You Don’t Have To Be A Rocket Scientist

No, Really. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist…or any kind of scientist for that matter, to be a skeptic. Learning a new way of thinking is pretty scary. You wonder if you’re doing it right. Especially when you read posts on the JREF forum. It’s hard not to feel a little less than intelligent.

The wonderful think about the skeptic community is that we are a pretty diverse group. We have members of all ages, genders, ethnicities and education levels. One of the major players in the skeptical world, James “The Amazing” Randi, didn’t finish high school. He has traveled the world performing magic and working to educate people about charlatans and frauds. Mr. Randi is working on his 10th book currently.

Penn Jillette is a graduate of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Clown College.  Teller, his partner, formerly taught high school Latin has been a guest lecturer at Oxford University and appears to have attended MIT. So even within famous skeptical partnerships there is a wide range of educational background.

Penn has written numerous essays and a book, “Sock”. His communication is insightful and thought-provoking. While he comes across as brash and overbearing, his writing indicates a much greater depth.

And then there’s me. I’m one of those jack of all trades types. I don’t have a formal college degree though I’ve attended Northwest College as a photojournalism major. Turns out I have no talent for photography so I dropped out. Then I tried animation at the Art Institute of Atlanta. I changed majors to graphic design because the redundancy of drawing frame after frame with only minute changes drove me nuts.

After a year and a half of graphic design I quit because I didn’t see how a degree in that field could be of help to anyone. I saw it as crass manipulation and I didn’t want to manipulate people on a mass level. Or any level for that matter.

Later I spent a year with the psych department of the University of Maryland. That’s where I took what would later become my favorite college class ever. Statistics. Even though I felt like my brain was leaking out my ears and half the time I didn’t think I had any clue what I was doing, that course taught me how to read medical studies and evaluate research. This is probably the most important skill I have.

Unfortunately after that year I didn’t feel that I could, in the end, be of help as a psychologist. I don’t think I have what it takes to listen to people’s problems day in and day out for years on end. So I dropped out.

Intertwined amongst all that is over 500 hours of training in various disciplines of hypnotherapy. There is no formal degree in hypnosis, though I looked at several unaccredited “universities”. When we moved to Florida my hypnosis practice collapsed. I still have that skill set though because I am a skeptic, I have set it aside. We still do not really understand how hypnosis works. I’ll be covering that in a later article.

Then, of course, there is all the time and money spent on training in Reiki, crystal healing and herbalism.

The point of this long, rambling bit of text is that even though there are lots of people with big, intimidating degrees from MIT, Oxford and Harvard, it’s people like you and me, the average person, that makes the skeptical movement grow. We learn new ways of thinking and exploring our world right here in our own living rooms. We go to skeptical events, we share ideas with others that may or may not be skeptical.

This is how the skeptical movement grows. With people like us just being skeptical.

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Mr. Whuffkins

This post is a complete flight of fancy. I’m stealing the idea from Skepchicks and running with it.

A couple days ago one of the Skepchicks posed this question: If you could have any animal as a pet, and have it magically be domesticated and friendly, what would you choose?

Most people chose big cats. One person went with a Velociraptor. So I thought “Hmm…how can I take that to the next level? Oh *I* know! THIS  guy! http://bit.ly/4FdxYw : The Mapusaurus roseae.

This dinosaur was larger than the T-Rex and may have even been bigger than Giganotosaurus, the guy that took over the mantle of “Biggest Badass” from good ol’ T. In other words Mapusaurus rosae, or as I like to call him, Mr. Whuffkins, was longer than a four-story building is tall. So, yeah…big meat grinder on legs.

The question on Skepchicks included the word “friendly”. Sure, Mr. Whuffkins would be friendly TO ME and to people I liked. But lets have some fun here for a minute. If YOU had the biggest carnivore the world has ever seen at your disposal, what would YOU do? Personally, I’d have bullet proof armor and a saddle made for Mr. Whuffkins. Then I’d take him around to places like the Westboro Baptist Church where Fred Phelps hangs his hat. I’d explain to Mr. Phelps that when he says things like “God hates fags”, it makes Mr. Whuffkins vewwy sad. When Mr. Whuffkins gets sad, he gets hungry. He’s a stress eater, doncha know.

Voila! Instant social reform!

Don’t like the way things are going in Washington DC? Mr. Whuffkins and I are happy to go eat..er..greet a few Congressmen and Senators. I can see it now. Me and my pet wandering the world making change happen wherever we go. Barack Obama would have nothing on us!

It would be like the old children’s book “Danny and the Dinosaur”, just a bit, well, bloodier.

Unfortunately there would be a drawback to keeping Mr. Whuffkins as a pet. No, not the food bill. He’s magical so he wouldn’t need to eat. Except for those times I wanted him to, that is. The big drawback would be the fundamentalists and creationists claiming that me and Mr. Whuffkins are proof that people used to live side by side with dinosaurs and even ride them. After all Mr. Whuffkins would be “domesticated”.

And so, the dream dies.

It IS fun to pretend sometimes though. See? Even skeptics have vivid imaginations!




Pat Robertson Persists

This morning Pat Robertson continued to insist that the reason for Haiti’s troubles is the supposed pact with the Devil that we discussed yesterday. He claims here http://bit.ly/5XeL7L that since the Dominican Republic is prosperous that this supposed “pact” MUST be the reason that Haiti is the most impoverished nation in the world.

Obviously Mr. Robertson’s research team failed to mention to him that, although there are resorts, the Dominican Republic is still a third world country. There is also a difference ing governmental styles. Haiti is a socialist nation run by a dictator. The Dominican Republic stopped being a dictatorship in 1961.

Because of the governmental style, Reagan levied heavy import tariffs against Haiti. That also contributed to the impoverished state of the country. Add to that the weather-related issues and the drug issues and it’s no wonder Haiti has problems.

And yet, Robertson continues to attribute these troubles to a being that no one has been able to prove even exists. Anecdotal evidence is not evidence because a story cannot be tested repeatedly to get the same results. An anecdote is the result of human observation. Personal biases color those observations. When someone like Pat Robertson observes the world, he sees demons and the Devil as the reason for worldly woes. A scientific, skeptical approach shows us that weather and politics are largely contributing factors.

Not the Boogeyman.

Witch Hunts In Africa

Two days back I posted about a video I watched. The video showed five elderly people being beaten and burned alive in the western district of Kisii in Kenya. Why? They had been accused of witchcraft and/or sorcery and they were being punished for their crimes by being burnt.

After further research I found that I came a bit late to this particular party. The original video I posted appears to have first surfaced in April of this year. This is also not the only incident of people being burnt, beaten, ostracised or otherwise tortured for supposedly practicing witchcraft or sorcery. This is, according to this article by the BBC (http://bit.ly/WYaSP) is so common a practice that there are no longer any elders to consult.

In my previous article I spoke at length about how stunned I was that such a thing could happen in the 21st century. My husband reminded me that it isn’t really the 21st century there. In remote villages in Africa, it IS 200 years ago. Perhaps some of modern civilization touches these areas but not enough science and logical thought are being introduced to these cultures.

This article from the New York Times (http://bit.ly/3t7NkW)  blames apartheid for the burnings. The article further claims that these burnings have been growing steadily since the 1980’s. The Chief talks about the “ungovernability of the young” and talks about how the old ways are being lost. There was once a less violent way to handle “bewitchings”. Now the youth are taking things into their own hands and the police do nothing.

Another opinion posed by this article (http://bit.ly/2I7u0c) by the Associated Press blames the increase of Pentecostal churches. According to the reporter, the number of burnings have increased in proportion with the number of churches. “Some of the churches involved are renegade local branches of international franchises. Their parishioners take literally the Biblical exhortation, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.””. Some parishioners who attend churches have taken the teachings back to their village where it gets mixed with African traditions. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Then there are those who let the power go to their heads. There are pastors who perform exorcisms and extort exorbitant fees from the parents for this “service”. Children have been hurt and maimed during these supposed exorcisms. The mere mention of certain church names is enough to cause a group of happily playing children mentioned in this article to become frightened.

Unfortunately this is a complicated issue and there doesn’t seem to be a solution. If you remove the churches, then you remove food and medicine that secular organizations simply can’t cover. I would be interested to know what, if anything, the UN is doing about this. Are there any human rights organizations addressing this problem? There is still research to be done on this and I will be talking about it further in the future.

The Funeral of a Friend

Michelle would have hated that I called it a funeral. She wanted this to be a celebration of her life. So that’s where we’ll be Sunday night. At her celebration.

It’s not like this was unexpected. Michelle fought back stage 4 cancer once. The second time the disease won. If you’re one for one and you still die, does that mean you’re tied? It reminds me of when I was a teenager in the 80’s. We had MAD back then. Mutually Assured Destruction. Yep. Cold War Era.

How do people like Hitchins, Dawkins and Meyers handle death when it hits close to home like this? This is my first death as an atheist. It doesn’t make me long for an afterlife. I’m not seeking shelter in dogma. If anything I am grieving for a young woman who won’t get to have her mother at her wedding or ask about what to do with a colicky baby or let her mother bounce her grandchild on her knee. Her youngest daughter is only 18. What do you do with something like that?

I’ve told her repeatedly that if she needs anything at all, I’m here for her. I guess that’s all I can do.

Some of the best advice I’ve ever seen on coping with the death of a loved one was from, of all places, a web comic called Venus Envy by Erin Lindsey (http://www.venusenvycomic.com/). Zoe just had her first experience with death when her dog Bergamot (Bergie to his friends) was hit by a car. It devastated her.

As he walked her home, her friend Larsen told her “It’s okay to be sad. But they’re not really gone. The most important parts of them stay with you. The best of what they were will stay with you if you care enough. Just think about them a little each day. What they did for you. What you did for them. One day you’ll realize you’re not deliberately taking that time to think about them. That’s when they’re a part of you forever.”

I love that advice because it doesn’t rely on something mystical. Simply take time to remember them. That’s how people truly live on after death. In our memories and with our love and stories.

Learning To Let Go

One of the most difficult parts of becoming a skeptic was readjusting my thought processes. I was afraid that because I was now a skeptic that I would no longer be able to enjoy some of the things I love most.  For instance, how can a skeptic enjoy the wonder and magic of Disney World and the Magic Kingdom?

Was I allowed to like things like that anymore? Was my life now to be relegated only to the wonders of the world around me and the Universe at large? Not that those are bad things. The Universe and the natural world are full of amazing, complex and wonderful things.

But I still love the fantastic. I still love dragons and fairies, mythology and magic. And I love the magic that is Disney World. It’s a wonderful place where, for a little while, we can be kids again. We can get excited about meeting Mickey Mouse and for a little while we’re seven years old again.

The truth is, I didn’t give ANY of it up. I still love the fantastic. I still get excited about seeing my favorite characters at Disney and I still run to get to the Haunted Mansion. Yet, I proudly wear the label of ‘skeptic”.

Now how does THAT work??  It’s not as hard as it sounds. The concept is called Suspension of Disbelief. It is defined as: The temporary acceptance as believable of events or characters that would ordinarily be seen as incredible. This is usually to allow an audience to appreciate works of literature or drama that are exploring unusual ideas.

In other words, when you go to a movie and you allow yourself to be immersed in that world you are willingly suspending your disbelief for a time. You are making a choice to accept the premise set down by the writers and actors.

While I understand that dragons, fairies and magic probably don’t exist, I allow myself to enjoy the concept  and suspend disbelief for a time. So while I know that there is a person in a costume, I still joyfully hug Winnie the Pooh, embracing the nostalgia of my childhood and allowing myself, for a little while, to be 7 years old again.