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On Telling Your Child “Santa Claus is/n’t real.”

“If you teach children to believe in magic, then they grow into adults who believe in astrology and homeopathy.” —Sheldon Cooper

Another child at school must have told me that Santa wasn’t real, because it was after a school day, in the car with my mother who had just picked me up and was now pulling into our driveway, that I asked her the truth about St. Nick’s existence. She evaded the question. Then I knew.

The betrayal a child feels on learning his or her parents have been the direct perpetrators of a lie is flooring. There is first a period in which to grasp the reality of the lie and that the primary fabricator of one’s reality (i.e., the parent in question) is capable of it. Then comes the idea that the parent can’t be trusted in other things. What else is she lying about? The crew of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, love them though I do, have tried to justify this as a means of introducing skepticism in a child’s life. However, there is a vast difference between deliberately lying to your child and encouraging them to explore an uncertainty. For example, if your child comes home having learned that there is no such thing as a brontosaurus (whether he or she misunderstands what the teacher might have actually said), contrary a book you gifted or a conversation you shared, it is an opportunity to research the topic in which you would both discover that “Brontosaurus” is a depreciated name. If you were honestly ignorant of the change, then by admitting that ignorance and promising to use the proper name “Apatosaurus” instead, you have shown your child not only that you can be wrong, but how to handle correction with humility and a drive for education. By contrast, in telling your child a baldfaced lie one year and evading or sugarcoating it the next, your child learns that manipulating the gullible for one’s own pleasure is okay.

Let’s face it: the pleasure is the parents’ more than the child’s. The idea that parents shouldn’t deprive children their sense of wonderment is little more than another evasive excuse. A child will enjoy a toy no less if he or she thinks it’s from Mom or Dad than from Santa. A child does not feel resentment toward the parent who has been consistently honest. (My experience disinclines me to make the same claim for those who have not.) Most importantly, a child’s “wonderment” is—thankfully—not confined to the mythological fat man who only appears in malls after Thanksgiving. If we are skeptics, and if we are raising our children to be skeptics, then we are already introducing them to science and all the wonderment that comes with it. The sense of mystery, curiosity, and fascination are not lost in its exploration. Rather they are enhanced by it. Best of all, these forces do not disappear with the proverbial loss of innocence. The tinkering, toying, and drive to discover are better fuel for the inner child that persists through life than all the artificial staging of one day each out of a few short years.

If you still find it difficult not to allow your child to buy into the myth, particularly with all the pomp and circumstance put on by our culture, just imagine that you are preparing them for short intervals in their adult lives where they will be surrounded by other adults in unflattering costumes speaking of fiction with all the urgency and tenacity of a pressing political debate and singing ridiculous anthems off key: sci-fi and fantasy conventions.

Live long and prosper.

edit 01/16/2012: Added the quote up top, shared from a friend of mine.


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Brief: Hitchens’ Passing

Having been off the ‘net this week, I have only just learned of Hitchens’ passing, which occurred on mine and my husband’s anniversary and in my state. There was once a time when I would have imposed meaning over that, just as there was a time when I was certain a monster lurked in the dark space beneath my bed. Because of science-minded spokesmen like Hitchens, I am afraid of neither the dark, nor coincidence, nor uncertainty.

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Help! – Looking for Skeptical Women in Academia

(My connection to Twitter seems strangely gummed up at the moment, so forgive this short post, as a brief version was meant to be put directly there instead.)

I’m looking for active women in skepticism who are also working academics: a list of female skept-acad heroes, as it were. I am also open to women with higher education degrees who posses a profile in education (within or outside of academia). Harriet Hall (The Skep Doc), Rachael Dunlop (Dr. Rachie), and Carol Tavris come to mind immediately. Would you please comment, reply, or email me your recommendations? Thank you very much!

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Things That Make You Say “Duh!”

I’m really bad about keeping up-to-date with some of my blog feeds, particularly those that post multiple entries per day. I fall into the psychological trap of seeing how far behind I am, not wanting to face it, and getting even more behind, so that I end up rushing through all the entries at once in those few moments when I’m bursting with a conquer-all attitude. Some blogs actually lend themselves well to this. Pharyngula has some more elaborate posts, but most of PZ’s entries are short and sweet, cutting straight to the point or are just an image or video he felt worth sharing. Neuroscience News from ScienceDaily takes much more of my attention and time, and even those are little more than brief summaries of existing science articles, which, if I want to fully read, require a fight with my university’s interlibrary loan system and months of waiting for delivery. In order to (very loosely) catch up, I tend to breeze through the titles and just read those that look interesting at the moment.

There are a number of titles that I look at in awe of how pedestrian they sound. The titles have to be brief and clear, but they also tend to be boring, bland, and even vague. This is, sadly, typical of scientific studies. The original journal articles are often “The Effect of X on Y,” or some variation thereof. Lacking specificity or application in the title, many appear to state what we already know.

In my last scan of the titles to 75 unread posts, I found a number that made me stop and ask, “Didn’t we already know this?” or “Money was spend on this?” Granted—and I want to emphasize this—the text within may be far more thorough or enlightening than the title lets on. But I feel compelled to share the titles that make me say “Duh! I could have told you that!”:

  • Poor Cerebral Cortex Functions Leads to More Impulsive Behavior
  • Biggest Ever Study Shows No Link Between Mobile Phone Use and Tumors
  • Number of Facebook Friends Linked to Size of Brain Regions, Study Suggests
    Okay, the title alone was not enough to make this list, but in the first two lines of the article which show up on the feed, it says, “In a new study researchers also showed that the more Facebook friends a person has, the more ‘real-world’ friends they are more likely to have.” Why would that not be correlated? 
  • Future-Directed Therapy Helps Depression Patients Cultivate Optimistic Outlook
  • Babies and Toddlers Should Learn from Play, Not Screens
  • Minority Children Less Likely to Receive CT Scans Following Head Trauma
    I don’t like this one on my list. I don’t like it regardless. It’s here because of how terribly unsurprised I am by it. Can we please stop behaving in accordance with racist attitudes? :(
  • Blame ‘Faulty’ Frontal Lobe Function for Undying Optimism in Face of Reality
  • Timing is Crucial for Family Consent in Brain Dead Organ Donors

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How to Win an Argument (in Your Own Mind)

I’m working on a longer post on a sensitive topic. In the meantime, enjoy this free lesson provided by the irrational!

  • There is always someone, somewhere that will have a different opinion and be willing to discuss it openly. Therefore, you can always claim that there exists “controversy.”
  • Declare the argument unresolved, as long as it doesn’t resolve in your favor.
  • If the majority is against you, refer to them the “establishment,” and yourself a “rebel” or “maverick.”
  • If you are faced with a fact that is counter to your claims, declare it arrogance on your opponent’s part.
  • Question bias (regardless of whether it exists) inherent in your opponent’s method of understanding. Similarly, deem your opponent too stupid to comprehend yours.
  • Refer to yourself as “enlightened,” and your opponents as “deniers.”
  • Argue semantics.
  • Change the subject.
  • Cry out about the repression of your freedom of speech or others’ freedom of choice.
  • Accuse your opponents of being afraid to face the truth.

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