“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.


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.