July 17, 2007

Booze, Prayer, and Harry Potter

Went and saw the latest Harry Potter flick (H.P. in the Order of a Billion Dollars or some such) a day after receiving a reminder that this week's Skeptics' Circle is coming up. In it's honour (and that I'm a sucker for a good marketing tie-in), I thought I'd talk about the benefit Ms. Rowling's series grants to us - skeptics.

Yes, yes, I know that the entire world of Harry Potter and Co. is filled with witchcraft, magic potions, mythical creatures and the like. Likewise, when we hear someone talk about communicating with the dead, or levitating a table, or turning into a cat, we tend to scoff and look for radios, and strings, and mirrors. There is an excellent reason for this:

We can tell the difference between fiction and reality.

This is actually an important distinction, but not everyone seems able to grasp it: odd, but true. You see, I know that hippogriffs don't actually exist. I don't have a problem with them appearing in a fantasy novel or fictional bestiary, because I know it's a fantasy novel or fictional bestiary. If someone were to present me with a biology textbook that had the description of a hippogriff, plus their nesting grounds and dietary habits, I'd have to call that textbook into question.

Wouldn't you?

Well, you might not if that same textbook included a specific belief of your own: say iridology or some other brand of idiocy. There would be a great deal of hesitation in calling too much attention to someone else's nonsense lest your own favorite nonsense get examined too closely in turn. When you really, really want to believe in something and have devoted time, energy, and often a great deal of money to a cause, the last thing you want to hear is that your wished-for something is fake.

Hence the silence provided to faith healers, mediums, and other charlatans who invoke the name of God (or whomever) by many of the faithful. They want to believe in the power of prayer (and the inevitability of miracles) so much that it feels almost shameful to call someone invoking those names into question. There are, thankfully, some exceptions to this rule; but they are few, and barely audible amongst the hosannas ringing forth for the con artists.

The trick here is that the world of Harry Potter is one that is not only internally consistent, but never actually tries to replace reality. There is no confusion about what is in the fiction and what isn't. There are theme camps or parties, but they aren't actually taken seriously, except by the seriously deranged perhaps. No one there actually thinks they can fly on broomsticks.

Even better: what works in Harry Potter, works for a reason. If you fail to mix the right ingredients for a certain potion or get the amounts or incantation wrong it doesn't work. But if you do get the recipe right, it works every time. Not only does the potion get produced, but anyone can use it, whether they believe it will affect them or not.

Just like with reality.

If you want to make wine, there are certain ingredients that are needed: juice; yeast; some form of sugar (glucose, dextrose, a variety of "ose" anyways); some water. The rest is details - aging, temperature, maintaining a good seal to prevent oxidization, other flavourings. But it's a recipe that anyone can follow to make their own wine, and (important point here) anyone who drinks it will become intoxicated, whether they believe it is wine or not.

See how that works? It works by working, not wishing. And that's never a bad thing for children to learn.

Or for adults to remember.

*Quick post script: The Annals of Improbable Research are also remembering his/their contributions to science!*


posted by Thursday at 9:14 pm


Blogger Stephen said...

OK, but Crumple-horned Snorkacks - they're real, right?

11:48 am  
Blogger Thursday said...

Of course! Why, I happen to know someone with just such a horn...

8:50 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home