On skepticism and superpowers

Periodically my son will stop, and stare, and furrow his brow. Sometimes when I ask him what he’s doing, he tells me he’s trying to develop superpowers. I hug him when he says this, and assure him that I have also tried very hard to develop superpowers. I tell him I’m sorry that he doesn’t have them, and to please let me know if he does.

There’s a tv series, Is It Real?, that M is currently into. It presents some realm of pseudoscience and then debunks it. It’s about 60% presentation and 40% debunking, a percentage I wish was tilted the other way, but it’s not a terrible show.

M watched the show and calls out various things to the narrator. He tells the narrator that the photographs were faked, or that Occam’s Razor does not support a theory. I am waiting for him to shout out “confirmation bias!” but he hasn’t got that far in his skepticism yet. Periodically I pause the show to explain how or why some particular thing is not scientifically supported, if I think the show has glossed too quickly. I love my kids’ attachment to rationality, to scientific method, to evidence, to results. We’ve raised them on Mythbusters and I think you can tell. Does it work? Is it real? Is it replicable? How can we tell?

After watching the sea-serpent debunking episode of Is It Real? M pretended to be a sea serpent for a half-hour. He ate dinner with his flippers, and asked if the sweet potatoes would still be tasty underwater. I go along with him when he does this. When M was about two years old, he spent half a year talking is third-person vehicular. “The excavator is thirsty,” he would say. “This dump truck has a scraped tire.” “The excavator doesn’t like tomatoes.” Third-person vehicular. One of the ground rules of the house is that a person must identify their species, build type, derivation, or relevant location in time and space in English, out loud, when asked. And all plasma warp cores, evil scientists, maiasaurs, sea serpents, robots, zombies, or pokemon must obey all household rules of politeness and safety. It’s just common sense.

When I was a kid and teen, I longed for pseudoscience to be real and legitimate. I studied up on Atlantis, psychic powers and military test programs, spontaneous human combustion, hypnotism, astrology, kabbalah, meditation, fakirs, crystals, ley lines, ALL of it. I wanted it to be true. I wanted it to be true because, if it was true, those things could be avenues to power that other people did not have. The pseudosciences could grant me abilities not held by others — quickly, easily, cleanly. No spending years of study and practice learning karate or chemistry! I could read three books on astrology and see the future. I have spent far more hours of my life squinting and concentrating really hard that I care to admit.

I think I understand M’s current fascination with the pseudosciences. If those things work they way they supposedly work, it shortcuts the rules of the physical universe. If energy transfer works the way these people say, then the three laws of thermodynamics can be … bent. Or ignored. Or disobeyed. It would make things so much easier!

But that’s not how the world works. And the way the world does work, once you understand it, is actually pretty damn cool. But it’s time-consuming, and difficult, and it takes energy and effort to comprehend. Not to mention the fact that some of the things reality excludes are just kinda awesome.

Like the Loch Ness monster.

I don’t mind M walking around the house pretending he doesn’t have thumbs because he’s an Aquatic Terror Snake. That’s okay. Because he can also tell me why the Aquatic Terror Snake isn’t real.



2 Responses

  1. My sympathy with you and M on the time required to develop superpowers. On the plus side, I can assure you that years and years of martial arts training in aikido can lead to powers that are indistinguishable from magic. I can explain them, but other people can explain computers to me with just as much practical effect. My senseis can make people fall down with a big thump when the people try to grab them. Without physical contact at all. I am trying to put my rudimentary skills to work outside the dojo and V tells me to “stop using your Jedi mind tricks”.

    I am a scientist by inclination and profession, and I belive that magic is real. Knowing how science is done, I also can see the limitations of the current methods. Maybe someday humans will understand the things that look like magic now. I think that we call other things “magic” because most people don’t know anyone who has put in the years of study to master those arts. Yoga masters are reputed to have magical powers. I expect that one is for real. The simple ones are much more likely to be scams.

  2. @Lynn Goodness, yes. String theory is another thing that I fully expect will explain certain magical things. WITH SCIENCE. And I am really, really, *really* looking forward to that.

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