His instructions were to hold the rods gently, letting them hover in parallel over a line of Styrofoam cups. If they crossed, according to the rules of dowsing, he’d hit the jackpot: There would be a toy dinosaur underneath.
He was about to experience some “bad science,” the subject of a monthly series of programs – Bad Science Fridays – at Mobius Science Center. The programs introduce scientific concepts and the value of critical thinking through familiar subjects: Dowsing. Horoscopes. Those big pyramids in Egypt that may or may not have been built by aliens.
“I don’t want you to move them, right?” Don Riefler, education director at the children’s science center, told Jacob, as a line of first-graders from Deer Park Elementary School pressed forward to see what his dowsing rods would do next. “They’ve got to move on their own.”
Nothing … nothing … nothing. Then, suddenly, the rods crossed over the second cup in on his right. But what was this? No dino underneath?
It’s called the ideomotor effect, Riefler explained. The body reacts subconsciously to an idea, and it’s behind phenomena such as dowsing (more often done for water, oil or graves) and Ouiji boards that seem to spell out messages from the dead.
And that’s why “Dowsing and Dead People” appears at the science center alongside exhibits on fluid dynamics, aerodynamics, chaos theory and space. By uncovering the flaws in bad science, kids begin to understand good science.
Building scientific literacy is about more than learning the laws of physics or memorizing the periodic table.
“At the basis of all science – well, at the basis of just about everything – is the ability to think critically and the ability to look at an argument or an idea and examine it,” said Aaron Berenbach, the science center’s education coordinator.
The implications extend beyond the classroom or laboratory – protecting consumers from claims about flimsy medicine, for example.
For the Bad Science Friday about astrology – which offered a lesson on human psychology – staffers handed every student in a school group a strip of paper printed with his or her star sign and an “ambiguous but flattering” personality description. All the students rated their profiles as accurate.
Then they learned they’d each received the same profile; only the star signs were different.
“They definitely got the point,” Riefler said, “that what was happening was they were reading into it, and everybody could read into that vague personality profile.”
It took about four seconds for kids on another Bad Science Friday to figure out how ancient Egyptians could have used ramps to build the pyramids, science center staffer Alexe Helmke said.
While humans have enjoyed the same brain capacity and problem-solving abilities for many centuries, she said, people often assume old civilizations weren’t as smart as modern ones, she said.
“A lot of people turn to extraordinary notions: ‘Well, aliens must have built them from outer space,’ ” Helmke said.
More so than adults, children generally seem more willing to set aside an attachment to a particular idea, “at least as far as science goes,” Riefler said.
Take Bigfoot. If there were a stable breeding population of very tall hairy creatures living in the Northwest, the science center’s educators said, there would be irrefutable evidence – scat, bones, maybe a nonblurry photo.
“All of that will not talk an adult out of an idea they’ve had for 40 or 50 years,” Riefler said.
The first Bad Science Friday included a UFO-hunting and Bigfoot-tracking demonstration – kids learned to create fake photos by manipulating a camera and to use the sides of their clenched fists to create baby Bigfoot tracks.
Skepticism comes with cognitive development, said Jennifer Smith, a Deer Park Elementary School teacher who helped escort the school’s first-graders on their end-of-the-year field trip. Part of teaching science is teaching kids how to ask questions.
Still, “They are some who are natural question askers,” Smith said. “I think they’re born that way.”