Noises in the Night
A NOTE FOR TEACHERS: I’m interested in helping young people think skeptically and philosophically about concepts like knowledge, belief, evidence, fact, and theory. I developed the Vinland Map exercise for this purpose (in a philosophy of science class for gifted teens); I then wrote Noises in the Night as a way of starting similar conversations with younger age groups.
I usually start this lesson with an open-ended discussion of what is obviously the key question raised by the story (available in the lesson plan attachment area above): What leads us (and — this isn’t quite the same — what should or should not lead us) to prefer one explanation of something that’s happened over another? To get that going…
First, offer a couple of very concrete examples of something unusual happening — say, all the lights in the classroom suddenly go off and come on again several times in a row; or, we hear or read someone claiming that they saw a person sitting in a chair, calmly hovering three feet above the ground; or, someone (or something!) walks into the room in a silvery spacesuit, gesturing strangely and talking in a mechanical voice in a language none of us has heard before. (Encourage students to make up their own examples.)
Second, get the group to pick a favorite and, perhaps in small groups, brainstorm at least two stories that explain why the strange thing happened. (You may need to point out that in #2 above the strange thing is we were told it happened!)
Then read out (better: have students read out) the story in the lesson plan attachment PDF available above, and ask: What would you say next?
Some of the issues raised are obvious, like paying attention to how reliable the source of a “fact” is. Some are much less so, like asking what other (“background”) beliefs or theories one particular belief depends on or commits us to. (That in particular really helps young students get beyond “facts are things we know and theories are things we don’t know” and see that our beliefs form a complex network — and that new events can put “pressure” on our existing beliefs and force us to alter the shape of the network.)
Two other issues, raised by the ending: How do we tell whether someone’s claim or explanation is even meant seriously or not? And how do you feel about the story not solving the mystery by telling us what the answer is?