24 September 2007

Why woo merchants cannot be trusted

I have a friend. She's a lovely girl, but as credulous as hell.

She grew up in a small country town about two or three hours drive out of Melbourne, and she pretty much accepts anything that is shovelled her way, no matter how much it beggars belief.

Not long ago, she was round at our place and she told us something that really caught my interest: Her mother, along with most of the rest of the country town she grew up in, saw a UFO.

This really interested me, because, for the first time, I thought that we had an example of that most elusive of UFO sightings: One that had been independently verified.

Sadly, after finding out the year in which it took place, a quick search of the web failed to yield any record of this event which was apparently witnessed by a town of about 1,000 people.

I had bitten my tongue throughout, but it eventually became all too much and I said, "Are you sure your mother was 100% certain that what she saw was a spacecraft of extra-terrestrial origin?"

Her first response was: "Are you calling my mother a liar?"

This is a somewhat telling response for a variety of reasons. And for the purposes of my story, we'll go with the definition of "lie" as being that where someone wilfully intends to mislead.

I didn't take it further, but I really wanted to ask her this:

1. The most obvious conclusion that anyone, including myself, can come to is that her mother, and the residents of this country town were mistaken. That is, they saw (or thought they saw) something completely different.

Science has discovered a large number of naturally occurring phenomena that could quite easily explain this "sighting". Ball lightning, low flying aircraft, mass hallucinations, mass hysteria - these are but the tip of the iceberg, there's plenty of others.

Why would I be suggesting, then, that her mother took the less likely tack of deliberately telling an untruth?

2. The definition of "liar" last time I looked, was someone who lies. Did my friend remember this?

3. Which begs the question, given that the definition of "liar" is not one who "lied" - was my friend aware of anything else that her mother had told her that would lead us to accuse her mother of having told more than one fib?

4. Given the above, could my friend shed some light on the accusation that I was calling her mother a liar, given that it is clearly not even the most likely conclusion that I could come to?

I probably like to say that there's a distinct whiff of a guilty conscience here, however, I could also put my friend's defensiveness down to the fact that she has encountered skepticism on this very subject before, and like most daughters, will not countenance any possibility that her mother is any less than honest on the subject.

But I won't. Which brings me on to my main point.

Woo consumers often try this exact same tack, and will not accept anything other than full and willing acceptance of their claims, and will be only too ready to accuse anyone of calling them liars if the slightest ounce of skepticism is shown. Despite the fact that their testimony may be suspect.

In the case of UFOs, it is suspicious that after years of sightings and close encounters, not once has there been an independently verified sighting. Suggest that a claim should be more closely investigated, and your average woo disciple will scream that their honour is being impugned.

It's not just UFOs. For years, homeopathy has been allowed to operate, despite the extreme lack of evidence showing it to be even remotely effective. Criticise the testimonial evidence of a woo practitioner, and you may stand accused of calling them liars.

A lot of this stuff has been practised for years, even centuries, yet if you suggest that someone gathers evidence showing it to be effective before claiming that it works, you get nowhere.

Bronze Dog recently blogged that after all the promises claimed by the world of woo, there is still nothing to show for it. Does acupuncture really cure colds? Does chiropractic really fix headaches? Can John Edward really talk to the dead? Why would UFO crews deliberately pick out hillbillies to try out their anal probes?

Alan Hopgood is a playwright of note in the city where I live. At a dinner I was at where he gave a speech, he told of a time when he was at Uni and a few friends of his chose to perpetrate a hoax.

A few of them got together and plotted a line out over the suburbs, calculated speeds and worked out times. Then a couple of them went and stood on a street corner in the CBD and at the allotted time, looked up, pointed and made a lot of noise about having seen something going very fast across the sky in a south-easterly direction.

This was repeated in various suburbs out towards the south east by various accomplices.

Somehow, one of the news services calculated a rough velocity based on sighting times, and a UFO legend was born. The hoax was exposed soon after. Hopgood swears that to this day, he runs into people unconnected with the hoax who swear that they actually saw the "UFO" in question on that day.

It's just too easy sometimes. But unlike Hopgood and his friends, not everyone is motivated by good intentions. Hopgood and co rode a wave of credulity and gullibility for a laugh.

It stands to reason that some will ride this wave for financial gain. And this is why, after all these years of nothing, woo merchants cannot be trusted.

Here's a wonderful hoax that was carried by some news services recently. Enjoy.


Plonka said...

Nice one Dikkii...:)

I went to the site advertised in that vid. David Icke...Ahhhhhggg!!! Although, if you need a good laugh, he's always a good place to start...:)

I was once driving from Melbourne to Lakes Entrance late at night. I turned off at Moe to take the old Sale road because it's a much nicer drive. Whilst I was driving along with my mum, minding my own business, I saw a bright green ball of light streaking through the sky toward us. My immediate thought was "Eeek! The aliens cometh!" My mum's a tad religious and although she didn't say anything, she had a look on her face that said "Eeek! Jesus cometh!" It was at that point however, that we realised it was a meteor, probably with a high copper content, heading straight at us and it looked like we were going to be toast.

Inevitably, I spent a second or two casting around for an escape but then I realised: I know what this thing is and how fast it's moving. What made me think, even for a second, that I might be able to escape it's fury if luck, or fate, decreed that it was going to land anywhere nearby? Human stupidity was and still is, the only answer I can provide. Luckily, when it did touch down about 200 metres away, in the paddock next to the road we were on, all it had left was enough energy to make a loud noise and a rather snazzy light show. It didn't even shake the road. Mum said "Thank God!" I said "There's a piece of luck!"

The point however, is this: Never underestimate the power of human stupidity. Initially I thought "UFO" and mum thought "God" and how wrong we were. If I hadn't been schooled in the wily ways of rocks from space, I'd probably still be thinking that I saw a UFO, it was that spectacular.

But, "Are you calling my mum a liar?" Well no, but isn't there a chance she may have been mistaken in this instance? I know that I have been, and I know that it's a very easy mistake to make.

The problem seems to me to be that most people suffer from an inability to say "I don't know" and "I am wrong". Just three words.. But unlike the other three that a lot of people have trouble with, these ones, especially when coupled with a belief structure that makes empirical claims about the universe in which we live are, as Sam Harris says, strictly taboo...

Dikkii said...

G'day Plonka, and welcome back. It has been a little while.

I have to admit to not initially noticing the David Icke bit. I've often wondered about Icke this: given that he buys into conspiracies so readily, could one make the argument that he's not exactly, "for real"?

Anyone who uses the word "Illuminati" in all seriousness is 1000% bananas.

Your meteor story is pretty cool. I've often wondered about Paul of Tarsus' conversion on the road to Damascus - was a meteor involved?

But, "Are you calling my mum a liar?" Well no, but isn't there a chance she may have been mistaken in this instance? I know that I have been, and I know that it's a very easy mistake to make.

Exactly. Which is why the question, "Why did you go for that particular scenario?" is so prominent in my mind. Why, of all possibilities, did they go for the liar one?

Glad to see you back, Plonka. Hopefully it won't be too much longer before we see you back here again.

Plonka said...

What surprises me is that he can make a living, and a good one too, talking and writing about it.

Because "the liar one" immediately and completely deflects the argument. Once it's uttered there's very little chance of getting back to the real subject. Then, once the conversation has broken up, the person in question gets to walk away with their "belief" wholly intact. Having successfully deflected you from pursuing the possibility that it may have been a meteor, or a play of light on cloud, etc, it prevents you using reason (there's the REAL problem) to make some real sense of the whole episode.

All claims of belief are taboo, whether they be about UFO's or God. Try it with the Jehovah's witnesses. Challenge what Jesus said and they'll immediately say "Are you calling Jesus a liar?" To which I say "Not unless he wrote that there book, which we all know he didn't. Did you know that Josephus, who is the only person ever to have written ...blah...blah...blah... Oh really? Well maybe you can drop by again next week so we can finish this discussion?" They never do you know, I wonder why...?

Dikkii said...

What surprises me is that he can make a living, and a good one too, talking and writing about it.

I think that we know the answer to that. Peoples' credulity knows no bounds.

I would very much love to have a chat with Mormons or Witnesses if they dropped around, the only problem is that in about 14 years of living in the real world, none have come near our front door.