Snow dance: Science or superstition?

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Ben Talley| Education Beat

The snow dance … my students and I are famous for it. Well, some may say, infamous.

It all began innocently enough. Many moons ago I sought to teach my class the difference between science and superstition. It was mid-January and local meteorologists were predicting snow the following night.

So I got a notion to lead a big ol’ snow dance at school the next day. My class and I could be found alternately bowing and whirling around outside, while Big Chief (yours truly) chanted away incoherently, beseeching for snow. Of course, no disrespect toward anyone’s culture was intended (a fact of which Big Chief counseled the “tribe” before we began).

Yes, we were out of school for snow the next day.

So, I got another notion and we did it again, the following week. We were out for snow again the next day.

Of course, I taught the young ones about how superstition and science are vastly different ways of acquiring knowledge. Their very bright young minds came up with wonderful ideas regarding how we could test a hypothesis (the one which claims a snow dance actually “works”). They offered that we could do our snow dance on a hot day in July. If it didn’t work then, we’d know we didn’t “cause” it. Or, they also wisely added, we could do our snow dance on a completely clear day, even in winter, at a time during which no precipitation is predicted by local meteorologists for several days ahead.

But I never led a snow dance on such days. I only led the young ones on such a dance on days that local meteorology prognostications showed that at least a 50 percent chance of snow was coming within 24 hours. 

Over the years, our dance became famous. Or infamous, depending on your hopes for weather.

As of this writing, we are now 44/44 on summoning snow from the sky (as scientifically quantified by snow actually falling locally within 24 hours of our dance). Probably about half of those times enough snow fell for us to get out of school a full day the next day.

Can the landing of a spinning coin be correctly predicted 44 times in a row? Yep, it’s possible, especially if it’s a weighted coin, and one knows ahead of time which side is weighted.

So … does our snow dance actually have any effect on the weather?

Your answer to that question is a great test for you, the reader, to see how scientific-minded, or superstitious-minded, you may actually be. 

As for the kids? They trust me … and, much more importantly, they learn to trust the scientific method.

Do I always trust my own eyes and ears and emotions? No, I don’t. I am human, and, therefore, much too prone to “fooling myself” with my own emotional, and too often irrational, belief system. But do I trust science? Yes, much more so. Which is why we have public schools in the first place … to learn the truth about things, which is precisely what science, and a good education, help us do.

And, yes, Big Chief fully intends to keep snow dancing with the wee ones at opportune times (although I hear tell he’s now practicing to lead a spring flower dance).  Science is intoxicating, but so is superstition … which is why it’s so darn hard a habit for us otherwise intelligent hominids to break.

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