Episode Ninety-Six – On Critical Thinking And Santa (Again) – Interview With Matt Lowry

Recently Matt Lowry wrote a blog-post on Using Mythology as a Critical Thinking Tool: The Lesson of Santa for Kids – just as Tim Minchin wrote a piece for the New Statesman about his own efforts to balance a pro-naturalistic worldview and living a life unencumbered by superstition, while raising kids and encouraging a love of fiction.

Matt Lowry is best known as the Skeptical Teacher - a high school physics teacher, plus a part-time physics and astronomy college professor, contributor to the James Randi Educational Foundation Education Advisory Group and awesome presenter for kids’ shows at Dragon*Con.

For this interview we talk about all of these things (and whether Santa might actually be a Time Lord with a sleigh made out of quantum-something-or-other).

During the discussion, we also talk about Barbara Drescher’s blog-post at the JREF Swift: An Argument for Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and (gasp!) Even JesusHere’s another great link to the Physics of Santa!
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Kylie Sturgess:  Thanks for joining me, Matt.

Matt Lowry:  Hello. Thank you, Kylie.

Kylie:  I’m talking to Matt Lowry who is a fellow member of the Educational Advisory Panelist at JREF and he has a fantastic blog called “The Skeptical Teacher.” I’m very jealous that you got that name first. It’s not fair!

Matt:  Yeah, I was encouraged to make a blog by my wife, because she basically got tired of me talking to her about this stuff all the time. She said, “You need to create a blog.” I said, “No, that’s a stupid idea.” Then two days later I came back and said, “How do I create a blog?” Then basically all I did was Google “skeptical teacher” and nothing but random junk came up. I said, “Hey, that’s going to be the name of my blog.”

Kylie:  Brilliant!

Matt:  So, there you go!

Kylie:  Find a niche and fill it. Why not?

Matt:  Yeah.

Kylie:  You are a high school physics teacher… and in your high schools physics classes apparently you kill Santa Claus. How the hell do you do that?!

Matt:  Well, yeah, it’s kind of a fun thing. It’s sort of an old physics joke. There’s been this lesson, if you call it, going around for years and years on the physics of Santa Claus. A few years ago I got a PowerPoint from a colleague of mine in the Chicago area who had actually taken this lesson and put it in a PowerPoint format.

It’s about fifteen slides long and basically what it does is it goes through this little physical analysis of the Santa Claus myth. It starts off by asking the question, “Is Santa Claus real?” It doesn’t assume a priori that he’s not real. It asks, “Is he real?”

Of course, this is a really inappropriate kind of lesson for teenage students who are on their upper levels of high school or something like that. I don’t go showing this to little five?year?old kids and terrifying them because the end of it’s kind of hilarious.

I’m not going to go through the whole thing, but basically I’ll give you the short version. If you go through the analysis and you crunch the numbers about how much time Santa has on Christmas Eve to race all over the world and deliver presents to all of the good children on the planet, he would have to move so quickly and he would have to be pulling so much mass on his sleigh that he and his whole reindeer team would basically burn up in the atmosphere from the friction and they’d burst into flames and immolate.

Then, at the same time, these unbelievably large g?forces would be smashing him into jelly. And the last slide concludes – basically saying if Santa ever did deliver presents on Christmas Eve, he’s dead now.

Kylie:  Aww!

Matt:  And it’s got this picture of this little kid crying in front of a gravestone that says Santa Claus on it.

Kylie:  I so hope that gravestone really exists somewhere. That would be just so brilliant for the parents in the area to say, “OK. It’s now that time of child’s life to take him down to the local gravestone and show him, ‘I’m sorry, sorry kids!’”

Matt:  Well actually, I make that point in my blog post! I don’t really say it so much in my blog; I title it “Killing Santa,” but then I clarify in the first couple lines of the post, I’m not really killing Santa Claus because you can’t kill something that’s not real.

What I’m doing is a lesson in critical thinking to examine the myth of Santa Claus. That’s why starting off with that first slide, “Is there a Santa Claus?” That’s a great way of approaching it because what you’re doing is you’re basically asking the question, you’re presenting the evidence as best we understand it, and you’re coming to the obvious conclusion. It’s a big laugh for my students.

Kylie:  I love the bit about the sonic boom. That got me.

Matt:  Oh yeah. Yeah, they start to giggle at that point! And universally, the reaction is always one of two things in my classes. I’ve got a lot of kids that just absolutely love this. They just adore it. They think it’s the most hilarious thing in the world. And I always put the PowerPoint on my website so that if they want to grab it they can and spread the meme.

But I tell them don’t terrify your little five?year?old brother or sister with this. Go about it a different way because Santa does die rather spectacularly in the end. So it’s kind of gruesome.

Kylie:  Yeah, you don’t want to turn them off physics altogether!

Matt:  Yeah, you don’t want to scare the hell out of them! But the other half of the students roughly ?? they’re just almost horrified. They’re horrified not so much at the conclusion, because of course, everybody in the room knows that Santa isn’t real. That’s not the problem. They’re kind of aghast at the fact that I would even take this method to analyze this particular myth.

It’s almost like they’re shocked that, “But this is such a jolly myth. Why are you doing this? Why are you subjecting it to this analysis?” almost. They don’t come out and say it, but that’s kind of the way they react.

I’ve never gotten any significant blowback from this, just the occasional comment as the students leave that says, “No, but Santa’s real. He’s magic.” I just kind of laugh along, because they’re saying it facetiously too, they don’t actually believe that, but it is interesting.

Kylie:  Yeah, it is very interesting. I noticed that there was one comment on your blog where someone said, “Yes, but it’s all about kindness and forgivingness and I’ve met Father Christmas or Mr. Claus and generosity and you’re just a meany?poo.” And I thought, “Wow. Maybe that’s just a drive?by troll, but gosh, yeah, some people really, really get into the spirit.”

Matt:  Yeah, I’m actually looking at that comment. It was interesting that they talk about kindness and generosity but they start their comment by calling me “Matt Buttkiss”!

Kylie:  Yeah, it’s kind of shooting themselves in the foot and the final bit about, “Why don’t you study hard?” Yeah, to just get as far as understanding what a sonic boom is in the first place takes a little bit of study!

Matt:  Yeah. Keep your mouth shut, study. Yeah, they say, “And make the world a better place.” Yes, make the world a better place by keeping my mouth shut? To which I responded to them, “Merry Christmas to you too and by the way, say hello to the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy for me!”

But the thing is that this year something interesting happened. This led me to a very interesting conversation with some of my students. I did the lesson and then after school that same day there was a club meeting of one of the science clubs. I like to drop in every now and then. I don’t run the club, but I drop in every now and then.

That day I dropped in and I was talking to some of my students from my physics class who were in that club and they were telling the other students the story. And of course, it gets around and everybody’s having a chuckle and some people are like, “Yay!” And other people are like, “You’re so mean.”

But it got a really good discussion going because they asked me a question. They said, “Well, do you have any kids.” I said, “No, I don’t have any of my own children.” They said, “Well, what if you did? What would you tell them about Santa?”

I stopped and I thought about it and I said, “You know, that’s a really, really good question. Because I have a lot of friends who have kids who kind of struggle with this.” It’s like when you sent me Tim Minchin’s article: even he struggles with it. How do you balance that wonderment that little children have without the imaginary world with the inevitable fact that they’re going to have to come to grips that this is not a real thing when so much of society is telling them it is a real thing?

I thought about it for a couple of seconds and then I told my students, I said, “Well, if I actually did have children I wouldn’t tell them outright. I wouldn’t show them that PowerPoint until they’re older. But what I would do is I would try to get them to think about it on their own,” because that’s eventually what we all do. We eventually all clue in that Santa’s not real. It’s just a question of when.

But I think that parents can play a really good role in encouraging the analysis at an early age, encouraging that thought process.

Kylie:  In fact, you reference Barbara Drescher’s blog post that she recently put out on the JREF’s website where she, herself, has kids, and is a fellow educational advisory panelist.

She talks about how she encourages her own children to think about the paradoxes and conflicts inherent in the teachings that are around them and tries to encourage them to come up with their own viewpoint. That’s pretty much what you suggested in your blog post as well.

Matt:  I think that’s the most appropriate way to go about it. Because let’s face it, little kids ?? I don’t have any of my own, but I’ve got plenty of nieces and nephews and whatnot. They are curious. I remember what it was like to be a kid. You’re just constantly asking questions.

You want to encourage that, I would think. I would think that you would want to encourage them to continue asking questions and to simply close the door on that process of asking questions by saying, for example, in religious terms “God did it” and that’s it, no more questions.

Or to close the door by maybe going the opposite direction and saying, “Oh well, Santa isn’t real” and that’s it. I think that really does a disservice to the kids because it short?circuits the entire process of questioning, observing, analyzing the evidence, and then drawing conclusions.

We want to try to, at least I would hope that we’d want to try to encourage that entire critical thinking process to our children and this is a perfect way to do it.

I’ll give you another example of this. This is a great story I love to tell people. In my family I have some people who are creationists. A couple of years ago me and some of these family members went to the West. We went to Utah to do a bunch of hiking in Bryce Canyon and so on. It was absolutely gorgeous and we’re going around.

And one of my nieces comes up to me, she’s a little girl and she asks me ?? maybe six years old at this time, I think. She’s asking me questions about the canyons. She asks the obvious question, “Wow. Where did they come from?”

So I started to point out to her, “Well, look over here at the little rivulets on the side of the wall over here.” Because it had rained recently and you could see the little channels that the water had carved. And I said, “And notice those patterns and what caused that.”

She said, “Well, rain.” I said, “Yeah.” I said, “Now look at the canyon as a whole and you can see similar patterns.” I basically tried to lead her to the idea that if you have enough of these processes like wind and rain for long enough, you can do this and it can take a very, very, very long time.

Well, one of her sisters, who’s older, overheard this and said, “Oh, well, God did it.” Just like it says in Genesis 6,000 years ago, something to that effect. And I didn’t really fight against that because of my little niece’s reaction, which was wonderful.

Her reaction was to look at her older sister and say, “Yeah, but, how did God do it?”

Kylie:  Good question!

Matt:  Yes. And then I turned to the older sister and said, “That’s a great question. How did God do it?” And that kind of ended the conversation on that side because it’s obvious to see that it’s being a used as a way to stop the discussion. When “God did it” becomes the answer for everything, it becomes the answer for nothing.

Even a little six?year?old kid figured this out. Even though she wasn’t articulating it that way, it was just obvious that that was not a satisfactory answer to her, because she’s sitting there going, “Yes, OK, but how did that happen?”

It’s that kind of curiosity that I think we want to try to encourage in kids as much as possible. Part of that is using things like the Santa Claus myth as a way of getting them to think about these things.

Kylie:  In comparison, Tim mentioned in the article, which is in the New Statesman — the latest edition that’s coming out, that’s being edited by Richard Dawkins. He talks about how Father Christmas is real in the imaginary world. Yet, when his daughter Violet, who is five years old, asked him about, “Well, what happens when people die?” He said, “Oh, they just stop.” Yet, he found himself leaving the Father Christmas question a bit more open.

He said, just quoting from the article here, “I think it was the right answer. She went along with the story last year, and I reckon she’ll go again this year. By offering her the paradoxical notion of a non?real real, I allowed her the opportunity to just go with it. Hopefully, she’ll happily do so until her friends find out it’s a myth, at which point, she can quietly slip back into knowing what she suspected all along. There will be no crushing blow of revelation at seven.”

Do you think that the crushing blow of revelation is something that science is unable to avoid in some circumstances? Or do you think it still leaves it open to a certain amount of wonderment and possibility?

Matt:  Well, I don’t know whether or not science is ?? I don’t know if you want to call it responsible.

Kylie:  You don’t need to have the Physics slideshow in order to work out that Santa, not that likely, yeah.

Matt:  I think that reality has a way of imposing itself, whether or not we want it to. The example that Tim made, even at such a young age, his daughter Violet, she’s talking about death.

She knows that people die and that is the crushing blow. When you come to the realization that there is this thing called mortality, and even more shocking, that you are moral.

Kylie:  Santa can’t bring you back after that. It’s not a wish you can make…

Matt:  Right, which is why I think that starting with things like Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny are probably maybe a gentler way of easing people into these questions. I think maybe it prepares you for those tougher questions, such as the ones about death and mortality, and is there an afterlife and so on.

The kids are thinking about this stuff. It would be crazy if they weren’t thinking about it. They are being bombarded by all kinds of mythologies about the afterlife and so on, depending upon their religious upbringing or what they’re learning at home. They’re getting that all over the place, so of course they’re going to be asking questions about this. Even atheistic children are going to ask those questions.

I don’t really think that we can say that science is responsible for that. I just think that it’s just the way that life is. These questions were pondered long before modern science came along, because these are the age?old philosophical questions that were posed by the ancient Greeks, thousands of years ago before we had an inkling of what modern science was.

I just think it’s better to say that the way that life goes, it brings these crushing realities to us. The naturalistic worldview, science, philosophy, these are tools that we can use to address some of these realities. I think that’s the better way to maybe approach it.

Sometimes science, I think, can be seen as bringing the crushing blow in, if you will. Of course a good example of that is my “Killing Santa” PowerPoint. But a lot of it, too, is in the delivery, how you deliver that blow. Do you do it just with brass knuckles or do you do it with a velvet glove? I think that’s it.

Kylie:  Like in your example in your blog post, where you would leave from one shopping center seeing Santa taking photographs to perhaps seeing Santa on the street collecting donations, and maybe another Santa in the window. And then saying, “OK, kids, is Santa really everywhere?”

Matt:  Yeah, how? And notice that this Santa looks a little bit different than that Santa. Notice that this Santa sounds a little bit different than that Santa. And where is his sleigh if he is getting around so quickly, or is he getting around so quickly?

That’s the sort of thing that got me thinking about it. I remember when I was a little kid. That’s why I wrote that example down. I remember seeing Santa at the mall and then we went somewhere else and there was another Santa.

I was just like, “Wait a minute. How…? And we have a car, and where are his reindeer?” I was looking around, and it was stuff like that that got me thinking about all of this. It was like, “Hmm, I think there’s something fishy about this Santa guy.”

Kylie:  We have it tougher in Australia because… reindeer, what are those??

Matt:  Yes!

Kylie:  Someone even came up with a song, “Santa Claus and His Six White Boomers.” He has six white kangaroos that draw his sleigh across the sky! We’re looking at the Christmas card saying, “But where is our snow? Isn’t Santa really hot in that suit? Look at the weather outside. It’s nearly 42 degrees C in the shade. This is impossible!” Of course our Santas have Australian accents and yet, the American Santas on the television have American accents, and the British Santas they have English accents. It was like there’s something not quite right here. Why…?

Matt:  It’s not adding up, yes!

Kylie:  And there’s African Santas out there and so forth…

Matt:  Well, and the interesting thing is that you can draw parallels to that and Christianity. I noticed, again as a little kid, when I would go from one church to another sometimes. I’d notice that. I remember one time I went to an African?American church and it was not unusual to see depictions of Jesus as a black man.

That got me thinking, too. When I go look in the bibles in my Baptist church that I’m going to, Jesus is depicted as a white man.

Kylie:  Yes!

Matt:  Well, what’s going on here? Then you talk to other people and they say, “Oh, no, he was Mediterranean so he would have olive skin,” and all of this stuff. You’re like, “What?” Again, it’s the same kind of thing. It is.

When I was a kid, after Santa, I progressed along to looking at Jesus in a more critical way like this. It was a good exercise. But I think the key of it is that I was one of those kids that kept asking those questions.

I didn’t have my curiosity and my willingness to ask those questions and follow through on them, I didn’t have that squashed. I think that’s what happens to a lot of kids, unfortunately.

Sometimes it’s on the religious side of parents get uncomfortable with the kids asking these sorts of questions because the kids aren’t satisfied with the answers. Then they just tell them, “Well, stop asking questions.”

But I think also on the other side of it, in the secular education, sometimes we don’t do ourselves any favors. In the sense that, as I stated before, we can short?circuit that process by trying to just give the answer and not encourage the process along, for instance.

Kylie:  That’s certainly what Barbara Drescher tried to encourage in her post. She said, “Try to encourage the process. Don’t be just squashing it immediately by saying, ‘There is no Santa Claus’.”

The child has now learned the lesson that there is one thing being said by Mom and Dad. But is that going to be the lesson for everything that comes along? There’s going to be an authority that tells you exactly what happens?

I also like just going back and finishing with the Tim Minchin article — where he said that in a way he wanted to encourage a sense of wonderment. He himself is a skeptical, critical thinker. He’s an artist, obviously, whereas you’re a science teacher.

Yet, you both came to the conclusion that there is indeed a sense of wonderment out there and enjoyment of the fiction. That really shouldn’t be squashed and that can be relished in, for its own sake…

Matt:  Yeah, I agree with him completely. Fiction is wonderful. It’s so much fun. As a matter of fact, this last summer I was helping consult on a science?fiction novel. I just had so much fun with it. It was great fun. I love to read fiction.

I think his point is right. I think that what you need is a healthy balance, a healthy balance that is an appreciation for fiction and so on, but you have to make sure that you understand where the lines are drawn. You have to understand what is fiction and what is real.

You can appreciate what is fiction and what is real. So you can go to a movie and you can say, “Yeah,” my case, “the physics in this movie totally sucks, but it’s a good story. It’s a good story and I enjoy it.”

I think that every time I watch one of the “Star Wars” movies. Yeah, the physics totally sucks, but it’s a good story and I enjoy it. The same with “Star Trek” or “Dr. Who” or whatever.

Kylie:  Dr. Who isn’t real??

Matt:  Not that I know of.

Kylie:  Dang!

Matt:  Whoops, did I let that slip? Sorry about that.

Kylie:  It’s all right…

Matt:  Well, just ask yourself how he gets from one place to the other so quickly. Anyway…

Kylie:  It’s quantum! The answer for everything is quantum!! But yeah, please go ahead.

Matt:  Yes, instead of God did it, quantum physics did it! But the thing is, I think what we need to encourage in kids is not to, say, reject the fiction writers, but to appreciate fiction for what it is; it is fiction. It’s storytelling. It’s myth?making. I think that forms a very critical part of who we are as a species.

I’ve got to tell you, Kylie, one of the things that excites my students the most when I’m teaching them is when I tell them stories. I figured this out a few years ago that when I would start to intersperse stories, especially personal anecdotes, into my lessons that it really engaged them much more.

There’s something just about them, there’s something about our neurology or whatever it is that the idea of stories really appeal to us. I think this is one of the reasons, say, things like religion is appealing, because it’s really an amazing story.

In my opinion, it’s not actual, it’s fiction. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a cool story. I think that we would be serving ourselves well to not discourage the analysis or the appreciation of fiction, or myths or whatnot.

I think, again, rolling back around to the Santa thing, I think we should encourage people to look at these things to analyze to appreciate them for what they really are, and not to attach any more reality to them than should be attached. Yeah, that’s my bent on that, I guess.

Kylie:  I think that’s a lovely way to have a final Christmas message about the whole thing, isn’t it? Yeah.

Matt:  Yeah, that’s a nice way to go about it, I’d say.

 

 

 

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