The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Okay Fine… Happy Groundhog Day

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 3, 2009

What’s a skeptic to do? With all the crazy pseudoscientific woo in the world to deal with, every now and then I just have to give in and go along with it. No, don’t worry, I’m not talking about becoming a fan of uber-douchebag Kevin Trudeau or believer in crystal energy & other New Age weirdness. Rather, I’m referring to some nutty, and kind of fun, traditions that U.S. society follows. I’m talking about Groundhog Day.

groundhog

The story goes like so… since 1886, every February 2nd, a groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil (not always the same one since the critters aren’t immortal) comes out of his burrow in Punxsutawney, PA and is expected to react to whether or not he sees his shadow. The legend has it that if he doesn’t see his shadow due to cloudy weather then it means winter is close to an end; however, if ol’ Phil does see his shadow in the sunny weather and, as the story is supposed to go, retreats back into his burrow then winter is to last for about six more weeks.

Now, how a little rodent getting, or not getting, spooked by its shadow is supposed to accurately predict the weather for the next month-and-a-half is beyond me. I recall learning the story as a kid, and I thought to myself “How’s that supposed to work?” I guess I figured that as time went on some responsible adult would tell me how ol’ Phil had such amazing powers of precognition.

Alas, after a few years I, like most children I suppose, figured it out for myself that there wasn’t really anything to it. Of course, despite the silliness of seriously considering that a groundhog can predict the weather, there does seem to be quite a party atmosphere around the event in Punxsutawney, PA every February 2nd. And, as people who know me can tell you, I can appreciate a good party🙂

But, believe it or not, there actually do seem to be some people who believe the groundhogs know their stuff – no really, I’m not kidding. According to Wikipedia, the GDPs (Groundhog Day Proponents – “believers” sounds just a little too creepy) maintain that the groundhogs get the prediction right somewhere from 75% to 90% of the time! Of course, when stacked up next to climate data from the National Climate Data Center, the real accuracy of the predictions is closer to 39%.

So why does this myth persist? For that matter, why do most myths in our society persist – from Groundhog Day to Santa Claus to the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy? I suppose part of it is because today’s adults were told these stories as children, and – here’s a big part of it – there was a considerable amount of celebration & fun associated with these myths. It is assumed that many, hopefully all, kids will eventually figure out there is nothing to the myth – it’s kind of like a right-of-passage.

There is a lesson here for skeptical parents with children: you can use events like Groundhog Day and such to teach kids about where the line between reality and fantasy lies. Take the opportunity to teach your kids to employ their critical thinking skills at a young age when dealing with such myths. Of course, I’m not suggesting that you take the fun out of the event – enjoy the egg hunt at Easter with your kids, but help them understand that it’s all in fun and that the Easter Bunny isn’t real.

If more parents would teach their kids at a younger age that employing a healthy skepticism & flexing those critical thinking skills is a good thing (how many times did you hear as a kid “Don’t ask questions like that”?), then I think in the long run we’d all be better off for it.

Happy Groundhog Day, everyone!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: