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The Electric Chair: Periodic thoughts and reflections from the Chair of ASR

Here we go again. The seemingly unending evolution/creation ‘debate’ (I use that word very loosely). One of the latest pathetic salvos from the anti-evolution side was from the notorious Glenn Beck, who went on a rant in which the usual ridiculous claims were made. Perhaps the most laughable was the old “I haven’t seen the half-monkey, half-person yet. Did evolution just stop?” This prompted a poll from The New York Daily News, which asked the following question, including a Beck quote:

Is evolution a dubious theory being “forced down our throats”?

  1. Yes, I’m sick of scientists telling me what to believe.
  2. No, it is clearly how things came to be.
  3. It’s harder to believe Glenn Beck is so popular.

I’m certain that anyone with any sense would check off option three, because it is clearly the best choice. But what intrigued me was the wording of option one. It encapsulates, in one sentence, the attitude I have often seen on the other side — the perception that science is telling people what to believe. As I’m sure you all know by now, science does no such thing. All it does is present evidence and allow people to make up their minds. Unfortunately, few people know how to do so and Glenn Beck remains popular. Watch Beck’s ridiculousness below.

“Chupacabra Mystery Solved.”

Or so said the headline on the Discovery News website.

“Chupacabras turn out to be wild dogs inflicted with a deadly form of mange, according to University of Michigan biologist Barry OConnor*.” Oh dear, it looks as if we have a new player in the cryptozoology-busting ranks, and he hasn’t done his research. Oh, he’s done his biology research properly, no doubt — I will respect his education and his credentials on that score. But when it comes to the whacky world of cryptozoology, he and the Discovery Channel are seriously out to lunch. If they believe for one second that his findings will shut down the chupacabra believers then they are in for a rude awakening. Cryptozoologists are almost as gullible as any other disciples of pseudoscience; not much is going to dissuade them from their quest for the sort of things usually found on the covers of supermarket tabloids.

Mr. OConnor is not totally wrong — some chupacabras may indeed be wild dogs inflicted with mange. They also could be racoons with a similar condition, visions induced by peyote buttons, or wild stories told for notoriety by shameless confabulists. None of this matters to many in the crypto crowd. Facts are often such an annoyance. Notice that I said “many’.”As I have written before, it is possible for cryptozoology to be conducted scientifically, but those who do so are few and far between.


*This is not a typo; this is how OConnor spells his name.

The recent on-again off-again Don’t Ask Don’t Tell'(DADT) policy has caused some people to express their thoughts without the benefit of actually thinking first. (I’m not going to get into the politics involved, just the fuzzy logic it elicits.) A number of people have said, “I don’t want to be in the shower and have some guy checking out my junk.” Hate to break this to you guy, but it may already be happening, it’s just that right now you don’t know whether the person doing it is gay or straight. Most straight guys discreetly check out each other in the showers — it’s just something we do. <Lisa exclaims, “REALLY?!?!”>

A number of people I have encountered on the web have said words to the effect that “gays are only joining so that they can hang out with members of the same sex.” Really? Let’s examine that. You sign up for a job that has a fixed term (you can’t just quit). The pay is lousy compared to civilian life. You have to endure gruelling physical training that is often dangerous. Whether you want to or not, you may be posted to somewhere far from family and friends. You are entering a work environment that has been actively hostile to homosexuality; indeed, homophobia has been institutionalised. Finally, your job may require you to get shot at, shelled, or bombed. I’m sure we can all think of easier ways to meet members of either sex. Perhaps they are joining for the same reason(s) as many others: to have a more adventurous lifestyle than working in an office cubicle, get an education, improve job or life skills, or maybe because they believe in their country and want to serve it in a meaningful way. Whatever the reason, it cannot be denied that these people are standing ready to protect and defend their country and its Constitution — can the country and the Constitution not protect and defend them in return?

I hate to say “I told you so,” but last month I took to task one Paul Butler, an astronomy professor at the Carnegie Institute. He was commenting on the discovery of a new extra-solar planet named Gliese 581g. In his unbridled enthusiasm he stated, “The question wouldn’t be to defend that there is life at Gliese 581g. The question would be to demonstrate that there isn’t.” Well, it appears that not only may he have been wrong about the life, but the planet itself may not even exist. Subsequent attempts by other astronomers have failed to locate it. Mr. Butler, would you prefer the dark meat or the white meat on the crow?

Let’s end this month’s screed with something that we all hope is also ended, the story surrounding Russell Williams, the former colonel in the Canadian Forces who was found guilty of kidnapping, serial rape, torture, and murder. In what seems to have been a fairly quick and simple criminal case (aided no doubt by his admission of guilt), a conviction has been registered and a sentence pronounced, so why is this of concern for science and reason? Because of the reactions from many people, including the press. Words such as “monster” and “evil” were tossed around with no thought as to what they actually mean. They are simply a method of demonising a person and removing their humanity. Well here’s a shock for those people — Williams is not a monster. He is as human as you or I. He could donate blood, organs, or tissue without trouble. Until his arrest he likely would have seemed a congenial participant in a discussion at a cocktail party. He has done some terrible things, and I for one hope that he never again sees freedom. He is a clear danger to society, someone from whom we must be protected by our justice system. But when we emotionally cut him out of humanity we may prevent ourselves from looking at the reasons behind such behaviour. If effective measures are to be taken to prevent such occurrences in the future, we cannot afford to think of such people as anything other than human. His deviant behaviour was fully and completely the product of a human mind, which is something we all own.

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