It's statistically improbable that pigs should fly,
That aeroplanes should fall out of the sky,
That blackbirds should be baked into a pie.
It's statistically improbable so don't repeat it.
It's not a magic apple when you eat it,
So tell the child's imagination: Beat it!
God bless Richard Dawkins (someone should)
We need a sceptic in the neighbourhood
To block the path to the enchanted wood.
It's not my greatest poem but it's topical, far from difficult, and may even be understood by Jeremy Paxman's notion of 'ordinary people'. It's a response to what the Daily Mail said Richard Dawkins had said, which was not quite the same thing as Richard Dawkins did in fact say. Very little the Daily Mail says people have said is what people actually did say.
In fact Padraig Reidy in Index on Censorship says I said things I didn't say in saying what Jeremy Paxman both did and didn't say. All very sly stuff according to Reidy. I thought I was talking about ideas and poetry, about knowing and not knowing, and the notion of apparent difficulty and only mentioned Paxman once, without any rancour at all, having, after all, been asked by The Guardian to write a response to their own article (the one linked to at the top) in which Paxman is quoted as saying what he actually said, though he had said other things too which the Guardian article I was working from did not have him saying. In other words I was engaging with that thought, right there, about inquisitions, ordinary people and explaining. Are you still with me? Mr Reidy, are you awake?
But back to Dawkins. It seems to me that what Dawkins did actually say (listen to an excerpt here) is not all that different from what the Mail implied he had said. The way The Mail put it orginally was that Dawkins thought that fairy tales were bad for children because the idea of frogs turning into princes was a statistical improbability. Did Dawkins say that? Did he put it that way? In what might be a later version the Mail has him saying that it was:
'pernicious to instil in a child the view that the world is shaped by supernaturalism.'
That's in inverted commas so I am assuming it is what Dawkins did actually say
But since nobody reading this is likely to take the word of the Mail for anything, here is the relevant piece in the Guardian, after the initial Mail story appeared.
Dawkins admitted that he had once questioned whether a "diet of supernatural magic spells might possibly have a detrimental effect on a child's critical thinking."
But he added: "I genuinely don't know the answer to that, and what I repeated at Cheltenham is that I think it is a very interesting question. I actually think there might be a positive benefit in fairy tales for a child's critical thinking ... Do frogs turn into princes? No they don't. But an ordinary fiction story could well be true ... So a child can learn from fairy stories how to judge plausibility."
The frog and prince part is the odd thing. Dawkins is asking the child to read the story in terms of plausibility.
It seems to me that to be talking about fairy tales in terms of plausibility and scepticism is a sign of something skull-splittingly one-dimensional. According to this Dawkins test there is only one kind of truth and that's the one tested by its plausibility.
I am still trying to understand in what sense even 'an ordinary fiction story could well be true'. 'Well be true?' In what sense? In that it actually happened? Or that it should be possible to prove that it could have happened? Fiction is full of implausible coincidences, that is its whole domain. And somehow or other people can tell the difference between it and life, with all its own implausibilities.
Blocking the path to the enchanted wood (or delusional wood as one Dawkinsite Twitter commenter put it to me) is a bit harsh. But I'm doing it for the frogs. Every one a prince!