Presumptions

I was watching a show the other night called “Monster Quest,” wherein an impersonal team conducts searches for various cryptozoological creatures such as Champ, the yeti, or the Mongolian death worm.  This particular episode focused on the Ropen.

The Ropen is supposedly a large, leathery flying predator native to Papua New Guinea which sets itself apart from other creatures through a twenty-foot wingspan and bioluminescence.  Supposedly it greatly resembles a glow-in-the-dark pterosaur.

Part of the expedition was a representative of “Genesis Park,” a creationist organization that seeks to prove dragon-like creatures of mythology as proof that humans and dinosaurs lived alongside one another, a la The Flintstones.  In order to help push the asinine notion theory that pterosaurs still live in Papua New Guinea, something that was mentioned when someone pointed out that there’s no evidence that pterosaurs were bioluminescent, this particular man claimed that fossils don’t tell us the whole story and so we can’t possibly know that.

That claim is highly presumptuous.  It’s true, fossils simply can’t tell us everything, however, given what they can tell us–how the skeletons were put together, diet (teeth), muscle size and arrangement (imprints on the bones)–we simply can’t make wild guesses just because the fossils don’t specifically say “no.”  As I pointed out at Florio’s, I can claim that the fossil T.rex “Sue” was a devout Shinto, there’s nothing specific in her fossils that says otherwise, but I don’t get to complain when people point and laugh at me.

In case you’re curious, the Ropen is most likely a combination of folklore, hysteria, and misidentified hornbills, which are massive birds that have been compared to pterosaurs before.

A Skeptical Moment

Today, my daughter is in the Twin Cities for a dance competition; she and her mother and brother left yesterday afternoon.  Last night, I had a vivid dream that my daughter’s team placed second.  This morning, as I was walking outside, my neighbor stopped and asked if I had heard how my daughter had done. Without hesitation, I began to say that they had placed second, so realistic was the dream, but then I caught myself, and said that I did not know.  Upon returning to my house, I immediately called my wife and asked how our daughter and her team had done.

Turns out that while they turned in a good performance, they did not place.  But I was thinking — what if they had taken second? It would have been a coincidence, but it is easy to see how some people would have recourse to woo, thinking the dream was some kind of prophetic event.  How would I have responded if my dream had been “confirmed?”

For me, this was a good reminder of the importance of critical thinking and the application of the principles of skepticism in trying to make sense of reality.

Exorcisms in India

Superstition is — or was once — ubiquitous, finding a home, probably, in every culture not touched by the Enlightenment.  This might sound Euro-centric, but it is not meant that way — Europeans have been at least as irrational as any other people at various times in their history.  It was the contingencies of history that allowed the Enlightenment to happen in Europe, and nothing having to do with any sort of superiority.  At any rate, the ABC News program “Nightline,” once a serious news program but now primarily yet another outlet for sensationalism, actually had an interesting piece tonight on “exorcisms” performed by self-styled “gurus” in India.  Note that when confronted by Indian rationalists, the temple closed up shop.  Watch the segment here:

http://abcnews.go.com/International/inside-northern-india-temple-women-exorcized-tame-ghosts/story?id=27882522

 

A Note From Don Boese

Some of you know Don Boese, who taught at ICC for thirty years and now resides in St. Paul.  Don was my teacher, mentor, and friend, and he is also a contributor to the Minnesota Atheists book.  Don has been torturing himself by systematically reading the book of Exodus.  He sent me the following informal e-mail (which was never intended for publication or anything of the sort — just an informal note to me), and I thought some of you might find it interesting, so with Don’s permission, I am reproducing it here:

“Carefully reading Exodus; makes me think of Eddie [Tabash] and his “the Bible is unworthy.”  It certainly is!  Just one tiny example:  God is through Moses waving a magic stick around putting pressure on Pharaoh to let the Israelis leave.  So, God through Moses and his stick inundates Egypt with frogs; they are everywhere in huge numbers, as the Bible gloats they are in every Egyptian’s bed and in their bread and everywhere.  So I am then reading in the NYT about the indictment in the UN in regard to North Korean human rights violations and the need for court trial.  Well is God not without question the one who needs human rights prosecution?  Here he is casually torturing the entire population of the country with this awful and disgusting inundation of frogs; human rights?  No sign from him.  And how about those poor suffering frogs in the heat of Egypt with no water and no source of food and being killed in droves by frustrated humans; no sense of animal rights, God? (and the Bible gloats further that the whole country stank when God finally killed all the frogs and left them piled and rotting everywhere).  And, this is such a tiny example of all the horrible things God does to the Egyptians over this matter including killing their first born (justice there?  any sign of it?) as well as drowning their entire army and practically every horse in Egypt in the parting of the sea.  Just cannot understand those who worship him based on this so often terrible and childish and silly ‘Word of God’ as the mainstay of their life.  Well, will plunge on and try to read more but only irritates me to the Nth degree.”

An Ethical Dilemma?

If you knew someone had cancer and they were following a treatment procedure that was almost certainly wrong, but they were firmly committed to it, should you tell them they were making a big mistake? If they were a friend, but not a super close friend, would that make a difference?  Would you be sticking your nose into something that wasn’t your business?

Recently a family friend was diagnosed with leukemia. I hadn’t seen this friend much since that diagnosis, but encountered him at a get together just this last weekend. I didn’t think he looked well and asked him how he was doing. He replied that the cancer seemed to have slowed and that his doctor had said things were going well. At first I took this to mean that his current appearance might reflect the effects of chemotherapy or radiation therapy and that he was now regaining some of his health. His hair wasn’t completely gone, but was short enough to make it seem he might just be regaining some of what chemotherapy destroyed. I noticed some sores on his scalp.

I had overheard him telling others that he needed to avoid eating sugar, particularly refined sugar and asked him why. Everyone there knew more about his condition than I did and I heard comments that they had gone out of their way to provide alternatives to refined sugar. His response was that he had been told that his cancer “fed” on sugar and avoiding sugar was at least a part of his treatment to control the spread of the disease. A small red flag went up.

Later I heard him refer to his involvement in homeopathy and the initial red flag was joined by a dozen more and all of them burst into flames! I tried to discern whether the homeopathy was his primary or only treatment, whether it was just a supplement to real oncology treatment, etc. and whether this was where the admonition to not eat refined sugar had originated. I never really got the chance to pursue this, so I made a note to ask my wife for more details on exactly what he was doing about his cancer and to check online for any information on his “starve the cancer treatment”.

It now appears that he isn’t getting any regular medical treatment and it may be the case that all that is happening besides the woo is a check on the progress of the disease which may be a slow version of adult leukemia. We don’t know if this assessment is actually coming from a physician with any expertise.

This morning it took about 5 minutes to turn up this article which outlined the “theories” of Dr. Mark Sircus. This seemed to be the heart of the argument for the treatment my friend was pursuing. I noted with some dismay that Dr. Sircus’s qualifications did not include an MD, but did include being an acupuncturist, and a doctor of oriental and pastoral medicine. I quickly asked my wife if pastoral medicine was medicine in the presence of cows or sheep in a pleasant field, but she quickly dismissed the joke. As I read through the article I encountered all the expected science jargon that you always find in pseudo-science articles and some references to things that looked like real sources. All my red flags were done burning, they were hanging there in shreds and the trumpets and canons were blaring instead. So I searched on.

Searching for other articles on the idea that “sugar feeds cancer”, I quickly found many sites that appeared to be reputable sources of information on cancer and its treatment that were responding to this “internet myth” and had lots of information about how it arose, why it has proved so persistent and, ultimately, how dangerous it could be. Yes, sugar can be associated with cancer because if you eat a hell of a lot of it, it will screw up your insulin production, may precipitate diabetes. lead to excessive weight gain and, if you don’t exercise, contribute to an unhealthy lifestyle that it would be good to change. The only contributing factor for developing cancer that I could identify for my friend was a possible family history with the disease. He has never been over weight and has led an active life working outdoors on construction of log cabins. He eats only healthy foods and probably hasn’t eaten a Twinkie in his life. The idea that he could cure his cancer by cutting out refined sugars is absurd. All he has managed so far is to lose a noticeable amount of weight and that might be a result of the cancer that he says is under control.

So, what do I do? In talking with my wife, she too was hesitant to raise concerns, but was thinking of gently raising the issue with our friend’s wife with whom she has a better relationship than I do. It feels like we should be barging through the doors and telling them both that he is not helping himself with this woo and, while his cancer might progress no matter what he does, getting some real oncology treatment and real information about what he can do with diet to help his case, is much more rational.

Then again, it is his life and his choices to make. This is the first time in a long time that I’ve had someone close give in to what appears to be magical thinking and foolishness that could be fatal. I’m reminded of Steve Jobs who seemed to lose all his brilliance when it came to dealing with his cancer and seemed surprised when the woo didn’t work. I’m going to wait and see if my wife can summon up the courage to raise the issue and try to get them to get at least some “real” treatment even if they want to dance around the woo fire and chant to the spirits. A really sad situation.

I REALLY Don’t Like Stupid People

NatGeo Wild, an affiliate of National Geographic, is a fairly new channel I discovered, and quite possibly one of the last hold outs from the encroachment of reality shows onto educational networks (Nat Geo Wild does have two reality shows that I know of, but they both focus on veterinarians.)

One of their shows, “Stranger Than Nature” focuses on bizarre happenings in the natural world, such as the Sailing Stones of Death Valley.  The one I saw the other night focused on, among other things, the Montauk Monster.

250px-RhodeislandMonster

Strange isn’t it?

This bizarre thingy washed up on the shores of–you guessed it!–Montauk, New York in July of 2008.  People were immediately freaked out by the appearance of this alien creature washing ashore mere miles from the Plum Island Animal Disease Research Lab, and many were positive that it was some kind of captured alien or mutant hybrid created by the government.

It’s a raccoon.

I want to be clear that “Stranger Than Nature” did not buy into the hysterical hype surrounding the beastie, they declared Case Closed at the end of the segment, and then moved onto a case about an elderly Swedish woman killed by a moose, but what got me were how many morons stepped forth to proclaim “I’ve never seen anything like this!”

Really, Gweedo?  Forgive me if I don’t take the word of a “Jersey Shore” reject seriously.

Even now, people look at the hairless corpse and beaky mouth and say “That ain’t no f**king raccoon!”  Blissfully unaware, I guess, that hair and the soft tissues of the mouth are some of the first things to go when a body decomposes.  “But wait, there’s more!” the dumbass witnesses paraphrasingly shout, “The corpse disappeared.  If it’s just a raccoon, why would someone take the body?”

Gee, good question.  What could possibly explain a body that washed up on shore suddenly vanishing?  Secret government agents?  Aliens?  Secret alien government agents?  Waves?

“No!  Not a raccoon!” they still shout, “Notta, notta, notta raccoon!”

montauk2

Raccoon

 

God and Fairies

Some of you (certainly Ken) may be aware that Jerry Coyne has had a polite online exchange with an Eastern Orthodox clergyman.  The clergyman has accused Coyne of not engaging seriously with religion and theology, and instead resorting to straw man arguments which at best only apply to fundamentalism.  Coyne has replied effectively, and has pointed out that the burden is on theologians who wish to make claims about God.  And, until they can demonstrate that he or it exists, there is no need to get all wrapped up in the unending twists and turns that are the labyrinth of theology.  Here is an excerpt from Coyne’s site, Why Evolution is True, in which he demolishes the purported challenge of what he terms (sarcastically) “Sophisticated Theologians:”

“You could make the Best Arguments for fairies as well as for God. I would tell Fr. Kimel that fairies live in my garden (why is it always garden fairies in these arguments?), and that they make the plants grow. He wouldn’t believe me, of course, because I can’t show him evidence. But then I’d pull out my hole card: that the fairies are simply ineffable plantspirits which one can’t see, but without them the plants can’t grow: they sustain the vegetation. They are the Ground of Garden. He still wouldn’t believe me: he’d say I was making it up. I’d then tell him that he was a Fairy Fundamentalist.”

Indeed.  It seems that such theologians want to hide behind the claim that god is “ineffable.”  But if this is the case, they sure do expend a lot of verbiage discussing him.

All-Purpose Response

I find the woo-infused response from Biblical creationists to so many questions (typically, whenever their factual claims are challenged) to be so tiresome. My new online standard response (repeated as often as necessary to make the point): what evidence do you have to assert your factual claim is TRUE?

 

Speaking of Dragons…

Nice post Frost.  Since you mentioned dragons, it just so happens that I am reading AC Grayling’s new book.  Grayling includes Carl Sagan’s ‘The Dragon in My Garage’ story, which I believe is from Demon Haunted World.  Anyway, here it is, with one apparent minor edit from Grayling:

‘A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage.’

Suppose I seriously make such an assertion to you.  Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself.  There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence.  What an opportunity!

‘Show me,’ you say.  I lead you to my garage.  You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle — but no dragon.

‘Where’s the dragaon?’ you ask.

‘Oh, she’s right here,’ I reply, waving vaguely. ‘I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.,

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

‘Good idea,’ I say, ‘but this dragon floats in the air.’

Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

‘Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.’

You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

‘Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.’

And so on.  I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.

Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?  If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists?  Your inability fo invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.  Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to dispproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder.  What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so…

Now another scenario: Suppose it’s not just me.  Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including people who you’re pretty sure don’t know each other, all tell you that they have dragons in their garages — but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive.  All of us admit we’re disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence.  None of us is a lunatic.  We speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on.  I’d rather it not be true, I tell you.  But maybe all those ancient European and Chinese myths about dragons weren’t myths at all.

Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported.  But they’re never made when a sceptic is looking.  An alternative explanation presents itself.  On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked.  Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon’s fiery breath.  But again, other possibilities exist.  We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons.  Such ‘evidence’ — no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it — is far from compelling.  Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.

Where Are Our Demons?

I was watching a show on Destination American called “Monsters and Mysteries in America,” a fun look at the bizarre local folklores all across this really-not-so-great nation of ours when they started up a special on the Rake.

As always, the show was broken up into three parts, each focusing on a different cryptid or demon people claim to see.  The show forgot to do their research with this one, though; the Rake began as an anonymous entry to Creepypasta, a site where people post urban legends or scary stories, and especially campfire-style horror stories they themselves make up.

I won’t get into what, exactly, the Rake is (google it if you’e curious), but I would like to comment on the preacher/author who acted as their expert on this particular topic.  As per usual, the show and expert focused on a completely anecdotal story no one would be able to falsify as their circumstance, and launched from there into a strangely detailed discussion of how the Rake’s abilities to literally kill people through fear (something conspicuously missing from the original Creepypasta creature) links it to numerous demonic entities throughout history.

My question is simple; if demons exist, then why do they only bother the religious?

Think about it, from the persepective of many religious individuals, we’ve turned our backs on g_d, and he is more than happy to withdraw h_s holy protection from such people.  So why is it, with us being such obvious targets under those circumstances, do demons like Beelzebub or the Rake or the Six-Legged Rape Centaur (Creepypasta again, weird name huh, he’s got nothing to do with sexual assault) never attack us, but instead challenge the Big Guy’s authority?

Think it through religious folks, there’s obviously a question that needs answering here.