The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘Holidays’

Santa, Skepticism, and the Holiday Season

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 19, 2015

A recent article posted by skeptical writer Greta Christina titled No, Virginia, There Is No Santa Claus over at Freethought Blogs caught my eye. In it, she makes a compelling argument for why it is that children should be skeptical of some adults’ attempts to hoodwink them…

… You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that you’re a bad person for not believing things you have no good reason to think are true. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that, in order to experience love and generosity and devotion, you have to believe in Santa Claus, or any other mythical being there’s no good evidence for. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that “childlike faith” — i.e., believing things you have no good reason to think are true — is somehow in the same category as poetry and romance. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that the world would be dreary without Santa Claus: that without Santa Claus, the light of childhood would be extinguished, we would have no enjoyment except in sense and sight, and existence would be intolerable. That is one seriously messed-up idea.

Adults know that there is no Santa Claus. If they tell you otherwise, they are lying to you. That’s okay: some parents tell their children that Santa Claus is real as a sort of game, and there’s no evidence that this does any real harm. But if anyone keeps lying to you — about Santa Claus, or anything else — when you ask them a direct question and explicitly ask them to tell you the truth? That’s a problem. And if anyone tries to make you feel ashamed, or inferior, or like your life will be dreary and intolerable, simply because you don’t believe in this lie they’re telling you… you should be extremely suspicious. They are trying to manipulate you. It is not okay.

I agree wholeheartedly with Greta’s thoughts on this matter, and I recommend that you read her entire post on the topic. That said, I’d also like to take this opportunity to share (or re-share) some of my previous work on the entire matter of skepticism, education, Santa Claus, and the Holiday Season in general.

1. If Santa ever existed, he didn’t live for long

This is perhaps what I’m most famous (or infamous) for on this topic: I use physics to kill Santa Claus; to be more accurate, I use physics to kill the idea of Santa Claus (because it’s impossible to kill something that doesn’t exist in the first place). Originally, I made a post years ago outlining how, assuming the jolly old elf existed in the first place, Santa would be simultaneously fried to a crisp and squashed into jelly in his attempts to deliver presents on Christmas Eve.

Then, last year, I decided to up my game a bit. I got commissioned to write an article for a UK Education periodical on the topic, and I went so far as to perform the explicit calculations showing that not only would Santa have to absorb the equivalent  energy of 20 Tsar-Bomba nuclear weapons every second due to air drag, but he’d also experience roughly 192 million g’s worth of acceleration in the process – more than enough to make short work of him!

Now, I’d like to share with you the specific PowerPoint I use to annihilate the Santa Claus myth. Feel free to download and use it as you will 🙂

Physics of Santa 2.0

Physics of Santa

2. The Santa Myth isn’t all bad and can serve a skeptical purpose

I’ve argued before that I think the myth of Santa Claus can actually be a very useful tool to promote skepticism and critical thinking in young children. Please note that my argument here is not in any way, shape, or form in opposition to Greta Christina’s well reasoned post above; I simply think that it is good for children to work out for themselves that Santa isn’t real, and once they’ve done that they should give the stink-eye to anyone who tries to give them grief or make them feel bad for not believing in the fairy tale. Even better, once kids figure it out, they should go forth and argue with their peers about the existence of Santa; what could be better than skeptical children promoting critical thinking to other kids?

3. It isn’t all about Santa

While it is perhaps true that Santa Claus is the most popular aspect of the Holiday Season, it certainly isn’t the only myth of the Holiday Season. Once children become skeptical of the existence of Santa Claus, then why not encourage them to ask questions and become more critical of other aspects of the season? For example, they can take the following myths and misconceptions quiz on the issue, examining everything from the more pagan aspects of Christmas to blatant falsehoods regarding the Gospels in the Bible. After all, once one starts to question one myth, then why not another?…



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The Physics of Santa 2.0

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 20, 2014

Years ago I posted here about how I kill Santa with science, and it goes without saying that doing so can get quite a reaction out of people. Some reactions have been negative, but a surprising number of people have contacted me actually thanking me for killing the Santa myth.  In fact, I was recently commissioned to write a formal article on killing Santa with science for TESConnect, an educational magazine and networking organization centered in the UK.  I am happy to share with you the full article in all of its colored glory, along with explicit physics calculations, below… Happy Holidays! 🙂




lowry 4

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Skeptical Teacher Interview on Token Skeptic

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 27, 2011

Based upon my recent blog post concerning using mythology as a critical thinking tool for children, I was interviewed a few days ago by my skeptical colleague Kylie Sturgess of the Token Skeptic podcast.  In the interview we discussed a variety of topics related to this issue, with a touch of fun thrown in for good measure.  Check it out! 🙂

Episode Ninety-Six — On Critical Thinking And Santa (Again) — Interview with Matt Lowry

Posted by Podblack on Sunday, December 25, 2011 · Leave a Comment

Podcast: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 27:59 — 25.6MB) | Embed

Recently Matt Lowry wrote a blog-post on Using Mythology as a Critical Thinking Tool: The Lesson of Santa for Kids – just as Tim Minchin wrote a piece for the New Statesman about his own efforts to balance a pro-naturalistic worldview and living a life unencumbered by superstition, while raising kids and encouraging a love of fiction.

Matt Lowry is best known as the Skeptical Teacher – a high school physics teacher, plus a part-time physics and astronomy college professor, contributor to the James Randi Educational Foundation Education Advisory Group and awesome presenter for kids’ shows at Dragon*Con.

For this interview we talk about all of these things (and whether Santa might actually be a Time Lord with a sleigh made out of quantum-something-or-other).

During the discussion, we also talk about Barbara Drescher’s blog-post at the JREF Swift: An Argument for Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and (gasp!) Even JesusHere’s another great link to the Physics of Santa!

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Using Mythology as a Critical Thinking Tool: The Lesson of Santa for Kids

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 20, 2011

As I’ve mentioned before, every year I do a quick physics lesson on Santa Claus, with the result being a devastation of the Santa myth (see my previous post “How I Killed Santa”: The Physics of Santa Claus for more on this 🙂 )  Yeah, I admit it – I’m evil.

Of course, that lesson is more geared towards students who are in their late teenage years, because by then they already know that Santa isn’t real.  So, while the humor involved in my analysis is quite dark (Santa dies pretty spectacularly in the end), there isn’t going to be any real psychological trauma done to my students.

However, this year it got something of a debate going among some of my students.  Some wondered about the appropriateness of sharing such a lesson with young children, who might still harbor a sincere belief in Santa Claus.  Personally, I expressed the view that if I were to try to get my own children (if I had any) to think more critically about the Santa myth, I certainly wouldn’t do it using the same method in my physics classes where he ends up bursting into flames and squashed to jelly by atrociously large g-forces!

So, the question was put to me: “How would you deal with the whole Santa Claus thing if you had kids?”  It is a worthwhile question, because I certainly wouldn’t want my kids to be simply blindly believing in Santa just because all the other kids are doing it.  Chances are, when the kids are of the appropriate age (I’d think 5 or 6 would be about right), I would ask them some leading questions about the nature of Santa.

Specifically, if I were at the mall with one of my children and there were a worker there dressed as Santa meeting with kids (you know the usual scene), I would encourage them to observe Santa closely…

Image source

I would encourage them to note carefully details such as how big is Santa, exactly what is he wearing, and so on.  In order to help them with their observations, I would probably take photos for later analysis.  Then I would make sure to tell them to pay careful attention to Santa’s voice as they sit on his lap to discuss what Santa and kids discuss (I might also record video of the event for this reason).

After that, I would take my children to another mall (because, let’s face it, most of us do our shopping at more than one place, right?).  I would make sure to find the Santa at that second mall, and have my kid go through the entire process again.  And so on.

Then, at a later time, I would take some time to sit down and look over the evidence with my children, leading them through it and noting inconsistencies between the multiple Santas they’ve observed.  This would be especially interesting if we saw more than one in the same night! (“So Dad, how did Santa get from one mall to the other so quickly?” 😉 )

The bottom line here is that I wouldn’t want to come right out and tell my kids that Santa is a myth (though a fun and jolly one at that).  Rather, I would use the entire experience as a lesson for my kids to try thinking it through on their own, making careful observations, weighing the evidence, and drawing the obvious conclusions.  I think this would be a far more useful way to introduce children to the reality that Santa isn’t real, and it would also be an excellent exercise in encouraging critical thinking and skepticism in youngsters.

For more on this topic and approach, I highly recommend reading my colleague Barbara Drescher’s well-written post at the JREF Swift blog titled An Argument for Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and (gasp!) Even Jesus.

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When Darwin-Fish Meets Plush Toy…

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 12, 2011

I think I’m in love. Like many a skeptic who supports good science education, my car sports a Darwin-fish, and I have people close to me who like those cute ‘n cuddly plush toys. Now I am happy to report the best of both worlds – advocacy for science education has met cute ‘n cuddly and the result is this little fellow who is bound to survive the natural selection of Internet markets.  Festivus is coming up, so consider this neat little thing when you think about the skeptic on your gift list… 🙂

This little sucker is too irresistible – I’m off to buy one now.  Get yours today!

[**Note: In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m pimping this product for a colleague through the WTFF (I’m on their Board), but I’m doing it because I think this is a really good idea for a skeptical product.  I don’t get my name behind junk, folks.]

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Fun Science Tricks for Christmas & New Years

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 9, 2010

I wanted to quickly share with you all some neat science-related tricks from Professor Richard Wiseman; these will no doubt make for all manner of fun at those end-of-the-year Christmas & New Years gatherings.  Enjoy! 🙂

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“How I Killed Santa”: The Physics of Santa Claus

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 18, 2009

I’m a bad, bad person.  No kidding, I’m bad – really, really bad.  I say this because in my physics classes today, I killed Santa Claus. Well, to be more accurate, what I did was use our knowledge of physics to kill the fantasy of Santa Claus (because it’s pretty damn hard to kill something that isn’t real).  And I have no guilt at all for doing this, because if 16-18 year old kids are still harboring some kind of actual belief in Santa, then they need a strong dose of reality laid on them! 🙂

So how did I do it?  Just how did I kill the Santa fantasy?  Here’s how… I used a brief PowerPoint presentation to make the following argument:

  1. No known species of reindeer can fly. BUT there are 300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified, and while most of these are insects and germs, this does not COMPLETELY rule out flying reindeer which only Santa has ever seen.
  2. There are 2 billion children (persons under 18) in the world. BUT since Santa doesn’t (appear) to handle the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist children, that reduces the workload to 15% of the total – 378 million according to the Population Reference Bureau. At an average (census rate of 3.5 children per household, that’s 91.8 million homes. One presumes there’s at least one good child in each.
  3. Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, and assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical). This works out to 822.6 visits per second.
  4. This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has 1/1000th of a second to park, hop out of his sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house.
  5. Assuming that each of these 91.8 million stops are evenly distributed around the earth (which, of course we know to be false but for the purpose of our calculations we will accept), we are now talking about .78 miles per household, a total trip of 75.5 million miles, not counting stops to do what most of us must do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding and etc.
  6. This means that Santa’s sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest man-made vehicle on earth, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second – a conventional reindeer can run, tops, 15 miles per hour.
  7. The payload on the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium-sized lego set (2 pounds), the sleigh is carrying 321,300 tons, not counting Santa, who is invariably described as overweight.
  8. On land, conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that “flying reindeer” (refer to point #1) could pull TEN TIMES the normal load, we cannot do the job with eight, or even nine. We need 214,200 reindeer. This increases the payload – not even counting the weight of the sleigh – 353,430 tons. Again, for comparison – this is four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth (the ship, not the woman).
  9. 353,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance – this will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as spacecraft re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 QUINTILLION joules of energy per SECOND, EACH!
  10. In short, they will burst into flames almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and create a deafening sonic boom in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second! Santa, meanwhile, will be subjected to forces 17,500 times greater than gravity. A 250 pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force!!!

Thus, in conclusion: If Santa ever DID deliver presents on Christmas Eve, HE’S DEAD NOW!!!

Posted in humor, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments »

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