Escape from the Woo Zoo: Born Free
This is part of our Teen Skepchick series, Escape from the Woo Zoo, in which regular people tell stories of how they gave up unsubstantiated beliefs in favor of evidence and skepticism. You can read previous installments here.
As with all children, I was born a clean slate: I knew nothing, believed nothing, and expected little of the world except food and comfort. As I grew up, the world became a more complex place; I began to adopt the beliefs and teachings of my parents. But here, I was lucky: I was quickly initiated in the art of the question. “Why is the sky blue?” “Why do all snowflakes look different?” “Why does broccoli look like tiny trees?” My world was a place of wonder, and my parents encouraged my abounding curiosity. When they discovered I could sight read words at 2, and wanted to read James and the Giant Peach, they made it possible for me to do so. They were also adamant about showing me science from an early age. I still remember doing dinosaur dig kits and building human anatomy models at 3 or 4 years old. Really the only “belief” I was trained in was Lutheranism… but even there I was encouraged to ask questions and discuss the faith, rather than just blindly believing it.
However, a smart, curious, questioning kid isn’t the best received. My first teacher trouble arose in preschool. My teacher literally told my parents to “take away my books so the other kids could catch up.” Now, maybe this is just me, but isn’t that the opposite of what a teacher is supposed to do? My parent’s thought so, and I no longer attended that preschool.
For several years after that, I was placed in a fairly sheltered environment. I was homeschooled, and attended museum classes and paleontology conferences. I continued to be curious as much as I could, immersing myself in learning and enjoying it immensely. I heard a little about things like psychics and the Loch Ness Monster, but I treated them as games for grown-ups. They were fun, but they were make-believe. Ghosts, predicting the future, and mythical animals were stories, just like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Sometimes, I pretended to believe the stories, for a thrill, but I always recognized that, under the stories, they were just more myths. No one could show me a pleisiosaur actually living in Scotland. Religion, too, I began treating as a collection of stories on some level, and when those stories didn’t fit with my scientific knowledge, I talked to the pastors and Sunday School leaders. I created my own stories about how they could possibly mesh rather than contradict. At that time, I was perfectly happy believing in a god that sparked the Big Bang, maybe helped put the first cells together, but past that let the Universe take its own course, one that could be understood through science.
But, once again, I discovered that not everyone respected my worldview. In 7th grade, then again in 8th, I had Young Earth Creationists as my English teachers. In 7th grade, I did a homeschool program at a local high school. Our final assignment was to write on a world culture. I chose Tibet. And, as a large part of Tibetan culture is based on their location in the Himalaya Plateau, I wrote a paragraph on plate tectonics and how the Himalayas got there in the first place. She nearly failed my first draft because I did not cite “the theory of plate tectonics.” Not evolution. Plate tectonics. That has been considered a scientific fact since 1959. My parents once again intervened, asking why this was a problem. Apparently, they’d “closed my mind to the truth.” I only had a week left, so I finished the class, but it was my first real encounter with hard-core belief in anything but the real world. The next was less then a year later, when a paper I wrote titled “What is Deinonychus?” received a C- “because you never said that Deinonychus was a dinosaur.” That class I quit at the end of the semester. These experiences really opened my eyes to how irrational the world could be, and I began to try and figure out why.
I’m still working on that question. While paleontology is still my first love, psychology fascinates me as well. I want to know why people are gullible, and come to deeply believe in psychics, ghosts, aliens abductions, Bigfoot, conspiracies, alternative medicine. I want to know how, despite being debunked over and over again, a false claim still sticks around. While I only discovered the skeptical community a few years ago, I’ve been a skeptic and a critical thinker my whole life. I didn’t have to escape from woo, but I want to help others break free. After 18 years, I’m still in awe of this Universe, and I see no reason to invent another. I mean, look around you. The trees are in bloom, the days are getting warm, the stars shine at night, and the world’s really not such a bad place to be.