World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

When we see sinister things that aren’t…

On November 22nd, 1963, it was bright and sunny in Dallas, as home movies and photographs taken that day clearly show. Why, then, is a dark-suited man holding an open umbrella aloft just as President Kennedy’s motorcade passes and shots are fired?

In his fascinating short film, The Umbrella Man, Errol Morris explores the question of the sinister figure with the help of Josaih “Tink” Thompson, author of Six Seconds in Dallas.

The Umbrella Man

Filed under: pseudoscience, skepticism, ,

Propane and Prayer

On Sunday, August 10 ’08, a series of explosions at the Sunrise Propane depot rocked the quiet Murray Road neighbourhood in North Toronto. The depot was in the vicinity of residential homes and the explosions were enormous. Yet, the blast resulted in only two fatalities. Many described the low death toll as a “miracle.”

On Sunday, August 9 ’09, the first anniversary of the blast, CBC Radio broadcast a story about the accident on their early morning program, Fresh Air. The CBC’s website describes the story, by producer Mary Wiens, as one that examines “the role of faith in protecting a community from harm.” Wiens interviews an elderly resident of the neighbourhood who is certain that her prayers and faith were the reason the death toll was so low. Wiens then ponders the link between the communal spirituality of the neighbourhood and the “miracle.

She then interviews Deepak Chopra, whose views support the idea that there is a causal connection between the inner-world of prayer, and the macro-world we live in. There are references to Chopra’s “quantum consciousness” (although I don’t remember Wiens actually using the term), as well as clinical studies of the efficacy of prayer in healing. Overall, Wiens paints a picture in which the collective faith of the community protected them from greater harm.

(Note that I’ve only been able to listen to the show once, during its original broadcast; it hasn’t been posted online as of yet. So, I’m writing this based on that single listening. If I get some of the details of the story wrong, I think my overall view of the piece is accurate. I’m also aware that Fresh Air is not a journalistic program; regardless, I think my views are no less valid.)

In fact, the low death toll wasn’t a “miracle” in any sense, religious or otherwise

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Filed under: media, pseudoscience, religion, skepticism, , , , ,

Ghost Bird – Hot Docs 2009

In February, 2004, a lone kayaker was paddling through a swamp in the Big Woods region of Arkansas when he spotted a magnificent black and white bird. It was an ivory-billed woodpecker, referred to as the “Lord God Bird” because that’s what everyone says when they see it: “Lord God!” The woodpecker was considered extinct in the U.S. and hadn’t been seen in decades.

The documentary, Ghost Bird, in the 2009 Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, tells the story of that February day and the events that followed. The sighting was a big deal. For many birders and ornithologists, the woodpecker was the “Holy Grail” and seeing one would be a once-in-a-lifetime event. To the residents of Brinkley, Arkansas, it was a goldmine, as residents began advertising “Woodpecker Haircuts”, “Ivory-billed Burgers”, and woodpecker souvenir shops. It was a big funding deal, too, with millions of dollars of government money allocated to confirm the sighting and for habitat conservation. It was a major event for scientists claiming the veracity of the sighting; after all, how many animals come back from the dead? And it was a big deal for those experts whose skepticism threw the sighting into doubt and created controversy.

Woven through the story is one of the few pieces of tangible evidence of the bird’s existence: a video taken after the initial sighting, supposedly capturing the ivory-bill taking off from a tree and flying off into the swamp. It provides only an ephemeral, blurry glimpse. An audio recording of what might be an ivory-bill’s call is also tantalizing but equally inconclusive.

Ghost Bird, produced and directed by Scott Crocker, portrays the woodpecker as a symbol of what nature means to us and, equally, what we have done to nature. (The bird disappeared largely because of habitat loss.) The portraits of the story’s many characters are fascinating: the birders who debate the sighting after doubts surface and who so want the woodpecker to be real; the scientists who analyze the video frame by frame; the residents of Brinkley swept up by ivory-bill mania, each with their own reason for wanting the bird to be found.

But as the press kit for the film says, Ghost Bird is set in a “murky swamp of belief.” It has “less to say about extinct woodpeckers than about our yearning to look for and even see them, whether they are there or not.”

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Filed under: nature, pseudoscience, skepticism, UFOs, , , ,

January 2003: Thinking About Clones

Have the Raelians and Clonaid created the first human clone? Is baby “Eve” for real?

Who cares? The question of the truth of this claim is an uninteresting one that we shouldn’t waste time on. Clonaid is a “company” created by a cult called the Raelians, a group believing that humans were created by extraterrestrials 25,000 years ago. Clonaid has no scientific credibility and, thus, it is extremely unlikely that there is a clone. The claim is an extraordinary one which requires extraordinary proof, which they have not provided. End of story.

But, for most of the world media, the announcement by Raelian “bishop” Brigitte Boisselier was just the beginning of the story. Coverage was intense and expansive. The story commanded front page attention. After acknowledging that the Raelians didn’t exactly have impressive scientific credentials, much of the coverage went on to treat the claim at face value, as if Clonaid were a legitimate scientific organization. The question of the existence of the clone continues to stir debate.

However, there is another question that is much more fascinating and much more important to consider. It is this: Why do we think the way we do about weird things like cults and their clones, and aliens who supposedly created humanity in a genetic experiment 25,000 years ago? For that matter, why do we think the way we do about UFOs, alien abductions, crop circles, psychokinesis, channeling, ESP, astrology, miracle cures, and all sorts of unproven paranormal and pseudo-scientific phenomena?

Why are we so mesmerized by these ideas and so quick to believe, often accepting these notions as true and real without any credible evidence? Why do we believe?

The television show that did as much as any other to cement popular beliefs about one of these weird ideas—extraterrestrial visitation—was “The X-Files”. The show featured a pair of FBI agents named Fox Mulder and Dana Scully who investigated cases with a paranormal bent to them. The answer to the question, “Why do we believe?” was printed on a poster that hung in agent Mulder’s office in the basement of FBI headquarters. The poster showed a blurry picture of a UFO and read: “I Want To Believe.”

For many different reasons, we all want to believe. For one thing, we all love a good story and aliens make for some of the best storytelling ever. In fact, some consider these tales to be the modern, technological equivalents of ancient myths, legends and superstitions. Also, it’s in our nature to speculate about the unknown and the things that we think lay just beyond the horizon of the known. And, some of us love the idea that aliens or spirits of the dead or something beyond the natural world will reveal itself and solve our earthly problems—or at least make sense of them—thus bringing some sort of salvation.

So, at times we want to believe so badly we let our guard down in order to believe. And sometimes, we just think in weird ways about weird things and end up believing that those weird things are real.

A few years ago, I visited junior and senior high school classes to present what was ostensibly a talk about UFOs and the alien abduction phenomenon. In truth, the talk was about media literacy, scientific literacy, critical thinking and logic.

When the students and I talked about the media, and the information and influences we are bombarded with every day, we talked about the importance of considering the source. Did we read something about time travel in Scientific American magazine or the newspaper or a supermarket tabloid? Was the cloning claim made by a respected research organization with legitimate credentials or by a Raelian priestess?

True, the Raelians did say they would offer proof of their claim, even going so far as to recruit someone to oversee DNA testing. But here, the cultists didn’t score high points in their scientific literacy.

As the Royal Society and Sir Alec Jeffreys—the inventor of DNA fingerprinting and professor of genetics at Leicester University—have stated, in order for the DNA testing of “Eve” to be valid it must be independent and conducted by more than one lab. Every single step along the way must be scrutinized, from the extraction of the mother and baby’s DNA to the final result.

Clonaid recruited Michael Guillen to act as overseer of the testing. Described in various reports as a “scientist”, Guillen does hold a doctorate in theoretical physics, mathematics and astronomy from Cornell University. But as far as I can find, he has never actually conducted any research. The only feature of his resume that appears to have qualified him in Clonaid’s eyes is his stint as a science editor for ABC News.

And not a very good science editor, at that. It has been reported that, over the years, Guillen gave credence to such fringe claims as psychokinesis, cold fusion (years after the claim was found to be flawed), and even astrology. Leon Jaroff of Time Magazine recently reported that long after the scientific community had established that HIV caused AIDS, Guillen did an uncritical piece about two scientists who believed that HIV wasn’t the culprit. In it, he stated, “Many AIDS patients have never been infected with HIV.”

In other words, Guillen could not be counted on to oversee a critical, independent, rigorous testing process, much less report the story accurately.

In the end, does it really matter that Clonaid’s claim is highly dubious and undeserving of such attention? Does it really matter that we are sometimes compelled to believe in weird things by our desire or tendency to believe? Or that we’re sometimes less critical than we should be? What harm is there?

The harm is this: The emotional and intellectual path that leads to accepting that “Eve” exists, without credible evidence, is a path paved not with logic, critical thinking, or scientific understanding. Rather, it is paved with a desire to believe, as well as speculation mistaken for reason and generally accepted facts. Follow this path and we end up believing that aliens are visiting the earth and abducting humans, that people such as television’s John Edward can communicate with our deceased loved ones, that astrology and ESP work.

Follow the path a little further and we come upon the belief that buying a certain product or adopting a certain lifestyle will bring us happiness and fulfillment in life. It leads you to accept—rather than making up your own mind based on credible, independently corroborated evidence—that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. The same thinking leads us to believe Holocaust deniers who say that the Nazis did not commit mass genocide during World War ll.

It is a long, treacherous path that leads us further and further away from knowledge, understanding, and the beauty of the natural world.

Filed under: media, pseudoscience, science literacy, skepticism, , , ,

About me

CHRIS SASAKI
I am a Toronto-based writer, author and photographer who is inspired and fascinated by science. Science is our best way of understanding the natural world, but it is much more than that. Science is culture, and its pursuit ultimately leads to meaning, values and wonder.  My interests include evolution, Darwin, the Galapagos Islands, secular humanism, religion, skepticism, climate change, and science culture.  For many years, I wrote and produced astronomy programs for the McLaughlin Planetarium of the Royal Ontario Museum. I am author of many books for young readers (Sterling Publishing and Penguin Young Readers, N.Y.) and articles for children's magazines. I also write non-fiction related to the themes reflected in this blog. You can read some of my longer non-fiction and view my photographs at www.chrissasaki.com, and follow me at www.twitter.com/chrissasaki.

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