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Agnotology and Santa Claus

May 16th, 2011

For students of agnotology there is no more striking finding than the observation that many people, presented with evidence that undermines a strongly held belief, react as if that belief had been confirmed[1]. This seems to undermine any possibility that evidence will ever settle political disputes. And yet, evidence does seem to seep through in the end. Although belief in Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction persisted long after the absence of evidence had turned into clear evidence of absence, it faded away in the end (not that it has completely disappeared even now).

As a slightly more optimistic take on the experimental evidence, I offer the example of Santa Claus. Young children, presented with the suggestion that Santa isn’t real, blithely ignore it. Slightly older children, though, react in exactly the manner of the experimental subjects, reaffirming their belief in the Santa story and (of course) the associated presents. Later, of course, they accept the truth.

In some social contexts children are likely draw the obvious analogy between Santa and God, while in other contexts, the distinction between the two beliefs is maintained successfully. But regardless of context, there is an obvious risk, for those who would like their children to grow up as theists, in insisting too hard on the reality of Santa.

Similarly, I suspect that the apparent success of Republicans in believing six impossible things before breakfast, and in taking up new delusions as old ones are abandoned, may mask an underlying erosion of faith. Birtherism may morph into torturism without any obvious sign of stress, but at some level people must gradually become aware that their political beliefs are more like the faith that belief in Santa will bring presents and less like the belief that kicking a rock will give you a stubbed toe.

fn1. The general phenonomen of confirmation bias (paying attention to evidence that supports your belief and disregarding contradictory evidence) is well established. The first finding of reinforcement Nyhan and Riefler find that Democrats ignore contradictory evidence, while Republicans respond in the way I described. I can’t find the study that supported this. Nyhan and Riefler cite earlier research by Redlawski that I haven’t been able to find.

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  1. Charles
    May 16th, 2011 at 20:55 | #1

    Obviously you didn’t come from a large family, weren’t the oldest, or failed in your duties. One of the serious responsibilities of the oldest sibling is to make sure the youngins keep the Santa charade going as long as possible.

    God botherers offer intangibles, parants pretending to be santa offer real gifts. There is a big difference.

  2. Donald Oats
    May 17th, 2011 at 02:00 | #2

    The parallel between the missing weapons of mass destruction and to Santa Claus beliefs in the western world is striking: both are examples of a belief carried well beyond the point in time at which strong contradictory evidence came to light/comes to light.

    The difficulty here is that both are examples of utility of belief, ie there is a benefit derived from carrying on as if the belief is sustained, for admission to the contrary has a cost. In the case of Santa Claus, the child correctly surmises that the gift-flow and gift-quantity may dry up if the child admits to knowing that—spoiler alert!—the parent(s) are responsible.

    In the case of the missing WOMD, the republicans still wanted to wallop Iraq, so a milk delivery truck became a mobile chemical weapon laboratory without a shred of evidence—150 mile high satellite photos are not evidence, especially the ones they showed at the UN meeting. I don’t see any reason for me to personally believe that the Republicans in charge, ie the President George Bush and his inner circle, actually thought for real that there really were WOMD in Iraq. Perhaps they believed that there was a small outside positive probability of it, but I somehow doubt that they could have been certain or as close as. It just seems…too incredible…someone, anyone, confirm or crush my belief here?

  3. Donald Oats
    May 17th, 2011 at 03:01 | #3

    …and a social networks analysis paper that the Wegman report supposedly inspired is up for retraction. Another mis-belief that will only reaffirm the AGW denialists’ fervour to believe that climate scientists are fraudulent, money hungry, academic elite who conspire in cliques to make stuff up. Looks like agnatology examples come in threes: Santa, WOMD, and AGW conspiracy theories. Deep Climate and Deltoid have the goss.

  4. jrbarch
    May 17th, 2011 at 08:19 | #4

    All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.
    Arthur Schopenhauer

    Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside dreams; who looks within, awakens.
    Carl Jung 1900

    No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it. We must learn to see the world anew.
    Albert Einstein

  5. PB
    May 17th, 2011 at 10:05 | #5

    jrbarch said “All truth passes through three stages…”

    I think Gandhi put it better. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

  6. may
    May 17th, 2011 at 13:30 | #6

    Charles :Obviously you didn’t come from a large family, weren’t the oldest, or failed in your duties. One of the serious responsibilities of the oldest sibling is to make sure the youngins keep the Santa charade going as long as possible.
    God botherers offer intangibles, parants pretending to be santa offer real gifts. There is a big difference.

    too true.

    it worked for us.
    another large family technique was the “cutting of the birthday cake” ceremony


    one child is given the task of dividing the goods and that child has the last piece.

    you would be amazed at the precision displayed (by even quite small children).

    to the last crumb.

  7. may
    May 17th, 2011 at 14:04 | #7

    another way to reinforce the agnotologic message is the selective use of the absence of relevent info.

    every thing reported is true except those nasty confusing facts that get in the way of a well placed overton window.

  8. Hermit
    May 17th, 2011 at 15:19 | #8

    I wonder what GW deniers will do when the evidence is incontrovertible at least with the majority of the public. Will they recant and call for even stronger carbon taxes? Recently the GW evidence has been incremental such as US record tornadoes and floods or the Brits having the warmest April for 393 years. I didn’t know they had temperature records for that long.

    Suppose year 2013 is a scorcher hereabouts so that even Blind Freddie thinks something is amiss. Tony Abbott is the poll favourite nationally as is Campbell Newman in Queensland or perhaps these chaps have gotten the top jobs early. Surely the public will be troubled by turning up the air conditioner knowing the electricity is from coal. Alas I think there are many who will not be persuaded. We scorn theocracy in the Middle East yet we also reject science in this liberal democracy.

  9. Freelander
    May 17th, 2011 at 19:20 | #9

    Nice to see Donald Trump has chosen to withdraw himself from his newfound career as a public laughing stock. Chalk one more up for the power of laughter. Trump is another one resistant to almost everything – common sense, sound argument, facts – but like most, not resistant to that one thing, ridicule.

    Ridicule is such a direct blow to people’s silliness that you have to be careful. Ridicule can precipitate a violent reaction.

    I managed to find the two papers by Redlawski cited in the references.



    His page is at:www.rci.rutgers.edu/~redlawsk/

  10. Alice
    May 17th, 2011 at 21:06 | #10

    Lovely story for big families May….I can see that

  11. rog
    May 18th, 2011 at 06:23 | #11

    Viewers of the latest Q&A were privy to the delicious spectacle of both Roskam and Abetz having to contradict themselves in mid-flight.

    And here is Minchin on those dreadful set top boxes,


  12. Ikonoclast
    May 18th, 2011 at 09:12 | #12

    The only Minchin I pay attention to is Tim. And I daren’t call him a person of a ulotrichous incarnadine persuasion. 😉

    All of you are forgetting one thing. All Julia Gillard has to do is announce her wedding before the next election, have the wedding, wait a (short) dignified time and then call the election.

    Bingo! She wins the next election. Are most people that facile? Yes. It will be amusing watching Tony Abbott being defeated by such a “black swan” event.

  13. Ikonoclast
    May 18th, 2011 at 09:13 | #13

    Perhaps I should have called it a Red-Swan event.

  14. Jeepers Creepers
    May 18th, 2011 at 10:04 | #14

    Donald Trump was only attempting to boost the ratings of his TV ‘show’.

    That was very transparent.

    He was never a serious contender at all.

  15. KS
    May 18th, 2011 at 10:30 | #15

    Confirmation bias is something that has become more pervasive with the growth of the internet. If you have a belief, no matter what it is, just google it and you can quickly confirm that you are correct.

  16. may
    May 18th, 2011 at 12:02 | #16

    thanks Alice,

    i wonder how the technique would go applied to state premiers in the share out of funds from the fed govt?

    who gets to divvy up and who gets first pick?

    it’d be fun to watch.

  17. Freelander
    May 20th, 2011 at 06:20 | #17


    Set top boxes for pensioners. Far to good for them.

    Surely under the new “work till you drop” policies they ought to be too exhausted after an honest day’s work to be able to sit down and watch digital telly. And if they are not too tired, with their new found employment, they ought to be able to pay for their own.

  18. Alice
    May 22nd, 2011 at 17:37 | #18

    In think W.A. just grabbed the fattest slice of cake even before it landed on the table.

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