Witches, fairies and even vampires—the world of supernatural beings is the stuff of children’s stories because, we assume, children are more likely than adults to “believe” in these exciting creatures. We’re not often sure how fully children believe in such supernatural beings, but we do expect adults to draw a line more firmly than children between creatures for whose existence there is no scientific evidence and those for which there is—chickadees, gilla monsters, and paramecia.
Well, it seems, we just might be wrong. That, at least, is (roughly) the claim recently made by Cristine Legare, a researcher in the “Cognition, Culture and Development Laboratory” at the University of Texas. Writing in the June issue of Child Development, Dr. Legare reveals that as children become adults they tend increasingly to rely on supernatural explanations. Admidttedly her research is directed primarily not towards spooky creatures, but rather towards supernatural explanations for death, disease, and the origins of life—even when those explanations might include spooky creatures.
In a very simple model of knowledge, we accept ideas — believe them — on the basis of good justification. The more the evidence and the better the reasoning, the more likely we are to believe a knowledge claim. Alas that such a fine idea should be flawed!
It would appear, instead, that attempts to counter misinformation often have exactly the opposite effect: the very attempt to debunk a myth may entrench it the more firmly in people’s minds. The Debunking Handbook, by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky, downloadable free on the website of Skeptical Science, treats some of the psychological factors of which communicators should be aware in trying to counter false information and the myths within which they are very often embedded. It identifies three major “backfire effects”: countering a myth involves talking about it and thus making it more familiar; providing an explanation that is overly complicated may make people reject it in favour of a simpler myth; counter-arguments that threaten people’s worldviews may strengthen their own views in resistance. I recommend highly this short, clear, free pamphlet. It adds some interesting complexity to a TOK treatment of the relationship between justification and belief.
Vivian Toy’s recent article “Sometimes, Lucky Numbers Add up to Apartment Sales“ in The New York Times (October 22, 2010) starts with “Emily and Willis Loughhead, whose lucky number is 19, included it in bids for an Upper East Side condo. They later learned the sellers’ twins and Mr. Loughhead share a birthday: April 19. “It’s amazing how much it shows up in our lives,” he said.”
Since long before the IB was founded and TOK created as a subject, literature has been dealing with ideas that are intimately connected with many topics we raise in TOK. As a teacher of literature myself, I came to TOK with a sense of familiarity, first noticing the similarities then, as TOK came into focus for me, increasingly seeing the differences. I invite any teacher of both literature and TOK to add to the few thoughts that I offer here.
As you too must have noticed, writers return frequently to treat believing and knowing in innumerable ways, involving structure, characters, and themes.
Happy International Water Day! This 8-minute video called “The Story of Bottled Water”, released for the occasion, is done by the same Annie Leonard who gave us “The Story of Stuff”. It deals with “manufactured demand”, or the creation through advertising of a desire for something we don’t need. (http://storyofstuff.org/bottledwater/)
Treating the creation of a market for bottle water, it deals in part with emotional response and in part with belief — the creation of belief, the implications for action of that belief, and the consequences of those actions. Is the belief in the superiority of bottled water well justified? No. In many regions, the tap water is just as good as bottle water. But so what? Does it hurt if we buy bottled water and waste a bit of money? The answer lies in the pollution created before and after drinking it, with the impact on the environment. A consideration of bottled water could bring in many central TOK knowledge issues: what persuades us to believe the things we believe, whether our beliefs are true, what the implications might be of accepting them, and whether there is an ethical dimension to the actions we might take on their basis.
Don’t watch this video if you faint over needles. I had a hard time watching it to the end, but was far too interested in magic and belief to stop. Magician Eric Mead, in context of TED talks, does a couple of tricks on video and comments simultaneously on the placebo effect: “For some time I have been interested in the placebo effect, which might seem like an odd thing for a magician to be interested in, unless you think of it in the terms that I do, which is something fake is believed in enough by somebody that it becomes something real.”
Lionel Tiger, an anthropologist from Montreal Canada, claims that religious beliefs are neurological. He argues that beliefs in God(s) are remarkable processes that exist consistently across most communities. He sees religion as pushing us to harbour feelings of guilt and concede personal control, but also allowing for participation in democratic processes and the creation of community. Overall, in Tiger’s mind, belief is neurologically soothing. He contends that the brain creates religion, yet does not rule out the possibility of the existence of God(s). Tiger’s explorations of religion differ from earlier anthropological explanations that base themselves in social needs, rather than cognitive processes (although not sure it strays entirely from Malinowski!).
What harm would it do to join the party? I could wear my BELIEVE hat and scarf, wave my red mittens, and cheer on our Canadian athletes in the Olympics. All the fun seems to be on the inside, so do I want to be a sour grouch on the margins, throwing stones? I commented earlier on the CTV BELIEVE campaign, and must now face the question: am I doing any harm by accepting the jumble of factual assertions, values, predictions, and soaring emotion?
Anti-Olympic protestors say yes. They take the perspective that the Games are pernicious — that they are deflecting money and attention from social issues such as homelessness and resolution of native land claims and that they are damaging the environment. (Environmentalist David Suzuki gives the Olympics a bronze medal.) The protestors’ serious points, though, get lost in the media coverage. After all, in part it’s the media that are throwing the party. The mural of unhappy faces gets taken down as “graffiti” as the city washes its face in preparation for international visitors. Like so much other protest, this one also implodes as everybody’s cause tags along to create a very defused negative and, predictably, as a violent minority shows up to give the mainstream cameras what they want. Huge peaceful public protest gathers in Vancouver as the Games open but the Olympic excitement sweeps on by. Time enough afterward to count the costs and give attention to the serious issues (if at all).
The music soars, the camera pans across spectacular winter scenery or captures the flitting lines and shadows of an ice arena. An ultra-resonant voice slowly doles out evocative words. Enter an athlete graceful and powerful, a character with a narrative. In the final seconds, that athlete turns toward the camera as evidently instructed and tries not to look foolish and self-conscious while uttering the slogan words, “Do you believe?”
As a Canadian, I’ve been bombarded with a whole series of these BELIEVE ads on CTV, the largest Canadian private broadcaster, in the months leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics. If I like, I, too, can broadcast by buying and wearing clothing with the slogan. How could a teacher of critical thinking possibly resist a red hat with believe emblazoned across the forehead, just over the eyes and the brain?