Posted by: Ticktock | January 25, 2009

Sharing Skepticism With Children – Is It OK?

These days, it seems like children are being insulated from so many potential dangers that adults have to second guess every adult-child conversation they have. For instance, yesterday the young actors in my play at the children’s theatre were asking me which books I was currently reading, which led to a conversation about critical thinking and skepticism.

Even though the conversation was focused on science, I was still getting stares from the other adults and interruptions such as, “What is he telling you?”. I had this sudden realization that skepticism to an outsider seems fanatical. After all, I’m talking about conspiracies, alternative medicine, ghosts, and aliens – those are things “crazy” people talk about, right? I suppose if I have a forum at the theatre to talk about how those things aren’t real then a true believer would have a forum to talk about how pseudosciences are real. So, maybe they have a point.

I don’t often spread the word about skepticism – especially not at work. It’s a topic that I try to keep to my blog where I can distance myself from the perceived ‘sacred cow’ insults felt by friends and family.

To think of it, maybe I’m contradicting the beliefs these children have been taught by their parents. Would that be inappropriate? I’m not saying that I would ever discuss religion, so that’s off the table, but is it any different for me to challenge their parents’ potential beliefs about Airborne or John Edwards?

Take a look (below the fold) at the dialogue I had with a couple of kids at the children’s theatre where I work. Is it OK? Should I avoid these discussions in the future? I personally don’t see any problem with it, but maybe I’m wrong…

Boy: Hey, Colin! How long did it take you to read that JFK assassination book?

Me: A couple months.

Boy: What are you reading now?

Me: ‘Trick or Treatment‘. It’s about the truth behind alternative medicine, and how it doesn’t work.

Girl: What’s alternative medicine?

Me: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Herbs… things like that.

Girl: What’s wrong with acupuncture?

Boy: Yeah, my cousin is an acupuncturist, and she says it works.

Me: Well, first you need to understand the word “placebo“. Pretend that I’m a doctor in a hospital wearing a white coat, and you came to me complaining about headaches. I gave you a pill and said, “this pill will get rid of your headaches. It works for all my patients.” So, you go home and take it and your headache goes away, and you come back and ask me what was in the pill. My answer is that there was nothing in it but sugar.

Your mind tricked your body into healing itself because you imagined me to be an authority figure whom you trusted, and you thought the pill would help you. That’s called the “placebo effect”.

Girl: My aunt said that acupuncture helped her sore foot feel better. Was that the placebo effect?

Me: Most likely.

Girl: How do we know that acupuncture is a placebo?

Me: That’s where science comes in. Anybody making an extraordinary claim needs to back it up with sufficient evidence. Scientists typically conduct an acupuncture study by splitting patients into two groups: a group that receives real acupuncture with actual needles, and a group that receives fake acupuncture with retractable needles. If acupuncture really reduces headaches, then the real acupuncture group should have far more patients feeling better than the fake group. But a recent study showed that both groups (real and fake) had an equal number of patients feeling better, implying that a placebo effect occurred.

Girl: What are some other alternative medicines that aren’t real?

Me: Have you heard of homeopathic remedies?

Girl: No.

Boy: Yeah, it’s like herbs and plants instead of pills from the pharmacy.

Me: Exactly. Everyone thinks that they are made from herbs and plants, except that they are really just sugar pills with nothing in them. You see, the founder of homeopathy lived in the 1800s when doctors were bleeding sick patients with leeches. He came up with a natural remedy. His theory was that if you had a fever, you could cancel out that fever by ingesting an herb that would typically give you a fever. I know it doesn’t make sense, but it gets even weirder. He also believed that you should dilute the herb thousands of times over and over. So you take one drop of the herb and drop it in a glass of water, then one drop of that diluted water into another glass, and on and on… until you end up with a glass of water that is so diluted that it doesn’t even contain one molecule of the original substance.

Girl: That’s crazy.

Me: I know.

Girl: Does that work because of the placebo effect too?

Me: Sometimes.

Girl: What would happen if somebody like you, who doesn’t believe in homeopathy, took one of the pills for a fever? Would the placebo effect work on you?

Me: Probably not. But, a fever tends to go away on it’s own, so if I took a homeopathic pill for a fever, knowing that it was nothing but sugar, my fever might go away naturally. I might even second guess myself, wondering if the pill actually worked.

Girl: How do you decide if something is really true or not?

Me: You have to ask yourself what is being claimed, whether they can prove it, whether there is another explanation, and whether the claim is extraordinary. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Did you see the Mythbusters where they debunked the “moon hoax”?

Boy: I did. It was cool. There was a vacuum chamber, and a footprint, and…

Girl: What’s the moon hoax?

Me: People actually believe that we faked the astronauts landing on the moon with actors and toy lunar modules. Imagine if there was nobody who questioned these people who made this claim. Everyone would go around doubting that we actually landed on the moon, an event that is extremely important to our history. We, of course, couldn’t have faked the moon landing because there would be too many people who would have to lie about it and cover it up.

Boy: Nuh uh. There would only need to be like ten people.

Me: Think about it. How many people worked to build the real lunar module? How many people worked at NASA preparing for the launch, building the module, training for the mission? Plus, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong would have to be liars, and then you would have to consider all the people who would be needed create a realistic model of the moon. Plus, the people who faked moon rocks? Etc. The number of people in on the conspiracy becomes staggering when you think about it. It’s impossible.

Girl: So, how did they debunk the ‘moon hoax’?

Me: Well, they used as an example a picture that conspiracy theorists have always questioned – an astronaut who is walking down a ladder under the shadow of the lunar module. Conspiracy theorists have argued that the shadow should have cloaked the astronaut in darkness, but the picture shows that the astronaut is visible and well lit.

It turns out that the moon’s sand (regolith) is reflective; that’s why it shines at night. The Mythbusters recreated that picture under the same conditions, using a dust similar to regolith, and showed that the sand reflected the ambient light and that’s why the astronaut is visible.

Girl: Cool!

Me: I know.


  1. I guess it depends on the child’s parents and whether or not they’re okay with what you’re sharing with their kids. Tough call since kids are naturally curious and ask a lot of tough questions that are difficult to deflect sometimes.

    I generally try to be as open as possible with my son. He’s only two but I’ve started by not making up simplified explanations just to make my life easier. You know the ones where parents used to say, “If you don’t do xxx the xxx will come and get you”? But in reality it wouldn’t really happen to you if you didn’t do it?

    However, I do make an exception when it comes to people suffering from various ailments and placebo effects. If a person suffering from complaint x finds a placebo “cure” that works, I don’t tell them it’s rubbish. For instance, my Dad got it into his head that a glass of red wine was curing his migraines (quite an irony since it’s listed as one of the triggers) until my brother had to open his big mouth and told him it was a placebo effect. After that, the red wine stopped working.

  2. I think you are doing a great job, and it is wonderful that you have the opportunity to interact with kids and teach them these things. I don’t think you are covering any touchy subjects (it’s not like you are telling them the bible isn’t true) so I don’t know why parents would be particularly upset, unless they are chiropractors!!

  3. Hello,

    I think you went a bit overboard with the information you provided to the kids. Instead of leading the discussion. listen to *their* opinion on the matter. The dialogue you posted came across as if you were feeding them info, without taking the time to let them think critically on their own. Adults talk too much; let kids lead the conversation, even if you know more than they do. Let them discover and uncover things independently, and allow them form their own opinions (and be ‘wrong’ sometimes). Ask questions like “What do you think? Why do you think people think that? ” Or, when the girl asked “What’s the moon hoax?” Let the boy who knew about it the Mythbusters programme answer the question.

    Additionally, I think that proclaiming your opinion as “truth” can easily come across as preachy and threatening by parents. For example,
    Me: ‘Trick or Treatment‘. It’s about the truth behind alternative medicine, and how it doesn’t work.

    May have been phrased in a less threatening manner as “It talks about alternative medicine and whether research shows if it works or not.”

    I know I would not want some guy telling my child that “The Truth is that those who do not accept JC as saviour will goto Hell”. 🙂

    • That’s an interesting response. I didn’t really think of it like that because I assumed that I was letting them lead the discussion with questions. I suppose I was feeding them info, but it was stuff that I wish someone had told me when I was young. But I do understand what you’re saying, and I think you have the right idea.

      The dialogue was accurate, but I did edit it for simplicity. The boy ended up speaking quite a bit about the Mythbusters episode. I tried to represent that with the ellipses.

      As for “Trick or Treatment”, the subtitle is ‘the undeniable facts about alternative medicine’. I think I wanted to get across quickly and efficiently that this was not a book that supports alternative medicine. I think the difference between my discussion and an evangelical discussion would be that mine was followed up by an informative explanation of the basics of science, while the other would be followed by scripture and persuasion.

      In all truth, thanks for your comment because there’s a lot of wisdom in it. I do speak rather directly to kids on issues in which I’m passionate, such as acting and skepticism.

  4. Great post! Bringing up mythbusters seems a good way to show kids how skepticism can be kind of cool (besides being right). Seems like you handled this very well, and not in a way that I can imagine would offend anybody but chiropractors and acupuncturists.

  5. I try to stay factual on all issues with my 2 year old son, the only exception being Santa (heck, cos it is fun). We haven’t hit the tricky ones like religion and alternative medicine yet but I am sure they’re just round the corner.

    (How do we tell Aunty XYZ that her homeopathic meds are fake? See, that wasn’t very diplomatic but it was the first thought that came to me. And kids want the answer now…)

    Thanks for posting your dialogue with the kids. I think it was very well-put and I will certainly take tips from there on how to address these issues with my boy when he does ask. How old were they?

    • They were both around 6th grade.

  6. Excellent work!

    I disagree with the commentor above who said you presented what you were saying as the truth. Instead, you provided plenty of evidence and the kids seemed to respond positively to that level of interaction.

    You seem to know the kids well enough to have properly gauged how to approach them and since they asked the initial questions, I don’t think you were out of line at all.

  7. Q: Sharing Skepticism With Children – Is It OK?
    A: Of course!

    You would think that this would be something they teach in science at school – but apparently not. I’m doing my doctorate in a science-based subject and have colleagues who believe whole-heartedly in some of the alternative medicines you mentioned. I learnt the majority of my skepticism from my mother, a woman who as a cringeing teenager I once thought was a bit fanatical but I now see as one of the most reasonable and thoughtful people I know. If I hadn’t had that influence while I was growing up who knows where I’d be now, and I think it’s a way of thinking that every child needs to be exposed to. Well done :). And we need more shows like Mythbusters rather than those stupid ones where (e.g.) psychics go around trying to crack unsolved murder cases!

  8. can’t tell you much about how to treat other people’s kids but I am very aware of how fanatical others find me when I am in public with my own kids. I don’t censor myself, but as a former Christian, I do know how scary I might sound.

    I posted a story on my blog recently. The conversation happened almost completely in public. My kids know our stance on things and were probably unaware that we may be considered radical. I was walking through a crowd telling that there are lots of “nice people who believe in god, even if they are wrong”. I was trying to make the conversation less, not more, fanatical.

    We don’t proceed with our views because they are popular after all.

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