Thursday, 6 January 2011

Humour: Children's belief in Santa is scientific

There's a famous cliché that gets bandied around if anyone has a hunch they can't quite prove: "Well, you might as well believe in Santa Claus". But here's the shocking flip side that for some reason we all seem to forget: When children believe in Santa, they are actually following the scientific process pretty well.

What? Surely that's ridiculous? Well, this is a humorous anecdote, but think about it for a second:

  • Every year, they conduct a falsifiable objective experiment: they put out an empty sock, a glass of milk (or something stronger), and a cookie. And every year they get a positive result.
  • They conduct peer review, asking each other the results of their experiments ("Did you get anything from Santa?") and all their fellow experimenters are also getting positive results.
  • They even validate their experiment against the reports of esteemed experts who have conducted experiments many times in the past (their parents, teachers, and other grown-ups).
  • And these days many of them have even set up cameras, and then seen video evidence of Santa consuming the cookies and milk that they put out.
Without fail, the experiment has always been a resounding success in every independent trial - far better than you can say, frankly, for a lot of real academic published experiments!

And of course the only reason they get the wrong result is because this time there really is a grand world-wide ongoing conspiracy to interfere with their experiments and falsify their results, and everyone is in on it! Forged videos and secret disguises! Evidence tampering, as Dad wolfs down that cooke! Deception by respected senior scientists (parents) they thought they could trust on a global scale!

Maybe there's a good cautionary tale for budding scientists in this. One seemingly sound but wrong assumption ("Surely not everyone I trust would lie to me about this?") can sink your whole experiment and leave you with an embarrassingly wrong result.