Skeptic's Dictionary for kids

By Phil Plait | August 12, 2011 2:00 pm

Kids are sort of the ultimate thinking paradox: incredibly trusting and willing to believe, yet also incredibly willing to categorize things, put them in scientific bins, investigate and learn.

If we want kids to grow into intelligent, critically thinking adults, we need to show them how to think. And now Bob Carroll, author of the fabulous Skeptic’s Dictionary, has written just the thing: The Skeptic’s Dictionary for Kids.

It’s got lots of entries for inquisitive younglings, from abracadabra to zombies. Bob suggests that everyone read his definition of scientific skepticism — which may be for kids, but should be required reading for every single human being on this planet. He also has a nice introduction to get them started as well.

Knowing Bob, he’ll be adding to this as time goes on, so if you have kids, let ‘em at it, and send along suggestions for more topics. I see this becoming an indispensable resource for parents!


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Skepticism

Comments (40)

Links to this Post

  1. Some things for the kids | Open Parachute | August 14, 2011
  2. Some things for the kids | Secular News Daily | August 16, 2011
  1. Molly

    I love that. My 12 year old kid sister recently saw X-Men Origins, and promptly went to the library to check out a book on how to hone her psychic powers, specifically mind reading and telekenesis.

    Admitedly, that’s not all that different from what I was up to at that age, and I turned out all right. (I Hope!)

  2. Thank you! On “Wild Ideas…the Podcast,” we’re working on an episode about scientific thinking. This is an excellent definition of scientific skepticism and in terms everyone can easily understand.

    Thanks for recommending the Skeptic’s Dictionary and, especially, that definition.

  3. SkepticismIsScary

    Skepticism, the next great religion.

    No thanks.

  4. hhEb09'1

    Rumpology?? How far will we stoop?

  5. Steve Metzler

    Way to go Bob Carroll! IIRC, that’s the guy who first got me interested in skepticism. For too long now, in fact, I haven’t revisited the Skeptic’s Dictionary. Headin’ over there right now for a bit of nostalgia…

  6. SkepticismIsScary (#3), assuming you’re not a troll, you may want to read this. There is a vast difference between skepticism and religion.

  7. The main problem with turning skepticism/scientism into the new religion is that it won’t work. The scientific method offers no myth or purpose; it is strictly a method of debunking beliefs which tends to lead to nihilism. Scientists need to try to grasp that human beings desire myths to live by more than “objective truth” (whatever that is). Science does a great job of tearing down old myths, but a terrible job of offering new ones. This is the crisis of nihilism that Nietzsche spoke about, which still hasn’t really been resolved.

    The thing is, secular humanists like Sagan and Dawkins are morally lazy. There is nothing in science to suggest that, for example, genocide and eugenics are a bad idea. If we are bags of atoms engaged in a Darwinian struggle in a vast, uncaring universe, I see no rational reason not to try to exterminate the weak and create a techno-fascist “Terran Empire.” I’m not against this personally, but I’m guessing that most of you are.

    Maybe this blog isn’t the place to discuss this, but I just wanted to point out — as a Nietzschean atheist, not a religious believer — that preaching “skepticism” and “scientism” as a replacement for religion is philosophically rather shallow and non-serious.

  8. Swan

    >There is nothing in science to suggest that, for example, genocide and eugenics are a bad idea.

    Science generally tells us that genetic diversity is a Very Good Thing. It helps species adapt and survive when the environment changes unexpectedly. Plus, humans aren’t very good at creating sustainable species when we tinker with their genetics. Look at our crop plants and animals, look at our dogs and other working animals. Look at the problems we have with invasive species.

    I for one wouldn’t trust humans to figure out what kind of genetic diversity we need to cull.

    Furthermore, science is continuing to show us that much of what we are is not strictly in our genes, but is in our gene expression. Eugenics can’t touch that.

    As for genocide, psychology (it counts as science, right?) tells us a lot about what the effect is on our minds when we live in a world of violence, when we violate our own moral beliefs, and when we feel helpless and out of control. Genocide is definitely a problem both in terms of reduced genetic diversity as well as psychologically, even if you discount its other effects, such as political destabilization, increased homelessness, poverty, orphans, disruptions to agriculture and trade, etc.

  9. Trebuchet

    Sean: Nobody is proposing turning skepticism and “scientism” into the new religion except religion apologists like you. Yes, you. You who trot out the old “no morality without religion” canard. Go away. Go suggest your ideas to PZ Myers. I bet the Pharyngulites could find lots of interesting stuff to say to you.

    Back on topic: When I went to Skepdic for Kids, I clicked right away on the “Indian Rope Trick”. I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t do a better job pointing out that the trick in the video was just that. Some kids are going to believe it was real magic because the narrators were unable to explain it. Probably due to “magician’s ethics”, which prevent them revealing how tricks are done.

  10. Nigel Depledge

    Sith Master Sean (7) said:

    The main problem with turning skepticism/scientism into the new religion is that it won’t work.

    Erm … yeah, that’s how come the “scepticism / scientism is the religion of the scientists and atheists” is a strawman argument made by people who seek to undermine scepticism because critical thinking threatens their beliefs or scam.

    The scientific method offers no myth or purpose; it is strictly a method of debunking beliefs which tends to lead to nihilism.

    This is wrong.

    Science is a method of debunking wrong beliefs. Any beliefs that are supported by the evidence are left intact by scientific enquiry. We generally call these things “conclusions”, to indicate that they are based on fact, not on faith.

    Scientists need to try to grasp that human beings desire myths to live by more than “objective truth” (whatever that is).

    Hey, science makes no judgement about beliefs that don’t impinge onto statements about the universe and how it works. However, as soon as some magical belief system starts making claims about the physical universe, these claims can be tested. And guess what? Statements about the physical universe that are based on magical thinking turn out to be wrong. For example, astrologers cannot make any predictions that are more reliable than those that would be made by a chicken.

    Science does a great job of tearing down old myths, but a terrible job of offering new ones. This is the crisis of nihilism that Nietzsche spoke about, which still hasn’t really been resolved.

    It’s only a crisis if you feel the need for the existence of something more than the physical reality that we see and observe around us. Given that the definition of “myth” pretty much includes it not being true, science can never give us a “myth”. It can only ever give us true stories (or stories that the evidence indicates to be overwhelmingly likely to be true).

    The thing is, secular humanists like Sagan and Dawkins are morally lazy. There is nothing in science to suggest that, for example, genocide and eugenics are a bad idea.

    This is a weak argument. You are conflating humanism and science as if they were one and the same. They are not.

    Humanism is a belief system with no more factual basis than many others (except, of course, for the fact that we know humans exist). Humanism, however, is not morally lazy – it engenders respect for all fellow humans, which is a lot more than can be said for many religions.

    Science is a method for finding out which ideas about the universe are consistent with observed facts and which are not. Science takes no moral stand at all – it simply tells us what is and what is not.

    If we are bags of atoms engaged in a Darwinian struggle in a vast, uncaring universe, I see no rational reason not to try to exterminate the weak and create a techno-fascist “Terran Empire.” I’m not against this personally, but I’m guessing that most of you are.

    This is a pathetic strawman – no reputable scientist of the last 60 years would espouse this view. Darwinian evolution explains what exists in nature, and why. This is not in any way a moral code, or any kind of instruction to us. Even if, as many philosophers tell us, free will is an illusion, we still have at least the illusion of making a choice about how we act. We can therefore choose to be moral creatures.

    While there may be no rational reason not to exterminate the weak*, there is pretty much every moral reason not to do so.

    Maybe this blog isn’t the place to discuss this, but I just wanted to point out — as a Nietzschean atheist, not a religious believer — that preaching “skepticism” and “scientism” as a replacement for religion is philosophically rather shallow and non-serious.

    So, isn’t it a good thing that no scientist or sceptic ever does this?

    While the religious fundies would love to have everyone believe that scientism / atheism / scepticism / whateverism is “just another religion”, they are wrong, and the arguments they propose to establish this viewpoint are illogical and ignorant of many facts (try defining what constitutes a religion, as opposed to any other way of thinking about stuff, and then see how many boxes science ticks – but don’t take your definition of science from a religious fundy. Instead, take it from a scientist. Then try and see what else might fit your definition but not actually be a religion).

    Oh, also, if you’re an atheist, I’m a talking potato from Formalhaut. You are trotting out too many of the strawmen made by religious fundies and then addressing them as if they had been made by scientists. this is a bit of a giveaway that you have some agenda other then genuine inquiry.

    * Actually, there may be one or two. Think about it.

  11. Mr. talking potato: Actually I like to think that I’m one of those rare people who takes my atheism seriously and doesn’t just adopt Judeo-Christian values while discarding their deistic basis — I discard *all* of it. This makes me what you might call a “free spirit.” I understand that all religions are absurd, God is dead, and life has no purpose, which means that I am free to do literally anything I want, because the universe simply doesn’t care! This seems like great news to me, and I don’t understand why more atheists don’t appreciate it and live accordingly. If there’s no sky-police, what are you afraid of? Why do you live and think like a slave?

  12. This (am ashamed to say) is the first I have heard of this. It’s fantastic, but some of the comments on Phil’s post illustrate how much it is needed and not just by young people.

  13. Silent Bob

    This looks like fun. Nigel, do you mind if I play? :-)

    @ 11 Sith Master Sean

    Actually I like to think that I’m one of those rare people who takes my atheism seriously and doesn’t just adopt Judeo-Christian values while discarding their deistic basis – I discard *all* of it.

    If by “Judeo-Christian values” you mean morality and ethics you are giving too much credit to Jews and Christians. The ancient Egyptians had moral and ethical codes while pre-dating Christianity by thousands of years and being uninfluenced by Judaism. There are many other such cultures.

    I understand that all religions are absurd, God is dead, and life has no purpose, which means that I am free to do literally anything I want, because the universe simply doesn’t care!

    No, the universe doesn’t care. But your fellow human beings do. If you act in a way that is to their detriment you will find that they will waste no time in removing you from their midst.

    This seems like great news to me, and I don’t understand why more atheists don’t appreciate it and live accordingly.

    It is called a conscience.

    If there’s no sky-police, what are you afraid of?

    Conscience is not fear of punishment.

    Why do you live and think like a slave?

    Valuing the health, happiness and well-being of your fellow humans because you care about them is not slavery. You seem to be missing the piece of your brain responsible for “empathy”.

    P.S. Sorry for feeding the troll. Had some time to kill :-)

  14. RaginKagin

    Always open to new ideas and I think a craving for knowledge is essential for children…but did you just say “we need to show them how to think”???? Isn’t that propaganda?

  15. Eosimias

    @#13 Silent Bob

    I was itching to refute #11, but you said just about everything I was going to. Bravo.

    @#14 RaginKagin

    No, indoctrination (I think a better term for what you’re referring to) is telling people WHAT to think.

  16. Silent Bob

    @ 14 RaginKagin

    … did you just say “we need to show them how to think”???? Isn’t that propaganda?

    No. The accent was on the “how”.

    “We need to show them what to think.” – That’s propaganda.

  17. David

    @7 Sith Master Sean

    “There is nothing in science to suggest that, for example, genocide and eugenics are a bad idea.”

    And what about in religion? God commits genocide in the bible.

    History has shown that the Bible is a terrible moral compass, as people have used it as an excuse for all sorts of atrocities–slavery, burnings at the stake, and holy wars are a few examples.

  18. Grendel

    @ Sith Master Sean

    “I like to think that I’m one of those rare people who takes my atheism seriously”

    I’m one of those atheists who likes to take my humanity seriously. I share my life with other humans. my actions impact on their lives as well as my own. I COULD do as you suggest and act only in my own interest, or I can communicate, collaborate and have actual productive relationships with those around me and live in a way that delivers mutual benefits.

    All while having no religious (Judeo-Christian or otherwise) moral structures to guide my actions.

    What Silent Bob said…

  19. Alan(UK)

    @8

    “>There is nothing in science to suggest that, for example, genocide and eugenics are a bad idea.”

    Swan deals with that one. So let us rephrase it:

    >There is nothing in xxxxxx The Bible to suggest that, for example, genocide and eugenics are a bad idea.

    10:41:00 UTC and still no sky.

  20. RaginKagin

    I get what you are saying, Bob, but I feel the distinction is pretty slim here. I’ve got all the respect in the world for scientists, Phil here especially, but I begin to feel after a while that scientists have stopped promoting healthy dialogue about the wonders of science and have degraded into the childlike argument of “If you disagree with me, you’re just not smart enough to understand what’s going on.”

    Skepticism is the questioning attitude of knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere (stole that from wiki, so argue that definition with them…I just liked the wording). When skeptics begin to question these things in a matter that does not allow for any opposing skepticism I begin to worry that we’re loosing perspective. Skepticism, by the definition presented above, is destined to turn against itself. If someone managed to change the manner of HOW someone thinks, eventually that way of thinking would ultimately become the knowledge that is taken for granted and questioned by other people who will take up the moniker of ‘skeptic’.

    I think its essential to the welfare of a child’s education to present them with as much information as possible and encourage them to ask questions….I guess I feel like saying “how to think” is the same as telling them WHAT questions to ask instead of just encouraging them to ask questions and work things out for themselves. It takes a little bit out of it, even if its not propaganda (which I agree, Bob, I don’t think Phil is promoting propaganda in the most strict of terms. I was using hyperbole to stand out in the comment field).

  21. VinceRN

    @ #7 Sean – Humans need myths? Don’t think so. Perhaps most want myths, we see evidence of this daily with horoscopes, psychics and quackery of all sorts among many that avoid religion, even that call themselves atheists. Myths help people avoid thinking about reality, which can be scary and involve math, but humans don’t need myths.

    Oh, also: Nietzsche? Really? Wow.

    @ the “how to think” = propaganda crowd: Teaching people how to think critically, analytically, is not propaganda, it does not tell them what to think, or what questions to ask. People should always think, should always ask questions, should always people skeptical. People should always look for how, should never except answers like “magic”. Certainly there is a lot of propaganda in the skepticism movement, most here will teach there kids to be atheists rather than teaching their kids to think and allowing them to get to atheism or agnosticism on their own.

    Back on topic – Carroll’s definition of scientific skepticism for kids is excellent, I’ve kept it and will be using it with my kids. But, looking though the rest of the dictionary, it’s not really that good. It’s not inaccurate, but the selection of terms to define is pretty limited and the definitions given are kind of blah. Just my $0.02 worth, and probably overpriced at that.

  22. Nigel Depledge

    Sith Master Sean (11) said:

    Actually I like to think that I’m one of those rare people who takes my atheism seriously and doesn’t just adopt Judeo-Christian values while discarding their deistic basis

    “Judaeo-Christian values” is a very lose term. After all, the bible demands that disrespectful offspring should be stoned. And we do not consider this to be acceptable.

    AFAICT, most atheists don’t adopt “Judaeo-Christian values” – they instead show respect and compassion towards their fellow humans. It could be argued that this is what Jesus taught, but I would counter with (a) that is likely to be a coincidence, and (b) most Christians don’t practice what Jesus preached.

    — I discard *all* of it. This makes me what you might call a “free spirit.”

    So, on what do you base your interactions with other humans? Respect for / fear of the law? Or what?

    I understand that all religions are absurd, God is dead, and life has no purpose, which means that I am free to do literally anything I want, because the universe simply doesn’t care!

    The universe may not care, but most of the people with whom you interact will care.

    This seems like great news to me, and I don’t understand why more atheists don’t appreciate it and live accordingly. If there’s no sky-police, what are you afraid of?

    What does fear have to do with it?

    Do you consider fear to be the only driver of moral behaviour? If so, why?

    Why do you live and think like a slave?

    Simple. I don’t. What I do, however, is respect other people’s rights and freedoms. This is based largely on empathy. Why do you equate respect for other people with slavery?

    If you truly are an atheist, as you claim to be, why are you trotting out all of the “science causes moral decay”-type strawmen that are so dear to religious fundies?

  23. Nigel Depledge

    Silent Bob (13) said:

    This looks like fun. Nigel, do you mind if I play?

    Be my guest.

  24. Nigel Depledge

    Vince RN (21) said:

    Myths help people avoid thinking about reality, which can be scary and involve math, but humans don’t need myths.

    Are you saying it comes to a choice between myths and maths?

  25. QuietDesperation

    The problem I run into is skeptics who get caught up in other types of belief systems, like political ideologies. You try to talk to them, but, oh no, they’re Skeptical (capital S!) and “reality based” and how dare you debate them on *anything*, oh my! All I do is ask that they maintain skepticism in other arenas, but the problem is they *think* they already are. They think “political science” isn’t an oxymoron, and that you can create some sort of programmed algorithm and *never* deviate from the Mighty Plan.

    All I’d ask of skeptical course for kids is a healthy dose of questioning authority, especially when the authority is a person who deliberately sought out a position in life to have power over the lives of others.

    Never stop questioning anyone and everyone.

  26. VinceRN

    @Nigel – I’m embarrassed I didn’t write that. Yes, those that want it can have their myth I suppose, but my choice is math.

  27. Silent Bob

    @ 15 Eosimias

    Heh. And you just said exactly what I was about to say to RaginKagin minutes later.

    “Great minds…”, eh?

    (Or is this evidence that BA has subtly been teaching us what to think? 8-O )

  28. frankenstein monster

    @ Troll Master Sean.

    adopt Judeo-Christian values

    Hey, ‘non-slave’, why do you let them to appropriate those values like that ? They were there long before christianity, judaism, or any other organized religion.

    I discard *all* of it. This makes me what you might call a “free spirit.” @

    Hey, that is not free … that’s unhinged.

    God is dead, and life has no purpose, which means that I am free to do literally anything I want, because the universe simply doesn’t care!

    Sure, the laws of gravity don’t mind if you jump off a cliff.
    But they will cause that you will end up as a bloody stain on the bottom of the chasm. So maybe you would mind.

  29. Nigel Depledge

    Silent Bob (27) said:

    (Or is this evidence that BA has subtly been teaching us what to think? )

    Nah. This cannot be.

    Is this a send-up? Science and scepticism – with your support – both contain fundamental systems of checks and balances. In order to train a true sceptic what to think, Phil would have to have invented some kind of mind-control. No, with Dr Plait and others, I’m sure the sceptical community – in Boulder, Colorado, at least – is fundamentally sound.
    ;-)

  30. flash

    Speaking of Skeptic kids, check this out Phil, it’s in part inspired by your work :)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cza4ZkKZ-zM

  31. Eric

    “I understand that all religions are absurd, God is dead, and life has no purpose, which means that I am free to do literally anything I want, because the universe simply doesn’t care!”

    The universe does not. However, you live in a world with other people, and they do. Lack of a deity or lack of subscription to a religious belief system (or any other, say, that aliens in UFOs are watching or some such) does not remove the need to act as part of society.

    Respect others. Respect what they may believe, even if you disagree with them, even if you get into discussion with them. Even if they start acting disrespectful toward you, maintain that respect. Respect others regardless of gender, race, nationality or any of the other divisions humanity has chosen to recognize.

    We are the only (supposedly) intelligent life we *know* exists in this universe. Until we have definitive proof otherwise, we are alone, us and the creatures that inhabit this bit of matter circling a star that’s only special to us. We cannot be replaced. We are, each and every one of us, unique in the universe, and we’re the only beings we know of that can contemplate that. If we screw up, we do not get a “do over.” We can, if we choose, act selfishly and destructively towards each other – but what does that really bring? I don’t need a religion to tell me that it’s worse for everyone.

    The universe may not care. Those around you do, and you should.

  32. Matt

    I’m against indoctrinating children with any kind of philosophical bent. Any ” For Kids” book in my opinion is an inappropriate sort of thing to give to your child. It doesn’t matter what the ideology is, no matter what it is, it represents an indoctrination of your child towards a particular mode of thought, whether that be The Bible for Kids, Marxism for Kids, Utilitarianism for Kids or Skepticism for Kids.

    I think that the best way to teach a child is to answer their questions honestly, and only to teach them the facts. “These people believe this.” “Those people believe that.” “I believe this.” Then, when they’re older, they should decide what to believe for themselves.

  33. Silent Bob

    @ 30 Nigel Depledge

    lol :-)

  34. Robin

    @ Sith Master Sean:

    Scientific method does not apply to moral positions. Critical thought would show you that. In some very limited way, you free to do what you want; however that freedom ends when the society in which you live, thrive, and benefit sanctions you. So much for your freedom to do “anything” you want.

  35. frankenstein monster

    It doesn’t matter what the ideology is, no matter what it is,

    So now,teaching is indoctrination, and the scientific method ideology… wonder how much time is left till the economy collapses because basic mathematical operations like addition, subtraction, multiplication become just a matter of opinion too.

  36. Carey

    Sith Master Sean’s argument summed up:

    I’m free to do whatever I want. A true atheist should be free to do whatever I want them to do, too.

  37. Maria

    I was wondering if there was something like this in book form? Not exactly this but a decent “kids guide to skepticism” or something else along those lines.

    My cousin is at that age where I love that I can counter point some of her grandmothers crack-pottery, paranoia, and (well intentioned) wet noodling. She’s just not really into the internet yet or sitting at a computer, preferring to go out into the woods with a book or note book or just talk about what’s on her mind. She’s already a bright girl so something like this would be cool to add to her book shelf.

  38. Nigel Depledge

    Matt (33) said:

    I’m against indoctrinating children with any kind of philosophical bent. Any ” For Kids” book in my opinion is an inappropriate sort of thing to give to your child. It doesn’t matter what the ideology is, no matter what it is, it represents an indoctrination of your child towards a particular mode of thought, whether that be The Bible for Kids, Marxism for Kids, Utilitarianism for Kids or Skepticism for Kids.

    You seem to have failed to notice that the bible, Marxism and utilitarianism are “what” to think. Scepticism is how to think.

    I think that the best way to teach a child is to answer their questions honestly, and only to teach them the facts. “These people believe this.” “Those people believe that.” “I believe this.” Then, when they’re older, they should decide what to believe for themselves.

    However, without the critical-thinking tools with which to evaluate the worth of the various claims made by the various schools of thought, the child is not equipped to make any worthwhile judgement.

    There is a good reason that the motto of the Royal Society translates (roughly) as “take nobody’s word for it”.

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