What is a skeptic, anyway?

Guy P. Harrison has this to say about skepticism in the introduction to his new book 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think are True,

“Some people think of skeptics as cynical, negative people with closed minds.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Skepticism is really nothing more than a fancy name for trying to think clearly and thoroughly before making a decision about believing, buying, or joining something.  It’s about sorting out reality from lies and misperceptions.”

I just started reading this book, and I am impressed so far.  It covers a lot of ground in brief, accessible chapters perfect for when you only have a few minutes to read something interesting.   If you are an advocate for science literacy, a fan of Mythbusters, or otherwise interested in debunking paranormal stuff like psychics, near-death experiences, UFOs, etc. this book is for you.

Harrison believes, and I agree, that skepticism is essential for progress.  That might seem like a bold statement, and certainly some will take issue with it.  But what if we substitute “critical thinking” for “skepticism”?  Perhaps it has less negative connotation to some, but the definitions are awfully similar.  They’re both, basically, thinking about thinking.  Double checking our process to make sure we haven’t made any mistakes.  Looking for perspective.  These aren’t cynical things–they’re necessary.

Mind in the Making by Ellen Galinsky includes critical thinking as one of seven essential life skills that parents should instill in their children, and she ties it in with problem solving.  I know I’ve recommended this book before, but I can’t resist recommending it again to parents or teachers who want practical, science-based advice for helping kids develop the skills they need to succeed, including evaluating information, making decisions, and determining goals–all of which are related to critical thinking.

Actually, it’s a good time to pick up Mind in the Making because one of my favorite parenting blogs, Not Just Cute, just started blogging the book chapter-by-chapter.  Start here with Chapter One, and read along!

Speaking of “problem solving,” I happened to catch Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose new book Space Chronicles is out now, on The Daily Circuit earlier this week, and he said scientists and engineers are “problem solvers.”  Listening to Tyson talk, I’d say skeptics are idea people.  Skeptics are hopeful and engaged.  Skepticism, science, critical thinking, problem solving… It all sounds so exciting when he’s talking about it.

Skepticism isn’t inherently negative.  Skeptics aren’t trying to be mean when they ask for evidence.  We’re just curious.


Disclosure: Amazon.com links are affiliate links.  A portion of purchases made via these links earns a commission for this blog.  Thanks for your support!

For more about science & skepticism, see my Secular Thursday page.

Reading in the summer: Keep the momentum going

Guest Post by Melissa Harrison

If I had to venture a guess, I would say that between all of my kids (I have four, ages 6 years and under) we have about 300 children’s books in our home. Two entire bookcases are dedicated just to books in our play area. My kids are obsessed with books.

I am, too.

When I was little, not only did I grow up reading books, I grew up writing them. My best friend and I would write chapter stories and exchange manuscripts on the bus to school each morning. When we started, it was before we had computers in our homes. So, I’m talking about countless hand-written pages (I don’t think it was until we were in middle school that we started typing out our musings).

I’ve been a reader and a writer for as long as I can remember. Now, I can’t say what percentage of my reading and writing obsession has caused my kids to love books as much as I do (I’m guessing my husband had something to do with it, too) but I’m fortunate that they have learned this important value at such young ages.

As school starts to wind down for the year, here are some tips to keep everyone interested in reading (I’m talking about you, your kids, the neighbor kids, your nieces and nephews, or a friend’s kid you decide to hang on to for the day):

  • Check your local library listings for family or children’s story time and try to get to one each month.
  • Make time for yourself and set a reading goal. Maybe it’s reading one “fun” book a month in addition to one “work-related” book (oh wait, that’s my goal…but I’ll share if it works with your schedule, too).
  • Keep a list of books you want to share with your kids either through an Amazon wish list or on GoodReads and check them off as you go through them this summer.
  • Have the kids in your life choose a “letter of the day.” Then, choose books to read that start with that letter. Or, go exploring outside and look for things that begin with your daily letter. Reading and word comprehension don’t always have to be about the physical book.
  • Pretend to “jump in” to the book you’re reading. Grab hands, count to three, and “jump” into the cover. Then, as you read the story aloud, ask your kids questions about where they are or what they’re doing in the book.

And check this out: On May 24, Target announced they will be providing 42 schools across the country with new libraries as part of the 2011 Target School Library Makeover program. Three of the lucky schools are even located right here in Minnesota!

So while it’s not breaking news, reading is and always will be important. Just because school’s out for the summer, it’s not an excuse to take a break. Think of all the great adventures you’ll miss!

Now, what will you do this summer to encourage the value of reading?

Melissa Harrison is a business owner, avid reader, writer and mother of four. She lives in Albertville, MN and is always looking for great book suggestions. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter or email.

I love evidence

I believe in evidence.  Particularly when it comes to the important things in my life, I like to have solid evidence for why I do or don’t do something.  This is why I found myself with a stack of parenting books borrowed ferom the library–all with a similar claim: to provide scientific backing to parenting choices.

What's Going on in There?Some years ago, before becoming a parent, I’d read What’s Going on in There? by neurobiologist Lise Eliot, which was my introduction to the idea of evidence-based parenting, and I found it fascinating.  But I imagined that some changes had likely entered the picture since it was published in 1999.  Science has a way of changing; That’s one of the things I like about it.

Enter: Einstein Never Used Flash Cards.  This book brings the research up to 2003, and it is primarily a response to the well-intentioned trend of the time that had parents scrambling to get their preschoolers into academics to give them an early start (See the documentary Nursery University for more on this trend).  Authors Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff (both child psychologists) go to great lengths to explain why this “early start” doesn’t help kids.  They detail the research in child development and even provide “experiments” that parents can do with their own kids to see the process in action.  They urge parents to let kids play.  “Reflect, resist, and recenter,” is the advice that resonated with me from this book.

Reading this book illustrated to me just how difficult it is to talk or write about parenting.  As just one example, I have some strong opinions about responding to crying babies.  I’d read various evidence-based arguments for responding to babies’ cries before, but I still felt myself tense up as I read.  What if this book presents evidence that I don’t want to see?  It didn’t, but it was eye-opening to examine my pre-reading reaction in light of the various irrational arguments I’ve read or heard from parents about their reasons for their choices.  Are we being rational?  Am I?

NurtureshockThen we have Nurtureshock, which has probably been among the most talked about parenting books of the past couple of years.  Published 10 years after Eliot’s book, this is the update for which I had been looking.  It covers a lot of ground (especially considering that nearly a third of the book is back matter), but it is important ground to cover for parents, educators, and policy makers.  This book changed the way I give praise to my daughter, how I look at gifted education programs, and strongly increased my empathy for teenagers.  Some of my personal opinions were upheld (even more compelling reasons to respond to your crying baby!), and some were kind of shot down (spanking may not be as bad as I would like to think).  But the most interesting aspect of the book was how much more balanced it seemed than the other books I read.  The authors weren’t afraid to discuss research that didn’t necessarily provide a straightforward “answer.”  The chatty tone of the book made it feel like the authors and readers were looking at the evidence together with a “what do you think?” rather than “this is what I think.”

Refreshing, don’t you think?


Edited to Add a couple of links:

My 15 Minutes

I’ve been blurbed.

I’ve been reviewing for Library Journal for several years now, and, to my knowledge, this is the first time my review has found its way to the back of a book. I have to admit: I’m proud.

I’m particularly glad it was this book. I’m more than happy to put my name/words behind Desmond Morris’ Amazing Baby. It is a fascinating look at infanthood from the eyes of a zoologist. As you might imagine from the author of The Naked Ape, everything relates back to human evolution. This is a great book for science-minded parents. I currently have Morris’ newest book, Child, out from the library, and it looks every bit as beautiful and interesting as Amazing Baby.