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Teaching Skepticism: How Early Can We Begin?

I trust that I need not persuade readers of Skeptical Inquirer that in today’s world of post-truth, alternative facts, and rampant pseudoscience, critical thinking—reasoning that helps to compensate for our biases—is needed now more than ever. Concerted efforts to dispel erroneous beliefs, as exemplified by the articles in each issue of this magazine, are essential to this mission. To effectively disseminate critical thinking to the broader populace, though, we may need to start earlier in our educational efforts than we have commonly assumed, perhaps as early as childhood.

Critical thinking and its close cousin, scientific thinking, do not come naturally to the human species (McCauley 2011). Hence, it is no surprise that many people, even those with high levels of education and intelligence, are not adept at evaluating claims with a skeptical mindset, one that requires us to maintain an open mind to novel claims while demanding persuasive evidence. In principle, there could even be a sensitive period for teaching critical thinking in childhood; once this window closes, critical thinking may be even more difficult to acquire. Still, developmental and educational psychologists know remarkably little about whether this is the case and if so, when we should begin to teach the rudiments of skepticism to children (see Scott O. Lilienfeld, “How Can Skepticism Do Better?,” Skeptical Inquirer, September/October 2016). As a consequence, we do not know whether laudable efforts to expose young children to critical thinking skills (such as the Junior Skeptic feature in Skeptic magazine) are worthwhile. Perhaps we need to wait until children’s cognitive capacities, such as their ability to think abstractly, are better developed. After all, as the great Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget noted, children are not merely “tiny adults.” They often think about the world in qualitatively different (that is, different in kind rather than degree) ways from grown-ups.

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Politicization of Scientific Issues: Looking through Galileo’s Lens or through the Imaginary Looking Glass Bigfoot as Big Myth: Seven Phases of Mythmaking The Fallacy Fork Why It’s Time to Get Rid of Fallacy Theory The Fakery of Electrodermal Screening