Academic Discussion Panel: Replacing Superstition with Science
March 17, 2014
On Thursday, February 20th, Beacon held its first ever academic discussion panel! This interactive session was an integral component of the events leading up to the inauguration of Dr. George Hagerty on the 21st of February. The topic of the discussion was “Replacing Superstition with Science,” and members of Academic Affairs- Dr. Andrea Brode, Dr. Kevin Chandler, Ms. Caroline Le, Ms. Sandy Novak, and Dr. Kirk Stowe- were the participants, with Dr. Perrone as the moderator.
The lively session began with Ms. Le presenting a historical overview of the significance that omens and other beliefs have played throughout the course of history. For instance, major historical figures such as Elizabeth I and Napoleon both trusted oracles and based important decisions on their advice gleaned from omens. The fear of the number 13 kept President Roosevelt from traveling on the 13th day of the month. Ms. Le ended her overview by asking the crowd just how far we have progressed as a society. She challenged the group to admit to times in their own lives when they had allowed superstition rather than logic or reason to guide decision making. A few examples were provided by both students and faculty, with all understanding that the decisions were not necessarily reasonable, but it can be fun to make unimportant decisions based purely on superstition, such as wearing an NFL jersey every time that certain team plays a game.
Dr. Brode continued the discussion by moving to the realm of mental health treatments throughout the course of history. She brought up the popular “treatment” for witchcraft in the Middle Ages- trepanning, which involved drilling into the skull. This inhumane treatment of the mentally ill, and even those with learning disabilities, which at one time was thought to be a sign of mental illness, continued throughout history, mostly because there was a lack of understanding of what caused the issue or how to properly treat it. Dr. Brode pointed to a couple of specific examples from popular culture where the poor treatment of the mentally ill is explicitly covered, such as The Snake Pit and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The contemporary solution for treatment of mental health issues, according to Dr. Brode, is a reliance on prescription drugs, and there is an ongoing debate as to the efficacy of such drugs in treating the underlying condition.
Ms. Sandy Novak turned to the depiction of superstition and magical thinking in popular culture, particularly in television advertisements. The 1920s and 1930s gave rise to more stylish ads, as a direct result of the economic prosperity of the time and the desire to appeal to one’s sense of a lifestyle to sell goods that were not necessarily needed. Sandy played several examples of such ads that make unrealistic promises, including one featuring the Lucky Charms leprechaun. This was a figure from Irish literature which makes the unlikely claim that one can find wealth at the end of a rainbow. To end the discussion, Sandy Novak asserted that the millennial generation is not impressed with such stylish advertisements, as previous generations were. They are not influenced by celebrity endorsements and the like, which makes it difficult for advertisers to figure out how to target them effectively. When pressed to respond to the idea of what this generation of students needs to be sold on an item, student Tyler Kornmehl responded, “Give us what we want now.”
Dr. Stowe presented a thought provoking critique of evolution versus creationism, noting that it is possible to have disputing claims. It is not uncommon, for instance, to accept the idea of microevolution while rejecting the notion of macroevolution. Dr. Stowe reviewed the concepts of faith versus evidence, detailing what is necessary before evidence can officially be accepted as such and deemed accurate. He covered the evidence we have to prove evolution, providing specific examples from nature. Dr. Stowe then questioned the audience- can science and religion be separated? Student Hadiyah Lewis likened the concepts to roommates, stating “they don’t have to like each other, but they can get along.”
To conclude the session, Dr. Kevin Chandler focused on numbers, specifically the probability of certain events happening. Dr. Chandler had calculated the possibility of specific events, such as getting struck by lightning, dying from the result of a lightning strike, or winning the lottery to show what the true likelihood of any of these events actually happening to us is. Contrary to popular opinion, as conveyed to us through the media, most people who are struck by lightning do not actually die as a result. The chances of winning the lottery are of course astronomical, but Dr. Chandler also asserts that one would have just as much luck with a randomly selected series of numbers as with using ones that have special meaning to us, such as birthdays and anniversaries. And, of course, we are no more likely to win the lottery on our birthday as any other given day. This segment of the panel discussion proved to be the most interactive, with students and staff alike wanting to know the probability of specific events occurring.
Beacon’s first academic panel discussion proved to be a tremendous success, with the Student Center packed with students, staff, and faculty. Judging from the interaction of the crowd, there was an interest and enthusiasm for the selected topic, and it’s fair to say that most everyone left with a new appreciation for the relevance of the subject in our society and in our own lives.
~ Gretchen Dreimiller