Monday, January 12, 2009

More PNG Witchcraft Hysteria and One Clueless Skeptic

Over the last month more stories of witchcraft persecutions have come out of Papau New Guinea and Tanzania. In Papau New Guinea, a woman was actually burned at the stake by her neighbors who suspected her of practicing witchcraft. This has been a problem for some time in the Pacific nation and there isn't really much that I can say about it except that it is simply horrible. Witches in that part of the world are commonly accused of causing AIDS and other diseases that defy medical treatment. The PNG government has pledged action and proposed new legislation targeting those who persecute suspected witches, but it remains to be seen whether or not this will help.

Taking this recent horrific killing as a jumping-off point, Phil Plait of Discover Magazine has posted one of the dumbest things that I've read in a long time from the Skeptic Movement. Those of you who follow this blog know that I'm not nearly as anti-skeptic as a lot of magicians and pagans because I see a lot of value in the strict application of the scientific method, but in my opinion this really goes too far. Apparently Plait is of the opinion that there is some sort of equivalence that can be drawn between (1) a television series on A&E about police officers investigating hauntings and (2) the killing of this poor woman in Papau New Guinea. I'm sure that this woman's family would love to hear him explain in person how the production of a piece of fluff entertainment is somehow on par with the cold-blooded murder of a loved one.

It's not. Any reasonable person can see that, and it's people like Plait who give the Skeptic Movement a bad name.

Actually, I don't see anything wrong with a show about police investigating hauntings on principle. Police officers are trained observers, which means that they are more likely to accurately record what they see than regular folks. In my last article I went through a basic checklist that anyone experiencing a haunting should go through to rule out any mundane explanation, and my only real problem with these shows is when they don't apply that sort of a consistent process. I have yet to see investigators check out the wiring of a house, for example, even though they walk through the property and note electromagnetic anomalies with their instruments. Any good skeptic will tell you that the electrical is the first thing that you should check when you encounter readings like that, since electromagnetic fields can have an effect on the human brain.

Even at their worst, does anyone besides Plait honestly believe that television programs like this will lead modern Americans to burn people at the stake? Of course not. You might as well say that shows about police investigating murders will cause people to start killing each other. Television is entertainment, and even when the shows in question document supposedly real events we know to take them with a grain of salt. But in the absolutist minds of some skeptics - the ones that I don't like - the only two options are empirical science or witch hysteria, with nothing in between.

Hauntings are usually real phenomena that we should investigate, even though most of them can be conclusively traced back to well-understood mundane phenomena rather than spirits from beyond the grave. The majority of them are not hoaxes, unlike what some skeptics try to claim. Often they are simply families encountering unfamiliar phenomena that are genuinely frightening, and for us to just turn our backs on such people because "if we investigate people will get burned alive" is stupid. Why not just bring in some real scientists and solve the problem? I'd watch that.

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