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← Children need to be sprinkled with fairy dust

Richard Dawkins's Avatar Jump to comment 7 by Richard Dawkins

The day after my valedictory Simonyi Lecture, I gave an interview to Channel Four news. The interviewer asked me my view on whether fairy tales might have a pernicious effect on the educational development of children (I can’t remember his exact words, but that was the gist). My answer – that I didn’t know, and it would be interesting to do research on the question – was picked up by the Daily Telegraph (referring to me as Professor Hawkins) and it is presumably this account, or a similar one, that Libby Purves has read:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/3255972/Harry-Potter-fails-to-cast-spell-over-Professor-Richard-Dawkins.html

There are times when intuition and anecdote are not good enough, and we have to turn to research. Most people have an intuitive answer to the question of whether the death penalty deters murder. And to the question of whether violence on television, or in computer games, begets violence in real life. Our intuitions on such matters could be right, could be wrong, and different people have opposite intuitions. The only way to decide is by research.

Same thing for fairy tales. Libby Purves’s intuition is that they are a good thing. My anecdotal experience of my own childhood points me towards the opposite intuition. Whether I actually believed in spells and magic wands and Genies of the Lamp, I can’t remember. But I do remember spending a lot of time at my infant school trying to call down supernatural forces to protect me from bullies. I had a distinct mental image of a large black cloud with a human face, which would swoop down out of the sky and deal with the bully. I can’t be sure that a diet of Grimm and Hans Anderson predisposes children to such futile imaginings, but at very least it seems plausible enough to be worth researching. Similarly, my intuition suggests that a diet of wizards and magic, where anything can change, at the shake of a wand, into anything else, might predispose a child to lazy habits of thought, avoiding the urge to question how and why things really happen. This is emphatically not true, by the way, of good science fiction, which respects scientific principles and never resorts to lazy magic tricks.

I might add – although I didn’t in the interview – that I find it plausible that early exposure to supernatural magic might predispose a child to religious indoctrination. What, after all, is the difference between Jesus walking on water, or turning water into wine, and a witch turning a prince into a frog? But, I hasten to add, Libby Purves might be right. Such magic spell stories might be a valuable, even essential, part of a child’s imaginative development. Both points of view are defensible in the absence of evidence, and research is the only way to decide between them.

In response to my modest suggestion for research, to answer a question to which I don’t know the answer, the Telegraph prints a couple of letters under the heading “Fundamentalist Dawkins”.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2008/10/27/nosplit/dt2701.xml#head2
One of these letters, by a David A Robertson of Dundee, begins,

Richard Dawkins is sounding more like a religious fundamentalist every day, and wants to investigate whether reading Harry Potter books will have a ‘pernicious effect’ upon children.
It is the mark of a fundamentalist to know the answer to a question in the absence of any research on it. How very revealing, that a call for open-minded research to answer an open – and quite interesting and important – question should be damned as ‘fundamentalist’.

Richard

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 01:06:00 UTC | #258441