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In the late 1880s, interesting groups of men formed clubs that met on the 13th of the month, challenging the superstitions of the times, such as opening umbrellas indoors and walking under ladders. No more than 13 guests were at the table, and 13 candles were lit. They knew that belief without evidence was problematic. The ultimate goal of such effort was to encourage skepticism – that philosophical sense that it is always best to question everything. These were the Thirteen Clubs, some of which still exist today!

George Carlin was famous for this point of view, when he delivered his oft-repeated lines to parents:

Don’t just teach your children to read. Teach them to question what they read. Teach them to question everything including your authority.

Today, there is little of this kind of practice evident in the lives of children. School is set up as a series of guess-the-right-answer practices, complicated these days because of Covid. It’s much easier to hand a child a worksheet and check to make sure the answers are correct, even if the work is meaningless. We don’t encourage folks to think. Think Paul Simon on Kodachrome who sang:

When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It's a wonder
I can think at all.”

We have not been teaching any kind of skepticism, including any serious study of civics education to help students understand that questioning authority is a basis of a free society.

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Skepticism, however, is clearly absent in many groups of people, and we can see the evidence. We have not been teaching any kind of skepticism, including any serious study of civics education to help students understand that questioning authority is a basis of a free society. The lack of questioning is pretty clear. We can begin with: the climate change deniers, the “I won’t wear a mask” crazies, the belief that politicians eat children (and worse), that separating children from their parents is okay, and that swearing in a member of a religious cult for the Supreme Court is a sensible act. But questioning is quite different than acting illegally through violence. There are appropriate ways to challenge the status quo, including voting.

So, what are folks missing who believe what many of us think is just plain wrong? They forgot, if they ever learned, the need to put scientific method into play. I mean, it has been around for a very long time, and even John Dewey in his little book How We Think admonished us to use it. What is it? Well, it is a simple process of framing a hypothesis, and then finding evidence to support that hypothesis. In other words, if I open an umbrella inside, then will I have bad luck? Or, if islands are sinking as the ocean rises, does there have to be an explanation other than climate change? Any idea can be tested with evidence.

Once the election is over and the ballots are counted, our current president has many days in which to put into effect so many of his opinions that are not fact-based, like: Drilling in the Artic will not have a negative effect on the climate so let’s do more of that... Supporting more money for non-public education will not hurt our public schools. You know where I am going with this. November 3rd is not the end of the crazy ideas that have been foisted on the American people for more than three years.

So, let’s be skeptical, my progressive buddies. Remind everyone to question everything, particularly the stunts that the White House can still pull, including the continued roll back and deregulation of more than 70 environmental rules that favor industry, with another 26 planned in the next three months. More land has been opened up for oil and gas leasing in previously protected wildlife areas, and more can be opened. The federal education budget slashes funding by almost 8 percent, particularly for the kids in most need, and stricter immigration changes that even effect military members… and on and on it goes.

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We need to be mindful and not sit back thinking that even if Biden is elected, the work is done. As Ocasio-Cortez has said, it will take years and work to undo what has been done. So, stay skeptical and question everything!

Cynthia McDermott