Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Richard Dawkins and Harry Potter

Via Andrew Sullivan, here's a comment about an article stating that:

Outspoken atheist Professor Richard Dawkins is to warn children of the dangers in believing "anti-scientific" fairytales such as Harry Potter.

Prof Dawkins will write a book aimed at youngsters where he will discuss whether stories like the successful JK Rowling series have a "pernicious" effect on children.

The 67-year-old, who recently resigned from his position at Oxford University, says he intends 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.

'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.'

The Conventional Folly article linked to above says:

If Dawkins isn’t careful, he’s going to end up founding the atheist equivalent of the Parent’s Television Council, where scores of underpaid twenty-somethings scour the airwaves 24-7, tallying up on their scorecaards the number of times David Caruso flashes an ass cheek or Peter Griffin says “bitch”, “ass”, or “suck”—except instead of doing that, Dawkins and his lot will be tabulating references to fairy godmothers, magic beans, and such.

That's a bit of a leap. The book hasn't even been published yet (it may not even be written yet), and the article says nothing about an intent to censor.

I think it is an interesting question, the extent to which consumptions of particular types of media, such as those with more fantastical elements, effects later academic performance. My guess is that it depends a great deal on context, i.e. the way in which the stories are presented. If fantastical books are read to children before they can read themselves, and it's made clear that "it's just a story, and none of it is real," then that might make a difference from a situation where children are encouraged to take stories seriously.

I honestly don't know. It would also be interesting to survey avid readers of fantasy and compare their beliefs in the supernatural. I've read a fair amount of fantasy myself. I enjoyed the Oz books while growing up, read Piers Anthony, and am still waiting for the next Song of Fire and Ice book to come out. And I'm a pretty hardcore rationalist.

Einstein famously said that imagination is more important than knowledge. I think fantasy is not only healthy, but desirable, in fostering children to constantly stretch their imagination and ask "what if" questions, to posit alternative worlds where the rules are different. The key element is the extent to which they treat fantasy as hypothetical or whether they take it somewhat seriously.

And if even they did, and studies bore out some kind of negative effect of reading fantasy on college entrance exams (which I doubt), I'm pretty sure Dawkins would not be in favor of censoring such material, but in informing parents so they can make choices about what and how to present material to children.


Emily said...

I just finished Welcome to the Jungle by Jim Butcher...which is a graphic novel that acts as an intro to The Dresden Files. I really enjoyed it. I have a hard time believing books that spark imagination are anything but positive for children.

Anonymous said...

Fundamentalism, in all of its forms, appeals because of its purity and its surety. But the imagination ought to have no such boundaries imposed. This view, translated into secular terms, is as old as the rise of modernity. Very disappointing to see Dawkins as a proponent.

One point against: We gain the opportunity for creative insight when we imagine beyond what is probable or possible; think of one thing in terms of another, as fantastic an operation as that seems; infuse objectively shared aspects of reality with subjectively derived experiences and share them as art. To imagine is not to believe, to think is not to act. Where is the danger, unless we assume such equivalencies?

To gain insight from creative cognitive processes, we must be able to analyze imaginative projections, our own, others. An awareness of what constitutes an objectively shared reality as well as critical thinking skills, particularly of categorical dissection and interpretation against theoretical frames, are essential for optimal cognitive development.

Another point against: Mental experience cannot be reduced to false and true information, verifiable and nonverifiable. Mental experience, including information that has in any way been processed, is constructed--knowledge is not mere data; it is always already epistemologically defined. Even sensation is partially constructed. Whether some information constructs are more creatively constructed than others does not make them necessarily harmful, worthless, or misleading. The constructs used for creating also need to be tapped for processing. Thus, children need to be taught to reason about the constructed nature of knowledge, and the cognitive patterns by which information is so transformed (e.g., in the Potter example, fictional genres).

Yet another point against: Cultural constructs are difficult to pin down quantitatively, unstable, messy, in flux, etc. But they have the force of reality, imaginatively and socially, and must be negotiated. Fictions help us to negotiate these constructs. They fix and flatten them to more apparent, reductive symbolic and affective associations. Becoming aware of how stories are constructed, how symbols mean, when detached from the real may help children to learn how histories and symbols that purport to be real and true are also reductions.

Children, at any rate, need to be taught the processes of how we narrativize, how we symbolize, and thereby build cultural constructs that have real social force. They need to understand how culture operates just as they need to understand how material forces do. And cultural narratives and symbols do not restrict themselves to formal realism.

-- profess