posted on December 23, 2016 09:53
[Warning: do not read this with small kids around!] Mark Newman poses some questions in theme with the seasonal festivities: what does it mean to believe in Father Christmas? Does it really differ that much from belief in the role of evidence? We at the EPPI-Centre are happy to rise to the occasion and wish all of our readers a very Merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous New Year.
This festive time of year provides ample cause to reflect on the nature of ‘belief’. After all, there is a lot of ‘believing’ going on at this time of year. Believing that Father Christmas brings your presents down the chimney for example. Now my kids are old enough I can go public and say I don’t believe in Father Christmas. I don’t ‘believe’ most of the foundation myths of Christmas actually, yet I will still be celebrating Christmas with family and friends; happily participating in Christmas rituals like singing carols, putting stockings by the fire on Christmas eve and so on. This got me thinking about what we mean when we say ‘I believe’ or ‘I don’t believe’. Is ‘belief’ (or not) about Christmas the same thing as ‘belief’ or not about the meaning of evidence?
In one way I think you say that yes, we can and do use the term ‘believe’ in different ways in different contexts. Talking about ‘believing’ in the context of faith, myth, tradition, shared communal social norms is meaningfully different to talking about ‘believing’ in the context of a discussion about the interpretation of research evidence. But of course, as an advocate of the greater use of research evidence to inform decision making I would say that, wouldn’t I. So I think it is important to recognise that actually there are quite specific ways in which I might be using the term ‘believe’ in the same way in both contexts.
The claim that that Father Christmas came down the chimney to bring your presents is a ‘knowledge claim’. Therefore I can ask what is the warrant for that knowledge claim. A warrant is provided by some combination of theory, empirical research evidence and personal experience(1). When I say that I do not believe that Santa came down the chimney to bring your Christmas presents I am saying that the theory, empirical evidence and personal experience do not provide a warrant for that knowledge claim. This is what we are saying when we talking about believing or not believing the evidence. Does the warrant provided by the combination of theory, empirical research evidence and personal experience support the knowledge claim made by the researchers?
So no, I don’t believe in Father Christmas but I am still looking forward to seeing what he brings on Christmas day and enjoying all the festivities of the season. I hope you all do too.
About the Author
Mark Newman is a Reader in Evidence informed Policy and Practice at UCL Institute of Education and an Associate Director of the EPPI-Centre. He has a particular interest in evidence use in the context of the Education and Training of healthcare professionals. He will be celebrating Christmas in London where he lives with his two children.
1. James, M., Pollard, A., Rees, G., & Taylor, C. (2005). Researching learning outcomes: building confidence in our conclusions Curriculum Journal, 16 (1), 109-122 DOI: 10.1080/0958517042000336863