Rambling introduction:

I have a love / hate relationship with Scholastic, and in particular with their series like “Unexplained Mysteries”. On the one hand they introduce a wide range of interesting topics that kids find fascinating (and so do I!). On the other hand, they’re filled with a tangle of bad intellectual practices and habits. I have no problem with introducing kids to mummies, UFOs, Bigfoot and more – I think it’s great for kids to have a sense of wonder and curiosity about what’s possible in the Universe, and like to encourage them to not think things are impossible simply because they are ridiculed or seem weird. I like to point out as often as possible how little we know as a species, and how fond we are of thinking we understand things far better than we do. But it’s critical that kids learn the skills and habits that help assess assertions critically, and that they have a good toolbox for deciding what may or may not be true that is independent of whether it is widely believed in a given culture / group.


The Educational Side:

This makes “Unexplained Mysteries” great material to read together, and to discuss. The series has provided some wonderful opportunities for me to discuss critical thinking with my grade 2 son. Below are three examples of ways we’ve worked together to understand how to weigh the evidence these books present.


Cherry Picking

In their “The Mummy’s Curse” book, it included the following page of victims of the Mummy’s Curse:

7 people dead after being involved with the mummy? That sounded like more than coincidence.

But then we examined what sort of network of people is presented here…

  • People directly involved in the research on Tutankhamun’s mummy
  • Someone receiving a gift from the tomb
  • The father of Carter’s secretary who entered the tomb

We discussed the time period shown: 7 years from the first “incident” to the last. We estimated how many people would fit into a group that included all people with those levels of relation to the mummy, and decided it would probably be a few thousand. We then talked about how many people from that group might have bad things happen to them over a period of 7 years, and how the data made a different picture when it was in this context.

(We examined the picture as well: how angle, shadow, special effects and more were used to make the image seem as creepy as possible. It was a fun exercise as he went through and described each element the artist had used to change the feel of the picture).


False Equivalence

When reading the Bermuda Triangle page, we paused here:

While “We can only guess what has happened inside the Bermuda Triangle” is true, we talked about how this didn’t make every possible guess equal, and that the lack of knowledge doesn’t prevent us from weighing the options – does bad weather or sailors entering another world seem like a more likely possibility? What questions would we want to ask to be able to better answer that question?

Occam’s Razor

I then introduced the idea of Occam’s Razor – “All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one”. Then we made it experiential:

I asked him to lie down, and we balanced an orange ball on his belly. I had him close his eyes, and asked him to imagine the ball slowly dissolving and vanishing. When he opened his eyes, the ball was gone.

I asked him where he thought the ball had gone. Picking up on the theme, he said maybe aliens had transported it away. I agreed, and offered that it could have gone through a portal into another world, or that his cousin might have been hiding in the closet and run over and grabbed it while he wasn’t looking, then hid downstairs. Or that God might have caused it to vanish.

Then I asked him what he thought had happened to it. He pointed behind my back.

We compared the kinds of questions an answers that come up with the different possibilities.

“If it was your cousin, how would he have gotten here? His dad could have driven him, but he’d have had to take time off of work to do it… why would he do that?”

“What if the Earth was in danger, and my cousin stealing that ball was was an important of saving the world?”

We laughed at how our potential answers were certainly raising larger questions. What sort of danger? How did his Uncle know about it, and how would his cousin grabbing a ball of his chest help? We could come up with explanations, but each one seemed to bring ever wider lists of important questions.

“What about your theory that I took the ball? It seems the easiest explanation. Why would I do it? It would serve to illustrate exactly the point we were just discussing, and seems like the kind of thing I’d do.”

As we finished, I pointed out that often what seems to be the simplest explanation either ends up not being right, or ends up not being as simple as we thought. But Occam’s Razor gives us a great place to start as we try to either flesh-out or rule out competing theories.