Sceptic School: The Critical Thinking Cult Experience

Sceptic School: The Critical Thinking Cult Experience

So there’s this school. And there’s this lunchtime club at this school. And there’s a teacher who runs this club, whose lifetime validation comes from a bunch of rotten, juice-​​excreting, soft and squishy teenagers. It’s only recently come to my attention how much everybody else is giving this lunchtime club credence.

You might have heard it mentioned around. It got a fair bit of buzz when James Randi stopped by for a visit. Even before that, the media took an interesting take on this little lunchtime club, its creator appearing on national television and all. And surely if the JREF cohorts and Richard Saunders would care to stop by, there’s something really special about this club.

They call it Sceptic School. Adam vanLangenberg is the humble maths teacher that sacrifices his only time away from hypercritical children to instead plop them back into a classroom. And I am one of these rotton, juice-​​excreting, soft and squishy teenagers.

For the record, we call it the McKinnon Sceptical Society, or Sceptical Society for short, or Skeptics for shorter— and we call our dearest teacher Mr. V.

This club is exactly what is sounds like: discussion about things. We take on the values of the mainstream scientific skeptic community and start talking. I really wish there was a punchline here, but that’s really what it is: a great time.

There’s something strangely humble about taking a lunge into the centre of the skeptical core, meeting the heavyweights, experiencing Randi and the posse, being ironically looked up to for being small of age, short on wisdom, and big in ego — and then coming back to school on a Monday and victimizing my lunchtime for this cause. Walking into the little C block classroom is the best part. Plastered on one of the pinboards is about ten posters of a project by Year 9s and each poster has the identical title but each one has its own unique scrawl up the top saying “Sexualization in Media.” Each poster is also complete with appropriate diagrams.

How we manage to stay focused on psychics and homeopathy, I have no idea.

We are an unruly bunch of kids, there is hardly anyone with a twentieth of a functioning braincell, but between us we might have approximately one. And I’m sure most of that single braincell is made up of Mr. V’s own grey matter. The glamour dissipates when you realise that we’re a bunch of roudy school children that quickly veer off on tangents and are overly excited about nerdy things. But that’s the fun of it.

Discussions I’ve witnessed always happen upon the most profound, fascinating and intellectual subjects, and at most five minutes later dissolve into uncouth conversation about the Moon and its (lack of) connection to menstrual cycles, left-​​handed people being awesome, labour on other planets and Doctor Who.

The strange thing is the conversation always veers back to a profound subject in the end when a stray dormant synapse spontaneously functions and somebody begins to think. Those are special moments, and they make me proud. What makes me even prouder is that they happen more often in the McKinnon Sceptical Society than in the general classroom population.

Recently I gave a short talk to a bunch of adults about the malleability of children and how “soft and squishy” our minds are. Along with appropriate light-​​hearted stabs at the old, grey, bearded skeptic stereotype, I hope I did my best to highlight the difference in the paradigms between the general sceptical community and the products of Sceptic School. There is a clear societal distinction between being a teenage girl skeptic and being the middle-​​aged male skeptic. But in Sceptic School, I think there are the same amount, if not more regular female attendees than there are male. And there are significantly more junior than there are senior students. A huge surprise for Mr. V and the further I find out about the society and culture I’ve been surrounded with, the more I’m surprised about the paradigm.

The hard sciences isn’t necessarily something girls are interested in less than boys are, but see it less as a viable career and more of a side interest. This has been reinforced by my society all my life and until recently all I would have considered is a creative, soft-​​edged career. But in that room, we become invisible to society’s influences and I can feel every artsy idea, every cutesy love poem, every whimsical fantasy crunch under the weight of logic for an hour. It sounds painful, but it’s a nice escape to reality.

The secret of this club’s success is that teenagers will readily express themselves in that environment and because of the age of students our pliability is at a high. You notice the difference between talking to adults and children about rationality and reason after you go out into the real world and argue with family friends about climate change and acupuncture. Most leave still understanding, but for that brief lunchtime everyone understands that the science points to human-​​induced climate change and a roundish Earth and placebos and unicorns.

We are still formulating what to believe in and something I’ve heard many times now, we don’t have that baggage to deal with that most adults do. We haven’t believed in one ridiculous thing for twenty years and we don’t have that ego conservation to deal with. They have voluntarily offered their time, and if by the end they didn’t agree with skepticism in the slightest, their cognitive dissonance will hopefully disallow them from believing it was a waste of time to come along. It’s a win win situation.

We go on evidence here. I’ve noticed that the others are getting so much better at providing a nice big juicy chunk of evidence as opposed to anecdote. I don’t think they even notice, but I always knew the best type of cult brainwashing was subliminal.

We snide little buggers know how to call out BS. But the difference that critical thinking makes when it is actively taught, is then we know how and when to apply it, because classic cynicism comes naturally and skepticism doesn’t always. That’s the important part.

I applaud anyone that can keep a teenage audience captivated long enough to implant a message and have them actually apply it to their lives. Hearing about critical thinking classes is the US make me all warm and fuzzy inside, knowing there are other children who elected to be taught these things, just like there are other teenagers who elect to be brainwashed with me every week.

Before the McKinnon Sceptical Society came up, I had my own history with skepticism. When Mr. V first stood up at general assembly and announced his lunchtime testing of ESP and psychic ability and the fact that his star sign was unicorn, I was through about a third of the episodes of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. I was probably the only other person in this school of 1400 kids and 100+ teachers to know what skepticism was at the time. I came to the first Skeptics meeting, where surely maybe a hundred kids were packed into this small classroom in C Block. Exposure to skepticism: a fantastic beginning to a thriving cult.

For the first year that Sceptic School was running, I sadly had to leave early at lunchtimes so I couldn’t make it, but in the next year I revealed myself as a skeptic and began coming to meetings. I can’t quite remember back that far to my return to the Skeptics after a year since coming to do the ESP test, but I don’t think it scarred me too badly. It’s not a boring lunchtime in the slightest, and it’s not your classic bookclub either.

After all I did come back the next week and I haven’t stopped coming back since, and there are many regular attendees who also come scampering back. There are people I have formed strong friendships over Sceptic School and even good friends of mine that can’t keep coming to meetings but are fully converted.

Now that I think about it, every last friend to awkward acquaintance I know of who has ventured to Sceptic School is a filthy skeptic now. You won’t see that sort of conversion in an adult population.

But this group does make me worry about one thing however. Its misrepresentation of unicorns really does instil fear in my heart. What are we doing allowing such misinformation, and telling our children that unicorns don’t exist? I think it is a gross underestimation and oversimplification of the reality. If parents knew that their children were being exposed to such anti-​​unicorn propaganda, I’m sure they would object.

If you want to read more on Sceptic School and read up on Mr. V’s take on his slimy teenagers, visit scepticschool​.com but make sure to be disillusioned on his view of unicorns, they are flawed and bigoted ideas based on a preconception.  I think that will be all.

And for those irritated my interchange of ‘c’ and ‘k’ in the word sc/​keptic, may I make it up to you with my nice chewy mental cookie I send telepathically in apology. ‘C’ is used in the names of the club, because I don’t want to butcher the proper nouns, and ‘k’ is used in cases of a common noun, as per the general Young Australian Skeptics spelling.

[Feature image from scepticschool​.com]