A really good pain in the ass

I’m reading an excellent book on critical thinking by Christopher DiCarlo called How to Be a Really Good Pain in the Ass. I heard an interview with him on Freethought Radio (I’m sensing a trend), and I thought I’d check it out. I didn’t find too much stuff online about the book, so I’m posting this talk. It’s pretty long, but it presents the main questions he raises in his book: How do humans go about investigating truth claims? What’s the difference between natural and supernatural worldviews? It’s top-notch skepticism and enjoyable reading. Check it out.

Santa is watching

Is there no escape?

My wife: “What are we going to tell Melissa about Santa?” Me: “Oh, I don’t know. How about nothing?”

This question is the latest in a string of “What are we going to tell…?” questions we’ve been patiently addressing for years, since before we even decided we wanted children. It’s a natural consequence of holding non-traditional views on a number of life-and-death issues.

I imagine many parents don’t worry about such things and just tell their kids what they were told by their parents. Propagating the Santa myth is effortless; it seeps in culturally (unless you live in a place like Iran). Fighting it, however, takes grit.

Why fight such a harmless tall-tale, anyway? What’s wrong with the jolly old mensch from the North Pole, who — in an improbable 24-hour arc — manages to deliver presents to all the good boys and girls the world over? Let’s look first at that tiny adjective, “good.”

He sees you when you’re sleeping

He knows when you’re awake

He knows if you’ve been bad or good

So be good for goodness sake!

Here we have an iconic portrait of Santa Claus as Big Brother: he’s always watching, waiting for you to slip up so he can vengefully mete out due punishment. Compare with Psalm 139:

It is you who know when I sit and rise,

you fathom my thoughts from afar.

I submit there is essentially no difference in these two verses, one a pious hymn penned over two millennia ago by an unknown hand, and the other a hit song written by Haven Gillespie in 1934. And they’re both downright creepy if you ask me (the Psalm ends with a declaration of “utter hatred” for the Lord’s enemies). Why would any sane parent want their children to live in fear of an omniscient being? We’ve decided not to teach our daughter to believe in such a god, so why substitute that with Santa’s Secular Thought Police?

Moving on, there’s the issue of lying to children. Is it moral? Bertrand Russell once wrote, “There is no excuse for deceiving children. When … they find their parents have lied, they lose confidence in them and feel justified in lying to them.” And lying it is. Every parent knows perfectly well that the Santa story is just that, a story, and all of them know it’s a matter of time before the kids figure it out for themselves.

That said, secular parenting author Dale McGowan writes, “Santa Claus … is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had.” McGowan sees Santa as a dry run for God. He argues in a spirited essay that if children are encouraged to apply logical thinking to the Santa story, maybe they can learn to apply it across the board. And once they realize it’s hooey, the balloons will begin bursting one by one in a triumph of skeptical inquiry.

I don’t recall the moment when I realized there was no Santa Claus. Maybe my parents never played it up much at home. For me Santa was that obese fellow in a red suit at Hunt Valley Mall surrounded by fake snow and bad lighting. The smell of glazed ham and cheese wheels from the nearby Hickory Farms store must’ve hinted at something artificial. Kids aren’t stupid — they know baloney when they smell it.

Then again, I understand the practical use of Santa — much like God — in frightening children into obedience. If you can get youngsters to believe that there is someone watching them while they sleep, reading their thoughts, taking extensive notes and evaluating their performance, then you have a pretty good chance of keeping them in line — for a while.

I also realize that children need to fantasize and develop a vibrant imagination. We are a story-telling species, after all. But I think there is a difference between giving them free reign to blur the line between fantasy and reality and actively promoting deception. I think Santa belongs to the latter category; and, say, Pinocchio to the former. (No parent ever tells their children that the boy with the long nose is going to come in the window once a year and bring them gifts, do they?)

My wife’s question remains, though: What are we going to tell Melissa? As a parent who’s also an incurable rationalist, both Russell and McGowan persuade me. But all those discussions over what to teach our daughter about the world (“We have to tell her something!”) are giving way to a broader principle: teaching her to think for herself. Do that, I argue, and the rest will take care of itself. Do that and we won’t have to lie to her. Do that and she’ll be better prepared for a future of hustlers and hucksters.

Parents can make use of the Santa myth either way. We can use it to pave the way for a life of credulity, or we can use it to turn our children into thoughtful, independent people capable of sniffing out a proverbial slice of baloney.

If we can’t ignore Santa, then we might as well own him.

From The American

Miracles

The Turin Shroud just won’t go away. The Telegraph has two articles (at least presenting different sides of the issue, which you would never read in an Italian newspaper) about a group of Italian scientists who claim the shroud is “authentic”. Funny word, that. Authentic what? Authentic fake, or authentic burial shroud of a man who lived around the beginning of the Common Era?

Whenever I read of scientists confirming miracle stories, I begin thinking either they aren’t very serious about science or they’ve been duped by personal faith. One thing you almost never hear about Jesus iconography is that no one has anything other than a speculative idea of what he may have looked like. There are no contemporary headshots of him. So, even if this were indeed Jesus’ actual burial shroud, how could we ever know such a thing? What evidence could possibly corroborate such a hunch? None. None at all.

 

Yet the Turin Shroud won’t die. Thankfully, it inspired a tweet I am proud to have tapped:

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Further readingShroud of Turin entry in Skepdic. An interview with “paranormal investigator” Joe Nickell. (Just for fun, here’s an idiotic song about miracles.)

Science vs. religion

I just wanted to get this down before I forgot it:

• Science is like walking into a pitch-dark room with a small, powerful flashlight. You may not see much at first, but it may stop you from stumbling. Slowly, painstakingly you’ll begin to form a pretty good idea of where you are.

• Religion is like walking into that same room with a glow-in-the-dark Lightsaber. Sure, it feels cool, but you keep swinging away at invisible phantoms. And the light cast is too weak to actually see by. May the force be with you!

Postcard from Ectoville

Spooked out

In June we made our first trip to the United States with our baby daughter. After a trying week at the beach, we settled into a rented cottage immersed in the lush green of Hanover County, Virginia. Cows grazed next door. A family of chickens wandered over the grass to visit us each morning. In the evening, an industrious spider materialized on the porch, spinning its web anew, only to vanish by dawn.

By the standards of small town Virginia, we immediately became local celebrities. (My sister compared us to Jennifer Aniston, who is reportedly dating a man whose mother lives nearby.) A buzz built up around us: “The Italians are here!” We brought them real Parmigiano cheese (compare with “parmesan”), olive oil from Umbria (compare with “Goya”) and taralli laced with fennel (incomparable). We didn’t want to disappoint anyone.

The pinnacle was Ashland’s July 4th parade. My brother-in-law was named honorary parade marshal, giving him and his family had the right to ride in a horse-drawn carriage with the mayor — an exciting prospect for my 10-year-old niece.

The whole town — except the misanthropes, if there are any — gathers yearly along Main St. to watch inventively named “brigades” march from one end of the township to the other. We saw the Lawn Chair Brigade composed of people doing a kind of Full Monty routine with, well, lawn chairs. There was also a Latin brigade, whose members mouthed the Roman greeting “Salve” and sported white togas. A man pedaled an old-time penny-farthing and an eccentric doctor marched on stilts. Then there was the patriotic dog contest…

The next day, my sister gave me a copy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Look,” she said, “you’re in the paper!” And there I was, looking on as the antique Big Wheel rolled along, part of the annual crowd. It’ll make a nice clipping for the family archive.

But it was a meeting at the barbecue the night before that most struck me. Over a plate of South Carolina peach cobbler, in an enormous, white antebellum home, I met a woman who introduced herself to me as a “ghost-buster.” I soon learned that she had cleansed the place where we were now standing of ectoplasm. It was a perfect setting for the conversation that followed.

I kindly probed as to just what is was that she did. Given the choice between a rational, materialistic explanation and a paranormal one, she told me, one should always choose the latter. “Why close oneself to the possibilities?” she said.

As I patiently listened to tales of angels and spirits I began wondering if there was anything she didn’t believe in. I proposed unicorns. Maybe they were making the strange puttering noises that came from the attic. She dismissed the thought. Given her credulity, I wondered how she could shut out unicorns.

It was a weird conversation, hung with dusty spider webs, creaky staircases and relics of haunted house lore. She even spoke of a mysterious “third” dimension (spooky!). But when she knocked on a wooden bookcase we’d both been leaning on and announced, “This isn’t real,” I decided that further inquiry was pointless. Where do you go from there?

To save any embarrassment, I came clean. I told her I was skeptical, that I didn’t believe in angels, demons or the paranormal in general. I told her there was not a shred of evidence for any of the things she’d described. As she’d been frank with me, I’d return the favor. We parted amiably, returning to our respective beer coolers.

I love visiting Ashland. It’s like some long lost town in an America that probably never existed except on celluloid and the covers of the Saturday Evening Post. An overwhelming feeling of innocence, of childhood, creeps up on me.

Now that I have a daughter I’m coming to better appreciate innocence. Think about it: here is a human being with almost no sense of danger. She trusts people. She’ll put anything into her mouth. We, her parents, must keep watch over her lest she tumble down a flight of stairs or swallow a tack. I’ll be happy when Melissa is a jaded cynic, though; innocence is dangerous. It isn’t meant to last.

This observation illustrates the way I look at Ashland. Every time I visit, I wonder if it will still be the same. When will it morph into just another Richmond suburb? When will it shed that special cocoon of simplicity that so fascinates me, and which Ashlanders work to protect?

The moment we move into town, no doubt.

Published in The American

Of sacred cows and sacred unicorns

Meet Paisley, my pet unicorn

Ophelia Benson wrote a post yesterday about sacred cows. In it she asks readers what their cows are, and the responses are fairly typical of what one would expect from skeptical rationalists: democracy, the “golden rule*”, equality, etc…of course no reader of B&W holds actual cows to be sacred, or Jesuses or golden calfs (or is it “calves”?). That’s what you get when you ask a question like that to a gaggle of atheists.

My understanding of the term “sacred cow” is something beyond question, a thing we know is probably undeserving of intellectual protection yet which is protected, shielded from inquiry. It’s not necessarily something which we have fairly good reasons for holding dear, such as basic human rights or hygiene. Those make sense under even the most severe scrutiny (unless you are a sociopath or a pope.)

“David” – perhaps the one who sparked Ophelia’s post – posted a comment along these same lines:

I have a friend for instance who is a skeptic in almost all things but she wants so bad to believe in life after death so that she can think her mother is still somewhere that [sic] she believes in ghosts. She wont discuss it with anyone she does not go ghost hunting or anything but she simply will not consider any evidence against it.

Which is kind of funny because I’ve been thinking about ghosts lately; so I mentioned on Facebook that I have a sacred unicorn.

Here’s a little background:

Last week I had the opportunity to meet a ghostbuster at a 4th of July barbecue in Virginia. After a while of patiently listening to her tales of ectoplasm on walls, angels, spirits and other dimensions (she spoke of an imperceptible “third” dimension…spooky!) I mentioned that maybe what she thought were ghosts were really invisible unicorns. She let slip a telling smile, as if to say, “Nonsense!” I thought, “Gotcha!” Why are unicorns, invisible or not, any less plausible than what she believed were the real causes of unexplained noises in an old wooden house?

This woman was not a skeptic in any sense. In fact, she told me straight out that, when given the choice between a rational, materialistic explanation and a paranormal one, one should always choose the latter. “Why close oneself to the possibilities?” she said. Then why chuckle at unicorns?

So that’s how my sacred unicorn came into this world. She grazes imperceptibly with all those cows in a field of golden wheat somewhere beyong the horizon. If you see her, do me a favor: shoot.

* The “golden rule” is appropriately ridiculed in the comments section of the original post.

Miracle in Petrignano

Our Lady of Alderaan

One of the perks of living in Italy is that, no matter where you end up, you are in the realm of miracles. They happen all the time here. But like UFO sightings, hauntings or any other paranormal activity, miracles never seem to happen to me. I wonder why that is.

Not long ago we were having dinner with some friends when one mentioned that the Virgin Mary had appeared in our local church last year. There had been a big brouhaha over it on television, and apparently the Vatican is now doing whatever it is they do to “verify” the supposed breach of all known laws of reality. We might be living in the next Lourdes, or Medjugorje, for all we know.

According to RAI’s Massimo Giletti, who hosted the relevant television special, one of the “seers” of Medjugorje (one of the six people who supposedly saw the Virgin Mary appear the Herzegovina town in 1981) was at the church of our modest hamlet for some commemorative prayers. An elderly woman who was attending took out her cell phone to film the service for her daughter. When she got home and watched the results, there was “a luminous figure” in the foreground. The woman sustained later that there was “no one there” while she was filming.

Miracles often begin their lives this way. Let’s take a closer look, though.

First, Assisi is a place known for one of the best-loved saints in Catholic canon, St. Francis. Everything near Assisi is bathed in the glow of this humble man, and our town is no exception. He was akin to the Italian Jesus (or was until Padre Pio usurped his throne). It’s a very suggestive place, even for a skeptic.

Second, we are in the presence of religious believers. Who else goes to church to see a religious celebrity like the woman of Medjugorje, anyway? So two very essential elements are in place for miracles to happen.

What would be truly astonishing is if the woman had filmed something quite unrelated to the Catholic faith. Joseph Smith maybe, or a Hindu deity. That would’ve at least been worthy of scrutiny. That she filmed the Virgin Mary is prosaic; it’s expected in a place already saturated with Virgin Marys. They are on the walls, in paintings, on street corners, in people’s houses and in their wallets. There should be nothing surprising if she “appears” on someone’s cell phone.

The image itself is very suggestive — at least to me — of Princess Lea from Star Wars. There is a famous scene in the movie where she appears in a hologram projected by R2-D2. Supplicating, she says, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” It’s an astonishing resemblance. So how do we know it wasn’t Princess Lea in that church?

We don’t, any more than we know it was or wasn’t the Virgin Mary. Because for a vague white glow to be either of those two presupposes an enormous amount of supporting evidence, which we just don’t have. We’d need to establish their historical existence, first of all. One is a minor character from a book written thousands of years ago and full of all sorts of things we know to be fanciful, falsified and just plain fraudulent. The other is from a movie made comparatively recently, in 1977. The actress Carrie Fisher — who played Princess Lea — is still alive, giving a slight edge of probability to our admittedly absurd hypothesis.

I could go on, but I’m only trying to establish the idea that miracles are in the mind of the credulous. When enough people begin believing these things, the Vatican authorities step in and “verify” them, creating a moneymaking publicity machine in the process.

One could say that not all supposed miracles are accepted by the Vatican, thereby suggesting that there are some criteria by which miracles are tested for veracity. As they are by definition unfalsifiable, though, it really appears to be a matter of shrewdness. The case of Padre Pio is a good example. The Vatican actively opposed his cult for decades, until it grew too large to be ignored. So they incorporated it. Now, as they say, he’s more popular than Jesus and almost every Italian knows someone who has been “miraculously cured” by him. I know I do.

I’m daily amazed that adults are susceptible to such obvious nonsense. What doesn’t amaze me, though, is that Italian state-television cynically plays to this credulity. They know their public, and they will do just about anything to keep them as uninformed and complacent as possible.

From The American

#Deathers

Well apparently the Osama “deather” meme has become a full-blown conspiracy theory in record time. The idea is not so much that Osama bin Laden is still alive but that he was killed years ago (some say as early as 2002) and kept in hiding – on ice, I’ve read – for some obscure purpose.

Has that purpose been revealed? Clearly, Obama is using it to put the “birther” business behind him and get re-elected in 2012. But that would also imply that the Obama administration and the Bush administration are in cahoots, working together in the cultivation of the Greatest Conspiracy Ever. This notion was echoed by noted truther Giulietto Chiesa, who called Obama a “neocon” on Italian television last night.

It’s slightly exhilarating to watch the weeds of conpiracy theory sprout up literally overnight. Before I’d even heard the news that Osama was dead, Twitter was brimming with announcements of the new manifestation of “birtherism”, tagged #deather/s. “Show us the birth certificate” was the new “Show me or draw me a Nazi gas chamber” and is now “Show us the photos/corpse of Osama bin Laden.”

Of course no photos would ever be enough (they could be faked), no cadaver would ever be that of the real Osama, and how could we trust the “experts” even if they told us that his DNA matched? So the White House is – very wisely, in my opinion – brushing the whole business aside by refusing to go there.

Because the truth about conspiracy theorists is that they never stop when evidence is shown to them; they never say, “Alright, we were mistaken. Now that you’ve shown us adequate proof of X we’ve accepted your narrative.” That never happens. Conspiracy theorists are not skeptics, though they love to think of themselves as such. Skepticism is after truth through supporting evidence, while conspiracy theorists are after “truth” despite evidence to the contrary. The more you give them, the stronger the conspiracy becomes. Their minds are already made up.

I’m an upside-down pony!

At times on this blog I use my modest super powers to poke some fun at “the world’s oldest science”, astrology. That’s because it’s a bunch of silliness masquerading as science, sounding ever-more sciency to keep up with actual scientific advances. It’s mirror in the world of medicine would seem to be homeopathy.

I’m glad that Rebecca Watson has finally put a stake in the heart of this sciency-sounding pseudoscience. She’s brilliant (and now we’re the same sign, Upside-Down Pony!) Wait, maybe I’m Peanut-Butter Jar now, or Homeopathic Striking-Board…but who can keep track of such stuff without a proper knowledge of fancy-sounding words? Ahh!