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What is needed is not the will to believe but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite.Bertrand Russell

Unwillingly back from 17 days off, with a wallet full of Post-Its full of ideas for the blog.

The first popped up when Michael Jackson’s ghost was spotted at Neverland. Here’s my favorite video clip of the event (cue soundtrack):

The debunk is easy, of course. More interesting is the question it raises for parents who want to raise critical thinkers. Some, I’m sure, sat their kids in front of the video and fed them the critique of credulity: “Look, at 0:18, see? There’s a courtyard to the left there. You can even see the windows into that room. And look look, one second later you can see a set light standing in that room! There’s obviously a crew setting up in there, and somebody just walked by that window! See? Not a ghost. Right?”

Johnny and Janey nod solemnly and power down, pending future input.

By debunking it for them, Parental Unit handed them a piece of information: this ghost was a shadow. But s/he didn’t allow the kids to stretch their own critical thinking hamstrings. S/he gave them a fish instead of teaching them to fish.

News of the ghost reached us on vacation as we drove with Grandma to the coolest kid museum in the U.S. (more on this later). One of my kids had heard it on a morning show: during an interview, a news crew had captured Michael Jackson’s ghost walking by in a nearby room. That’s how it’s generally presented, of course — never “a news crew captured something that some people thought looked like a ghost, and further assumed to be the ghost of Michael Jackson.” Too many ickily precise words. “An eerie presence at Neverland was captured on film” is the usual approach to keeping us tuned in.

“Huh,” sez I, or some such noncommital thing.

We had a fine time at the museum. Later that afternoon, I pulled out my computer and found the YouTube video I knew would be there.

“Hey, who wants to see Michael Jackson’s ghost?” I said. Yup — I left out the precision, too. I did so because I know which way my kids roll, and that they don’t need a push from me.

Present some folks with Elvis in a restaraunt, or Mary in a tortilla, or an exotic miracle juice, and they’ll roll fast and hard toward belief. As Russell would put it (after his third gin XanGo), they have the will to believe and they’re not afraid to use it. No matter how much you try to drag them back uphill, such folks will lie at the bottom of the hill cooing contentedly in the lap of Elvis or Mary, munching on mangosteen while P.T. Barnum grazes on their wallets.

My kids roll the other way. As a result of the low-key and fun questioning atmosphere they’ve grown up in, they have a serious crush on the real world. Oh they like fantasy just fine. But to paraphrase Russell again, their will to find out is reliably stronger than their desire to believe any given proposition. And they’ve blown their minds often enough by the wonders of that real world that they’ll wait patiently, tossing aside counterfeit wonder, until the real thing comes along.

The will to believe is a form of incuriosity. The will to find out is about simple, persistent curiosity. Raise curious kids by being curious yourself, out loud. Show a hunger for the actual and a delight in finding it, over and over again, and your kids will tend to roll that way as well.

Though they all roll toward reality, the steepness of grade isn’t the same for all three of my kids. Erin (11) rolls gently but steadily toward reality, and Delaney (7) makes long detours. But both eventually end up wanting to know what’s actually what.

For Connor (14), it’s a cliff. That can present problems of its own. He’s often unwilling to even consider any unconventional possibilities. That protects him from being duped by salesmen, politicians, and faith healers, but it can also keep him from seeing how deeply bizarre reality can be. He has, for example, dismissed my descriptions of quantum strangeness with a simple, “Oh yeah, I’m so sure.” In his defense, that’s pretty much the same thing Einstein said about quantum physics (“Ach ja, ich bin so sicher.”)

So we watched the video three times. Erin and Delaney toyed with the idea that Jackson’s ghost had really appeared before asking each other a few simple questions and watching it fall apart. (Connor went straight to pfft.)

To my surprise, CNN actually debunked the rumor, showing that it was a simple shadow:

…which enraged some roll-to-beliefers. My favorite comment:

Fine, so it’s a shadow. So what? Have you so-called “skeptics” ever considered the possibility that ghosts ALSO cast shadows???

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.