What Grandparents Can Do
What Grandparents Can Do:
Become Promoters of Science, Reason, Critical Thinking, and Freedom of as Well as from Religion
by Don Ardell
“Elsewhere, the Kansas State Board of Education voted to teach evolution in public schools, with the six human members of the board outvoting the four monkeys.”
- Andy Borowitz, “Pre-war Intelligence Came From Magic 8-Ball,” Borowitz Reports, February 15, 2007.
I’d like to suggest a major upgrade for secular parents of children who have had children. In other words, I have in mind a lifelong assignment for grandpa and grandma besides doting on, caring for, loving and leaving money to the grandchildren. I suggest grandparents actively play a role as promoters of science and reason, critical thinking and freedom of as well as from religion.
Initially, I’ll outline this role with the assumption that the parents share the grandparents secular worldview, their teaching methodology and other elements associated with this challenging, intellectually stimulating and profoundly important role.
Later, I’ll offer a few suggestions that might apply in the unfortunate event that one or both parents does NOT share such a worldview. In that case, the legal guardians of the children cannot and should not be expected to encourage or condone such a role. Yet, even under such conditions, there are things a grandparent can do to reinforce a child’s critical thinking capacities.
The New Role Proposed
I suggest grandparents give their children’s children something truly special, namely, the gift of reason. As facilitator for a sense of wonder and enquiring minds, grandparents will be giving the gift of reason. I’ll offer a few examples to show what I mean, though I suspect the role is and will seem self-evident to most who will want to pursue it.
If your grandson or granddaughter asks, “What’s the upside to aging, grandma?” (or grandpa, as the case may be), resist the temptation to say, “Child, it’s about becoming more attractive to the opposite sex, being athletically stronger and faster and quite funny and wealthy, too.” But not for long. After a suitable pause during which time you are pretending to be thinking about the question, go ahead and say just that. Or words to similar effect. Your grandchild, if older than five, will crack up and be reinforced in her/his early mastery of an important lesson: Adults are a lot of fun, but their opinions, ideas, beliefs and worldviews are best taken with large doses of salt grains. The kids somehow sense that these adults might be having us on, intentionally or otherwise. After all, aren’t these the people who gave us all that phony baloney crap about Tooth Fairies, Easter Bunnies and Santa Claus?
Why Adopt this Role?
There is a great deal of utter nonsense loose in the world, including a vast range of superstitions; “deceptive advertising” (excuse the redundancy), rumor, misinformation and myriad other forms of cognition gone astray. Such has always been the case, but the situation is even worse today. In some ways, this should not surprise – there are more people around in our time (about six billion) and the information age distributes nonsense as rapidly as other data. Yes, this is an era of unprecedented knowledge about the natural world, but a vast majority of the populace has not been keeping pace with or even paying attention to the extraordinary gains in the physical, natural and social sciences.
Your assignment, if you choose to accept it, is to become an agent of reason for your grandchildren. Yes, of course you might play the same role for your own children, friends and everyone else in your modest circle of influence. However, this tip is focused on urging you to consider the idea of passing along a unique, life-long gift to your grandchildren, a special legacy of “mental modeling” over time.
Carrying Out the Role
I have no idea HOW you might carry out this tip! You may not even have grandchildren and if you do, they may be too young to influence and so on. If this is the case, try to relate this tip to other people in your sphere of influence, if the promotion of reason strikes you as important and interesting. How could it not?
In general terms, the way to approach this role is to offer, in your own style and fashion, a good-natured presence for reason and the wonders of nature. Communicate in varied ways the idea that all things are best understood, or at least studied, through free inquiry.
If you agree that there is merit in this idea, here are perspectives to consider. Please take account of such views in communications with the grandkids, and everyone else.
Baseline Perspectives for Grandparents Promoting Reason
• Our society is powered by science and technology. Both are best understood with a philosophy based upon a joy in discovery, not a philosophy steeped in the defense of dogmatisms, creeds or ideologies.
• Fantasies and myths entertain and comfort. Before the age of reason, it may not be ruinous to go along with quaint cultural traditions that are probably harmless if silly and irrational, such as a belief in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. However, the promotion of these and similar myths to a child who has reached the grade school may not be the best preparation for future adults who will need to know about the world as it really is.
• We can’t all be Carl Sagans, Stephen Jay Goulds, Paul Kurtzes, Isaac Asimovs, Richard Dawkinses, Bill Nyes or other brilliant and influential scientists, but we can make a difference in modest ways. Explore with the grandkids and others the discoveries available in the works of science popularizers.
• An understanding can grow as much from questions as from answers. You could ask a teen for examples of how our culture propagates baloney. This could lead to a fun conversation about the nature of pseudoscience and superstition, and how these phenomena different from science. How can you not provoke a great discussion with such a suggested agenda? No need to convince anyone of anything. You want people to think, not consent. A provocative discussion represents another occasion to arouse curiosities that invite further mulling, in time. This role is about thinking, not resolutions.
• Avoid polarization. Modeling a respect for reason as a preferred way to make decisions does not include an “Us vs. Them” shortcut approach in thinking. Resist temptations to condescend, belittle or signal arrogance, even toward those who embrace and even advocate what seem to be irrational beliefs. Many smart people have been acculturated to be credulous – it is more common than you might realize. We all have our weaknesses and frailties. An important trait to model for others is that of compassion – and tolerance, respect and kindness.
• Encourage young minds (and old ones, too) to try to confirm alleged facts and, if a given topic is of special interest and warrants more time and energy, to seek out knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
• Whenever applicable, tell stories “out of school” (not for attribution, but it’s really OK) that build on how the children’s parents did some cool learning things on their own as they were growing up that illustrate the benefits of using reason, thinking critically and demanding freedom of choice or freedom from religious certainties.
• Find ways to talk about and give examples of sound thinking regarding current events. Let the grandkids know about logical and rhetorical fallacies. These are too numerous to list and describe here, but you will want to familiarize yourself with at least the following: Arguments from authority that rely on a single hypothesis to explain something, arguments that lack quantification, arguments that are missing chains in a line of an argument, or propositions that can’t be tested or falsified. And this is just the start of things to consider or, in your case, to introduce to the grandkids and/or others in your circle of influence.
Other important ideas to convey include issues surrounding the influence of controls and multiple variables and fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Among the most prevalent are personal attacks (ad hominem), reliance on authority to persuade (i.e., Grand Poobah assertions called “arguments from authority”) and arguments from adverse consequences (e.g., “If such and such were not so, well then, all hell would break loose”).
Are you thinking that’s the end of it? Can it get more irrational than that? Yes, I’m just warming up. There is so much more to warn against if you want to help the grandchildren think better than most of us who have come before them. Obviously, it’s a good idea to set modest expectations in managing this tip of being a role model for promoting reason.
Think of the heralded superstar advocates for reason and science that I have already mentioned above – Sagan, Gould, Kurtz, Asimov, Dawkins, Nye. They wrote books, made films, gave countless lectures, had TV shows, wrote influential articles and so on. Who can match that – and yet they have not changed society all that much, it would appear. Despite their prodigious efforts, are we not still awash in pseudoscience, ignorance, irrationality and other dysfunctional states? If their extraordinary, watershed contributions and those of thousands of others doing similar good work in promoting science and reason have not turned the tide, what chance do you have? If that’s what you are thinking, not to worry. You must not expect too much from your efforts. Just a little influence on a life or two, especially the lives of little relatives, perhaps, who are of special interest and concern. Do this and you will have impact aplenty – with a bit of personal satisfaction as your reward.
No, I have not overlooked such common logical fallacies as appeal to ignorance, special pleading, straw man, slippery slope, begging the question, observational selection (or enumeration of favorable circumstances), what Francis Bacon described as “counting the hits and forgetting the misses.” In addition, there are other fallacies common in our public life, such as people using statistics of small numbers, misunderstanding of the nature of statistics, inconsistency in the use of data, using non sequiturs and arguments that are “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” and so on. Think of the possibilities for the influence you can have with this tip. The battles to pick, the targets to attend are so incredibly numerous and deserving of demolition. A few others are known as fallacies of suppressed evidence, weasel words, meaningless questions, excluded middle (the false dichotomy) and so on. The list is quite daunting, which reinforces the importance of the grandparent role I have suggested. There is a treasure trove of additional information available to wonder-promoting grandparents at countless websites, one of my favorites being www.fallacyfiles.org. This site lists many others.
As Carl Sagan, author of the famous “baloney detection kit,” observed, the forces of irrationality have a huge arsenal of deception at their disposal. Almost anything can be misused, taken out of context and otherwise manipulated to deceive and exploit – and such things are done daily on a massive scale.
For these reasons, I hope you will find the tip about giving grandchildren something special to complement your love, inheritance and good company to be an appealing and doable idea. What better gift than to nurture another’s sense of wonder and respect for nature, science and reason? I would think this would be right up there with the dazzling range of other benefits of your presence in their lives.
Fine, But What if the Parents Don’t Like the New Role?
Paradoxically, the less the parents appreciate the kind of role described, the more it is probably needed. That is, if the parents are Christian evangelical fundamentalists who believe in the literal truth of the Bible and pray fervently for nuclear Armageddon to usher in The Rapture, well, secular grandparents could offer an invaluable counter perspective. The potential for occasional “second opinions” for grandchildren subjected to such unfortunate and, in my view, demented parenting could prove invaluable, if artfully provided over time.
The first challenge grandparents might want to undertake given a clashing worldview with their grandchildren’s parents is to assess the specific consequences of these differences. Maybe the nature of the gulf between parents and grandparents is not so dire, as in the example sketched. The extreme example offered would likely bring severe limitations on the grandparent’s role. More commonly, the only ramification of non-compatible worldviews might be not much more than polite requests by the parents that grandma/ grandpa not mention or dwell upon their non-belief to the children. They might even ask that the children’s beloved but irreverent grandparents refrain from uttering unflattering remarks about the pope’s pointy hat or the Church’s tendency to create saints on evidence of miracle-doing a bit shy of scientific standards of verifiability – that sort of thing.
Basically, there are vast gaps in the degrees of possible worldview conflicts, with maximum flexibility allowed at one end of the continuum, very little to none at the other. These differences offer varying leeway for grandparents and parents to set boundaries. These boundary discussions can be managed in ways that respect different mindsets. Even god-smitten parents are likely to welcome the traditional loving and supportive role of grandparents, and most will not object to subtle, low-key efforts to inculcate an appreciation for education, learning, science, nature, critical thinking and the like.
Depending upon the gulf in worldviews, and the resulting restrictions discussed and agreed upon, the grandparents can pursue a grand or limited role or, in a worst-case scenario, reconcile themselves to no role. Other things being the same, for better or worse, the minor children will be under the care and management (physical and mental) of the parents. The grandparents should accept this. If the parents want the kids to be raised as Rastafarians, Scientologists, Roman Catholics or whatever, that’s their prerogative in this country. My advice to grandparents, again only under such a “worst case” scenario, is to butt out and move on to greener, more productive pastures. One option might be to volunteer as mentors or godless “godparents” for someone else’s kids.
What do YOU think about these issues? As always, comments pro and con on anything are always welcomed and appreciated.Donald B. Ardell, Ph.D., publishes the Ardell Wellness Report (AWR), a quarterly newsletter in continuous circulation since 1984, as well as the weekly electronic AWR. He is director of the largest wellness website, SeekWellness.com. His first book in 1977, High Level Wellness: An Alternative to Doctors, Drugs, and Disease is credited as starting the wellness movement. He later authored another dozen books, including Die Healthy (with Grant Donovan) and 14 Days to Wellness.
Appeared in Secular Nation—Vol 12, Number 1, pages 12-14. (Published July 2007)