The Great American Eclipse – critical thinking resource

Critical thinking is such an important skill and a fundamental tool in science. We do not believe, we prove beyond reasonable doubt. Increasingly inaccurate, deliberately false and manipulative information is being shared on social media and it becomes vital that our students and ourselves can think critically about what we are seeing. Just because it is on the internet doesn’t make it fact, even if lots of other people have “liked” it. Here I unpick a particular example from earlier this year which nearly tripped me up.

You can’t have missed the fact that a total solar eclipse tracked from sea to shining sea in the USA on 21st August 2017. There were some beautiful images posted of dramatic darkened skies. One in particular popped up on my social media timeline which at first glance was an impressive, nay even stunning image.

My first impression was followed by a jarring feeling of incongruity, something about this felt off. I have painted pictures of a moon over the sea and I know the sun and moon appear similar in size in the sky, that’s why eclipses happen after all. The sun-moon seemed a bit too big compared to the size of the waves, to the distance to the horizon. Then I clocked how bright it is, totality during an eclipse is so dark you can see the stars. Then I spotted the clouds appeared behind the sun-moon and finally every photo of the sun at the horizon I have ever seen shows visual distortion due to the much thicker atmosphere, like this one here;

yet the faked image shows a perfect circle just touching the sea. It looks beautiful but is completely fake, a quick google search revealed the height of the sun over the coast of  Oregon at totality was actually much higher and at 10.15am in the morning. So I call bullshit on this image.

Fake news is an increasingly common topic of discussion amongst people concerned by the way deliberate bias and propaganda or plain ignorance is infiltrating all of our contact with news and information online.In the UK the government curriculum changes in the sciences were designed to increase scientific literacy in students by exposing them to topics deemed contentious by the media like GMOs, mobile phone radiation risk, use of vaccines and training the students to question the sources and reliability of the data used to back up outlandish claims against scientific advice.

One of the most beneficial aspects of studying science is of course the development of critical thinking skills. This faked image is a great way to engage students in this key skill.

Activity – Critical Thinking

Display the faked image (search faked eclipse photos) and its attribution (Oregon, USA) and ask the students do they believe it is real and why, is there anything a bit off about it, where is Oregon on a map and which way does the Earth rotate, and how could they check the veracity of the claim.

Follow up discussion can explore phenomena such as the distortion of the sun at the horizon, the light levels at totality, the size of the sun and moon in the sky etc.

A selection of faked and real photos could then be put up with students voting on which they think is real and why.

Follow-up activities:

Homework on an aspect of the discussion such as the mechanics of an eclipse and the relative sizes of the sun and moon in the sky, or following on with critical thinking skills a single side of writing on “how to spot fake eclipse photos”.

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