A lesson in skepticism

Phil Plait wrote an interesting piece today about an account of a teacher who challenged his students to think critically about the information he was providing them:

“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 reminded me of a professor I had had at NYU who did something very similar. Professor Cyrus Patell also challenged his American Literature class to spot the lie but as I recall it was slightly different. There was only going to be one lie over the course of the entire semester and to prevent people from constantly guessing, he gave students only one guess a day. This I think encouraged everyone to be more cautious in their choices. And I think a prize was awarded for whoever did finally correctly guess the lie.

I wasn’t the winner that semester but I will always remember that lesson and Professor Patell for his guess the lie game, for the New York literature class I later took with him later on in my final semester at NYU, and perhaps most of all for his showing up to class on Holloween dressed as Darth Maul while handing back our Midterm grades.


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