Lying for skepticism

By Phil Plait | January 14, 2010 11:52 am

Is it ever OK to lie for skepticism? I would say yes, under very specific circumstances… like when you’re teaching students to think critically:

“Now I know some of you have already heard of me, but for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar, let me explain how I teach. Between today until the class right before finals, it is my intention to work into each of my lectures … one lie. Your job, as students, among other things, is to try and catch me in the Lie of the Day.”

[...]

This was an insidiously brilliant technique to focus our attention – by offering an open invitation for students to challenge his statements, he transmitted lessons that lasted far beyond the immediate subject matter and taught us to constantly check new statements and claims with what we already accept as fact.

This is a wonderful story, and I think makes an effective teaching method. And it forces students to pay attention… while making them eager to do so! Read the whole thing; you’ll get a smile from it.

Tip o’ the tweed jacket to Craig Temple.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Skepticism

Comments (52)

Links to this Post

  1. A lesson in skepticism « Skepacabra | January 15, 2010
  2. Library « Faistiq | November 18, 2011
  1. Great read! Love the three summary points (not going to post them here so people will read the whole blog, it’s well worth it!).

  2. Vernon Balbert

    This isn’t lying, it’s teaching investigation. It’s like assigning a mathematical proof that has no solution or has an error in it. I remember in high school being shown a mathematical proof that 1=0 and at first glance it seemed like it worked, but on closer examination there was an error that was an operation that was not appropriate in the context. It was fun to pick out the error, but I never thought the teacher was lying when he introduced it.

    But you’re right, it’s certainly a way to help students become skeptical. They’ll question everything this professor says (or they should) and actually learn more than any lecture could teach.

  3. The only problem with this is that people have a tendency to remember that they heard or read something, but not remember that what they heard was someone saying ‘this isn’t true.’ In other words, I would suspect that five years later this professor’s students believed a lot more false things than if he hadn’t lied during his classes.

  4. Neeneko

    Unfortunately, Orlinsky has a good point.
    There was some good research on the issue awhile back that showed how people remember information vs its denial, and it came out pretty badly for cases like this.

  5. Big Al

    Clever fellow, and so radical! Imagine teaching people to think and question authority. Positively heretical.

  6. Kathy,

    Look that the bulleted points at the end. THAT’S why we need more sceptics. Those sort of mistakes wouldn’t get past the first attempt at repeating the falsehood. And if the person who was going to state that falsehood is a skeptic, then they may want to review their statement before making it. :)

  7. Dan I.

    This is exactly how we should be teaching, especially in the higher science courses in high school.

    Stop teaching “Reference Tables” full of formulas that you need to know to pass the test and start teaching people how to actually do science.

    The worst thing is the way science is now taught as “rules” that there are just THINGS that need to be memorized. Sure there are things that you just need to know like p=mv, F=ma but we need to stop teaching science in way that just says “Nothing in this book can be challenged, nothing is open to debate, these are the facts and they always will be the facts.”

    The caveat is obviously, we need to teach people how to evaluate the be critical in a responsible fashion. Saying that you need to think critically about what you’re learning is NOT the same as saying “So creationism and geocentrism need to be taught in science schools.”

  8. Kathy Orlinsky (#3), that’s true, but in this case I wonder. The point is that they have to figure out what the lie is, so it’ll stick in their minds more that it *was* a lie.

  9. Jamey

    Perhaps useful at the college level, but much of the teaching done in the lower levels involves deliberate, but useful for that level, lies. I spent a good bit of my HS career challenging teachers on statements, and causing discussions to get much deeper into topics than the teacher really wanted to go. Things like “All atoms of an element are the same.” Whoops – we weren’t going to be covering isotopes and nuclear theory. Or “The electrons of an atom orbit the nucleus.” Nope, not really. Useful abstractions and models – but not true.

  10. Michelle R

    Hey, I had a highschool teacher that did that too. Not every class but she did.

  11. Leon

    Hey, maybe we could turn this around and convince one of the big-name creationists or anti-vax people to do the same thing in reverse: “All right, from now on it is my intention to work into each of my presentations … one true statement. Your job, as concerned citizens, is to try and catch me when I tell the truth.”

  12. I tried to do this in my brief career as an elementary school teacher. I would deliberately spell a word wrong, or do a math problem wrong, and the children, in correcting me, were able to articulate what they had learned when I asked what I had done wrong. Lots of teachers do it at that level – it’s nice to see someone doing it at the college level. It always works.

  13. Phil #8,
    I agree that the students will remember that their teacher lied during classes, but I don’t agree that they’ll necessarily remember which parts were the lies. But I could be wrong. And I’m not even an expert, so I should be doubly skeptical of myself.

  14. This is a great strategy, especially at the collegiate level. I’ve never been in classes where it is practiced, but I’ve heard great things. As I begin to instruct courses, this is one of the strategies I fully intend to employ.

    The goal is to improve student focus and some students still won’t necessarily care. I think it’s just as important to offer reward or similar incentive for detecting the lie to fully engage young minds. Students do love their extra credit.

    On a tangent with education, some of you might be interested in Woodie Flowers’ educational theory. You may know him through the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics program (www.usfirst.org) where he serves as national advisor. His belief, and I wholeheartedly agree, is that there is a major difference between education and training. Training is what we do when we memorize equations and lookup tables, whereas real education is learning how to use your mind to apply knowledge and think critically. His campaign is to reduce training in schools and open up room for education.

    Here are some links to get you started if you’re interested in following up:
    http://www.rochesterstartups.com/2009/05/11/first-founder-woody-flowers-on-educational-reform/
    http://meche.mit.edu/people/faculty/index.html?id=26

  15. Jamey #9
    I once called out a teacher in grade school for saying that there are “no numbers below zero” She agreed but said that negative numbers were not part of what we would be learning. To this day, I’ve wondered if that was wrong or not. If both she and I understood what we were talking about, maybe other students could have understood it and between us we could have explained it to the rest of the class. On the other hand, it might have just been confusing for those who didn’t get it and would have interfered with what the teacher was trying to teach us. However, it does kind of bother me that there doesn’t appear to be any research along those lines. I’ve since come to believe that standard grade school education estimates low when it comes to how much a child’s brain can absorb and process.

    For higher education though, I think this is a great idea. I wish my Chemistry professor in college had this attitude. I might not have flunked that class.

  16. Guy

    Didn’t Jonathan Frakes host a show called “Fact or Fiction” or something like that where you had to try to figure out which incredible stories were true or made-up?

  17. Scott de B.

    This sounds great in principle, but I can see problems in practice, particularly in a field like mine, archaeology, where it’s simply not possible to divide every statement into “true” or “false”. In fact, this is true even of hard sciences. So it seems like students, particularly if they are stumped, will turn into nitpickers rather than true skeptical thinkers: “You said Alpha Centauri was 4.3 light years away, but that was a lie, it is actually 4.365 +/- 0.007 light years away”.

  18. Leon #11
    I love that idea! The best part is that it would take so much of their time gleaning through their material for nuggets of truth to include.

  19. Adam_Y

    This is a great strategy, especially at the collegiate level. I’ve never been in classes where it is practiced, but I’ve heard great things. As I begin to instruct courses, this is one of the strategies I fully intend to employ.

    No not really. My personal experience is that the lies are easy to figure out. The major problem in thinking critically is the fact that if you omit information you can distort anything into a favorable or unfavorable light. Its extremely hard to figure out what has been ommitted and what hasn’t unless you are looking really hard.

    On a tangent with education, some of you might be interested in Woodie Flowers’ educational theory. You may know him through the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics program (www.usfirst.org) where he serves as national advisor. His belief, and I wholeheartedly agree, is that there is a major difference between education and training. Training is what we do when we memorize equations and lookup tables, whereas real education is learning how to use your mind to apply knowledge and think critically. His campaign is to reduce training in schools and open up room for education.

    Yes but Dean Kamen is on the other extreme. He actually praised Texas for the funding that they gave last year. No one should be praising Texas for the cluster()#* that is happening in that states education system.

  20. Wow! And I thought -I- was sneaky!
    Brilliant!

  21. Brilliant!

    Teaching kids to think critically, and not take everything at face value. What a novel idea!

    Kudos to the OP, to the teacher that did it, and thanks for posting Phil!

  22. Quiet Desperation

    it is my intention to work into each of my lectures … one lie

    What if *that* was the lie?

  23. “it is my intention to work into each of my lectures … one lie

    What if *that* was the lie?”

    That’s the point. It was…

  24. RickJ

    Back in the late 70′s when I was an accounting prof at a state university I had a class that just sat like sponges, absorbing everthing I said like a sponge ready to parrot it out on an exam. No thinking involved. I got so fed up with their attitude I gave them a lecture that started with a minor mistake and ended up totally wrong. Not one person thought to say a thing, they just sat there frantically taking notes.

    Next lesson I announced I’d “inadvertently” made a mistake and was surprised no one noticed. No reaction. I asked if anyone could tell me what it was. No one could. Not the minor mistake or the last 10 minutes which were total bunk. One big Duh. You don’t want to know what followed the rest of the period but from then on I told them there’d be at least one mistake in every lecture and they were responsible to find it. Took a couple more periods but finally someone noted the mistake. After a couple weeks all were being spotted.

    On the final was a problem involving the subject of the last 10 minutes of the “mistake” lecture. That one had the best over all score of all the problems on the final. I don’t know if they switched back to the “mistake” years later but for the final the lesson got through quite well.

    Yes, anecdotal but I think it likely reasonable. Also over all exam scores went up 25 points by the end of the course even though the material got harder and normal experience was a slight lowering of scores. But they did start very low but then ended higher than normal. Not sure what than means.

    After that I used this tactic every class giving a bit of extra credit for the student first finding the “mistake” Lots of students told me it made a difference. As one said. “It kept my brain in gear.” Other than using the term “mistake” I was doing much the same as in this story. To me and most students it seemed effective.

  25. Benjamin

    I distinctly remember at the end of high school when my physics teacher derived Kepler’s Third Law on the board, with the GM/4pi^2 flipped upside down at the end. Nobody was paying attention and we all had trouble with our assignments.

    To this day, now at university doing physics, I think of it the wrong way up and correct myself. While this is of dubious value, I have never done an assignment or an exam since then without completely rederiving all relevant results from first principles, which has never so far led me astray.

  26. Brian Too

    There’s an old joke about an employee who asks for a day off work. This sets the boss off on a hilarious rant about how little work is actually getting done, with the punch line that there’s only one productive day in an entire work year, and the employee certainly isn’t getting that one productive day off!

    I was fascinated by the logic employed there, because it all seemed reasonable at first glance. However the result was nonsensical; how can there be just one productive work day in a year?

    Eventually I realized that the trick was in semantics. What is a day? Is it a work day of 8 hours or is it a calendar day of 24 hours? People use both meanings all the time. The rant takes full advantage and switches definitions several times (without calling attention to this of course). Each semantic switch destroys 2/3 of the work hours in a year.

    The lesson stuck, obviously.

  27. jick

    Brain Too #26:

    In the version I heard, the employee then strikes back by an even longer (and equally hilarious) rant about how little vacation he actually gets, on and on until it turns out he gets a single day off in an entire year, and the mean boss wouldn’t let him off that single day!

    Unfortunately I forgot the details.

  28. Jamey

    I recall that piece of trickery, too, Brian Too – another technique in it was double-counting (or worse) various days.

  29. MadScientist

    Once upon a time some of my colleagues used to put nonsense into things they ask me to review – apparently they wanted to know how competent I was so they’d sneak in things which they believed required the minimum level of competence they demanded of their colleagues. Some of them were so amused by the sudden explosion of screaming and cursing from my office that they’d deliberately feed me nonsense now and then just for laughs. There were also those days that I had to deal with utterly incompetent technicians and engineers and my colleagues got even more laughs from those occasions.

  30. I had a professor at NYU who did the same thing. Only he added in a few rules. There was only going to be one lie over the course of the entire semester and to prevent people from annoyingly always guessing something is a lie no matter what, he gave people only one guess a day. This I think encouraged everyone to be more cautious. And I think a prize was awarded for whoever did finally correctly guess the lie.

  31. Ian

    What does this have to do with skepticism? It’s investigation, it critical analysis, it’s scientific enquiry. Some of us have been doing that for years – and suddenly skeptics have the answer. WHOOOP!

  32. Ken

    Kathy et. al., I suspect that there is a difference when someone is *told* that one lie/mistake is coming. If you’re expecting to just sit and absorb everything unquestioningly then you’re in a frame of mind that “this is truth, store it”. On the other hand, knowing that somewhere there is an un-truth appears to make you sort it out better.

    It would be an interesting experiment to see if I’m right …

  33. Peter B

    Ian said: “What does this have to do with skepticism? It’s investigation, it critical analysis, it’s scientific enquiry. Some of us have been doing that for years – and suddenly skeptics have the answer. WHOOOP!”

    It’s got everything to do with skepticism, and skeptics certainly aren’t claiming to have discovered critical thinking. In fact it’s the other way around – skeptics are out there promoting to the general community for their benefit and protection what scientists have been doing for a few centuries.

  34. Steve in Dublin

    Will @ 15

    I’ve since come to believe that standard grade school education estimates low when it comes to how much a child’s brain can absorb and process.

    That’s in part a problem caused by the “No child left behind” act that was introduced in 2001. In order to make sure that each child can pass the standardised tests, you have to teach to the lowest common denominator. The brighter students get bored. Some states are better than others, depending on whether or not they lowered their standards to game the system and get a high pass rate.

  35. Careful now, Phil, you’re gonna be quote mined again with that first sentence… :-S

  36. Aufwuch

    Excellent teaching technique. I’m retired now but I used it in all my undergraduate classes. Held most of the students concentration and they loved to try and catch me.

  37. 16. Guy Says:

    Didn’t Jonathan Frakes host a show called “Fact or Fiction” or something like that where you had to try to figure out which incredible stories were true or made-up?

    Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction?
    I know that because I just checked my TV listings and the Chiller Channel (has a lot of old SciFi Channel stuff) has been doing a ‘marathon’ (several episodes in a row) of them today(!)

    J/P=?

  38. Kit

    I attended a military technical school in the 60′s. The text book was excellent but the instructor didn’t understand the subject and “taught” many things that were wrong. The result was that I always read ahead in the text book, paid very close attention to what the instructor was saying and asked questions like “if this is true and that is true, please explain to me again what you just said”. I wasn’t popular with the instructor but I really learned the subject.

  39. Didn’t Leonard Nemoy host a show called “In Search Of..” or something like that where the incredible stories were all made-up?

    Another note: Apparently I’m not alone when I was taught that “You can think of plasma as a kind of cross between a gas and a liquid.” Can anyone think of something liquidlike about plasma?

  40. mike burkhart

    And I thought you were honest I have no problem with this but you may have your critics may say that since you lie in the class rome how do we know your telling the truth in your books or on your blogg also when you attack scifi the writers could now say since you lie what is wrong with us making up facts for a good story

  41. In my experience as a college student, students will tend to point out when a professor has made an error. Some of it’s pretty trivial (i.e. “You forgot to add the constant of integration”), but sometimes not. I’ve had a lot of my professors just come out and say that they’re liable to make mistakes so we have to pay attention in case they do.

    @ #16 Guy, yeah I remember that show but it didn’t really give you any more reason to believe in the true ones as opposed to the false ones (except the false ones tended to be a bit more fantastical). In the end, it was basically a guessing game.

  42. magista

    Hmm… I play to the more physical and less to the intellectual – I offer candy to any of my high school physics students who can catch me in a mistake. Less effort than coming up with deliberate lies/mistakes (because I can certainly promise at least once of those a day without any effort whatsoever), and when I do make one they are on top of it in moments becasue they’ve been waiting and watching for the chance. On the other hand, I do have to buy Werthers in 2kg packages…

  43. RickK

    I love this technique! I’ll have to figure a way to use it with my kids.

    Actually, I’d heard this before, but had forgotten until this reminder.

    I remember this from “The Chosen” by Chaim Potok. The Hasidic rabbi uses this technique to get his son to pay attention during Torah lessons. Each lesson has an intentional error.

    Great link, thanks Phil!

  44. Greg

    Back in 6th grade or so I sat through a whole math class where we were learning how to add fractions. Somewhere towards the end, I put my hand up and said I thought I’d learned a completely different way and this seemed contrary. The teacher (whose name I regrettably forget) basically smiled and went on a tangent about critical thinking and blindly trusting everything you learn. Then of course she tells everyone to forget the day’s lesson and tear up their notes.

  45. Brian Too

    @27. jick,

    Now that I think of it, I think the rant also employed the semantic trick of a ‘week’. Again, it intentionally switched back and forth between meaning a work week of 5 days and a calendar week of 7 days. This part of the rant isn’t as functionally effective because each switch only destroys 2/7 of the work time in a year.

    However it’s all of a piece within the context of the joke, and very effective overall.

  46. Pi-needles

    Lying for skepticism? This sentence is a lie. ;-)

    @ 11. Leon Says:

    Hey, maybe we could turn this around and convince one of the big-name creationists or anti-vax people to do the same thing in reverse: “All right, from now on it is my intention to work into each of my presentations … one true statement. Your job, as concerned citizens, is to try and catch me when I tell the truth.”

    LOL! Good one. :-)

    Unfortunately, I’m sure that such folks are convinced that saying just one truth that contradicts the literal (as they interpret it) Biblical account means they’ll be heading to the tortures of hell for eternity at the hands of their loving, forgiving & merciful god. :roll:

    That or it’ll make their heads explode! ;-)

  47. Messier Tidy Upper

    The deliberate lie as a method of teaching certainly has its good points and also helps caution students against the “fallacy of authority” (ie believing something just because a teacher or other authority figure says so.) So its not a bad idea and has some value to it.

    However, it does occur to me that once the lie has been detected then *afterwards* attention may drop and the students minds won’t be as focused – and if the teacher was to make mistakes or deliberate lies *after* that first one then they may go unnoticed because they’ve already found “today’s error” & stopped looking.

    I think it would be fantastic if kids were taught critical thinking and logic as a subject in its own right as important as maths or english or history. After all, teaching kids how to think well for themselves is, in my view, the single most important and key skill we can teach them.

    @ 40. !astralProjectile Says:

    … Another note: Apparently I’m not alone when I was taught that “You can think of plasma as a kind of cross between a gas and a liquid.” Can anyone think of something liquidlike about plasma?

    Doesn’t plasma flow like a liquid under certain conditions? Or am I mistaken about that?

    Or could it be something to do with convection currents such as those in our Sun? Ie. fluids convey heat through convection and plasma does the same? Maybe?

  48. Messier Tidy Upper

    It also occurs to me that sometimes a “lie” can be a matter of opinion & subject to uncertainty & semantics.

    For instance, as seen on a recent thread here, saying “Pluto is no longer a planet” is a true to some people but is considered a lie by others based on whether a) they accept the IAU’s ruling & b) whether they consider dwarf planets as still being planets or not.

    Even seemingly straightforward statements can be ambiguous and depend on context.

    Example. 1 + 1 = 2. Usually! However, it can also equal 11 – when you write a numeral ‘one’ right next to another ’1′ and it can equal one when a mouse and a bit of cheese are “added” and it can equal zero when a particle and its anti-particle meet & mutually annhiliate! ;-)

    So as (17.) Scott de B. pointed out : it’s simply not possible to divide every statement into “true” or “false”.

    Also, as Scott de B. noted, there is also the question of something being true to what level of *precision* as in

    “You said Alpha Centauri was 4.3 light years away, but that was a lie, it is actually 4.365 +/- 0.007 light years away”.

    Expanding on this notion – is it true or a lie to say that Sirius is ten light years away (rough approximation) or that Sirius is nine light years away (to nearest whole number) or must we say it is exactly 8.7 or 8.70001 (not the actual figure for eg only!) light years distant with error bars of +/ – .00002 (ditto!) to be “correct”?

    That may be an esoteric example but what about the statement that the Earth is round? Technically it is a lie – our globe is an oblate very slightly flattened spheroid but are we really going to say, “no the earth isn’t round” as a truth? Or do we accept that the Earth is indeed approximately round and that is a true statement even though its not exactly so? So what is true & what is lie here?

    Of course, doing this technique does allow an opportunity to explore such concepts and issues as this which is a good thing.

  49. Texas Science

    After conducting a lesson in which I explained convection with the dictum that “hot air rises”, I finished by asking the question “why are the tops of mountains so cold?”

  50. I remember a variant on that method in a philosophy class I took back as an undergraduate. I wish more teachers would do it — and not just in science or math — imagine how interesting history and political science classes would be if we could do it there.

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