Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Fantastical/Fanatical Dawkins

Paul’s latest blog post F-I-C-T-I-O-N is a reflection on Richard Dawkin’s latest attack. He writes: “If Dawkins wishes to examine whether bringing up children to believe in a religious explanation for the world affects their ability to think rationally about science is one thing, but the Telegraph reports that he wants to look at the effects of "bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards". Underlying that is the belief that when parents read fiction to their children, they are expecting them to believe these tales as unquestionable truth.”

Mr D is four years old and as an avid fan of Doctor Who he is fascinated by time travel, by sonic screwdrivers, aliens, monsters and The Tardis. At the end of the day though, he knows that it’s make believe. How so – well, we told him. That hasn’t stopped him enjoying watching Dr Who, nor has it quelled his passion for running around playing with anything that has a blinking light zapping, pretending he’s got his very own sonic screw driver. And it’s spawned a healthy curiosity for science, particularly in the manner in which the world functions.

Would Dawkins approve of the fantastical Dr Who?

I have no idea – I don’t profess to know the man’s mind nor want to. Past experience has left me wanting to throw something heavy and blunt in his direction (and I’m not even vaguely religious!)

What gets up my nose most about Dawkins, and this is a similar argument I have had with my partner (who did his Masters Degree in Environmental Geochemistry) in the past, is that science is just another belief systems. Granted it is an ever evolving and questioned set of beliefs, and yes they are beliefs based in shifting sands of empirical evidence, but to me they are just beliefs, at best good theories in motion.

If you take medicine for instance, read text from any reputable anthropologist and they will posit that medicine, which likes to raise itself up on a rather high pedestal, is just a set of beliefs – some will go as far as saying that surgeons are culturally created, as much as they are educated and trained. I’ll go as far as saying that medical science has set itself up as the new religion and doctors as the new Gods (it’s pretty obvious my general loathing of the medical profession). How else could people have blind, unquestioning belief in the science of medicine? (And blind, unquestioning acceptance of science to me is just as great a sin as the same with religion!)

You only have to look at the centuries old battle between doctors/obstetricians and midwives. What brings the two to clash – their belief systems. They both want as many mothers and babies to live as possible – but the values and beliefs they overlay, mean they often feel differently about how to reach that outcome – all based on their belief system. Obstetricians are trained to do – midwives are trained to watch, to ‘be’. In maternity care there are so many procedures and interventions routinely used in hospitals despite research that cautions against their routine use - interventions that bring little benefit or no benefit and at the worst end of the scale, down right dangerous. Yet best practise is jettisoned because the way things are done have become habits, and beliefs have sprung up to support and perpetuate those habits. And there is more than one obstetrician who specialises in IVF and Caesarean sections who has referred to themselves as “God” because now they can not just cut the babies free, but they can make and implant embryos.

As an evolutionary scientist – Dawkins should be deeply disturbed and questioning the manner in which a growing proportion of the next generation are bypassing the experience of a natural birth and what this will mean for us as a species in the short, medium and long term.

Rather than be concerned if fairy tales are destroying or hampering the next generations ability to be rational and logical – how about we spend time nurturing and equipping them with the ability to think creatively and critically, empower them to have confidence and belief in decision making. That’s the most important aspect of rational thought for me.

Last year a friend of mine, who is a psychologist, came to stay with us. From a very early age I’ve fostered in Mr D aptitude for decision making. It starts simply – offering two t-shirts and allowing him to choose which one he would like to wear, getting him to set the table and making choices about who sits where. She looked sternly at me and told me point blank “Don’t give him choices. Just tell him what to do!” Why?

I’m not sure how much decision making opportunities we got as kids, but I don’t want Mr D to grow up like me - with no confidence in decision making. I don’t want him so caught up in the emotive aspects of the consequences of a decision that he’s unable to make good judgements based on the available evidence, a certain degree of detachment and a rational weighing up of the consequences – paralysed into inaction, or recklessly just deciding, regardless.

Obviously at four, Mr D isn’t faced with lots of earth shattering, life altering decisions, in the greater scheme of things, but I realised after a conversation we had yesterday that he has a definite ability to think rationally and logically about the things that do change in his life – especially the ones beyond his control. He will be having a second year at kindy next year and as his parents, we’ve been very cautious about the way we’ve gone about discussing this with him. On Friday we found out that he’s been accepted back for a second year and while we were ecstatic, the excitement and relief of the news was lost on Mr D. So we left it.

Yesterday he said to me: “I’m not old enough to go to school yet, you need to be five to go to school and I’m only four. I’m going to kindy next year and there’ll be new friends there.” You could have knocked me over with a feather. This came solely from his processing of the latest change in his life - with zero input from either his Dad or I, his Poppy who stayed over the weekend or his teacher. It’s come from observation and processing, to come to a logical conclusion. I hope he never loses this.

Rather than be worried about reading fantastical stories. I’m certain that there are many more things that Dawkins should be concerned with – such as including science education at all levels of schooling, as well as the fostering and encouraging creative and independent thought.

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