Media SkepticismSkepticism

Harry Potter and the Rationalists of Teen Skepchick

(This post was cross-posted from Splendid Elles while wearing a backwards Harry Potter baseball cap and chewing gum.)

Here’s a chat log between me and one of my friends last night:

[21:29] Amar: richard dawkins is attacking harry potter
[21:30] Elles: That was random.
[21:30] Amar: but true
[21:31] Amar: hes going crazy
[21:32] Elles: …?
[21:33] Amar: hes a loon
[21:34] Elles: I see.
[21:34] Amar: 🙂

Since I was busy sorting out some technical difficulties with Skype I decided there were more important things to worry about than what Richard Dawkins thought of Harry Potter. I figured that my friend was probably just saying random stuff to get my attention.

It turns out, however, that he was actually getting this from several news sources.

Let us first note three things about our three sources:

  1. The Telegraph spelled “wizardry” wrong and called Dawkins “Prof Hawkins”. A missing R I can understand. But I checked my keyboard, and you can check yours. The D is nowhere near the H. News sources have spelling errors all the time, but to not notice that you just called him “Prof Hawkins”, well, let’s just say it looks like they weren’t all too careful with the article. Wouldn’t it be cool of Stephen Hawking were a gnome, though?
  2. NewKerala makes two errors in the first two paragraphs. First of all, Dawkins never said anything about doing any research into this. Why would he? He’s a fraking biologist, not a sociologist (Insert Star-Trek-Nerd “I’m a doctor not a…” joke here). Also he no longer is the Charles Simonyi Professor for something-or-other having just retired.
  3. It’s the Daily Mail. ‘Nuff said.

Now on to the actual quote… except all these news sources have taken these quotes out of order and put them all over the place so I don’t know which order they’re suppose to go in.

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.

I haven’t read Harry Potter, I have read Pullman who is the other leading children’s author that one might mention and I love his books. I don’t know what to think about magic and fairy tales.

Notice how he never explicitly says “Harry Potter is bad!” He talks about fantasy in general and uses Potter as an example.

Inconveniently, I can’t seem to find anything that has the full, in-context quotes so we really can’t tell what Dawkins really meant, although it seems that this is all just a much-ado-about-nothing.

However…

It has brought up an interesting question, so let us disregard what Dawkins thinks or doesn’t think.

Harry Potter is interesting and if you don’t agree you can…

Ahem.

I love Harry Potter.

I have a book display from Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince in my room, I have all seven books, I have all the movies (and I wouldn’t be too doubtful that I had at least the first part of Sorceror’s Stone memorised), I used to have a small cult-following on a Harry Potter forum I used to go to because I knew so much about it, I have a Gryffindor robe, I have a Ravenclaw scarf that I knitted myself, and I have an autographed photo of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson.

No, not nearly the level of obsession as some Potter fans, and I haven’t re-read the series in a while (I need to get on that), but yes. I know what it’s like to be a Potter-nerd, more so when I was younger than I am now because school takes time away exponentially as you grow older.

It is quite obvious that the vast majority of children will at least grow up to understand that it is all fiction.

But there is something about that enchanted world of Hogwarts that did make me want to open the mail box one day, telling me that I was a witch and that I could go off to Hogwarts, a place that seemed better than where I was.

I wanted to go to the world of Harry Potter. I wanted to believe. Badly.

I could understand it whenever my HP friends in real life or on the Internet started getting into Wicca. I always thought it was a load of rubbish, but I dabbled with a few spells… which never worked.

I will actually agree with the fundies… HP led a lot of kids to get into Wicca. But just because you’re a Harry Potter fan does not necessarily mean that you will become a Wiccan, and I seriously doubt that the majority of Harry Potter fans ever really get into that Wicca stuff.

If a kid went and read Harry Potter and wasn’t able to understand that it was fiction, the fault does not lie in the parent for letting their child read Harry Potter, but for not teaching their child how to distinguish fiction from reality. And, something that comes up with people of faith, for not teaching them the radical idea that just because you want something to be true makes it true.

If Harry Potter in any way contributes to irrational thinking the fault lies not in Potter, but in ourselves for not being capable of (or willing to) differentiating between fiction and reality.

Though I like reality a lot there is nothing wrong with a little bit of escapism as long as you come back when it comes time to come back.

One more thing, if Dawkins really does have something against Harry Potter, I’m not going to rearrange my bookshelf so that his books are further away from my Potter books, but I will confront him about it next time I see him. If I want to annoy him enough I’ll also have a backwards baseball cap on and the biggest wad of chewing gum I can find in my mouth.

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19 Comments

  1. Mousez
    October 27, 2008 at 4:22 pm —

    I didn’t know that is was believed the HP lead to Belief in Wiccan… Yeah, I was a huge Harry Potter fan too. =)

  2. jackiestone
    October 27, 2008 at 5:00 pm —

    Nice article Elles. I’m a huge HP fan too…in fact this is the first Halloween in 5 years that I’m not being Hermione (although I think Princess Leia is a worthy substitute). Anyway, this is probably the interview the quotes are coming from: http://www.richarddawkins.net/article,3278,Interview-with-Richard-Dawkins-on-fairy-tales-and-retirement,Channel-4
    but I’m not sure, since I’m in the library right now so I can’t watch it yet. Perhaps it will illuminate his views on HP for us.

  3. jackiestone
    October 27, 2008 at 5:10 pm —
  4. carr2d2
    October 27, 2008 at 5:10 pm —

    nice post, elles. 🙂

  5. October 27, 2008 at 5:11 pm —

    …in fact this is the first Halloween in 5 years that I’m not being Hermione

    What? You mean you’ve been Hermione for the past 5 years too?! 😛

    Whenever I have the Harry Potter costume on, though, due to my half-Chinese-ness people ask me if I’m supposed to be Cho Chang.

  6. vreify
    October 27, 2008 at 5:45 pm —

    Well, I don’t think skeptics should discourage fantasy and creativity altogether. Although these things may lead to pseudoscientific thinking, they may also contribute greatly to scientific thinking.

    I mean, how about the story of Friedrich Kukule, who finally hit upon the idea that the structure of C6H6 (benzene) was circular? According to legend, it came to him in a dream wherein a snake was biting its own tail. Fantastical, but as long as we can divide reality from fantasy, there is no reason why the two cannot build off of one another.

  7. October 27, 2008 at 7:19 pm —

    @vreify: I agree that skeptics don’t need to disdain fantasy – it can be a good complement to scientific thinking. It’s just a matter of understanding the limits of each.

    But, anyway, Harry Potter – have you seen the new trailer for Half Blood Prince? I have high hopes 🙂

  8. October 27, 2008 at 10:03 pm —

    @Jen
    Someone from a Potter fan site actually was randomly chosen to see the prescreening. According to his reviews, it looks good!

  9. tkingdoll
    October 28, 2008 at 9:18 am —

    Win. I am a huge Potter fan, and look really pathetic aged 32 in my Hogwarts t-shirt.

    If you haven’t already read her stuff, check out Diana Wynne Jones, she was the original J K Rowling, but with a more surreal edge.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diana_Wynne_Jones

    Everything she’s written is awesome. Oh, and Studio Ghibli adapted her book Howl’s Moving Castle which is one of my favourite anime movies ever.

  10. FFFearlesss
    October 28, 2008 at 10:21 am —

    I agree with Dawkins on one thing: Pullman is awesome. “His Dark Materials” is heads and shoulders above HP for wonder and fantasy and pure storytelling.

  11. October 28, 2008 at 10:35 am —

    Pullman is awesome. “His Dark Materials” is heads and shoulders above HP for wonder and fantasy and pure storytelling.

    Agreed as well. 🙂

    Pullman is the shizz!

  12. October 28, 2008 at 10:44 pm —

    I love Harry Potter too, and I’m a lot older than tkingdoll! I only think fantasy is dangerous when people believe it’s true. I think kids are smarter than that, for the most part. I was a little disappointed when I read the Dawkins quote. I’m not sure why he would think make believe and imagination could be bad.

  13. October 28, 2008 at 10:44 pm —

    Oh, and I think a lot of times kids are smarter than adults. 🙂

  14. FFFearlesss
    October 29, 2008 at 9:03 am —

    I know I can say with some authority that even though I read “How to Eat Fried Worms” many several times as a kid, I personally never had any desire whatsoever to change my diet.

  15. October 29, 2008 at 2:21 pm —

    I’ve yet to see anybody dressed up as characters from His Dark Materials. Is this a consequence of (a) a smaller fanbase, (b) a lack of explicit models to follow, (c) my hanging out in the wrong circles or (d) other?

  16. October 29, 2008 at 5:59 pm —

    I saw some boots that looked like Lyra’s in the movie yesterday and I would’ve gotten them if they had my size but meh.

    I dunno how anybody could manage having a daemon…

    But I suppose all you’d need would be a stuffed animal, a golden round object, and to dye my hair blonde and curl it?

  17. October 29, 2008 at 10:17 pm —

    Stuffed animals? Serious fans use animatronics!

    (-;

  18. October 31, 2008 at 1:25 pm —

    I’ve read His Dark Materials and have never tried to ride a polar bear.

  19. Dread Polack
    October 31, 2008 at 3:46 pm —

    I was going to be Hagrid for Halloween this year, but didn’t get on it in time. I’m pretty sure that’s the only character I could pull off 🙂

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