Wizardly Skepticism

Skeptics CircleThe ceiling of the great hall was studded with stars, the milky way splashed across the centre of it, mimicking the night sky outside Hogwarts. The long house tables were groaning under the weight of hundreds of bowls, plates and platters. Ron Weasley was in the middle of his second large helping of chocolate ice cream when, with a bright flash, all the food vanished. The buzz of conversation died down as Professor McGonagall stood and surveyed the room.

“Students of Hogwarts, I cannot describe how happy I am that you were all able to attend this special summer school session. These are dark times we live in and so it was decided that some extra tuition was required. Today we will not be discussing spells or magical creatures. We will not be examining charms or magical herbology. Today we will be teaching you something which is common to the Wizard world and the muggle world. Sadly it has not been taught enough here, just as it has not been taught enough in muggle schools.”

“I am talking about critical thinking. In a world filled with magic, strange creatures, weird plants and dark lords it is easy for us to fall into the common trap of believing everything we see. It is a dangerous trap because even in the wizarding world we can be fooled by our senses and tricked by our beliefs. We must evaluate everything we see and hear, weigh the evidence and make a judgement on whether we want to accept what we have seen or heard.”

“To illustrate the demands of skepticism and critical thinking, we have for you today a group of guest speakers. We have even made the unprecedented decision to invite a few muggles into Hogwarts.” A buzz of conversation rose up at this point and the students were looking around for muggles.

“Pay attention please. Now our first topic tonight is a topic which affects wizards and muggles alike. Autism is something for which we have no cure either magical or medical. We are not even able to say what causes Autism. Some people believe they know the cause, but as Kevin, whose daughter is autistic, will tell us, belief is not enough.”

The doors to the Great Hall opened wide and a man strode in carrying a small box. Harry Potter turned to Ron and whispered “It’s a laptop computer!” to gasps of amazement from Ron and the other Gryffindors sitting nearby. Kevin launched into his speech on the importance of critical thinking.

At the end of Kevin’s presentation, Professor Sprout stood and addressed the students. “In herbology we often examine cures for magical maladies, but we are far from being experts. Madame Pomfrey is an expert and it is experts like her that we should turn to for diagnosis and cure. My old friend Prometheus has agreed to come here to explain why mere experience of something does not make one an expert.”

With a flash of fire, Prometheus appeared and without ceremony launched into a tirade against pseudo-experts. As soon as he finished, he vanished again in an equally impressive spout of flame.

After a brief pause, Mr Weasley appeared out of one of the fireplaces, brushing ashes off his robe. Ron whispered excitedly to Hermione and looked proud as his Dad addressed the room. “While we’re on the subject of cures, in the muggle world they have these wonderful things called farmanimals which muggles take to cure themselves of maladies. Yes Hermione? Farma what? Oh Pharmaceuticals, right right. Well anyway they are very exciting but apparently some unscrupulous types try to sell the uh, pharma, thingies, on this incredible thing called the interweb!”. Hermione interrupted again, “It’s the internet!”. “What? Oh, yes, ok, well anyway my muggle friend Joseph is here to tell us about this dubious activity.”

After Joseph had sat down again, Hagrid stood up at the head table. “Right well, theres this bloke right and hes a muggle n’all but that don’t matter cuz muggles are ok wiv me but he’s gone and said that the ‘arry Potter story is just a story. Blimmin good story if you ask me but anyways he says its popularity shouldn’t be used to further personal agendas wotever that means. I’ll let Mark explain it better.

Mark spoke his piece and then got sent flying by Hagrid patting him on the back for his efforts. Professor McGonagall started to rise but sat again looking surprised as Hagrid started speaking again. “Now when Mr Dumbledore, bless ‘im, gave me the care of magical creatures job, he taught me all ’bout evolution. See even the critters I look after all evolved, just like we did and the muggles did. Everyone knows that dunt they? Well it seems like some muggles dont so we thought that in case some of you lot werent sure we’d better talk about it. I aint no expert on it though so I found some other people to give you all the info you need.

Hagrid sat down and and a man wearing muggle clothing approached the front of the hall. He introduced himself as Red State Rabble, funny names some of those muggles have, and told the students about a muggle movie pretending to be science while actually promoting religion.

Following on from that, another muggle was brought in by Professor Flitwick and introduced as Chris, who delivered an entertaining review of an article about Intelligent Design seen in a muggle magazine.

After Chris sat down, there was a long pause and gradually the attention of the whole room was on one man sat on the edge of the head table. He was staring raptly at the star-studded ceiling, completely lost in thought. Hagrid poked him, making him almost fall off his chair.

“What? Oh, sorry, I get lost in the stars so easily. But that’s not what I’m here to talk to you about today. My name is Phil and I want to tell you about a very misguided muggle world leader who thinks evolution is not the answer.

After Phil had given his very eloquent speech, he sat back down and went back to staring at the stars. The doors to the great hall crashed open and the sound of rock music filled the room as a man appeared surrounded by smoke, clutching a bright purple guitar. The Rockstar sang two songs, one about Deception from ID proponents and one about that muggle world leader mentioned previously by Phil.

Before Hagrid could get up again, Professor McGonagall was on her feet and speaking. “Some of those last speeches touched on the subject of religion. For those of us not familiar with the muggle world this is very strange concept and I for one would love to hear more about these quaint, antiquated customs which cause so much tribulation to those poor muggles. Let me introduce Jay who will tell us about the historical ignorance of biblical prophesy advocates.”

Jay’s speech was long but very interesting, captivating everyone in the room except for a few unruly boys at the Slytherin table. Following directly on from him was the wizardly Brent Rasmussen who told everyone about a blogger who is worried about losing his soul during apparating! Of course everyone knows how safe apparating is.

When he sat down, Cornelius Fudge appeared from another one of the fireplaces, brushing floo powder out of his hair. “As you know, the ministry of magic takes interference with muggles very seriously. We only allowed tonight’s gathering to include muggles once we had assurances that memory charms would be used to remove all memory of this event from the muggles minds. We are very careful that wizarding activity is not noticed by the muggle world. Imagine our panic then when rumours of strange happenings in what the muggles call the “Bermuda Triangle” reached us. After much investigation we were able to confirm that there was nothing at all strange about this area, and certainly no wizard activity there. Blog Caribe is here to tell us that some muggles agree that there is nothing to the Bermuda Triangle myth.

The students enjoyed an enlightening speech about this strange and non-existant phenomenon before Filch the caretaker came in carrying a small transparent plastic box containing flashing lights. “I found this on the front steps, probly some joke by them Weasley twins. I’ll thrash ’em with thorns if I ever get my ‘ands on ’em.”

“I beg your pardon sir, but I am not a joke.” The voice was coming from the box! “I am Orac and I’m here to participate in this evening of critical thinking.” Filch hastily dropped Orac on the head table and practically ran out of the room.

Orac continued “As you heard from the last speaker, muggles will often believe something for no other reason than hearsay and gossip. They are also capable of seeing patterns or images where none exist. A grey blob on a wall suddenly becomes a religious icon. The imagination exhibited is a fantastic thing, but it can be taken too far. I’m going to address an example of this imagination gone crazy. First I’ll tell you about a statue that folk thought had come alive and then on a happier note, someone who didn’t let their imagination get the better of them.”

“Excuse me if I might interrupt?” said a man at the back of the room. “My name is Lord Runolfr and I think I have an explanation which covers much of the last few speeches. You see, muggles, and even some wizards, suffer from what is known as illusory causation“.

Orac seemed a little put out by the interruption, but begrudgingly conceded that Lord Runolfr had a very good point. His flashing lights suggested he was about to launch into another speech, but before he could speak another voice spoke out. “You know, that also explains some of the things I wanted to speak about. Sorry, my name is Skeptico and I’m here to tell you about a gullible family who were convinced their child had been a fighter pilot in a previous life . After some investigation I was able to explain most of the story without resorting to dreams of reincarnation. I’d also like to tell you about supposed government mind zapping conspiracies, obviously the work of a delusional mind! And finally, on a more serious note I want to impress on all of you here today the importance of arguing based on facts and data instead of using the dark art of ad hominem attacks.”

Once Skeptico was finished with his trio of skeptical delicacies, Professor Binns, the ghost teacher of the history of magic stood, to muted groans from the students and thanked Skeptico before launching into a long and incredibly boring preamble about the similarities and differences between wizard history and muggle history. Half the room were nodding off and Hagrid was snoring loudly before Professor Binns finally got to the point. “Whichever history we talk about it is important to remain as factual as possible. Changing history can be a terrible thing, and historical revisionism is a scourge that must be routed. Brian has joined me to talk to you about an example of historical revisionism by misquoting and fabrication.

Brian delivered his speech on the dubious claims of John Ray, and also went on to tell everybody about his exclusion from a group of climate sceptics who wouldn’t let him in because he was too skeptical.

Once Brian was seated again, Professor McGonagall stood. “That brings us to the end of this incredibly enlightening evening. I hope you’ve all learned how important it is to think critically about everything. In case you need even more information on this crucially important subject, I recommend you contact our good friend James Randi, a wizard of high standing who chooses to live in the muggle world in the hope of educating them to think as critically as he does.

(Thanks to everyone for their submissions. The next skeptics’ circle will be held on August 18th, over at Atheism Guide. For the full schedule, see the main Skeptics’ Circle site).

10 thoughts on “Wizardly Skepticism”

  1. Pingback: Pharyngula
  2. Pingback: Blog Caribe
  3. I so enjoyed reading this after a friend passed along the link. I was hoping I might contact the author and ask if we could republish this in the Inquiring Minds online newsletter at http://www.inquiringminds.org/newsletter If possible, please get back to me at your earliest convenience – our next issue is set to come out at the beginning of Fall and we hope to also publish a review of the latest Potter.

    As an aside, it took me some time to start reading the series but when I finally got around to it I was quite pleased with the sprinkles of skepticism and the use of logic to solve puzzles over paranormal tricks. I’m thinking Rowlings is very much one of us… but I may be wrong! 😉

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