Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Poll avoidance

I'm lucky, being an outspoken atheist, that I live where I do.  The people in my area of upstate New York are generally pretty accepting of folks who are outside of the mainstream (although even we've got significant room for improvement).  The amount of harassment I've gotten over my lack of religion has, really, been pretty minimal, and mostly centered around my teaching of evolution in school and not my unbelief per se.

It's not like that everywhere.  In a lot of parts of the United States, religiosity in general, and Christianity in particular, are so ubiquitous that it's taken for granted.  In my home town of Lafayette, Louisiana, the question never was "do you go to church?", it was "what church go you go to?"  The couple of times I answered that with "I don't," I was met with a combination of bafflement and an immediate distancing, a cooling of the emotional temperature, a sense of "Oh -- you're not one of us."

So no wonder that so many atheists are "still in the closet."  The reactions by friends, family, and community are simply not worth it, even though the other alternative is having a deeply important part of yourself hidden from the people in your life.  As a result, of course, this results in a more general problem -- the consistent undercounting of how many people actually are atheists, and the result that those of us who are feel even more isolated and alone than we did.

[image courtesy of creator Jack Ryan and the Wikimedia Commons]

Current estimates from polls are that 3% of Americans self-identify as atheists, but there's reason to believe that this is a significant underestimate -- in other words, people are being untruthful to the pollsters about their own disbelief.  You might wonder why an anonymous poll conducted by a total stranger would still result in people lying about who they are, but it does.  Jesse Singal, over at The Science of Us, writes:
So if you’re an atheist and don’t live in one of America’s atheist-friendly enclaves, it might not be something you want to talk about — in fact you may have trained yourself to avoid those sorts of conversations altogether.  Now imagine a stranger calls you up out of the blue, says they’re from a polling organization, and asks about your religious beliefs.  Would you tell them you don’t have any?  There’s a lot of research suggesting you might not.  The so-called social-desirability bias, for example, is an idea that suggests that in polling contexts, people might not reveal things — racist beliefs are the one of the more commonly studied examples — that might make them look bad in the eyes of others, even if others refers to only a single random person on the other end of the phone line.
As Singal points out, however, a new study by Will Gervais and Maxine B. Najle of the University of Kentucky might have come up with a way around that.  Gervais and Najle came up with an interesting protocol for estimating the number of atheists without having to ask the specific question directly.  They gave one of two different questionnaires to 2,000 people.  Each had a list of statements that could be answered "true" or "false" -- all the respondents had to do was to tell the researcher how many true statements there were, not which specific ones were true, thus (one would presume) removing a lot of the anxiety over admitting outright something that could be perceived negatively.  The first questionnaire was the control, and had statements like "I own a dog" and "I am a vegetarian."  The second had the same statements, with one additional one: "I believe in God."  Since one would presume that in any sufficiently large random sample of people, the same proportion of people would answer "yes" to any given statement, then any increase in the number of (in this case) "false" replies would have to be due to the additional statement about belief.

And there was a difference.  A significant one.  The authors write:
Widely-cited telephone polls (e.g., Gallup, Pew) suggest USA atheist prevalence of only 3-11%.  In contrast, our most credible indirect estimate is 26% (albeit with considerable estimate and method uncertainty).  Our data and model predict that atheist prevalence exceeds 11% with greater than .99 probability, and exceeds 20% with roughly .8 probability.  Prevalence estimates of 11% were even less credible than estimates of 40%, and all intermediate estimates were more credible.
So it looks like there are a lot more of us out there than anyone would have thought.  I, for one, find that simultaneously comforting and distressing.  Isn't it sad that we still live in a world where belonging to a stigmatized group -- being LGBT, being a minority, being atheist -- is still looked upon so negatively that there are that many people who feel like they need to hide?  I'm not in any way criticizing the decision to stay in the closet; were I still living in the town where I was raised, I might well have made the same choice, and I realize every day how lucky I am to live in a place where people (for the most part) accept who I am.

But perhaps this study will be a first step toward atheists feeling more empowered to speak up.  There's something to the "safety in numbers" principle.  It'd be nice if people would just be kind and non-judgmental regardless, even to people who are different, but when I look at the news I realize how idealistic that is.  Better, I suppose, to convince people of the truth that we're more numerous than you'd think -- and not willing to pretend any more to a belief system we don't share.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Run for your life

Back when I was in my thirties, I got into running in a big way.

I used to do four to five miles a day, pretty much no matter what the weather, all the more impressive because I live in upstate New York, where warm weather is in woefully short supply (this year, summer is scheduled for the second Thursday in July).  But unless we were knee-deep in snow, I was out there.

Then, in my forties, I began to develop some joint problems, which were (and still are) of unknown origin, and those only resolved a couple of years ago.  So I'm back at it, and in fact have my first semi-comptetitive 5K of 2017 three weeks from now.

What's funny is that while I'm running, mostly what I'm thinking about is, "merciful heavens, why do I do this to myself?"  My quads and calves ache, I'm breathing hard, all I want is to see that blessed sight of the Finish Line.  But afterwards... all I can say is that the feeling is euphoric.  Despite being tired and sweaty and having spaghetti legs, my general feeling is "Woo hoo!  Gotta do that again soon!"

So what's going on here?  Am I some kind of masochist who gets his jollies out of being miserable?  Or am I like the guy who pounds his head on the wall because it feels so good when he stops?

If so, I'm not alone -- and neuroscientists have just taken the first steps toward figuring out why.

Me with a medal and some serious post-race euphoria

Apparently, part of what's going on is that vigorous aerobic exercise stimulates the growth of neurons in the brain.  It was long the conventional wisdom that humans couldn't do that; you had a certain number of neurons at adulthood, and afterwards the number would only go one way.  You could only affect the rate at which the neurons declined, based on such things as alcohol and drug use, concussions, and the number of times you listen to Ken Ham trying to defend why Noah's Ark is actually real science.

But according to Karen Postal, president of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology, that may not be true -- and one thing that affects not only preserving the gray matter you have, but increasing it, is exercise.  "If you are exercising so that you sweat — about 30 to 40 minutes — new brain cells are being born," said Postal, who is a runner herself.  "And it just happens to be in that memory area...  That's it.  That's the only trigger that we know about."

Other researchers have gone one step further than that.  Emily E. Bernstein and Richard J. McNally of Harvard University recently published a study called "Acute Aerobic Exercise Helps Overcome Emotion Regulation Deficits," which shows that our ability to modulate our negative emotions -- especially grief, helplessness, and anxiety -- can be improved dramatically by the simply expedient of going for a half-hour's run.  The authors write:
Although colloquial wisdom and some studies suggest an association between regular aerobic exercise and emotional well-being, the nature of this link remains poorly understood.  We hypothesised that aerobic exercise may change the way people respond to their emotions.  Specifically, we tested whether individuals experiencing difficulties with emotion regulation would benefit from a previous session of exercise and show swifter recovery than their counterparts who did not exercise.  Participants completed measures of emotion response tendencies, mood, and anxiety, and were randomly assigned to either stretch or jog for 30 minutes.  All participants then underwent the same negative and positive mood inductions, and reported their emotional responses... Interactions revealed that aerobic exercise attenuated [negative] effects.  Moderate aerobic exercise may help attenuate negative emotions for participants initially experiencing regulatory difficulties.  
This is no surprise to me, nor, I suspect, to anyone else who runs.  The process creates space in your mind, space that can then act as a springboard to creativity.  It's like one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, says in his paean to the sport, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: "I just run.  I run in void.  Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void."

Or as Melissa Dahl said in her piece in The Science of Us called "Why Running Helps to Clear Your Mind," "[T]here’s another big mental benefit to gain from running, one that scientists haven’t quiet yet managed to pin down to poke at and study: the wonderful way your mind drifts here and there as the miles go by.  Mindfulness, or being here now, is a wonderful thing, and there is a seemingly ever-growing stack of scientific evidence showing the good it can bring to your life.  And yet mindlessness — daydreaming, or getting lost in your own weird thoughts — is important, too."

Which is it exactly.  And with that, I think I'll wind up here.  Maybe go for a run.  And after that, who knows what I'll do with all those extra neurons?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Beastly goings-on

Lately, it's seemed like the leaders of the conservative Christian Right have been going out of their way to make patently ridiculous statements.

As I commented a couple of weeks ago, we've had such pinnacles of clear thought as Pat Robertson babbling about how he hates being dominated by homosexuals, and Mary Colbert telling us that if we don't support Donald Trump, god will curse our grandchildren.  Even British Prime Minister Theresa May got in on the action, saying that Cadbury's decision to call this year's big event "The Great British Egg Hunt" is a deliberate slap in the face to Christians everywhere, because it didn't mention Easter, and we all know how central chocolate eggs are to the story of Jesus's resurrection.

Not to be outdone, today we have another luminary in the fundamentalist world, rabidly anti-gay Pastor Kevin Swanson, ranting on his radio show about the new live-action movie Beauty and the Beast.  But it's probably not about what you're thinking -- that the movie features a gay character.

No, that's small potatoes, and has been the subject of horrified diatribes from damn near every spokesperson for the Religious Right.  Swanson obviously disapproves of the gay character; but even more than that, he hates Beauty and the Beast...

... because it promotes inter-species mating.

Sadly, I'm not making this up.  Here's the direct quote:
Liberals [seem] to be okay with this inter-species breeding, and have been ever since Star Trek was on the air...  Christians, I don’t believe, can allow for this.  Humans are made in the image of God.  Humans are assigned a spouse which happens to be a member of the opposite sex.  Friends, God’s law forbids it…  Christians should not allow for this, man.  We cannot allow for humans to interbreed with other species. It’s just wrong, wrong, wrong.  It’s confusion, it’s unnatural...  We are in some of the most radical, most anti-biblical, the most immoral, the most unethical, the most wicked sexual environment that the world has ever known, right now.
Okay, can we just establish a few facts, here?
  1. Beauty and the Beast is fiction.
  2. So is Star Trek, although the way things are going down here on Earth, I'm ready for Zefram Cochrane to invent the warp drive so I can warp right the fuck out of here.
  3. Inter-species matings on Star Trek produced, to name three, Deanna Troi, Mr. Spock, and B'elanna Torres.  I'd take any of the three over Kevin Swanson in a heartbeat. 
  4. The character of the Beast in Beauty and the Beast is human.  In fact, that is sort of the whole point of the movie.  He's under a curse to look beastly, but the idea is that underneath, he's still human.
  5. Belle and the Beast don't actually have sex until the curse is broken and they're married, so even if we're accepting Swanson's message at face value, I'm not sure what there is to complain about.  There was beast/human dancing and beast/human singing and lots of beast/human talking in the movie, but no beast/human nookie. 
  6. As far as I can see, here in the real world things have not gotten a lot more wicked and immoral in the sex department lately.  People have always enjoyed Doing It, and what kind of Doing It they enjoy has always had substantial variation.  What we're moving towards -- not nearly fast enough, in my opinion -- is a place where no one can tell you how you should Do It, nor with whom, nor what your rights should be based around any such matters.
  7. In general, there's very little inter-species breeding in the natural world anyhow, because it doesn't produce offspring.  Actually, that's sort of the biological definition of "species."  A few closely-related species can manage -- horses and donkeys producing mules, for example -- but in general, it just doesn't work, and even in the case of mules, they're usually sterile.  But I wouldn't expect that kind of understanding of biology from a guy who thinks that Noah toddled off to Australia to pick up a pair of wombats while he was taking a break from building an enormous boat in the deserts of the Middle East by hand, then toddled back over to Australia to drop them off when the flood waters magically receded down a big drain in the ocean floor or something.
Of course, I always get a little suspicious when these ministerial types start railing against specific behaviors over and over.  The way things have been going, I wouldn't be surprised if Swanson's demented rant about bestiality in a Disney movie means he'll get arrested next month for having sex with an aardvark or something.

Anyhow, that's our latest salvo from the ultra-Christian wacko fringe.  I probably should simply stop commenting on these people, because they seem to be in some sort of bizarre contest to see which one can make the most completely idiotic statement.

On the other hand, the fact is that a significant fraction of Americans still listen to them.  So maybe it's worthwhile after all.  Although I doubt seriously whether the kind of people who are willing to boycott Beauty and the Beast because of Kevin Swanson are the same ones who'll make their way over here to Skeptophilia.  But you never know.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Alex Jones vs. the chickens

Every so often, there is justice in the world.

This time, the fabled chickens coming home to roost are casting their beady eyes on none other than Alex Jones, that purveyor of wacko fringe conspiracy theories about everything from the New World Order to "Pizzagate."  His wife, Kelly Jones, filed for divorce in 2015, and they are now in a custody battle over their three children.  Understandably, the fact that Alex Jones gives every evidence of being a raving maniac came up more than once.

"He’s not a stable person," Kelly Jones said in court.  "He says he wants to break Alec Baldwin’s neck.  He wants J Lo to get raped...  He broadcasts from home.  The children are there, watching him broadcast."

Which would certainly be enough for me, were I in her shoes.

Alex Jones's lawyer, Randall Wilhite, responded with an approach that strikes me as risky; he claims that Jones doesn't actually believe what he's saying.  "He's playing a character," Wilhite said. "He's a performance artist...  Using his on-air Infowars persona to evaluate him as a father would be like judging Jack Nicholson in a custody dispute based on his performance as the Joker in Batman."

Yes, well, no one is claiming that what the Joker says has any connection to reality, whereas there are lots of people who believe everything Alex Jones says, not least the President of the United States.  In fact, Donald Trump appeared on Infowars last year, and told Jones, "Your reputation is amazing.  I will not let you down."

That connection has only grown stronger since Trump won the election.  Two weeks ago, Jones said on air that Trump had invited him to Mar-a-Lago, but Jones had to respectfully decline "due to family obligations."

"I'm still in regular telephone contact with the president," Jones said.  "But I must apologize, because I can't always answer the phone when he calls."

Trump's not the only one who takes Jones seriously.  Just last week, Lucy Richards of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was arrested after she missed her court date stemming from charges of making death threats to Leonard Pozner, whose six-year-old son Noah died in the Sandy Hook massacre.  Guess why Richards threatened Pozner?

She believed that the Sandy Hook killings were a government-staged "false flag," that no children were killed, and that the grieving parents were "crisis actors" who had been hired to play the parts of bereaved family members of the supposed murdered children.  She wanted Pozner to confess that he was a government plant, and 'fess up that he didn't actually have a son named Noah.

All of which she found out by listening to Infowars and other alt-right conspiracy sites.

Pozner himself said he'd like to be at Jones's trial.  "I wish I could be there in the courtroom to stare him down to remind him of how he’s throwing salt on a wound," Pozner said, "and so he can remember how he handed out salt for other people to throw on mine."

As for Jones, you'd think the threat of losing custody of his children would be sufficient to get him to reconsider his loony on-air persona, whether or not he actually believes what he's saying.  But no: just last Friday, Jones had as a guest alt-right spokesperson Mike Cernovich (himself the focus of some scrutiny because of some horrific statements he made to the effect that most cases of rape are false accusations).  On this show, Jones and Cernovich discussed why the Obamas were in French Polynesia, and came to the conclusion that it's not because it's a nice place for a vacation, it's because French Polynesia doesn't have an extradition treaty with the United States.  "Notice he’s staying out of the U.S. right as they move to try to overthrow Trump," Jones said.  About the Obamas' daughters, Sasha and Malia, Jones said, "The word is those are not even his kids."

"The word is."  Meaning "a goofy idea that Alex Jones just pulled out of his ass."

So apparently Jones doesn't think he's got anything to worry about regarding the upcoming custody case, even though if he wins it, he'll be effectively saying under oath "Your Honor, I am a big fat liar."  It's to be hoped that the judge won't buy this, and will slap him down hard, as he's richly deserved for some time now.  But the sad truth is that even if he does win -- in fact, even if he stood in the middle of Times Square and yelled, "Nothing I have ever said on air is the truth!  I lie every time I open my mouth!", it wouldn't diminish his popularity or trust amongst his listeners one bit.  Look at Trump's supporters; the man seems genetically incapable of uttering a true statement or living up to any of his campaign promises, but the diehards still consider him the next best thing to the Second Coming of Christ.  

Hell, they said Bill Clinton was slick.  I recall one comedian saying that Clinton could stand right in front of you and say, "I am not here," and everyone would look shocked and say, "Where'd he go?"  But Clinton was bush league with compared to either Trump or Jones.  The fact that Trump has a significant fraction of American voters convinced he's the Anointed One of God, despite the fact of being the only person I've ever seen who embodies all Seven Deadly Sins at the same time, is evidence of how fact-proof people have become.

And as for Jones, I am certain that however the custody trial comes out, he won't lose a single listener, and he'll be right there to launch the next round of horrible rumors and conspiracy theories.  Even if the chickens come home to roost, Jones probably won't have any difficulty converting most of them to fricassée.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The disappearance of Bruno

UFO enthusiasts are currently in a tizzy over the disappearance last week of a university student from Rio Branco, Brazil, who left behind a bizarre video about 16th century philosopher, scientist, and theologian Giordano Bruno and a room whose walls are covered with esoteric symbols.

The student's name is Bruno Borges (I wondered if his first name was in honor of Giordano, or whether it was a coincidence; of course, in the minds of the UFO conspiracy theorists, nothing is a coincidence).  He apparently had a reputation as being a bit of an odd duck even prior to his disappearance.  He was obsessed with aliens, and his fascination with the earlier Bruno came from the fact that the Italian philosopher/scientist was one of the first to speculate that other planets -- even planets around other stars -- might harbor life.  Borges hinted that Bruno's execution at the hands of the Inquisition was to keep him silent about the reality of aliens, when in reality it was just your average charges of heresy.  The church made eight accusations, claiming that Bruno was guilty of:
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith and speaking against it and its ministers
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith about the Trinity, divinity of Christ, and Incarnation
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith pertaining to Jesus as Christ
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith regarding the virginity of Mary, mother of Jesus
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith about both Transubstantiation and Mass
  • claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity
  • believing in metempsychosis and in the transmigration of the human soul into brutes
  • dealing in magics and divination
Given the intolerance of the time, any one of these would be sufficient, but the Catholic Church is nothing if not thorough.  Bruno was sentenced to be burned at the stake, and supposedly upon hearing his fate made a rude gesture at the judges and said, "Maiori forsan cum timore sententiam in me fertis quam ego accipiam" ("Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it"), which ranks right up there with Galileo's "Eppur si muove" as one of the most elegant "fuck you" statements ever delivered.

I suppose it's understandable that Borges thought Bruno was a pretty cool guy.  A lot of us science types do, although that admiration might be misplaced.  Hank Campbell writes over at The Federalist:
Bruno only agreed with Copernicus because he worshiped the Egyptian God Thoth and believed in Hermetism and its adoration of the sun as the center of the universe.  Both Hermes and Thoth were gods of…magic. 
The church and science did not agree with Bruno that pygmies came from a “second Adam” or that Native Americans had no souls, but they were also not going to kill him over it.  There is no evidence his “science” came up at any time.  He was imprisoned for a decade because the church wanted him to just recant his claims that Hermetism was the one true religion and then they could send him on his way.  When he spent a decade insisting it was fact, he was convicted of Arianism and occult practices, not advocating science.
So right off, we're on shaky ground, not that this was ever in doubt.  In any case, between Borges's devotion to Bruno and his fascination with aliens, he apparently went a little off the deep end.  He left behind over a dozen bound books, mostly written in code, and only a few of which have been deciphered.  Here's a sample passage from one of the ones that has been decrypted:
It is easy to accept what you have been taught since childhood and what is wrong.  It is difficult, as an adult, to understand that you were wrongly taught what you suspected was correct since you were a child.  In other words, if you fit into the system, your behaviour will be determined, making you at the mercy of beliefs already provided and well established in dogmas and rituals, with the masses.
Which is standard conspiracy theory fare.  He wouldn't tell his parents or his sister what he was up to, only that he was working on fourteen books that would "change mankind in a good way."  Besides the symbols painted on his walls, he also had a portrait of himself next to an alien:

Borges's apartment wall, showing the symbols, writing, and the portrait of him with a friend

Borges has now been missing for over a week, and his family is understandably frantic.  The UFO/conspiracy world is also freaking out, but for a different reason; they think that Borges knew too much (in this view of the world, people are always "finding out too much" and having to be dealt with), and either the people who don't want us to know about aliens, or else the aliens themselves, have kidnapped him.

But the whole thing sounds to me like the story of a delusional young man whose disappearance is a matter for the police, not for Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.  It's sad, but I'm guessing that aliens had nothing to do with it.  Of course, try to tell that to the folks over at the r/conspiracy subreddit, where such a statement simply confirms that I'm one of "the two s's" -- sheeple (dupe) or shill (complicit).  I'll leave it to wiser heads than mine to determine which is most likely in my case.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Tall tales of Don Juan

When I was in eleventh grade, I took a semester-long class called Introduction to Psychology.  The teacher was Dr. Loren Farmer -- I never found out if he actually had a Ph.D., or if people simple called him "Dr." Farmer because of the air of erudition he had.

The class was taught in an unorthodox fashion, to say the least.  Dr. Farmer was pretty counterculture, especially considering that this was Louisiana in the 1970s.  He stood on no ceremony at all; we were allowed to sit wherever we liked (my favorite perch was on a wide bookcase by the window), and class was more of a free-roaming discussion than it was the usual chalk/talk typical of high school back then.  Even his tests were odd; we had a choice on his final exam of ten or so short-answer/essay questions from which we were to answer seven, and I recall that one of them was "Draw and interpret three mandalas."  (I elected not to do this one.  My ability to sling the arcane-sounding bullshit was and is highly developed, but my artistic ability pretty much stalled out in third grade, and I didn't think I could pull that one off.)

Some time around the middle of the semester, he instructed us to go buy a copy of a book that would be assigned reading over the following few weeks.  The book was The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, by Carlos Castaneda.  I had never heard of it, but I dutifully purchased the book.

I was nothing short of astonished when it turned out to be about the use of hallucinogenic drugs.  Castaneda tells the story of his apprenticeship to Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui native from Mexico, wherein he was given peyote, Psilocybe mushrooms, and Datura (Jimson weed), inducing wild visions that Don Juan said weren't hallucinations; they were glimpses of an "alternate reality" that sorcerers could use to gain power and knowledge.  Castaneda starts out doubtful, but eventually goes all-in -- and in fact, wrote one sequel after another describing his journey deeper and deeper into the world of the brujo.

I was captivated by Castaneda's story.  I read the sequel to Teachings, A Separate Reality.  The third one, Journey to Ixtlan, was even better.  Then I got to the fourth one, Tales of Power, and I began to go, "Hmmm."  Something about the story seemed off to me, as if he'd gone from recounting his real experiences to simply making shit up.  I made it through book five, The Second Ring of Power, and the feeling intensified.  About two chapters into book six, The Eagle's Gift, I gave the whole thing up as a bad job.

But something about the stories continued to fascinate me.  The best parts -- especially his terrifying vision of a bridge to another world in the fog at night in A Separate Reality, and his witnessing a battle of power in Journey to Ixtlan -- have a mythic quality that is compelling.  But the sense that even apart from any supernatural aspects, which I predictably don't buy, the books were the product of a guy trying to pull a fast one on his readers left me simultaneously angry and disgusted.

I discovered that I'm not alone in that reaction.  Richard de Mille (son of Cecil), an anthropologist and writer, wrote a pair of analyses of Castaneda's books, Castaneda's Journey and The Don Juan Papersthat I just finished reading a few days ago, explaining my resurgence of interest in the subject.  De Mille pounced on something that had been in the back of my mind ever since reading Journey to Ixtlan -- that it would be instructive to compare the timeline of the first three books, as Ixtlan overlaps the years covered by the first two, Teachings and A Separate Reality.

And what de Mille found is that the books are full of subtle internal contradictions that one would never discover without doing what he did, which is to lay out all of the carefully-dated supposed journal entries Castaneda gives us in the first three books.  Among the more glaring errors is that Castaneda is introduced for the first time to a major character, the brujo Don Genaro, twice -- over five years apart.   Also separated by years are events in which Castaneda saw (the word in italics is used by Castaneda to describe a mystical sort of vision in which everything looks different -- humans, for instance, look like bundles of fibers made of light) and in which Don Juan tells his apprentice "you still have never seen."

Worse still is the fact that Ixtlan recounts a dozen or so mind-blowing experiences that allegedly occurred during the same time period as Teachings -- and yet which Castaneda didn't think were important enough to include in his first account.  Add to that the point de Mille makes in The Don Juan Papers that not only do the Yaqui not make use of hallucinogens in their rituals, Don Juan himself never tells Castaneda a single Yaqui name -- not one -- for any plant, animal, place, or thing they see.  Then there's the difficulty pointed out by anthropologist Hans Sebald, of Arizona State University, that Castaneda claims that he and Don Juan went blithely wandering around in the Sonoran desert in midsummer, often with little in the way of food or water, never once making mention any discomfort from temperatures that would have hovered around 110 F at midday.

The conclusion of de Mille and others is that Castaneda made the whole thing up from start to finish, and the books are the combination of scraps of esoteric lore he'd picked up in the library at UCLA and his own imagination.  There was no Don Juan, no Don Genaro, no glow-in-the-dark coyote that spoke to the author at the end of Ixtlan.  Distressing, then, that de Mille's rebuttals -- which were published in 1976 and 1980, respectively -- didn't stop Castaneda from amassing a huge, and devoted, following.  He founded a cult called "Tensegrity" which alleged to teach the acolyte the secrets of how to see Don Juan's alternate reality.  He surrounded himself with a group of women called "the nagual women" (unkinder observers called them the "five witches") who did his bidding -- Florinda Donner-Grau, Taisha Abelar, Patricia Partin,  Amalia Marquez, and Kylie Lundahl -- all of whom vanished shortly after Castaneda died of liver cancer in 1998.  There's been no trace discovered of any of them except for Partin, whose skeleton was discovered in Death Valley in 2006, but it's thought that all five committed suicide after their leader died.

So what began as a hoax ended up as a dangerous cult.  Castaneda seems to have started the story as a way of pulling the wool over the eyes of his advisers in the anthropology department at UCLA (it worked, given that Journey to Ixtlan is essentially identical to his doctoral dissertation), but as so often happens, fame went to his head and he moved from telling tall tales about an alleged Yaqui shaman to using the people who bought into his philosophy as a way to get money, sex, and power.

And it can be imagined how pissed off this makes actual Native Americans.  Castaneda hijacked and mangled their beliefs into something unrecognizable -- placing his books in with Seven Arrows as yet another way that non-Natives have appropriated and misrepresented Native culture.  (If you've not heard about Seven Arrows, by Hyemeyohsts Storm, it's a mystical mishmash containing about 10% actual facts about the Cheyenne, and 90% made-up gobbledygook.  Storm himself -- his actual name is Arthur -- claims to be half Cheyenne and to have grown up on the reservation, but the Cheyenne tribal authorities say they've never heard of him.)

What's saddest about all of this is that Castaneda could have simply written "fiction" after the title of his books, and they'd have lost nothing in impact.  It's not that fiction has nothing to teach us, gives us no inspiration, doesn't consider the profound.  In fact, I would argue that some of the most poignant lessons we learn come from the subtexts of the fiction we read.  (I have tried to weave that into my own writing, especially my novel Sephirot, which is about one man's Hero's Journey placed in the context of Jewish mystical lore.)

But instead Castaneda lied to his readers.  There's no kinder way to put it.  He told us that it was all real.  Not content with writing an excellent work of inspirational fiction, he instead is relegated to the ignominious ranks of clever hoaxers.  (Or at least should be; de Mille says there are still lots of college classes in which Castaneda's books are required reading, and not as an example of an anthropological hoax, but as real field work in ethnology and belief.)

So however entertaining, and even inspiring, his books are, the whole thing leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.  In short, truth matters.  And the fact is, Carlos Castaneda was nothing more than a sly and charismatic liar.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

If the spirit is willing

Turns out, you have to be careful what you label "non-fiction."

Warner Brothers Studios is currently embroiled in a lawsuit that falls under what lawyers technically call "being between a rock and a hard place."  It all started when they released their horror film The Conjuring in 2013, which is all about fun and entertaining things like demons and curses and exorcisms and parents attempting to kill their children.  The Conjuring was based on the book The Demonologist, by Gerald Brittle, which told the story of two demon hunters named Ed and Lorraine Warren, who go from town to town rousting out evil spirits, which is apparently lucrative work these days.

Brittle had an exclusive contract to tell the Warrens' story, and when he found out that Warner Brothers had made a movie based on it, he told them they'd violated that agreement and (in essence) made a movie based on his book without permission or compensation.  Warner Brothers fired back that Brittle's book is labeled "non-fiction" -- meaning that he was claiming the events were true, and therefore part of the "historical record."  As such, they're open for anyone to exploit, and such accounts would come under fair use law.

This is where it gets interesting.  Brittle's attorney, Patrick C. Henry, says that Brittle now knows that the Warrens' account is "a pack of lies."  Further, Henry says that it was impossible for Warner Brothers to make the movie they did without basing it almost entirely on Brittle's book.  "It is very hard to believe that a large conglomerate such as Warner Brothers, with their army of lawyers and who specializes in intellectual property rights deals, would not have found The Demonologist book or the deals related to it, or Brittle for that matter," Henry says.  "The only logical conclusion is that the studio knew about the Warren's agreement with Brittle but just assumed they would never get caught."

So Henry filed a lawsuit on Brittle's behalf, to the tune of $900 million.  To Warner Brothers' defense that you can't invoke intellectual property rights law over events that actually occurred, Henry had an interesting response.

If Warner Brothers is claiming that The Demonologist (and therefore the events in The Conjuring) are real, then Brittle will drop the lawsuit -- if Warner Brothers can offer up concrete proof of ghosts.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

This puts the film giant in a rather awkward position.  If they can prove ghosts are real, then the claim that story in The Conjuring is non-fiction has at least some merit.  If they can't, it's fiction, and the studio is guilty of ripping off Brittle's work as the basis of their movie.

Sort of reminds me of the old method of determining whether someone is a witch.  They tie the accused hand and foot, and throw them in a pond.  If they drown, they're innocent.  If they survive, Satan was protecting them, and they're a witch, so you burn them at the stake.

Of course, the difference here is that Brittle is just one guy, and Warner Brothers is a multi-million dollar corporation that can afford huge legal expenses without any particular problem.  Although Brittle's defense is clever, I'd be willing to put money that the lawsuit is going to get settled out of court -- whether or not Warner Brothers can produce a ghost.

On the other hand, maybe they will find a spirit that's willing.  Then not only will Brittle have no choice but to drop his lawsuit, Warner Brothers will be in good shape to win the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge.  So stay tuned.