes for her lack of visitation and promises to catch up on everything as soon as she can.

2 08 2008

Thanks for the post

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