Atlantis is old-school 'fake news.' A college class used it to teach an important lesson.

What classes did you take in school? Algebra? Biology? How about, Is Atlantis Real 101?

If you went to North Carolina State University in the fall of 2014, that’s one of the options you might have been given. It was part of an experiment by two professors to test how to teach critical thinking skills.

"Given the national discussion of 'fake news,' it’s clear that critical thinking — and classes that teach critical thinking — are more important than ever," says Anne McLaughlin, associate professor of psychology at NC State and co-author of the study.


Critical thinking is one of the cornerstones of an active mind, but it's usually not explicitly taught in schools. We demand it, but don't show kids how to do it. Instead teachers assume that, somewhere in between book reports and volleyball, students will just pick up critical thinking skills. McLaughlin and fellow professor Alicia McGill wanted to put that assumption to the test.

So to study critical thinking, the researches called in none other than Bigfoot himself.

"Yo." Image via iStock.

They compared 117 students in three courses. Half were enrolled in a standard psychology research course. The other half went to one of two special courses on historical frauds and pseudoscience.

The history courses included textbooks on analyzing and debunking myths. Students also got textbooks like "From Stonehenge to Las Vegas: Archaeology as Popular Culture" and learned some of the more common logical fallacies. They honed their skills through analyzing websites, class debates, and discussions about myths such as Bigfoot, the lost continent of Atlantis, or aliens building the pyramids.

At the start of the courses, researchers surveyed students' beliefs in various pseudoscientific claims. Students rated how much they believed them on a scale of 1 to 7. The researchers surveyed the students again at the end of the semester and compared the classes. The surveys included both beliefs covered in the courses and ones that weren’t, like crop circles, the illuminati, and 9/11 being an inside job.

The researchers found by the end of the course that the history and Bigfoot group were significantly less likely to believe in pseudoscience. The psychology course? Didn’t see a difference.

The study's conclusion: Critical thinking isn't something that can just be picked up. It has to be explicitly taught.

No aliens here, sorry. Have you checked Roswell? Image via iStock.

McLaughlin says she was surprised that the psychology course seemed to change so little. It was a rigorous course steeped in logic, after all.

"I thought we had stacked the deck against ourselves by choosing such a tough control group," McLaughlin says. This suggests that more knowledge doesn't necessarily translate to more critical thinking.

"I think our work shows just how important it is to be explicit about critical thinking as a skill," she adds. Like playing a musical instrument, it takes practice.

For people outside the course, McLaughlin says there's plenty people can do to hone their own critical thinking skills. She pointed to Carl Sagan's "baloney detection kit" as a particularly good resource.

But the end, McLaughlin said the results are heartening.

"The change we see in these students is important because beliefs are notoriously hard to change," McLaughlin says. Just trying to push facts at people can actually dig erroneous beliefs in deeper. So it was affirming to see that, in the end, the students were not only able debunk specific myths but also apply those skills outside the classes.

McLaughlin and McGill's paper was published in the journal Science and Education on March 20, 2017.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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