Pseudoscientists interview

It’s been a while since I’ve posted but rest assured the club is still going strong. An incredibly hectic school term plus a new baby in my life has limited my blogging time.

About two weeks ago, on the last day of term, Ted Janet came to McKinnon to conduct an interview with Liz Riaikkenen and me. Liz had just spoken for the Vic Skeptics and Ted was keen to spend a little more time listening to what she had to say.

The interview is available on the Young Australian Skeptics website but here is the direct link:

Interview with Ted Janet

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So I’ve only managed to see my SceptiKids twice this term. Sports days, exams, lunchtime meetings and the Queen’s birthday have made things a little tricky. Fortunately though we were able to meet and discuss a very special topic, one dear to most sceptic’s hearts.


In a discussion that made me feel very old, it turned out that most teenagers have no idea who Uri Gellar is. For those of us over the age of 18 we know him as the mentalist who decided to tell the world that his powers were genuine. A large sum of money later and he’s one of the most famous people in the world. Nowadays though his name has taken a bit of a back seat.  Fortunately for us the magicians most known by high schoolers are people like Derren Brown and Penn & Teller. This is a good thing.

Fortunately I’d done some homework on Mr. Gellar and was able to talk to the kids a little about him. Despite him being unknown to them they were still able to understand the ethical problems involved when a magician tells people their powers are real.

We see countless examples every day of how easy people are to fool. I wouldn’t see so many psychic readers on my way to school if they weren’t. It’s pure exploitation and anybody who knowingly deceives people in this way is guilty of it. Not just magicians but peddlers of alternatives to medicines, tarot readers, mediums and more. Sure some of these people genuinely believe in their abilities but their are plenty who don’t.

As Tim Minchin put it in his AMAZING spoken word piece, Storm:

Reading Auras is like reading minds
Or star-signs or tea-leaves or meridian lines
These people aren’t plying a skill,
They are either lying or mentally ill.

What’s great is that so many teenagers can see this. It may not be something that think about a lot but as soon as you ask them “Is it ok for a magician to make people think their powers are real?” you can be guaranteed of getting a great conversation out of them.


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Self-Help Myths

So I haven’t posted anything in over two months and my big questions now is, “Do I have any readers left?”

If the answer is yes then thanks for sticking around!

In case you were wondering, yes the club did continue to run last term. Unfortunately due to time constraints I haven’t had a spare moment to sit down and write anything. Hopefully I will be able to remedy this in the future and give you your weekly dose of whatever rubbish I put out.

Today was the first session for term 2 and it was a great start with around thirty kids present. I had been struggling to come up with a topic when Richard Wiseman saved my neck by sharing a link to an article that appeared in The Age last Thursday. The article was titled “Busting the self-help myths.”

Professor Wiseman has a wonderful book called 59 Seconds which is all about the bad advice given in self-help books. It conveniently offers some better tips and tricks based on actual psychological research. It’s the best book he’s written and one of my favourite non-fiction books.

The article in The Age briefly went over 10 myths and have been popularised by the self-help movement. Ideas such as positive visualisation, seizing the day and believing that anything is possible. While some of these ideas aren’t particularly bad (they’re just wrong), some of them are more likely to hinder rather than help. For example, in 59 Seconds Wiseman points out that visualising success can actually make you less likely to succeed. Better instead to visualise yourself taking the steps required to achieve your goal. Picture yourself actually writing your novel, training on the field or practising scale. For some reason, visualising this from a third person perspective is better!

I’ve put together a small PowerPoint presentation which is available on the Resources page.

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Welcome, 2013!

And we’re back!

After a few weeks of blissful freedom from noisy teenagers the government has demanded that we return to school and continue working. As painful as that usually is I at least know that it means spending more time with the SceptiKids.

We had our first session this afternoon and I was pleased to see a group of first timers. Instead of the normal twenty or so students there were almost forty crammed into the room today. A few were older kids who were aware of the club but hadn’t visited before and others were new year 7s. It’s always nice seeing new people coming along, whether they are friends of members or newbies who want to check it out.

This year we are starting by talking about aliens. From questions of their existence to evidence of UFOs. We began by discussing whether or not we thought aliens existed at all. We defined an alien as any living organism that was born on and had evolved to survive on another planet. Most people agreed that given how many planets there are estimated to be in the universe (roughly 1024) the chances of there being no life at all seems pretty slim. We weren’t even talking about sentient, communicating life either. We’d be happy with simple bacteria.

One important point we considered however was the fact that at this stage of human existence, nobody knows what the answer is. As unlikely as life is we have no yet of telling whether it’s out there or not. Some of the students have seen TV shows that have left them thinking that life was discovered on Titan but hopefully sessions like today will enable to recognise what is real and what is a ratings grabber.

At this stage the discussion changed somewhat. We had a meaningful conversation about whether a pregnant lady would have an alien if she gave birth on Mars which of course led to musings on the mechanics of zero-gravity labour.

Kids today.

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Proud teacher moment

As loathe as I am to promote somebody else’s blog (it’s a competition, right?) I have to send you over to The Young Australian Skeptics for three reasons:

1) A fantastic site redesign

2) An edge-of-your-seat exciting interview with yours truly by the wonderful Ted Janet.

3) A fabulous dinner party survival guide written by one of my very own students, Liz Riaikkenen. She attended the National Convention just recently and was a smash hit. Scoring hugs from Richard Saunders, Rebecca Watson and James Randi she hasn’t looked back and has dived right into the sceptical lifestyle. Here’s hoping she sticks with it and doesn’t become swayed by the appeal of unicorns on the other side.


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Highlights of the Australian Skeptics National Convention

It’s been a month since the Australian Skeptics National Convention and I have been terrible lax in not writing anything about it. It’s actually been a little difficult for me to write anything because I honestly don’t know where to begin.

Simply put, it was one of the best weekends of my life.

Thursday night was a very special (and exclusive!) fund raising dinner. 20 guests got to mingle with James Randi, D.J. Grothe, Brian Thompson and Rebecca Watson for an amazing dinner at the Royal Society of Victoria. The special guests moved around the room to sit at a different table each course. What made the evening wonderful was the opportunity to chat about things non-sceptical with the guests. I discussed Dr. Who fans with Brian, horrible siblings with Rebecca, favourite comic books with D.J. and Isaac Asimov with Randi. Plus, Randi showed us a rude trick you can do with a spoon. Dinner just doesn’t get any better than that.

Friday night kicked off with a meet and greet cocktail party at the Immigration Museum. It was a great way to start the event as it gave me the opportunity to catch up with some people I hadn’t seen in a while (such as Lawrence Leung and Eran Segev) plus meet some people I had been contact with but never met face to face (like Tim Mendham and Lynne Kelly).

Saturday was the big day for me. I was given the opportunity to truly live the expression “hard act to follow” by giving my talk directly after Randi. Fortunately my nerves kept themselves under control and I was able to enjoy his presentation without fear of killing him.

I gave my talk and answered a few questions. I think it went well judging by the laughter. I get nervous making small-talk but I love being in front of a large crowd. I think I should admit that the only reason I became a teacher was for the captive audience.

Later in the day Dr. Krissy Wilson gave a very entertaining talk about her research into the psychology of belief and her research laboratory, Science of Anomalistic Phenomena (SOAP). According to her profile page at the Charles Sturt University website, her main claim to fame is once playing a prostitute on The Bill.

Lynne Kelly gave a riveting talk on the history of oral cultures and some of the techniques they used to remember the vast amount of knowledge needed to survive in the world. Her doctoral theory is that stonehenge is a giant mnemonic device used to record information. What I loved about her work was that everything she said made so much sense and made me think “That’s so obvious! Why didn’t I figure that out?” I love that feeling.

Rebecca Watson gave a fantastic presentation on how to use social media to further the goals of scepticism. She also showed us some interesting techniques that can be used to determine whether or not an image file has been altered. Many photos of cats were also shown.

Saturday evening was capped off with a gala dinner hosted by the wonderfully funny and sardonic Brian Thompson. He shared his thoughts on Australia with us to great applause until he lost us by criticising Vegemite. A rookie mistake which I’m sure he won’t make on his next visit. One of the personal highlights for me happened during the dinner but I will speak of that in a future post.

Sunday was opened with a talk by D.J. Grothe about scepticism around the world. We tend to hear mostly about scepticism in Australia, America and England so it was wonderful to hear about what is going on in other countries.

A thrill for me was when he displayed a photo from my website and said he wished he could bottle me and send me around the world. D.J., I would love to. Also, a 1.5l bottle would easily be big enough.

During question time I asked him whether or not we were winning. His answer was “yes and no”. We are constantly preventing the spread of dangerous thinking but it keeps springing up all over the place. The trick is to not stop fighting.

Lawrence Leung stole the show by giving the funniest talk of convention which was appropriately enough about using comedy to engage people with scepticism. He shared some highlights and behind-the-scenes stories from his sensational TV series,  Unbelievable.

Dr. Rachael Dunlop spoke to us about scepticism in science, and when it can go too far. What is worth delving further into and when should we walk away?

Finishing off the convention was a twitter quiz led by Rebecca Watson. Contestants were Brian Thompson, Lawrence Leung, Richard Saunders and myself. She asked a series of science and scepticism themed questions which we had to answer while the audience sent their responses to the big screen via twitter. I had a wonderful time, especially after making a joke that earned me nothing but silence. A great feeling.

A student of mine was at the convention and Rebecca asked her to be the judge on the quiz. As a teacher the sensation of being marked by a student was an uncomfortable one and one I hope I never have to experience again.

During the lunch break on Sunday I had a moment that I will never forget. James Randi took me aside and showed me an old magic prop of his. He explained what it was and how it worked, then handed it to me and said “I want you have this.”

Day. Made.

All photos shamelessly stolen from Mal Vickers.


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When James Randi visited Sceptic School

James “The Amazing” Randi

So, it turns out that James Randi is indestructible. Like a rare form of extremophile he can survive in just about any environment, from the Arctic wastes to the depths of the ocean.

Or even more impressive, our school lecture theatre.

Randi and Co. turned up at the gates of my school on Thursday the 29th of November, just before noon. A day that for some reason had decided to reach 38°C, the hottest in November in recorded history.

By 11:45 it was already sweltering and I was feeling nervous. Would the students be receptive? Would they behave? Would Randi melt?

After setting up the stage we marched in approximately 300 students and gave them a moment to settle down. As the mass of bodies added their considerable body heat to the temperature of the room, a horrible realisation struck me.

The air conditioning wasn’t working.

Randi playing to a packed house

I had essentially thrown 300 students, teachers, guests of honour and James Randi himself into a sauna. Would this be the end of my sceptical career? Would I go down in history as the man who killed Randi with heatstroke? I do not say this with any sense of exaggeration, I was genuinely worried.

Our head of junior school took to the stage and introduced me, who introduced DJ Grothe who introduced Randi and the show began. Randi asked the students “How do you know things?” A simple question, but a deep one. How much of our own knowledge is based on assumptions?

Randi showed us quite  convincingly how easy it is to make false assumptions by pointing out that he had fooled us from the very beginning. We all assumed he was wearing regular glasses right up until he took them off and showed them to be nothing more than empty frames.

Shocked at his ‘Psychic Surgery’ performance

It punctuated the point that it is incredibly easy to be deceived. Of course, believing that somebody is wearing a pair of glasses isn’t terribly dangerous, but Randi gave us an example of how wrong things could go.

He told us about psychic surgery. A “medical” technique where a psychic surgeon will seemingly penetrate your skin with their bare hands and remove any infected organs.

He showed us a fantastic video of him appearing on the Johnny Carson show where he gave a wonderful demonstration of what it looks like: James Randi – Psychic Surgery He explained how many poor people travel to other countries to have what is essentially a magic trick performed on them. A magic trick that would leave them thinking they had been cured. Most of these people  then return home and die, having failed to receive proper medical treatment.

Randi having fun with his audience

Randi having fun with his audience

While the students found the video equally disgusting and wonderful, they really had an opportunity to understand just how deadly false beliefs could be. They also saw how horribly deceitful and greedy some people are. No better example of that could be found than Peter Popoff. Randi told us about this faith healer who used his con tricks to bilk thousands of people out of thousands of dollars and like the psychic surgeons, preventing them from receiving proper medical help.

With a chilling reminder of how gullible and forgetful people can be, Randi told us that after being publicly exposed as a charlatan, Popoff is now back in business and raking in seven figures a year. More people like Randi are needed to actively fight these criminals wherever they show up.

My students tying up a defenceless, old man.

Unfortunately his talk had to end a little early due to the heat, but not before he performed some magic for the kids. Finding volunteers wasn’t a problem with dozens of kids wanting to take part in the magic. He had a couple of students tie him up and they did not hold back. The two of them were pulling those knots so tightly it was like watching a tug of war. I actually got worried that they were hurting him but Randi barely seemed to notice. If anything he was encouraging them.

He escaped their knots with ease, and then proceeded to perform a second escape in which he slipped his bonds before anybody had even noticed! You could see the years of experience as a magician at work. He wowed the kids so quickly and effortlessly (seemingly, anyway) and I got my first real taste of how he earned the moniker “The Amazing.”

Richard Saunders took to the stage at this point and ran a Q&A session for the kids. Not surprisingly most of the questions were of the “How did you do that trick?” and “Can you do another one?” variety. He must have gotten his second wind because he whipped out a deck of cards and performed a fantastic version of a trick called “Out of this World.”

Randi, master of the sceptical look

It was a wonderful day and one that I never thought I would see happen. To be honest I never expected to meet Randi in person let alone have him speak at my school. I want to thank the Victorian Skeptics for giving me and my students such an amazing opportunity. In particular I want to thank Don Hyatt for spearheading the event.

I must also thank Richard Saunders who stepped up and assisted Randi during his talk when it looked like the heat might be getting the better of him.

On a personal note, thank you D.J. Grothe for helping me relax when I was contemplating the likelihood of going down in history as the sceptic who killed Randi with a heat wave. He  patted me on the back and said “Don’t worry, it’s not even close to worst gig he’s had.”

Thanks, D.J.

All images courtesy of Andrew Krause Imagery.


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