October 27, 2021

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Lesson of the Day: ‘Tasmanian Tigers Are Extinct. Why Do People Keep Seeing Them?’

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Featured Article: “Tasmanian Tigers Are Extinct. Why Do People Keep Seeing Them?

The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, is an extinct marsupial predator that was last seen in 1923. However, in February, Neil Waters, president of the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia, claimed he had definitive photographic evidence of a surviving thylacine. Experts quickly debunked his photos, but the question of how and why Mr. Waters, and others, believe they see things that are not what they perceive, is something that psychologists and scientists have studied.

In this lesson, you will learn about one of the quirks of the human mind that influences how we process information that is familiar, but difficult to perceive. Then you will set up an experiment to test cognitive bias in your classroom.

Does your mind ever “play tricks” on you? Have you ever looked at something and thought you knew exactly what it was, only to find out you were mistaken? Or heard a sound and thought it was an animal or a person, only to realize it was your radiator?

To see one way the mind can play tricks, try to figure out this quick puzzle. You will be asked to identify a rule that some sequences of three numbers obey — and some do not — and then guess what the rule is. Next, read the first two sections of the answer to learn more.

As you read the featured article, see if you can apply the theory from the puzzle to the themes explored in the article.

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

1. How does Neil Waters’s photographic “discovery” fit into a long history of false photographic and video evidence of lost or unknown species?

2. In what ways can the prevalence of smartphones with cameras help scientists? Have you ever taken a photo of an animal and uploaded it to a citizen science database, like Celebrate Urban Birds or FrogWatch USA?

3. How does Susan Wardle, a neuroscientist, explain why people believe they have seen something that was not there, or not as they perceived it?

4. What factors contributed to the decline, and eventual extinction, of thylacine?

5. What does Darren Naish, a paleozoologist, mean when he says that sightings of thylacine were “a social phenomenon, not a zoological one”?

6. The article talks about “confirmation bias.” How would you explain this psychological phenomenon using examples from the article? What are other examples of confirmation bias that you have experienced or observed?

7. What is your reaction to Neil Waters’s insistence that Tasmanian tigers still exist? Mr. Waters has had multiple photographs debunked by experts, but he says that the rejection gives him “more fire in my belly to prove them wrong.” What would you want to ask Mr. Waters about his quest to discover thylacine? Would you encourage him to keep searching, or tell him to give up? Why?

To learn more about how your mind plays tricks on you, watch this six minute video on cognitive bias, created by BBC Ideas.

After watching the video, answer these questions:

  • In your own words, explain self-serving bias, fundamental attribution error, confirmation bias and G.I. Joe Fallacy.

  • The video gives an example for each of the four cognitive biases. Can you come up with your own example for at least two of them?

  • Finally, set up an experiment to test one of the biases with your classmates. Use this template to set up your experiment either in person or virtually. You could create a survey or set up a logical puzzle, like in the warm-up activity or in the video.

    Then come up with a hypothesis and establish the materials, the setup and the procedure you will use. You can then share your results with your classmates or in the comments section of this lesson.

About Lesson of the Day

Find all our Lessons of the Day in this column.
Teachers, watch our on-demand webinar to learn how to use this feature in your classroom.

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