Richard Dawkins is a bit of a divisive figure, in my opinion. As an atheist, I sometimes get frustrated with the rabid way he attacks religion. But he’s now losing all credibility as he becomes a parody of himself. This, from The Telegraph:
The prominent atheist [Dawkins] is stepping down from his post at Oxford University to write a book aimed at youngsters in which he will warn them against believing in “anti-scientific” fairytales.
Prof Hawkins said: “The book I write next year will be a children’s book on how to think about the world, science thinking contrasted with mythical thinking.
“I haven’t read Harry Potter, I have read Pullman who is the other leading children’s author that one might mention and I love his books. I don’t know what to think about magic and fairy tales.”
Prof Dawkins said he wanted to look at the effects of “bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards”.
“I think it is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don’t know,” he told More4 News.
“I think looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s something for research.”
I find it really quite hard to understand where Dawkins is coming from. Children are very good at sifting truth from fiction – they often seem to see more truth than us adults do – and I have yet to come across an adult who still believes in Santa, gingerbread houses or Baba Yaga. I can’t see that there is a problem to be solved, other than one created in Dawkin’s head.
Now, I’m all for a book that teaches kids about science and scientific thinking, and which helps parents understand how to explain things in terms that children will understand. (I still remember my Dad answering my question “Why is the sky blue?” with a detailed and scientifically correct explanation that went right over my head. It was some time before I got that question answered satisfactorily.) And if that’s all this book is, then it will be a valuable addition to my bookshelf.
But the idea that fairytales affect children’s ability to be rational seems absurd. Does an appreciation of fiction affect our ability to examine the world scientifically? Do scientists eschew the novel? I don’t think so. Children hold various beliefs at various times in their childhood, and the details vary from child to child. Some kids learn quite young that the Tooth Fairy isn’t real, others use impeccable logic to prove that it is their best friends’ father. In my case, whilst other children were out with their ponies or watching TV, I was reading Heinlein, Asimov, EE Doc Smith, and watching the Space Shuttle take off. I very distinctly remember the moment that I realised that there wasn’t, in fact, a Moon Base.
Treating children as miniature adults is a mistake. Children are little learning machines, as far as I can work out, and they absorb information in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are little scientists: “Oh, look, if I let go of this ball, it always falls to the floor. Note how it never falls upwards! Gosh, later in life I’ll learn that this is called Gravity.” But they don’t just learn through experience and experimentation. They also learn through listening to stories.
Fairytales are about morality, ethics, and the consequences of our actions. How else can you illustrate to a child that if she disobeys and strays from the path, she may be eaten by a big bad wolf? Or that if you lie to get attention, one day you’ll be in real need of help and no one will come. Or that the world is sometimes inscrutable, not at all amenable to explanation, and possibly even terrifying? You could her find out the hard way, or you could tell her stories.
Science has no morals. It’s only the way we use it that is moral or not. And it’s not that great for teaching us about the consequences of our actions. “If you put this little chunk of metal into that tub of water it will explode” doesn’t quite teach the same lesson as “If you do bad things you will be punished.”
But fairytales also teach us to use our imagination, a skill sorely under-appreciated. It’s not just useful for making up more stories, but also in day-to-day life, for picturing how things might be if we take certain actions. Imaginations are very helpful, and they need food to grow: Fairytales. I cannot imagine how dull life would be without fairytales. Several of my friends would be out of a job, for starters, and I would be one ambition poorer.
There are many things that Dawkins could do to make the world a better place, and to help communicate scientific principles to both children and adults alike. Having a pop at fairytales is not one of them.