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What Students Think of Here Be Dragons

by Alison Hudson

March 21, 2013

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Donate As I discussed previously, I like to use resources from the Skeptoid podcast in my composition classes to foster critical thinking skills.

I also use the film Here Be Dragons, as it has the good qualities of being (1) short enough to show in a single class setting, (2) pedestrian enough to not talk over the heads of my students [well, most of them], and (3) cheap enough to afford the classroom license for.*

By the time I show them Here Be Dragons, we've discussed Black & White Thinking quite a bit. It's one of the biggest speed-bumps to student critical thinking, in my opinion -- that part of them that says THEY are right and the OTHER is wrong, and that there's no gray area, no uncertainty to their views. Breaking them of Black & White Thinking is the first step towards getting them to think critically.

I've also started to install in them a sense of source quality -- that all sources of information, especially on the Internet, are not created equal. It is sometimes incredible to me how much even seasoned college students trust suspect sources just because they agree with the source's point-of-view. So we discuss things like angle of vision, degree of advocacy, and credibility in a source.

Not surprisingly, both of these previously introduced topics come up again in their writings about and class discussions of Here Be Dragons ... but not always in the ways I'd wish.

For example, students will routinely level a credibility charge at the film. They start with the illustrious host himself. "Who is this guy?" they ask. "He says we should look for credible sources, but why should I trust him?" In other words, turning the skepticism back on the skeptic. This is common, of course, for those of us who occupy the skeptical community; but it's interesting to see just how common it is in lay practice. They also tend to dislike that he's a "podcaster," a word they sneer with the same disdain as "blogger." Apparently these are appellations that defy credibility.

They will also attack the film's credibility by noting how rarely it cites its own sources in-film. This is at least a fair claim, in that I often tell my students that a source with no citation is inherently less scholarly than a source with full citation. My favorite moment, though, was when one student actually assailed one of the few actual sources cited in the film. In the film's discussion of precognition [at around the 20:30 mark], Dunning cites two French physicists who calculated the odds of "foreseeing" a loved ones' death. "Who are these French physicists, and how do we know they're credible?" one student wrote. I only wish he'd been so critical when researching his own essays.

Some also balk at the "Signs of Pseudoscience" in the film. The "Ancient Wisdom" fallacy draws the most criticism. "Just because something's old doesn't mean it's bad!" is a common retort I will receive to the point, as well as, "While Dunning's right about a lot of things, he should look into [X] because it's been proven that the ancient Chinese people lived longer!"

It's incredible to see that some of the students fail to point that same critical eye at the sources for their own papers; and in fact this can become a talking point in the next class session. Their responses to Here Be Dragons usually give me the opportunity to discuss topics such as Special Pleading, Argument From Ignorance, and Argument From Incredulity, all fallacies that have not yet come up in class. Heck, more than usually; I can more or less count on these common themes to come up every single quarter! It's also a time for me to stress the dangers of critical inconsistency (i.e. holding the film to higher standards than they would their own research sources).

All in all, I find that Here Be Dragons is an invaluable tool for challenging my students to examine their own fallacies and biases. If the film didn't exist, I'd probably have to make it; and thankfully it does exist, because my film-making skills only go about as far as iMovie on my iPhone.

* It's free, in case you didn't know.

by Alison Hudson

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