While I was preparing my report on the El Chupacabra phenomenon for The Amazing Adventure 4, it became clear that people were interpreting all manner of unexplained animal activity as the work of the legendary goat sucker. 100 years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible. Why? Because 100 years ago, El Chupacabra didn’t exist as an idea. No one could have believed in it because no one had thought of it yet.
“Seeing is believing” is an old expression, and one could argue that it’s the basis of skepticism. It translates to “I’ll believe it when I have evidence for it.” But evaluating that evidence is actually quite tricky. In fact, the reciprocal expression is also true: believing is seeing.
An example I often give is the “noise in the basement.” You’re home alone and the power goes out. The fuse box is in the basement, and you decide to tip-toe down the rickety stairs. Of course you can’t find your flashlight, so you’re using your iPhone to light your way. You see the fuse box behind a stack of old boxes, and you curse yourself for not anticipating the need for a clear path.
I am once again diminished by the loss of a friend. Sir John Maddox, former editor - twice - of the prestigious science journal, Nature, has passed away. This small ceremony of acknowledging his existence is only slightly tempered by the fact that he had attained the respectable age of 83, had earned the respect, gratitude, and admiration of the scientific community, and he had given me, personally, many insights into the workings of his perceptive, considerate, and careful thought processes during my limited experience with him.
John was mostly tweed. Welsh by birth, craggy in appearance, and the very image of a scholar and intellectual, he was the sort of man for whom Harris Tweed was created. They complimented one another: tough and strong, serviceable and dependable, dignified and adaptable to the real world, and attractive in a totally practical sense, John Maddox and his favored attire worked together to present the world with their image of a British man of letters who took no nonsense, stated his case, made his point, and gave us the benefit of his wit, wisdom, and intellect, in full. It is said that his editorship of Nature was what put it in the forefront of science reporting.
So, as skeptics, we evaluate evidence and come to a provisional conclusion. Sometimes, we’re told a story and we simply don’t have the evidence to come to a conclusion. This is often the case with ghost stories and alien sightings, though to date, most skeptics agree that there is a lack of sufficient evidence to support a belief in either.
What do we do if such a story is on the news? Mosnews from Russia reports that a man was taken to the emergency room complaining of severe chest pain and coughing up blood. Suspecting cancer, surgeons performed a biopsy and found not a tumor but a tree. Or a least a sapling… a young fir 5cm long was growing in the man’s lung.
That’s the story. The evidence… needs some discussion.
Wow! Very nicely done. The drawing is part of an exhibit of portraits of magicians that will go on display later this year. Helvin mentioned that he'll be making a book of these portraits later this year as well. Randi's birthday is in August, so I can hope the timing will be just right...
As regular Swift readers know, last week we released the 2009 Pigasus Award winners, those unfortunate people who have done their best in the past year to snuff out the light of science and reason. Rob Breakenridge of the radio station CHQR in Canada interviewed Randi for the show "The World Tonight" about the awards, and the interview is available online at the CHQR website. They chatted about our recent YouTube woes, and Randi gives some details and insight on this year's "winners". Don't forget that the Pigasus awards were the topic of a recent Randi Speaks too!