The merits of doubt

As I was trying to wake up my 7-year-old for school this morning, I reminded her that today is St. Patrick’s Day. That got her attention, and she asked if I thought leprechauns were real. Apparently, there’s been talk at her school this week about leprechauns making mischief.

Without giving it much thought, I just said, “Of course, leprechauns are NOT real.” I suppose I should have played along, but I was still waking up myself, and I thought I was providing some relief from her being anxious about the thought that leprechauns might be lurking about. I usually smile and nod at the fairy tale wishes of my kids, but I just blurted out my first reaction to the leprechaun musings this morning.

But she shot back that I couldn’t prove they aren’t real. “Ah!” I responded. “The burden of proof is not on me, but on those who say leprechauns are real.”

Her adamance and our brief conversation about “proving” beliefs got me thinking that we tend to overly deprecate doubt and overvalue belief.

I shouldn’t have to prove the non-existence of something. Believers are the ones with the burden to substantiate the thing they say is true if they want others to believe along with them.

“Doubting Thomas” is a term of derision. “Just believe!”, conversely, comes across in our culture as a worthwhile exhortation. But shouldn’t it be the opposite? Shouldn’t doubt be an honorable and logical default for any thinking person? Belief without reason or evidence is hollow.

Later in the day I came across this essay, Teaching Doubt, by the physicist Lawrence Krauss in the online version of The New Yorker. He makes the case that a modern society that values reason and education should make it a priority to “plant the seeds of doubt” in the next generation.

From Krauss’s essay:

Doubt about one’s most cherished beliefs is, of course, central to science: the physicist Richard Feynman stressed that the easiest person to fool is oneself. But doubt is also important to non-scientists. It’s good to be skeptical, especially about ideas you learn from perceived authority figures. Recent studies even suggest that being taught to doubt at a young age could make people better lifelong learners. That, in turn, means that doubters—people who base their views on evidence, rather than faith—are likely to be better citizens.

And he closes with this:

One thing is certain: if our educational system does not honestly and explicitly promote the central tenet of science—that nothing is sacred—then we encourage myth and prejudice to endure. We need to equip our children with tools to avoid the mistakes of the past while constructing a better, and more sustainable, world for themselves and future generations. We won’t do that by dodging inevitable and important questions about facts and faith. Instead of punting on those questions, we owe it to the next generation to plant the seeds of doubt.

I don’t want to steal the wonder and delight of childhood by killing the magic of fairy tales or by pouring cold water on imaginative flights of fancy. But I do want my kids, and you should want yours, to not just take some authority’s word for the way things are. Instead of handing them answers, I need to free them to ask questions, whether I’m confident of what I think the answers are or not.

I’m not envisioning a cynical, “prove-it-to-me”, arms folded, hard-hearted kind of doubt. The posture that seems most promising is an open-minded, skeptical, yet optimistic curiosity. The attitude that responds with “Fascinating” and “Help me understand” and “I wonder why…” and “I might be wrong, but…”

What if the next generation grows up more curious than they are certain, more inclined to seek evidence and understanding than being content with hand-me-down answers? There will still be room for imagination and fantasy and maybe leprechaun stories, but there also will be more possibilities for making sense of the mystery we all are swimming in.

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