During an interview with a newspaper reporter recently, I was asked a common question: "Do you feel like we're losing the battle? That people are increasingly turning away from science and towards woo-woo?" And I answered, as I always answer, "No."
While it's true that the anti-vax movement could do some real harm to society, and that so-called Intelligent Design could make its way into text books, we have one thing going for us that they will never have.
But before I answer what that is, I have to define "we" and "they."
Twenty five hundred years ago, the Chinese tactician Sun Tzu was a busy guy. He has a lot more free time now, but it was crazy back in the day. When not jotting poems about his kitties onto bamboo strips and ribbing Confucius for being "too preachy," Sun Tzu managed to churn out his masterpiece The Art of War. That book contains the following axiom:
Know your enemy and know yourself, and win a hundred battles without a single loss.
At least I assume that's what it contains. I've never even been able to get beyond the second chapter (that's the one on Bo Staff maintenance) without nodding off. Honestly, I only even remember the line because it was in an episode of Star Trek. But whether it's a military genius or one of the few actors to share the screen with both Captain Picard and Matlock, it's still good advice.
Good advice should be followed and not ignored. Yes Ray Comfort, I'm looking at you.
We at the JREF are no fans of pseudoscience, as you may imagine. Dowsing is a practice that falls squarely in that field. It's the idea that you can detect an object -- usually water, but sometimes gold, or people, or whatever -- using a y-shaped branch, or copper tubes, or some other simple device. Dowsers never really have a good explanation of how their devices work, but they tend to claim 100% accuracy.
However, the JREF has tested dowsers many, many times as part of our Million Dollar Challenge. Not to keep you in suspense, but the money still sits in the bank. In other words, time and again, the dowsers fail. When a real, double-blind, statistical test is given, dowsers fail. Every single time.
That's all well and good, and you might think it's just another silly idea that nonsense-believers adhere to despite evidence. If someone wants to waste their money on a dowser, well, caveat emptor.
But what if your life depended on it? What if thousands of lives depended on it?
If you're anywhere near southern Florida on Saturday, November 7, then you need to get yourself over to the Broward College, which is holding the very first celebration of Carl Sagan Day!
It's in honor of Sagan's birthday, which is on November 9th. He would've been 75 this year. Sagan inspired a generation of astronomers, and in reality a whole generation of people to look at the sky and appreciate the -- yes, I'll say it -- cosmos. Celebrating his life is a great idea, and the folks at Broward College have a full day planned (the schedule is online in PDF and Word formats). A lot of good speakers will be giving talks, including astronomer Jeffrey Bennett (who wrote Max goes to the Moon series of kids' books), skeptic and "Point of Inquiry" podcast host D. J. Grothe, and NASA astrobiologist and impact expert David Morrison (via satellite). The JREF's Phil Plait will be giving his Death from the Skies! talk, too. They'll be showing "Cosmos" continuously in one room, with kids' activities in another. There's a planetarium show in the evening, too.
And this will be very special: our very own James Randi will be there, talking about Sagan. The two were friends. Randi has a lot of personal insight on the man and will have wonderful things to say. This is a don't-miss opportunity, folks.
Proud sponsors of the event include the JREF, the Center for Inquiry, and the Florida Atheists and Secular Humanists. For more info, there's contact info on the Carl Sagan Day website. Also, there's a writeup in the Broward/Palm Beach New Times. This really will be a fun and wonderful tribute to Sagan, and we hope to see you there!
I'd like to be very clear here: this is not pareidolia, our ability to see patterns in random objects. The verses are clearly there, and not just random. As one pilgrim said, "It's proof that Allah exists, that he is all-mighty..."
However -- and perhaps this is just me here -- it seems far more likely that instead of an actual miracle, someone is maybe, y'know, writing the verses on the baby. The mother says the baby is cranky when the words appear, which (if she's being truthful) you might expect if someone is scraping or otherwise irritating the baby's skin to make the words appear. I'll note that the words fade with time, too, just as expected if this is a fraud.