Skeptic outreach: Talking to kids about the end of the world

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This is a year of speaking “firsts” for me. I never did a panel. But my first workshop/panel went great (at TAM). I never talked to kids before but my trip to the local elementary school’s third grade with my bag of rock samples went splendidly.

Back in March, our local YMCA asked parents to volunteer to be guest speakers for their teen summer camp. I suppose most adults are called in to talk about their jobs or their hobbies, but I saw an opportunity to talk to kids about critical thinking. Specifically, about the 2012 Mayan apocalypse. My own daughter (13 at the time) had expressed curiosity about the Mayan calendar and the end of the world prediction. She revealed that lots of her friends believed in strange stuff she KNEW (from me) was nonsense, including the 2012 scenario. Kids get their information from media and their peers (who share even more media with them). They are influenced by what they see on TV. It shapes their idea of what is normal and accepted in our culture. I can hardly imagine other kids talking to their parents about paranormal and mystical topics and I shudder to think what information they might get in return. Not many families apply skepticism to their daily lives as openly as mine.

I could not pass up this outreach opportunity for a captive audience of just the right age (11-14).

What follows is some detail on how to do these kinds of talks just in case you ever get the opportunity to do one yourself. Even if it’s not about 2012, you can still talk to kids about how to think about psychics, ghosts, alternative medicine, whatever. THIS is the age you can make an impact. They are interested in knowing. What strikes them, they remember.

For the past month, I collected bits and pieces about the topic. I knew enough about it to answer most questions I thought they would pose. I had located an informative but short (3 minute) video that helped explain the topic details I wanted to emphasize. It was a video put together by JPL featuring Don Yeomans that picked apart the main agents of destruction proposed by doomsday proponents. But what I really didn’t know (and what I counted on to be the most important part of the talk) was what the KIDS thought of the subject. What did they know? Did they believe in the coming 2012 disaster? How did they know?

I started by telling them who I was, what I do (geologist) and that I was going to talk about something completely different. I explained that I do “skeptical activism” in order to teach people how to question what they see and hear. Applying skepticism means to ask for evidence to support claims seen on TV or spread by others. Lots of people believe certain things are true because others just tell them so. We get by in life pretty well on this. But, some claims are more important to think about and may have no scientific evidence for support. I gave examples: witchcraft, crystal healing, pyramid powers, alien abductions, hauntings. The examples ranged from things that most young people think sounds silly to things they might actually still believe. This is dangerous ground. At no time did I even venture near religion. But also at no time would I have disparaged them for ANY belief. That’s not what I was there for.

To illustrate the danger of believing without evidence, I told the story of the fake bomb detection device. A relevant, powerful story resonates with kids. I didn’t pull punches with this one. They understood people probably died because of someone else’s greed and duplicitous behavior.

Then I got down to the topic at hand, the 2012 myth. Here’s what happened.

When asked, about half the crowd of 14 said they had heard of the 2012 story. About 5 thought it may have some plausibility. Maybe more did but didn’t raise their hands. Regardless, almost half had seen the 2012 movie which certainly put images in their heads. This was a topic they could relate to, they KNEW something about, they could grasp it. I had their attention. (Even the counselors were listening intently, I noticed.)

During our discussion, where I also allowed them to comment, they told me about what they had heard might happen, what they think could happen and what they were afraid MIGHT happen. We discussed where the story came from, why people might tell such a story and how its retelling gets bigger and better through time. They volunteered their conclusions that many people tell this story to other because they really believe it’s true while others are in it mostly for money or recognition. A few who frequently spoke up (mostly boys), were already born skeptics or well on their way, thinking through these ideas for themselves based on their own experiences. (I hoped the fact that I was a girl was a positive point to the young girls there. Being informed and speaking out is just as much a female role as a males.)

Three boys shared their distinct fear of meteors destroying the earth. They told me they were worried one was going to smash us to bits. One even admitted he often scans the night sky worried he’ll see one coming and had bad dreams about it. They knew a meteor strike heralded the demise of the dinosaurs, maybe one was going to do us in. I assured them that LOTS of astronomers were also scanning the sky looking for such things. If a big one was coming, we’d probably know beforehand. They seemed concerned. (I plugged Bad Astronomer‘s Death from the Sky.) I hope I effectively transmitted the message that scientists and amateurs out there were doing their best against this menace.

We touched on how people react to end of the world predictions. The end of days is a widespread fear. Kids think about this too. They worry. It’s worthwhile to validate those fears that we ALL share. This audience wasn’t aware how many thousands of times various doomsayers predicted the end of the world (yet, I pointed out, we’re still here). Some people overreact – they plan (like the Doomsday Preppers), some disrupt their lives, some even commit suicide. I think these are powerful stories to discuss. But, make no mistake, these kids were willing to share their ideas and their fears about the scariest things – even the end of the world.

I made sure to add the reassurances. So, not only did I get to explain that the 2012 idea is a full-on phony tale but that they needn’t worry about the end of the world. We even ventured into more plausible scenarios like economic crises and global warming. Yes, they asked if global warming was a hoax. I told them very matter of fact, “No, it’s very real and here’s why…” That was another opportunity not to be missed. Grabbed it.

Never once did I tell them their views were stupid or wrong. I never said people who believed such things were gullible. I did not go the scientism route by saying “If it’s not scientific, it’s garbage.” Because, anyone with half a thinking brain would recognize such tactics would succeed only in closing their ears to my words and their mind to my ideas. I respected them in their place and they, in turn, respected me in mine.

I hope that two things came out of this: that they remember to ask of others the questions I asked them and that they are realistic about 2012 end of the world stories from here on out. I’d like to think that because I talked to them directly – all of us sitting at one table, involving them, hearing their views, not being the lecturer – that maybe they absorbed at least a bit of what I had to say. Maybe they trusted my information. Ironically, my advice was: if they hear something that sounds suspicious or scary or a bit weird, they should ask questions and try to look for other sources to find what the evidence for it may be. By inquiring, they gain control and are less likely succumb to scams, untruths and nonsense delivered by the media and incredulous voices around them. This is a hard thing to convey in a half hour chat but it was a way to plant a seed.

If you get a chance to tell kids about how to think critically, do it. It’s not hard and it’s so worth it. Kids want to know it’s going to be OK. Give them the tools and encouragement to discover that for themselves.

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6 thoughts on “Skeptic outreach: Talking to kids about the end of the world

  1. Great job! Teaching skepticism without the cynicism. Far too many people thing skepticism = cynicism. While both involve asking questions and looking for evidence, the two lead down very different paths. Skepticism incorporates respect and leads to a conclusion about what positive action can be taken. Cynicism involves tearing down and leads to a paralysis of action due to hopelessness.

  2. Great job. I recently talked to my kids about it, emphasizing the huge number of amateur astronomers all over the world, including myself, who gaze at the sky every night and would surely spot anything amiss. Whenever we went outside at night I would point out all the bright stars and finish with, “Nothing new tonight.”

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