"My cousin says you can make a glow stick out of Mountain Dew, vinegar and baking soda.” Wild pseudo-scientific claims abound on the Internet and email. Telling the difference between truth and myth can form the basis for many myth buster activities that teach kids to think critically and apply the scientific process to test the claims they hear. Armed with facts, rather than hearsay, they will develop greater resilience against falling for myths and urban legends.
Myths are a form of folklore that people repeat and change over time. Urban legend is a subset of folklore that has grown with modern communication technology. They prey on people's fears and conspiracy theories that masquerade as fact without verification. They continue as long as people believe them and pass them on. Hidden within the clearly fantastical story elements are sometimes scientifically testable claims that sound like they might be true. Read stories of such almost believable claims with your child and challenge him to find a part of the story that he can test to determine its plausibility.
Recognizing a Myth
The rule of myth busting, according to Vicki L. Sauter, professor of management information systems at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, is the classic warning, "If it sounds too good to be true, it is.” Explain that if the story aims to shock, amaze or frighten, it is a myth suspect. Even if it credits credible names, it is best to verify the information from independent sources. If you don’t know and trust the person or organization sharing the story, consider the material suspect. Even the best source can be mistaken, so test the claims for yourself before accepting them as fact. Have your child read an urban legend or myth and identify the sources the story claims for itself. Guide your child in considering whether that source would be trustworthy. Help her identify where she can confirm the information’s accuracy, such as books or company websites. Tell your child that when in doubt, ask an adult to help her decide if the story is believable or not.
Email Spam Myths
Many email myths and urban legends start with a true story that plays on your sympathy, tries to alarm you or appeals to your desire for easy money or prizes. But, the stories go viral and outlast the actual need. Or, they may be outright con schemes. Therefore, refrain from forwarding outrageous emails without first verifying the facts. Various versions of these scams cycle through email in-boxes periodically, which raises a big red flag tagging the story as a myth. Have your child read a copy of one or more of these email myths and use a search engine or debunking website, such as snopes.com, to discover alternate versions and the facts behind the case. Look for inconsistencies and assumptions in the different versions. Identify the manipulative strategies used to mislead the reader into going along with the scheme.
How to Bust a Myth
While some myths make outrageous claims about people, products or companies, others make scientific claims that your child can test using the scientific method. Help him look for a crazy claim that begs a question such as, "Does eating an apple every day really result in fewer doctor visits?" Research the current knowledge on the topic and make a hypothesis. Create a step-by-step testing procedure, taking all safety issues into account, and follow through with it, several times. Compare your results with your original question and hypothesis to determine if, as they say on the Discovery Channel's MythBusters television show, the myth is "proven, plausible or busted."
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