July 26, 2005

Science: Pride

Pride is an odd, often conflicted state of mind. When you hear or read the word, there can be good connotations (honour, integrity, valour) or bad ones (xenophobia, egoism) depending on whatever your experiences might be.

I've long held the view that those taking pride in their ancestry are taking credit for others' labour; but what about something like sports teams? I've done nothing at all to actually help (or hinder for that matter) the Vancouver Canucks, but I'm still a fan of theirs, and I still get irritated at both New York teams for beating them in Stanley Cup finals. And come the Olympics, I cheered for Daniel Igali and wept for Perditia Felicien. What the hell did I ever do to earn that reflected honour?

It could be said that my nation has a society that can produce such champions, and as a member of that society I can claim some small part of glory when they reach the podium. Fair enough: that's also one reason to fell pride in the work of our peacekeepers, for instance, despite my not having handled a gun since I was twelve or so.

There is a running joke about Newfoundland. It doesn't matter what TV stations "From Away" actually say about them, the reaction is always the same: "Ho, Jeeze! Lookit tha'! Theys mentioned us on d' box, dere!" There was a slight sense of unease if they were being talked about too much, but now and then was a bit of a thrill. Much like Canada being mentioned by any of the American networks.

So it was with somewhat mixed emotions that I noticed the new Miss Universe was Canadian. It was a surprise, and not unpleasant one; but the announcement of anyone as Miss Universe would have come as a surprise to me given the attention I afford it. Then I found out that one entrant into the Miss World Canada competition was from my former home of Salt Spring Island, with its population of 10,000. She came in second. It's a slightly embarassed pride when someone from a tiny place gets a bit of a spotlight, even if it's mostly for walking and smiling at the same time. This quickly turned to a full-fledged embarassment when I saw her plans for the immediate future:

A bit of "psychic surgery" from the so-called John of God.

This man is a fraud, one of the biggest in the world. The majority of his "miracles" fall under the "faith healer" category, and the rest fit nicely into prestidigitation (slight of hand). People come to him for all the same reasons they come to a revival tent - for a miracle. It doesn't help that he's in one of the poorer regions of Brazil, which is not exactly a wealthy nation itself. If you're familliar with the saying "hunger makes the best sauce", then you know what I mean when I say "desperation makes the best believers". Nearly all the people who come to him have little choice: there's no medicare in Brazil, and no money for an actual doctor, so they choose to believe. They have no other choice; it's believe and think you'll be cured, or do nothing and die. And many want desperately to believe: when magician James Randi performed the psychic surgery trick on the Tonight Show, explaining that this was how the Fillipino "surgeons" suckered their audience, the LA NBC affiliate alone got 100 phone calls. Every one of them asked how to get in touch with the Fillipino surgeons.

Much is made of his taking no money for his "treatments". There's a reason for this: by one estimate, some 15 million people have come to him in the past 38 years. If even one percent show any form of improvement, real or imagined, that's 150,000 "successes" that believers can point to, ignoring the 99% failure rate.

Overly cynical? Perhaps, though I prefer to be considered a skeptic.

But bear in mind most of his patients are told that they have to wait "forty days" before they see any healing effect; in some cases, they are told up to two years must pass before they notice any improvement. Still others are given the hackneyed excuse of the patient having "the wrong attitude", not keeping the faith, or simply showing up too late. If you are travelling to Brazil expressly to see this man, you probably weren't counting on staying so long, were you? Out of sight, out of mind... And if you are a poor farmer (or a poor ANYONE, for that matter) you certainly can't afford to hang around for a month to see if the Miracle Man actually cured you.

Consider: the vast majority of patients have no mailing addresses, no phones, and are rarely asked for names. Even of those patients that can be tracked down (performing surgeries in homes, for instance), those upon whom the miracles failed will tell questioners that John of God didn't fail, their faith did. Perhaps after forty days without improvement, then sixty, they began to doubt just a bit, ruining all of the Miracle Mans work...

As an example of a "success" that appeared on television, here's a rather surprised skeptic being dragged into a studio on a couple hours notice and having x-rays "proving" a cancer cure thrust at him on camera. Not only was the claim not backed up, the x-rays weren't even of the same parts of the body. But she (and the producers) believed, and the skeptic wasn't qualified to read x-rays, so hesitated on offering a criticism of it.

(Speaking of pride, quick aside: some years ago, an old neighbour and friend, Aaron Minvielle, presented to me a thesis paper he had written called "Fixing Einstein's Universe". He was an x-ray technician at the time, and is a rather intimidating intellect, and in this 80 pages was not only an explanation of what gravity is, but also mentioned was the flat statement that there was simply no way for a black hole to be a supposed "wormhole", or Einstein-Rosen bridge. It was the first time I had seen a solid arguement against it - and he was proven right in 2004. End of aside.)

Now to the carny tricks.

The two most commonly used by the good doctor are plunging a pair of forceps into the clients nose and scraping at the eyeballs. He claims a couple dozen different cures can be affected by these two procedures. Oh, and (as noted in this article) there seems to be "simultaneous invisible operations" when he performs this tricks in front of a crowd.

How many people winced when I mentioned what the tricks were? Now imagine being there and watching them. Combine that with the witnessing of a "holy event", and you've got your "simultaneous invisible operations" happening all over the room.

As for the forceps up the nose, is anyone here familliar with the Jim Rose Circus Side Show? Among other things, he's a blockhead, like this guy. Any other questions about things in your nose? Didn't think so...

The eyeball scraping is only slightly more difficult: just make sure you avoid the cornea, and you can put damn near anything against your eyeball. Ask anyone who puts in contact lenses.

So, what's the big deal? Why am I so annoyed that a beauty pageant contestant, of all things, wants to believe in this stuff?

Two reasons:

1) Pride for my old home. I know it's a losing, or perhaps lost, battle, but Salt Spring Island already has quite the reputation for cranks: Miss Walls beat cancer herself, with quite modern technology, and so should know better than to contribute to this unfortunate reputation; and

2) I recently received an invitation to a dear friends "Lifeday" party. What's that? It's in honour of her starting chemotherapy sessions to beat her cancer. With science, not faith. Or more specifically, not with faith alone, which is what Miss Walls wants to promote.

The more people who believe in the fake, in the supernatural, in the miracle men, the fewer will want to believe in reality, in science, in medicine. This leaves more who are vulnerable to charlatans and frauds, be they outright criminal or merely deluded.

And maybe it's pride in humanity, pride in the distance we've covered, pride in the breadth and depth of our accumulated knowledge that goads me into railing against ignorance, lost cause or not. Have we climbed so far only to let go the rungs because falling is easier?

Pride tells me to climb.


posted by Thursday at 7:45 pm


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