Dead Pope Prankster

Part 1

Achievement unlocked: Attain sainthood
There’s a story being repeated uncritically all over the Net, about a woman who had a brain aneurysm, but didn’t die of it because a dead pope magically healed her.

Oh, and this allows the dead pope to level up. From HuffPo:

Mora, her doctors and the Catholic Church say her aneurysm disappeared that day in a miracle that cleared the way for the late pope to be declared a saint on April 27 in a ceremony at the Vatican where Mora will be a guest of honor.

Now, one might reasonably ask, how do we know that this was really magic? Floribeth Mora presents this compelling line of evidence:

Acknowledging that many people would be highly sceptical of her recovery, and of the whole concept of miracles, she said that “people can think what they want – what I know is that I’m healthy.”

“There are always people who don’t believe me, who say I’m crazy, but what counts for me today is that this ‘crazy woman’ is cured.”

So we know that she was cured because she said so. With evidence like that, who needs to see X-rays or MRIs or lab results? Besides The Telegraph writes:

Even her neurosurgeon seems to be convinced. “If I cannot explain it from a medical standpoint, something non-medical happened,” said Alejandro Vargas Roman. “I can believe it was a miracle.”

But here’s what Reuters wrote last year, when the Catholic Church approved Mora’s cure as the second in the two-miracle-minimum needed for John Paul II’s promotion:

The neurosurgeon who admitted and diagnosed Mora, however, denies he gave her a month to live. Alejandro Vargas says he forecast only a 2 percent chance Mora could bleed into her brain again within a year of her diagnosis, possibly killing her.

“She was sent home with medication that would reduce her blood pressure and was advised to improve her diet so as not to raise her cholesterol levels and thus decrease the chance of her having a second bleeding episode. She was sedated because the headaches were too sharp,” he told Reuters. “We didn’t send her home to be sedated and wait until she died in her sleep.”

That’s all well and good—how many people can you name who survived a disease with a 2% mortality rate?—but how do we know that Dead Pope was involved? Religion News Service:

She claimed her prayers were answered when John Paul II appeared to her in a vision on the day he was beatified — the first step on the road to sainthood — after he was credited with his first miracle.

“When I woke up in the morning, I looked at the magazine cover which showed Pope Wojtyla with his arms outstretched.

“I felt a deep sense of healing. I heard his voice say to me, ‘Get up and don’t be afraid,’” she said, recalling one of John Paul’s signature lines.

I don’t know what else you doubting Thomases want. If you can’t trust someone who’s just been stressed out by a hospital stay, is on new meds, and has a thing in her brain, whom can you trust? There’s no way she could possibly be mistaken!

But she was cured, right? And both Mora and her doctor said that they don’t know how she was healed, so therefore they know how she was healed (it was Dead Pope Magic) (Dead Pope Magic is the name of my next webcomic). That’s just logic.

Okay, so she was dying (but not really dying) of an aneurysm, and now it’s gone. And she can’t think of a better explanation than the one that she really really likes (Dead Pope magiced her back to health), so obviously that explanation must be the correct one. And she won’t provide any solid evidence because, well, doubters gonna doubt.

I’m sold!


Part 2

But apparently there’s some kind of Law of Conservation of Pope Magic, because on the same day that the Catholic church was celebrating Dead Pope John Paul II healing that one woman… Well, I’ll let Italian news agency ANSA tell it:

(ANSA) – Brescia, April 24 – A young man in northern Italy was crushed to death Thursday by a falling crucifix that was built to honor pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Brescia. The 21-year-old’s death comes just three days before John Paul will be canonized in Rome.

Does this count as JP2’s third miracle?

Some More on Not Being a Dick

In an earlier post, I talked about Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” talk at TAM 8.

This time, I want to look at the other side of that. To the question “does this mean we have to be boring lecturers all the time?”, I hope to answer “No”.

After all, we talk and write for all sorts of different reasons. Not all of us can, or want to be, teachers. Nor is that all that our readers want to read. FSM knows I enjoy reading Phil Plait and Ed Yong, but I’d go spare if those were the only voices on my side on the Internet. I also want there to be George Hrabs, Roy Zimmermans, Christopher Hitchenses, Hunters, and so on. And let’s face it: a good rant is fun to read.

For one thing, there’s a vast difference between being frank, direct, or blunt; and being a dick. Dawkins’s The God Delusion was frank and direct, but by no means would I say he was being a dick. Carl Sagan talked unapologetically about the size and age of the universe, and the relative insignificance of humanity in all that. But, again, not a dick.

Yes, you may say, a lot of people took offense at Dawkins, particularly for his “the God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction” comment. Of course, since what he wrote is true in all its particulars, one can only assume that the people who take offense haven’t read the Bible (teachable moment!), or know that Dawkins is right, but think it’s rude of him to point it out.

So by all means, say what you think.

Yes, people may be offended, but that’s because a) no one likes being told that they’re wrong, and b) a lot of people identify themselves by their religion or form of woo. If you say that astrology is stupid, what a lot of people will hear is that people who believe in astrology are stupid. This shouldn’t necessarily stop you, but of course it’s something to keep in mind.

One rule that I try to apply is: imagine that you’re in the future, after the woo that you’re railing against has gone the way of phlogiston and leeching, and that you’re rereading what you once wrote. Were you standing up for reality, or were you being an asshole? Was your reaction warranted, or did you go over the top? It might be instructive to revisit old arguments you’ve had some years ago — particularly religious or political ones — to see how they’ve stood the test of time, and what you now think of your former self. Now that the election’s over, do you still think it was right to call your opponent a retarded fascist, or whatever you said?

Another important thing to keep in mind is that most of the people who believe in woo simply don’t know any better. When Richard Dawkins said that “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid, or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that)”, I’m pretty sure that in his mind, 90+% of creationists fell into the “ignorant” category, i.e., they’re not familiar with the mountains of evidence supporting evolution. At least, that’s been my experience. I suspect that the same is true of other forms of woo.

I’m always careful to distinguish between ignorance and stupidity. If I’m ignorant, that just means there’s something I don’t know. We’re all ignorant. I’m ignorant of economics, Japanese history, watercolor painting techniques, nuclear physics, and much more. There are a lot of interesting things I’d like to learn, but haven’t, because I’ve been busy learning even more interesting things.

With that in mind, remember that the next believer in woo that you talk to is almost certainly not someone cynically peddling bullshit to make a buck. They just don’t know any better. They may have been “cured” by homeopathy or crystal healing or seen their luck improve after installing feng shui carpeting, or their aunt swears by her echinacea suppositories, or whatever.

So at least at first, try to be a nice guy. Explain that they’re mistaken, or misinterpreted what they saw, or may not be remembering correctly, or were missing some crucial facts, or whatever.

At that point, one of several things might happen. The person might learn something from your comments, in which case you’ve passed by the chance for a good rant, but you’ve made the world a better place. Or they might disagree in an nontrivial and non-stupid way, which gives you the chance to have an interesting discussion. Or they might just go away, in which case they never would have seen your fantastic ass-searing rant anyway.

Or they might disregard everything you’ve said and refuse to understand your explanations or follow your links, calling your sources corporate shills or tools of Satan or whatever the fashionable epithet is these days. This constitutes moving toward willful ignorance. Or they might insult you, and call you a corporate shill of Satan or thimerosal douchenozzle. In other words, they might be a dick to you first.

At this point, you can tell yourself that “moral high ground” is a relative position, pour a gallon of cobra venom into the metaphor generator, and let loose. Just try to be less of a dick than the other person. There’s nothing wrong with defending yourself. But the longer you can be the soul of kindness and put off your righteous ire, the more opportunities you give the other person to shoot themselves in the foot, and the better you’ll look in the eyes of the other people following the thread (and you are playing to the audience, aren’t you?). Think of Tim Minchin’s Storm.

Alternately, you can jump to the defense of someone who’s being attacked unjustly. But again, be less of a dick than the person you’re responding to.

And then there are the times when you just need to vent at the stupidity and fuckedupedness of it all. In these cases, go after the people who really deserve it: the 2% or less who are either cynical manipulators, shameless profiteers, unobtainium-headed willful ignoramuses. Sylvia Browne; John Edward; the pope; Kent Hovind; Ray Comfort. They’ve been pushing their bullshit for years and made a pretty penny from it. They’re public figures. They’ve had every opportunity to learn better, but haven’t. Fuck ’em. They can take it.

But spare the children of hippies whose only crime was believing their parents when they said auras were real. There’s no shame in being fooled by a slick salesman, or by people who honestly believe a mistake, especially when those people are in a position of authority.

In short, I think there’s a lot of room for frank discourse — which I think is the usual euphemism for yelling at the other guy, or going on a tirade against frauds and charlatans — without being a dick. But yes, there are limits.

And as I said in the other post, don’t take my word for it. 80% of what I just said is probably wrong, and if you ever figure out which 80%, please let me know. And also, ask yourself whether what you’re about to say will do any good, or at least fail to do harm. Keep the end goal, whatever you envision it to be, in mind, and ask yourself whether you’re helping to move toward that goal.

The “Don’t Be A Dick” Heard Round the World

I feel chastised.

Undoubtedly the most controversial, most thought-provoking talk at TAM 8 was Phil Plait‘s “Don’t be a dick” talk, in which he decried what he sees as the rise of incivility in the skeptical blogosphere.

He wrote it down ahead of time so as not to ad lib and accidentally say something he didn’t mean, and since I have a recording of it, I should really quote him (slightly cleaned up) and not paraphrase, so as not to distort his meaning. I apologize in advance for the length of both the quotations and my response. To quote Blaise Pascal, I lack the time to make it shorter.

Continue reading “The “Don’t Be A Dick” Heard Round the World”