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The Newsletter of The North Texas Skeptics
Volume 10 Number 6 www.ntskeptics.org June 1996

In this month's issue:

The Third Eye

News and Commentary from the Weird World of the Media
by Pat Reeder

It's been a busy month, what with hawking the book and being felled by some sort of sinus/throat grunge that has made me reconsider the possibility of alien invasion. So I'll make you a deal: I'll slap together a load of disconnected news nuggets, you'll pretend it's a coherent, cohesive column, and nobody gets hurt (i.e., I won't sneeze on you).

Continuing last month's emphasis on religion news, we'll start with a report of a new religion that worships the King Of Kings, Elvis Presley. Mort Farndu and Karl Edwards of Hoboken, New Jersey, have founded the "Presleyterian" Church to promote their (possibly facetious) assertion that Elvis is God, and He will return from Heaven in a pink Cadillac. About 200 Presleyterians meet weekly on the Internet for "services" (http://pages.prodigy.com/NJ/zvqj45a/zvqj45a.html, for the more spiritual among you). Followers must show their devotion by eating six meals a day plus frequent snacks, "anything except pets and road kill," and "Let your body swell and bloat with the spirit of Elvis." They must also visit Graceland, face Las Vegas once a day (while meditating on the buffets?), and fight the evil antiElvis, Michael Jackson. Farndu explained that Lisa Marie, "the princess of Presleyterianism...was bewitched, bothered and bewildered by the evil Gloved One" (well, mostly just bewildered). They even teach a class called "Jesus, Buddha, Confucius and Elvis" (At last, Buddha isn't the fattest guy in the room!) I don't know whether they follow the Col. Tom Parker tithing formula of forking over 50% of your paycheck, but even if they do, it's cheaper than following Robert Tilton.

Speaking of the Tiltons, the divorce of Dallas' royal couple is turning uglier than that of Chuck and Diana. At this writing, he has ordered her out of their mansion (oops, sorry: "parsonage"), and she is reportedly accusing him of substance abuse and wife beating. Can this marriage be saved? It would require a miracle. I suggest that they pray together over a $100 bill and send it to Jimmy Swaggart.

On the subject of miracles, Russian President Boris Yeltsin was far behind in the polls, but has now pulled ahead of his Communist challenger. However, this has nothing to do with his vigorous reelection campaign. According to the Russian Astrological Society, Yeltsin is going to win a big reelection victory because he's an Aquarian whose sun is in the 10th house, the house of power and fame, which puts Yeltsin at the highest peak of the horoscope. Of course, this might be a bit more convincing if the astrologers had made their prediction back when Yeltsin WASN'T ahead in the polls. But then, no science is perfect.

Speaking of odd Russian beliefs, Itar-Tass reports that Russian wives have been dragging their vodka-swilling hubbies to a magic water source in a northern Russian village. They believe that regular imbibing of the mystical H2O permanently cures alcoholism. The name of the village was not given, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's Chernobyl.

Russia is not alone is observing quaint colloquial superstitions. Both Cambodia and Thailand attempt to predict the economic future by offering a buffet to sacred cows every spring and seeing which dishes the cows eat. This year in Cambodia, the cows went for the rice, corn and green beans and would not touch wine, which means that the crops will be perfect. Meanwhile, Thailand's sacred cows ignored the grains and went straight for a bucket of rice liquor, which means there will be a prosperous economy and a strong export market (if Cambodia wants beef marinated in wine, they'll have to buy it from Thailand). Before you laugh, consider that many Americans actually believe that our economy can be predicted by sacred cows like Lester Thurow. Personally, I'd bet on the genuine bovines any day.

From the Pacific Rim, we jet westward to Scotland, where Gary and Kathy Campbell of Inverness have just formed the first Loch Ness Monster Fan Club. They once saw something break the surface of the water, became convinced it was Nessie, and decided to form a fan club for other believers to join. I know what you're thinking: Nessie is just a big, reptilian bottom-feeder who ends up in the tabloids every time he shows his face. Well, so is Charlie Sheen, and he has a fan club, doesn't he?!

Speaking of the merchandising of weird beasties, many Mexicans are gripped with fear at tales of a mysterious vampire-like creature known as "Chupacabras," which is furry, has big bulbous eyes, and sucks the blood from goats ("Chupacabras" means "goat sucker," which brings us back to Charlie Sheen again). This panic has not stopped Tiajuana entrepreneurs from selling tourists Chupacabras T-shirts, key rings and other paraphernalia, and offering guided tours to alleged attack sites in the outlying countryside. Here's a tip: if you really want to meet bloodsuckers, stay inside the Tiajuana city limits.


My favorite international story, since it ties in with both my interest in ecology, and my awe at how far overboard some environmentalists can go. In early May, an environmental group in Stigtomta, Sweden, sought to dramatize the damage the sewage treatment plant is causing to the local lake by staging a protest called "Pee Outdoors Day." Some 2,000 men, women and children (I'm assuming dogs and cats joined in, too) held a mass outdoor urination, relieving themselves wherever they wanted, as long as it didn't go into the sewer system. This seems to be an odd way of showing your respect for nature: by peeing all over it. After all, if urinating in public improved the ecology, New York City would be the Garden of Eden. I should also point out, in all seriousness, that this story came to me from a Swedish news service known as TT.

Back in the U.S.A., a recent test of 2,006 adult Americans by the National Science Foundation shows that we may all soon be urinating on trees, and swinging from them, too. Just 25% of the test subjects could pass a test of basic science knowledge. Only 9% knew what a molecule was, only 21% knew what DNA was (obviously, none of them were on the O.J. jury), and less than half knew that the Earth orbits the sun once a year. The rest all assumed that the world revolves around them, proving that we're doing a much better job of teaching self-esteem than science.

All this scientific ignorance reminds me that the A&E cable channel ran a good two-hour special in May called Where Are All The UFOs? Narrated by Michael Dorn ("Worf" on Star Trek: The Next Generation), this special examined almost every aspect of UFOlogy, from alien abduction tales to the SETI project to all the most famous cases (Roswell, Gulf Breeze, etc.) from 1947 on.

At first, it seemed to me that the show was being entirely too credulous, especially in its recounting of the Roswell incident. They didn't counter many of the claims with other evidence that contradicts them, and the style was pure Unsolved Mysteries, with unchallenged first-person accounts, eerie music, and so forth. But as the show unfolded, it began to get more skeptical. It was as if the producers realized that a TV audience weaned on Fox Network swill would never sit still for a show that was skeptical from the outset, so they started off presenting the pro side, then gradually worked toward the con. By the end, they had presented about as well-balanced a program as you're likely to find on this subject, with demonstrations of how UFO photos are hoaxed, the psychological basis for abduction episodes, and other more prosaic explanations for alien tales. Overall, a fine effort. Michael Dorn should definitely be giving career advice to Jonathan Frakes.


Speaking of hoaxes, the Shroud of Turin is back in the news again. A team of microbiologists from the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio is claiming that a microscopic layer of bacteria and fungi on the shroud may have thrown off the carbon dating process which placed the shroud's creation sometime around the 13th Century. They claim it could have been made near the time of Christ's death, and this is going to cause a "big, big revolution" in carbon dating of textiles. University of Arizona geochemist Paul Damon, who did the original dating, said he'd look into the claims, but he's been through this before and has no reason to believe his data was incorrect. Personally, I've never understood what difference it makes, or why some Christians get so exercised over it. If you say the Shroud is a hoax, does that mean you're attacking their belief in Christ? It's like a Presleyterian deciding that Elvis isn't really God, just because the little vials of Elvis sweat hucksters sell outside Graceland weren't actually squeezed from the King's pores.


We end with the greatest story of the month, and possibly, of the year. It's yet another hoax, but this time an admitted one. It seems that New York University physicist Alan Sokal decided that some social science journals would print anything, so long as it was incomprehensible enough. So he wrote an article that was comprised entirely of academic gibberish, socialist double-talk, malapropisms and impenetrable footnotes, and sent it off to Social Text, a leftish cultural studies journal published by the Duke University Press. And naturally, they published it. The article seemed to be an attack on scientific rationalism, always a hot topic among social science eggheads, and here's the basic theme:

There are scientists who "cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarized briefly as follows: that there exits an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole." In other (shorter) words, some silly scientists actually believe that the world exists! It went on (and on and on) and got much worse from there.

After Social Text published this magnum opus of gobbledygook, Sokal wrote a gloating article revealing the hoax for another journal. This prompted the editors of Social Text to offer several remarkably feeble defenses of their decision to publish it. First came the old "We knew it all along" gambit: they sniffed that they knew it was bad, but ran it as an EXAMPLE of bad philosophical writing by a scientist.

Next, they retreated to the self-righteous pose, declaring that Sokal was too dimwitted to understand the brilliant "deconstructionist" writers that he was lampooning and therefore failed in his attempt to satirize them. One editor sneered, "It was a bad parody" (although not bad enough for them to recognize that it was a parody), adding the time-tested leftist rejoinder, "He just doesn't get it." Pressed again by reporters to confess that they felt just a little bit snookered, one editor defiantly insisted that he did not. Then, he paused, and at long last conceded, "Well...I guess I do."

This story has inspired me to try my hand at writing for academic journals. Look for my article to pop up soon. It's entitled, "The Recovery Of Self-Esteem in the Face Of Extreme Western Linear Masculinist Rationalist Ridicule; or The Seven Stages of Suckerhood."

Letters to the Editor

To the editor:

Pat Reeder would do well to "no longer believe in the existence" of the "weird crop of atheists" that he slams in his May column, because the "wacky atheists" to which he refers are a fiction. And he should have suspected that he might have had his facts wrong given that people who eschew superstitions (and not just the UFO/bigfoot/ESP/spoon bending kind) are not known for embracing witchcraft, goddess cults, and giant eggs.

The facts are that one of the attorneys who has been involved in the five year-long litigation over a huge concrete crucifix permanently placed in a park on Mount Soledad operated by the City of San Diego applied for a permit to use the park on Easter morning. The name of the organization he entered was the local atheist group, the Atheist Coalition. This attorney is not an atheist but a Unitarian and he took this action without even discussing it with, let alone securing permission from, anyone in the Atheist Coalition. His motive was to test the city's policy with respect to park permits. These are supposed to be available on a first-come first-served basis, even though the exclusive use of the park every Easter morning by Jesus-worshippers had come to be accepted as so routine by city officials that they often hadn't even bothered to issue a permit for it. Somewhat to the lawyer's surprise, city officials approved the permit.

When members of the Atheist Coalition found out about this they had to consider whether to disavow this attorney's actions, effectively "backing down" and acknowledging that Jesus-worshippers were entitled to the exclusive and perpetual use of the park on Easter morning, or to proceed to make some kind of use of their permit. They chose the latter. But they realized that if they simply held an event of their own they would merely be practicing the same bigotry that has been encountered every step of the way in the litigation over the controversial cross, which was ordered removed almost five years ago but which still stands. So the atheists invited everyone, including the groups that have come to worship Jesus in the past, as well as previously excluded pagans, witches, Unitarians, and "religiously incorrect" Christian churches such as those that allow homosexuals in. The Atheist Coalition chose the theme "The Park is for Everyone" to make it clear that they planned to simply endorse religious freedom for all.

The Christians who had held services at the site in the past chose not to participate. But other groups accepted the atheists' invitation, including the "weird" types that Mr. Reeder refers to in his remarks. But are worshippers of Diana, who showed up on this one occasion, any more "weird" than worshippers of Jesus who have monopolized this park on Easter morning for 73 years? Is Mr. Reeder suggesting that only people with certain theologies (for that is what we're talking about here) should be welcome in public parks? He gleefully told us of "incense burners" and "tambourine shakers" who attended the gathering, but he doesn't say anything about those harboring Christian superstitions who showed up to disrupt the event and intimidate the lawful holders of the park use permit.

The Easter event atop Mount Soledad was not about whose ideas are right or wrong, wise or foolish, mainstream or "weird." Rather, the issue was, and is, one of religious freedom, which is to say, state/church separation. On the one hand were atheists and others who made very clear that their intent was to affirm that "The Park Belongs to Everyone, Every Day." Arrayed against them were bigots like syndicated columnist Joseph Perkins who inveighed against "a contemptible band of atheists" who have the temerity to suppose that "blasphemers ... have the same rights as Christians." Atheists didn't start this incident, but they did play it out in a responsible and commendable way. They showed by their actions that their goal is very different from that of their critics, who clearly would like nothing better than to eliminate those with whom they disagree.

Which side does Mr. Reeder stand on?

Tim Gorski, M.D. Co-Director, The North Texas Church of Freethought

Dr. Gorski is also a regular columnist of The Skeptic and the chairman of the North Texas Council Against Health Fraud. Ed.

Pat Reeder replies:

I gladly yield to Dr. Gorski's greater knowledge of the details of this event. However, I still believe that the San Diego atheists went about this all wrong and just ended up shooting themselves in the foot (and when that happens, they can't even yell "Goddamn it!") I don't have the time or space to answer in any depth this month, so I'll try to expound on this subject in next month's column.
Pat Reeder