Rigged or reality?

22nd June 2007 at 01:00
How much substance is there in conspiracy theories? Anu Ojha advises you to present the facts to sceptical pupils and let them decide

In our technological, postmodern society there exists a paradox. While we are increasingly dependent on scientific progress, we have growing numbers of people who believe the Royal Family are reptiles, the Moon landings were faked in the Nevada desert and the 911 attacks either never happened or were controlled demolitions.

Conspiracy theories form superb contexts for developing ideas about scientific evidence and internally consistent theories. Our pupils are increasingly the product of a media-influenced "soundbite" approach to teaching, often in the sciences. The decline of holistic approaches to scientific understanding in the education system means many accept the rhetorical questions posed by conspiracy theories as FACTS (often in capitals) rather than as launching points for scientific inquiry.

They take the oft-quoted EVIDENCE that all six of the Apollo programme's successful lunar landings from 1969 to 1972 were obviously faked. I use this Moon hoax theory for teaching aspects of light, mechanics and radiation (from KS3 to A2 levels) as well as critical thinking skills.

Some of the questions I've been asked by pupils on this subject are: "Why aren't the shadows parallel in the photos if the Sun was the only source of light?" "Why are there no stars visible in the pictures taken from the lunar surface?" "Why does the flag appear to be fluttering in a breeze if there's no atmosphere?" and "If we could do it for real 38 years ago then why has no one gone back?"

Each question forms the basis of a scientific investigation carried out by the pupils. The results are often enlightening - not only as a different application of standard parts of the science curriculum, but also when they realise how little substance lies behind the hype of some TV programmes that fuel conspiracy theories.

Other areas I've used include teaching applications of Young's modulus, which allows the behaviour of a material under load to be calculated, to understand the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York.

We've also explored the ideas underpinning the theory of intelligent design to further develop critical thinking skills.

To me, it's vital to inculcate scientific thinking skills in a time increasingly dominated by the non-peer-reviewed internet and the power of presentation and hype. As the scientist Carl Sagan says, science is a "candle in the dark". The truth is out there Anu Ojha is an Advanced Skills Teacher and director of science and mathematics at Great Barr School in Birmingham

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