Fairy Tales: From Fact to Folklore

Professor Richard Dawkins was once again recently the centre of controversy after the media suggested that he had claimed children should not be read fairy tales:


"I think it's rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism..."

Dawkins subsequently claimed his views had been taken out of context and misrepresented:

"@RichardDawkins thinks Santa Claus causes children 'great harm' http://t.co/27eOdwnR2I" Total lie. Does the Daily Mail EVER print truth?

— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) June 4, 2014

For the same reason, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy might be positively beneficial (though odd that the lesson doesn't generalise to God?)

— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) June 5, 2014

I'm on BBC World Service today, around, 10.20 BST to talk about the virtues of fairy tales. Contrary to lies in Daily Mail and BBC #r4today

— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) June 5, 2014

I gather fromTwitter (haven't heard it myself) that Radio 4 Today has been repeating Daily Mail lies about me. Nice of them not to ask me.

— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) June 5, 2014

Interesting Q what effect fairytales might have on children. Might foster supernaturalism. On balance more likely to help critical thinking.

— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) June 5, 2014

"He thinks it's an interesting Q what effect fairytales might have on child's mind." Oh, so he wants to ban fairytales. Quick, tell BBC etc

— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) June 5, 2014

It IS pernicious to inculcate supernaturalism into a child. But DO fairytales do that? It's an interesting Q. The answer is probably no.

— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) June 5, 2014

In the age of the internet it is easier than ever before for us to check if a quote is genuine, but most people won't make the effort. This enables the sexy headline which just happens to be wrong to travel further, faster, and stick around for longer than the rather more mundane truth. Ironically, this is something Dawkins has himself addressed in detail with his theory of memetics. In fact, this isn't even the first time this has happened to Dawkins.

Another famous scientist whose alleged views towards fairy tales are often quoted is Albert Einstein, to whom the following quote is often attributed:

"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales."

Unlike in the case of Dawkins, we can't ask Einstein to confirm the authenticity of a quote above. Like so many famous quotes, this quote is in fact, folklore:

"You can find this item all over the internet, on blogs, tumblrs, quotation sites, and those captioned images that have come to be known as “memes.”  Sometimes it’s a bare quotation, other times it’s embellished with physical details of the gestures Einstein made or what he looked like at the time.

Because of the quotation’s popularity, and because of its association with folklore, members of the AFC staff have been asked more than once about whether Einstein really said this.  Our analysis suggests that the story is itself folklore.  This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s untrue; Einstein may well have said this, or at least something similar to this.  But it does mean that the story circulated for many years, probably orally as well as in print, and then came to be passed around on the Internet, from the early days of Usenet to the current environment of Facebook and other social networks.  As a result of this oral, print, and electronic transmission, the story of Einstein advocating fairy tales resembles other folk stories: it exists in multiple versions that vary in their details.  And, interestingly for those who love both folklore and libraries, the story initially appears to have circulated primarily among librarians."

I must admit, that I was for a few minutes taken in by the many original news reports on Dawkin's misrepresented views on fairy tales. Even though I am nearly a month late to the party, the incorrect news reports are still circulating above reports explaining what actually happened. So what is the moral of the story from the fairy tales incident? What I'm taking away is nothing to do with fairy tales, but rather, I think the lesson here is that we should question every quote we come across that isn't straight from the horse's mouth. Whether it is in the Telegraph or the Daily Mail (in fact, definitely if it is in the Daily Mail) or whether it is transposed on top of the face of Einstein on an internet meme. Just because a quote has been shared a hundred thousand times on Facebook and has appeared in the most highly regarded newspapers in the world, it may well still be false.

Image Credit: Adapted from artwork from the Organ Museum 

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