“Beware of simple explanations”. Discussing the Manchester Arena attack with children.

‘But…why?’, my 11-year-old boy, Daniel, asked on Tuesday morning. His reaction to the Manchester Arena attack, like so many other people’s, is a mixture of shock, grief, worry and incomprehension.

There are is some good advice out there on how to talk about the attack to children. I particularly appreciated the suggestion to engage older children in a more nuanced debate, and this is what I did.

Of course, the ‘why’ did not go away; I didn’t expect it to.  It is a ‘why’ from the heart, in the face of the absurd. Why do these things happen? Why kill young children? Why is there such evil in the world? It is also a more intellectual ‘why’, as complex as the circumstances that lead a young man – and other young men, in Paris, in Brussels, in Istanbul, in Berlin – to target, slaughter and injure hundreds, to destroy their families, deliberately to take aim at what is pleasurable, joyful and free.

Oh how tempted I have felt to make this about Islam; to take the easy way out, drop the nuances, seize the opportunity to list all the evils of religion to my – still little – boy, who enjoys debates but who is still ready to agree with most of what his parents tell him (unless it involves video games and 15-rated films). This is what we atheist parents are here for, after all, isn’t it? To point out what religion can do to people, to what evils it may lead?

No, this isn’t what I want to do. It is disrespectful, to the victims first and foremost and to our children, too, to go for any easy explanation that fits an agenda, whether we put the blame on Islam, or religion more broadly, or on Western foreign policies. Smugly drawing such oversimplified conclusions is lazy. It’s not just lazy; it is dangerous.

Dangerous because, once you put the blame on Islam, you put the blame on anyone practising this religion, falling right into the trap that those behind the attacks have set for us: hatred for a whole religious group will breed more hatred, more conflict. Disrespectful because, if we want to teach our children how to think, the first thing we need to do is show them how basic logic works: the actions of a few people who identify themselves as Muslims do not make all Muslims terrorists. A child can understand this easily; but there are cognitive biases that make us jump into the wrong conclusions, too.

So here is what Daniel and I discussed:

  • The attack was an evil, cowardly, hateful act. Trying to think why it happened is not looking for excuses for the terrorists. Addressing the ‘why’  in all its complexity is one weapon we have for stopping these acts. Compassion and solidarity, as we witnessed in Manchester last week, is another.
  • At 11 years, you are not too young to have an opinion on the why; but you have to be prepared to think hard, because there is not one simple explanation.
  • In fact, beware of simple explanations. Simple, black-and-white reasons betray a lack of imagination. A lack of imagination leads to extreme views. It is not just the extreme views of the terrorists that we need to fight.

‘But’, Daniel says, ‘you still haven’t given me the answer. What makes a young guy go and kill himself, and take others, children, with him, and think he’s being a hero? All you said is that we don’t know for sure. Or are you saying that the reasons are too many, that it’s not just the religion, or his ideas, or his personality?’.

This is exactly what I am saying. And I believe that there is another strong weapon we must use to fight extremism. Education based on critical thinking,  education that fosters individuality and imagination, may not be the sole answer, but is certainly necessary.

Children and young people educated in inclusive, not segregated, schools; taught to question, not blindly to accept;  raised to be part of the world of ideas, in history, in science, in literature, in philosophy; it would be hard then to see how their imagination would instead be captured by any extremist  ideology. It’s not the sole answer, and it’s not a simple or immediate answer; but it is a start.


Are conceptual willies destroying our planet? An 8-year-old’s perspective.

The conceptual penis entered our lives on a rainy Saturday morning, via Twitter. I don’t think any penis has ever made me laugh so much. This is a hilarious academic hoax; deliciously absurd. It presents the penis as a social construction responsible for, among other things, global warming.

What is worrying is that the paper, written as a parody, was approved – indeed, highly praised – by two academic reviewers and accepted for publication in the journal Cogent – Social Sciences.

As the authors point out, this hoax highlights a fundamental problem with how certain journals ensure (or fail to ensure, as the case may be) quality through peer review. Like the authors, I also think that, although hoax papers have been accepted for publication in other disciplines,  the current biases driving research in gender studies provide fertile ground for this kind of hoax to work.

What is all this to do with parenting? This hoax also made me realise that simply raising my children not to accept ready-presented truths and imposed absolutes – something to which they are exposed every day at their faith school – is not enough. I want my children to stop and think whether something makes sense or not, regardless of whether it is fashionable, publicly endorsed, or consistent with what they already believe or would like to believe.

I want them NOT to be like the reviewers who accepted this paper.

 So I decided to ask my 8-year-old daughter, Arianne, to review the paper with an open mind. Of course I had to adapt it a little and remove the jargon. But this was partly the point of it.  What would an 8-year-old with no political biases make of the basic ideas in the paper, once all the impressive jargon was removed?

What Arianne came up with was the illustration and comments below. Did this partly backfire? Is an 8-year-old’s take on this informative in any way? At least I was glad to see that she did keep an open mind and didn’t rush to conclusions. What more could a parent ask for?

The Willy

Are conceptual willies destroying our planet?

Adapted from

Lindsay, J. & Boyle, P. (2017). The conceptual penis as a social construct.  Cogent Social Sciences, 3: 1330439. https://doi.org/10.1080/23311886.2017.1330439

by the Agnostic Parent

under the terms of the  Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) 4.0 licence.

Willies exist, but having a willy does not mean you are a boy. Remember that some people who see themselves as women may also have willies.

So it is better to think of a willy not as an organ that boys have, but as an idea that boys and men show off about.

We call this the ‘idea of a willy’, or ‘the conceptual willy’ or The Willy. As you will see below, The Willy is a poisonous idea that is destroying the world.

The conceptual willy. You have learnt so far that the willy is the organ men have to wee and have babies with. Well, this is what men and scientists want us to believe. But think again! What about men who cannot have babies, or whose willies are damaged, or are not, actually, men?

So, forget the rule:

A willy is the organ that males have.

Remember instead:

The willy has nothing to do with being a boy or a girl.

But The Willy is all about the Power of stupid evil men.

Rude men and their Willies. Many men who think they are better men than others, you know the type, a bit like Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, or Donald Trump I suppose, powerful and full of themselves and rude to women, think that having a willy is a big deal. And remember: this is not even a real willy we are talking about. It is the idea. The Willy.

Think, for example, about men competing about who has the biggest willy or how far they can pee. As if their willy was such a big deal! The same with men who sit with their legs apart on buses and trains. Really rude behaviour. Their excuse is that they need to sit with their legs wide apart so that their willies and goolies don’t get squashed, but really what they want to do is boss everyone around. Just because of this Willy = ‘I am a man’ idea.

The Willy and global warming. But the real problem is not that people cannot find a seat on the bus because of these rude men and their conceptual willies. The biggest problem is global warming. You have learnt about this at school (the earth getting warmer part, not the willy part). Now it is time to learn about the willy part. It is The Willy idea again!

These men who brag about their willies and think that the more willy you have, the more man you are, are destroying our planet! Not just because they are arrogant and rude, but because that ‘the willy makes the man’ idea encourages people to use technologies that damage the environment and destroy Nature. Especially if you think of Nature as a woman.

Conclusion. So, how do we make the world a better place? If we stop thinking that the willy is such a big deal, stop having this dangerous idea that The Willy = The Powerful Man, then we may start being gentler and kinder about poor people, gay people, the environment etc.

Reviewer’s comments

  1. First, this idea that having a willy doesn’t mean you are a boy. I can sort of see why they are saying that. I mean, most of the time, if you have a willy, you are a boy, this is most of the population. But then this is not always true, as they said. Let’s say there were no boys or girls, just people, and then we decided that we would call people with blond hair ‘boys’ and people with dark hair ‘girls’, but this is because we decided. It’s a bit the same with willies. I can see that.
  2. About men who boss everyone around. I can see it may have to do with willies, but they may just do it anyway. It’s true that sometimes because they’ve got one they go around and show off to people who don’t have them.
  3. About the men who sit with their legs wide apart. I don’t agree this has to do with willies. A boy in my class sits like that in P.E., but he says it is because his bum is uncomfortable. So it’s not always about willies.
  4. Why do they call them ‘willies’ anyway? ‘Penis’ would be more correct. (OK, the original did say ‘penis’ – point taken).
  5. About the global warming: I cannot see the connection at all. This idea is random. Where did it come from? It’s not stupid, exactly, but it’s weird. It’s not well thought. Unless they thought too deep about it, so deep that no one else can figure out what this has to do with willies. 
  6. I can sort of see why all this willy idea has to do with gay people. Some people think it is wrong to be gay. Someone with a willy may think gays are losers. They are wrong. But if the willy was not such a big deal, maybe people could love anyone they wanted, because it wouldn’t matter if they have a willy or not. They are just people, and that’s fine. It would be less fine if someone fell in love with a penguin, for example. Or maybe not, even loving penguins should be okay.
  7. By the way, Barbie’s boyfriend doesn’t have a willy. Does this matter in this research?

Reviewer’s decision.

I wouldn’t publish this paper. The beginning maybe, but I wouldn’t publish the last bit about the environment. It’s come out of nowhere. I would ask them to go and think about it.

On good science, tickling and peer review.

This is where we have got to with my daughter, Arianne (8):

  • She knows the basics of evolution.
  • She thinks the Big Bang is God’s way of starting the world. That’s good enough for me, for now. Most of the time she thinks there is a God, but she doesn’t think he can be that important. That’s fine by me, too.

The important thing is that I don’t impose my beliefs, or lack of belief, on her. Let’s give her the thinking skills and the confidence to decide for herself.

I am showing her how to think as a scientist. This is quite easy because she has a genuine interest in science anyway, and a mind that is critical and organised.

Only the last week we were designing an experiment together. The question was: ‘Are people more likely to feel ticklish if you make silly sounds while tickling them’? Her hypothesis was that tickling someone with tickling sounds would enhance the tickling experience. We set up control conditions and experimental conditions. I explained the concepts of sample size and statistical significance. She sort of got the gist of it. So far so good.

But then she came up with this question:

Mummy, if we made a discovery and wanted to share it with other people, how would others know it is true? We could have made a mistake.

So I explained about peer review: how important it is that others, who are good at science, read the research and point out any mistakes, how scientists write up their results and submit them to be published, and how sometimes it takes a lot of rethinking and rewriting to get things right. And that it is important to do this, otherwise others may read work that is wrong, and believe it, and when this happens it is very dangerous sometimes.

I was so pleased with myself.

And then The Conceptual Penis came along and ruined everything.

But a penis deserves its own post. Especially if it’s conceptual.