The Real Charlie Lives—At Our Education Ministry!
And yet it moves— reputedly the first words spoken by Galileo upon being freed after his arrest by the Roman Inquisition for holding the “heretical” view that the Earth revolves around the sun—seems accidentally relevant to the discussion of a hoax that has apparently robbed St. Lucians of our wits. This hoax, and the handling of it, directs the mind to Galileo in an even more significant way, for something redolent of the Inquisition seems to be in the process of formation; something determined to drag us back to the 17th century.
The hoax of which I speak is the otherwise innocuous game known as the “Charlie Charlie” challenge. The game (in perhaps its most popular form) consists of crossing two pencils at right angles to create a grid with quadrants alternately labeled “yes” and “no.” Upon posing a question (typically “Charlie, Charlie can we play?”) to a “demon” named Charlie, the top pencil is expected to rotate as the alleged means of communicating Charlie’s “yes” or “no”.
It is evident to anyone learned in a little physics– or a morsel of commonsense– that two pencils so arranged result in the placement of the top pencil in what physicists term “unstable equilibrium.” This effectively means the slightest environmental disturbance—even the atmospheric disturbance produced by the utterance of the “magical words” “Charlie, Charlie can we play?”—may be sufficient to displace the pencil and cause it to rotate. And let us be reminded that if it does rotate, it must inevitably rotate into either the “yes” or “no” region—a logical inevitability masquerading as “communication.”
Another way to conceptualize the explanation is to imagine replacing the two pencils with a single pencil made to balance on its tip (at the intersection of two lines forming the “yes-no” grid. This may be interpreted as a highly sensitive version of the “Charlie, Charlie” challenge and we expect that even the slightest disturbance—including the way we release the pencil—is enough to cause it to topple.
Of course with such a setup the extent of the instability is so great that one need not even utter “Charlie” in order to topple the pencil. If anyone doubts this explanation, try doing the “challenge” with two 30 cm rulers or perhaps two sheets of plywood. Or why not really challenge “Charlie” and pose such questions as “Charlie, Charlie is my shirt red?” (which will yield, on average, a “yes” as often as it yields a “no” and has meaning only if you are in fact wearing a shirt!). Furthermore, the dependence of the “challenge” on such a sensitive system as the two-pencil arrangement alone should make one suspicious of the silly explanation: “communication with demons.” There are countless ways to set up the challenge to invalidate the demon interpretation. I will leave it to the reader to exercise some imagination in that direction.
Apart from the belief in superstition (buttressed by religion) at the heart of the gullibility unashamedly manifested in the popular interpretation of the “Charlie Charlie” challenge, one must recognize the contribution of a phenomenon known as “framing.” The participants in the “Charlie Charlie” challenge are predisposed to perceive movements of the pencil as confirmation of the presence of a demon, simply because the game has already been framed in such terms.
Subtract the yes/no grid and substitute the invocation of Charlie with an experiment to assess the sensitivity of the crossed arrangement of pencils into small disturbances and the very same result would have been judged from the commonsense perspective that objects in unstable equilibrium will move upon perturbation by small disturbances.
Out of the sort of pride that does not wish to lend the oxygen of respectability to nonsensicality, I was initially determined not to participate in the “Charlie Charlie” challenge. However, the level of legitimization given by school and government authorities to a lazy, philistine and dangerous interpretation of an otherwise innocuous game has compelled a few words against the barbarity of thinking tolerated in an age which boasts of civility.
As a science teacher, it is my express responsibility to correct misconceptions— especially misconceptions that lie conspicuously within the domain of science. I assert with utmost confidence that I have endeavored to train my students well enough that they would not abandon critical thinking in the face of irrationality (for that is precisely when it is most needed).
But it is not the students who need the guidance as much as it is the teachers and the school administration—for in some I have divined the muttering of the Inquisition that in subtle ways tries to suggest teachers should endorse the primitive and sub-human interpretation of a child’s game. I do not doubt that this pattern repeats itself across our schools. And though I am willing to enforce the Ministry of Education’s ban on the playing of the game in schools, I am in no way going to relent on advancing a rational explanation of the principles underlying the game (which appears to some, an invisible corollary of the Ministry’s prohibition).
And to all who have cowered under the prohibition and abnegated freedom of speech and thought and wish to play it safe because of the fear of unwritten retribution, I want to make it clear that a ban on the game does not imply a prohibition of the scientific explanation of it—it is not a license to hold your tongue and pack away your brain.
It is an embarrassment that the Ministry of Education, though it felt the need to ban the game on premises that cannot be justified, felt no urgency to combat, with rational explanation, the degenerate thinking that keeps the game alive. The stated action of the Ministry of Education has the three-fold effect of 1) endorsing and fortifying the belief that the explanation of an otherwise innocuous game lies in occult belief; 2) contrary to its intent, imbuing the game with the seduction of the forbidden fruit and thereby strengthening the temptation to play the game and 3) exacerbating the psychological effects (real and imagined) by way of bolstering the belief in the hazardous consequences of playing the game.
Had the Ministry not intervened, I daresay the “Charlie” game would have been a passing fad. By repeatedly experimenting with the game, children would soon discover its exclusive reliance on scientific principles, and its innocuousness.
The media cannot go unchastised. For while the “demon” origin of the game and its perceived effects have been sensationalized with much zeal, there has been no demonstrated attempt at supplying a rational perspective. What is the purpose of the media if not to enlighten?
No surprise that the church has used the opportunity to market itself. It would be superfluous to say it has stepped in, for it is the church itself that selfishly originated and fortified the silly interpretation.
But the biggest affront to human intelligence concerning the “Charlie Charlie” challenge takes the form of teachers— even science teachers—who implicitly and explicitly endorse the barbaric and credulous interpretation of the game. Teachers are supposed to teach, to enlighten—to shed light on darkness of thought, to dissipate the fog of superstition that paralyzes judgment and cripples novelty. The “challenge,” on the basis of the child-like simplicity of its fraudulence, does not warrant any sophisticated knowledge of science for its dissipation. Even the threshold criticality of thought imperative to the teaching profession is sufficient to shield all teachers from becoming dupes of a bad joke. This speaks volumes about the goals of the teaching profession and the quality of our education. Who would ever believe that such backwardness could be sanctioned by our very schools!
As to the psychological effects of the game, there is much that cannot be disentangled from sensational rumor and blatant lies. What motivates hysteria may be as unreal as the ghosts we divine in the nightly shadows. Yet we must admit that the effects of hysteria are always real. The source of the hysteria is not that the game equates to the invocation of demonic forces but rather the belief that the game has such an effect. And the remedy to the hysteria is not a ban on the game but a nationwide explanation of the basic scientific principles underlying the game. Otherwise, what we accomplish is not a real prohibition but an exacerbation of the hysteria by driving the phenomenon underground (for certainly we are without the vigilance to enforce the ban at all times and in all places). As to the reports of levitations and other such absurdities, it seems quite convenient that, in an age where a plethora of trivialities are captured on camera, we have not had the good fortune of capturing a single credible instance of the alleged levitations.
Should I end in shame or optimism? Vicarious shame for the fact that the adults of our society have surrendered their wits in the face of a tale so tall that it seems fit for consumption by only the most unimaginative children, or optimism (hope?) that this post will inspire others to break off from the herd and seek the solitude within which the truth already lies.
The “Charlie, Charlie” challenge: was it a hoax or not?