Sciencegeek Advent Calendar Extravaganza! – Day 8

by David Ng

day8

IS THERE A SANTA?
By Paul Clarkson, via The Science Creative Quarterly.

santa

Being a scientific investigation of a cultural conundrum

Soon it will be Christmas Eve, and once more children will be divided into distinct factions. Here, Cyr [1] described younger children (12 years) who have ditched this ‘childish’ belief. But he fails, by excluding from his questionnaire, to describe a third group who aren’t really sure – the undecided voters if you like. And as the eldest child, I have spent a large part of my life in this group. Moreover, being scientifically minded even at the age 7, I of course approached this problem according to well-established techniques of investigation.

My first stop was to consult the authorities. My parents (beneficiaries of a liberal arts education and a liberal dosing of 1960’s psychotropic compounds) reassured their young child by explaining that Santa, like all beliefs, was a social construction and as such was true to all who believed in him. When I asked how I would prove that, Mum told me that all truth was relative and that the concept of proof was no more than a projection of hegemony by the dominant culture. Which I thought was a load of old bollocks.

Disappointed but not discouraged I proceeded to a literature search (It wasn’t until much later in my career that I realised this was only ever done after at least 9 months of laborious investigation, although I was naive then, so give me a break). My little red bookshelf contained several volumes referring to Santa Claus. Most were personal accounts [2], and as such counted as no more than Level V evidence (expert opinion). Other styled themselves as authorities [3,4], but lacked references to definitive investigations.

Modern children of course have Pubmed, and conducting a search today for “Santa Claus Existence” gave 5 results, of which one was relevant. In 2002 Cyr surveyed whether paediatric inpatients still believed in Santa Claus. While a good and noteworthy study, this would still have not fit my purposes. I didn’t care if other children believed in Santa, and besides this was still only Level IV evidence (case-series). The author also declared his bias as a continuing believer, throwing all his conclusions under a cloud.

I realised I would have to abandon epidemiological techniques in favour of direct experimentation. I proceeded with the null hypothesis “Santa Claus does not exist”. I designed a trap to snare him in my bedroom, but after two failed years I realised the fault in my experimental design. The only way to reject the null hypothesis was to catch him, but not catching him left me unable to either accept or reject the null hypothesis. Unfortunately we hadn’t studied Karl Popper in reading room at that stage.

I decided to approach things in a more indirect manner. His ability to tell if children have been naughty or nice has been well-described [5]. More specifically, I decided to adjust my behaviour, the independent variable A, and observe the number of presents, the dependent variable B. If he did exist, then B would vary with A, but if my parents were bringing the loot then A should not cause B to vary, as I was an overindulged and spoilt child. Furthermore, being nice and still getting presents regardless would prove little, and besides naughty was much more fun.

So I was as naughty as possible on Christmas Eve. I threw tantrums, messed my room, pulled my sister’s hair and hid my brother’s toys. I interrupted my father and refused to eat my dinner. The next morning I awoke with eager anticipation of my results. I got pretty much the same presents as usual. I then realised with horror that I had no reference standard! What if I was going to get more and had been reduced? How would I know? My brother and sister served as case-controls, but this was wholly unsatisfactory. Was a Barbie doll worth one or two toy cars? Had they been naughty or nice, thus confounding the results?

In any event, I am sorry to report that despite having now reached adulthood, I have still been unable to establish a satisfactory experimental design for this problem. The levels of evidence in this field continue to be amongst the poorest in the literature, and anecdotal evidence abounds. However, there will be a bear-trap at the bottom of my chimney again this year. While Popper may maintain that it is impossible to prove that something does not exist, the truth is that I’ve only got to catch the bastard once to get my answer.

References

1. Cyr C. Do reindeer and children know something that we don’t? Paediatric inpatients’ beliefs in Santa Claus. CMAJ 2002 Dec 10; 167(12): 1325-1327

2. Moore CC. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. The Sentinel 1823. Heirloom edition available from Running Press Book Publishers.

3. Apple M, Baum LF, Riley, MO. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. Signet Classics

4. Perkes A. The Santa Claus Book. Lyle Stuart Publishing.

5. Coots JF, Kellogg S. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. HarperCollins

(see more of Popperfont’s Sciencegeek Advent Calendar Extravanganza here)

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