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News and Quick Views

Quick takes on strange stories making the news.

   TV UPDATE  

April 2009

 

History Channel Special Shows Off My Work

 

The History Channel's recent special, Ancient Aliens, showed my article "Charioteer of the Gods" to illustrate skeptical approaches to Erich von Daniken's ancient astronaut theory. The showed my article against a black background and ran scare quotes from other skeptics over it while playing ominous music as Peter Coyote intoned dark narration about skeptics' attacks. Yes, that's right, I got attacked on TV. And no, nobody from Prometheus Entertainment, the company that produced the show, contacted me for my side of the story.

 
   QUICK TAKE

April 2009

Knowing Fear featured at academic conference panel on horror in the ancient world

My book on the history of the horror genre, Knowing Fear: Science, Knowledge, and the Development of the Horror Genre (McFarland, 2008), was cited and discussed at an academic conference this April in Minneapolis, Minn.

At the annual conference of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South, Xavier University professor Edmund P. Cueva presented a panel discussion on "the nature of horror in classic antiquity" and cited Knowing Fear as a major work on horror theory that will help to drive discussion on horror stories in antiquity.

"Interestingly for this panel, [Colavito] notes that the ancient world did not develop the horror tale in the modern sense," Cueva wrote in a paper prepared for the conference. "He is careful to point out that the fear felt in the horror genre is not the fear one has in a real-life fright, rather it is an 'artistic emotion.'"

Cueva presented his paper, "The Nature of Horror and Modern Theorists," April 4, 2009, at the Marriott City Center in Minneapolis. The abstract can be read here. Information about the conference can be found here.

 
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December 2008

An Open Letter to Anyone Who Watched The Lost Treasure of the Grand Canyon

Dear Readers:

I heartily apologize if my website in any way contributed to the “movie” The Lost Treasure of the Grand Canyon that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel December 20, 2008 and starred Shannen Doherty. No one should have been subjected to those two hours of television, which were bad even by the standards of the Sci-Fi Channel’s original movies.

Lost Treasure was based on the alleged events that transpired in the Grand Canyon in 1909, when a Professor S.A. Jordan claimed discovery in a canyon cave of a lost civilization reminiscent of the Buddhist civilization of Tibet, or possibly that of Egypt. As I discussed in 2001, the story was published anonymously in an Arizona newspaper in 1909, but no record exists of Prof. Jordan (or Jordon), or of the mysterious civilization he found. In the film, "Jordon" and his theory remain, but the civilization is revealed to be the more plausible Aztec.

Despite the lack of evidence supporting the theory, authors such as David Hatcher Childress and David Icke peddle the “lost civilization” as something real. I had thought the story died a natural death by the time I reported on its strange growth and development in 2001 and again in 2005.

I sincerely hope my article about the Grand Canyon claim, or the version of it included in The Cult of Alien Gods, wasn’t responsible for the horrible movie Sci-Fi viewers sat through. With any luck, the writer, Clay Carmouche, cribbed the idea for the film from Childress, and I can rest blameless for contributing however indirectly to a crime against cinema.

With tongue in cheek,

Jason Colavito

   QUICK TAKE
March 2008

This letter I wrote to James Randi ran in the March 14, 2008 edition of Swift in response to a previous piece about a hostile response by TV anchor Tim White to skeptical criticism of a piece on homeopathy on his WKYC-TV newscast:

I'm sure other readers have already pointed this out, but there's a good reason TV anchor Tim White was adamantly opposed to skeptics in the homeopathy piece you ran in Swift. Mr. White is the former anchor of Sightings, which aired from 1992 to 1997 on Fox, then in syndication, and on the Sci-Fi Channel. For those who remember it, Sightings covered topics ranging from alien abductions to ghosts to Bigfoot. To the show's credit, it did try to debunk Fox's alien autopsy video, but that was a rare skeptical moment in an otherwise completely credulous show. It is no surprise, then, that Mr. White is still promoting the same belief system that made him famous years ago.

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May 2005

Editor's note: The following column ran in Humanist Network News, a publication of the Institute of Humanist Studies.

The Moonies and media

By JASON COLAVITO
For Humanist Network News
April 27, 2005

According to United Press International, atheism is on the decline as millions of former secular humanists reconnect with God. To hear UPI tell it, science has found God and humanism has created widespread ignorance and immorality [See: God not so dead: Atheism in decline worldwide , (story by United Press International, March 3, 2005).].

What many readers don't realize, and what UPI doesn't tell you, is that the news service itself is in the God business.

In 2000 United Press International was purchased by the Unification Church, the organization founded in 1954 and controlled by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the eccentric Korean holy man best known for his mass weddings. Moon's followers, known as Moonies, believe Moon is the messiah. They actively work to establish a universal theocratic state headed by Moon.

To that end, Moon has spent a fortune buying influence. He owns media outlets in dozens of countries. Through thousands of front groups, Moon's church distributes money to a network of conservative, Christian, and Republican groups in the United States. By some reports, former president George H. W. Bush alone received up to $10 million from the Moonies, mostly through speaking fees. Bush has refused to answer questions about if and how much money Moon has given him, and Moon has never said where his money comes from [The site is temporarily down, but from time to time, check back at:
http://freedomofmind.com/stevehassan/presskit/articles/parry.htm.]

The church also founded the Washington Times in 1982 to spread its word in the nation's capital. Though by some accounts the paper has lost up to $1 billion, Moon pours money into it to buy influence, a practice he started with his first paper in New York City. With that paper, a Congressional report found that "On issues affecting Moon and the [church], however, the resources of the paper were mobilized along with other components of the Moon organization to attack and discredit critics and investigators." This practice was continued at the Times, where the paper pushes a consistently conservative agenda.

In 1985, Moon announced that his Church was "declaring war against three main enemies: godless communism, Christ-less American liberalism, and secular-humanistic morality. They are the enemies of God, the True Parents, the Unification Church, all of Christianity, and all religions. We are working to mobilize a united front against them."

Moon's organization used its power and influence to break down the wall between church and state. Last year Moonies held a coronation for their messiah, crowning him in the offices of the United States Senate before more than a dozen members of Congress. At the event, Moon named himself the messiah and claimed that all the past presidents, world leaders, and religious figures have converted in heaven to his teachings. Even "dictators such as Hitler and Stalin, have found strength in my teachings, mended their ways and been reborn as new persons," Moon said [See:
The Rev. Moon Honored at Hill Reception , (story by Washington Post, June 23, 2004).]

The lawmakers who attended the coronation said they did not know Moon would be crowned at the event. One member said he attended solely to honor the conservative-leaning Washington Times for its work. Given the clear ties between Moon and the Times, that is hardly a difference.

Jason Colavito is a freelance writer based in Albany, N.Y. His first book, The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture will be published this fall. Visit his Web site, Lost Civilizations Uncovered at: www.thelostcivilizations.com.

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April 2005

Editor's note: The following column ran in Humanist Network News, a publication of the Institute of Humanist Studies.

Faith Based Reporting in Reuters?

By JASON COLAVITO
For Humanist Network News
April 13, 2005

Believers of all stripes have always sought to mine the Bible for hidden truths. But now it seems at least one man believes that the Bible helps him to actually mine, or more accurately, drill.

John Brown of Zion Oil & Gas told Reuters that his Dallas-based company uses the ancient scriptures to locate hidden reserves of oil in the Holy Land. Fellow evangelical Christians help fund the operation. [See:
Texas oilman seeks gusher from God in Israel, (story by Reuters, April 6, 2005).]

"From the investment standpoint, they certainly hope to have a return of the money," Brown told Reuters. "But the basis of it is Genesis, chapter 12."

In Genesis 12, God tells Abraham (then known as Abram) that he will father a great nation, and Abraham travels to Egypt. Important for Brown, in the chapter God promises to bestow blessings on those who praise the "great nation," which Brown believes is Israel. In Brown's opinion, oil is God's blessing.

Brown and his company looked to Moses for a map to the source of Biblical oil. He quoted Deuteronomy 33:24 this way: "Most blessed of sons be Asher. Let him be favored by his brothers and let him dip his foot in oil."

From this passage, he deduced that oil could be found under the ancient territory of Asher, now Israel's Kibbutz Maanit. Drilling begins this month.

Reuters failed to provide any expert disagreeing with Brown's assertions or any suggestion that other opinions exist. It will be informative to look at where Brown went wrong and how easy it would have been for Reuters to produce a balanced look at a bizarre claim.

The New American Bible renders Deuteronomy 33:24 a bit differently, and the difference is telling: "Of Asher he said: 'More blessed than the other sons be Asher! May he be the favorite among his brothers, as the oil of his olive trees runs over his feet!'" From this, it is painfully obvious that Reuters didn't crack a book for this story.

Unless Asher's olive trees happened to grow atop a petroleum reserve, it is clear that the oil in question is not the black gold of the internal combustion engine but the useful essence of the olive. Perhaps John Brown will be disappointed, but he can make a tasty salad.

Of course it is immediately clear that Brown relied on the English translation without consulting the original text, confusing the American usage of "oil" with a type of transcendent truth.

A quick look in the dictionary shows that both "petroleum" and "oil" derive from the same Latin word for olive oil, "oleum," which in turn derives from the Greek word for olive, "elaia." The "petr" part comes from the Latin and Greek words for "rock," making petroleum the "oil of the rock."

Uncritical readers were left thinking that the Bible really points to petroleum in Israel, placed there by God for the elect to find. This type of uncritical acceptance of bizarre claims is nothing new. Perhaps we should call it "faith-based reporting."

Jason Colavito is a freelance writer based in Albany, N.Y. His first book, The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture will be published this fall. Visit his Web site, Lost Civilizations Uncovered at: www.thelostcivilizations.com.


 

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March 2005

Editor's note: The following column ran in Humanist Network News, a publication of the Institute of Humanist Studies.

Science, Sexism and Stereotypes

By JASON COLAVITO
For Humanist Network News
March 23, 2005

A recent New York Times column about gender differences might not tell us much about men and women, but it does tell us a lot about the way science can be misused to justify stereotypes. Citing a study in Nature, in her
March 20 column [registration required] Maureen Dowd claims "women are genetically more complex than scientists ever imagined, while men remain the simple creatures they appear."

The Nature study had found that the X chromosome contains more genetic material than previously thought. Many of these genes code for brain proteins and may be responsible for the brainpower needed for art, science and writing. The study, and a news feature describing it, are available
online.

But here is where Dowd goes beyond the facts and begins to misuse science.

Human beings have 46 chromosomes, divided into 23 pairs. The last of these pairs, the familiar X and Y chromosomes, control the sex of an individual. Women have two X chromosomes, and men have an X and a Y. Because the Y chromosome is smaller than the X, women have more DNA in each cell than men.

According to Dowd, this extra DNA makes women more complex. "Women are inscrutable, changeable, crafty, idiosyncratic, a different species," she said. "The discovery about women's superior gene expression may answer the age-old question about why men have trouble expressing themselves: because their genes do."

But there are two misconceptions at work here, fallacies that New York Times readers are asked to swallow. First, both men and women have an X chromosome, though women have two. The X chromosome's genes for brain function exist in both males and females. The only difference is that females have two copies of the genes to choose from, while males must use the single copy on their X chromosome. One bad copy can lead to genetic problems in men, but it takes two bad copies to lead to similar problems in women.

The second problem is one of quality: having more DNA does not make an individual, a sex or a species "superior" to another. By that standard, the marbled lungfish should be earth's superior life-form, since
according to zoologist T. Ryan Gregory, it has the largest genome with many times more DNA than humans. Many other animals (and plants) have more DNA than people -- male or female.

Recently, Harvard president Lawrence Summers wondered whether biology was responsible for the lack of women in the math and science fields. Columnist Susan Estrich wondered whether American culture prevented women from becoming opinion columnists. But Maureen Dowd went further and misused science to claim that women were biologically superior to men.

Though there are undoubtedly genetic differences, the biological support for either gender's superiority just isn't there. New York Times readers deserve better reporting from the paper of record.

Jason Colavito, of Albany, N.Y. has published writing in Skeptic magazine. His book
The Cult of Alien Gods is slated for publication by Prometheus Books this fall.

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February 2005

 

Salon.com Misrepresents H.P. Lovecraft, Fans

 

[Editor's note: On February 12, 2005, Salon.com published a piece called "Master of Disgust" (subscription or ad viewing required) by senior writer Laura Miller. The story dismissed H.P. Lovecraft's works and belittled those who enjoy them. Using a psychosexual method of textual analysis, Ms. Miller wrote that Lovecraft's horror fiction is of an inferior quality that appeals to stunted adolescents and claimed that Lovecraft fans "chortle with glee" over Lovecraft's more overwrought prose. I wrote the following letter in response, and it was published two days later.]

 

Published in Salon.com February 15, 2005

I was deeply disappointed by Laura Miller’s "Master of Disgust." While of course she is free to hate or love H. P. Lovecraft at will, her denunciation of Lovecraft's literary accomplishment seems based largely on misunderstanding and misrepresentation. First the misrepresentation: Miller rightly berated Lovecraft for his overuse of adjectives in creating his horrific effects, but without telling readers that the selections she quoted from "The Lurking Fear" were from some of Lovecraft’s earliest fiction. Because it clearly undercuts her thesis, Miller ignored the Library of America volume's chronological arrangement of Lovecraft's work, which clearly demonstrates the progression of his writing from empurpled prose to a sleeker, though still complex, style in later tales. Like any writer, Lovecraft grew as an artist over time, and it is unfair to judge his style by "The Lurking Fear," which was purposely written as an overwrought pulp serial. As a Lovecraft fan, I neither "chortle" nor "quote [it] with glee."

But worse is the misunderstanding. Miller tells us that no one finds Lovecraft "scary," and this is one of many reasons his works fail to become literature. But it is a mistake to judge any horror story independently of the time and place where it was written. Bram Stoker’s "Dracula" is also less-than-frightening in light of today’s explicit, carnal horrors. "Dracula," too, provides a still better example of how horror reflects its time and place: The 1931 movie version starring Bela Lugosi frightened its original audience into spasms of horror. Today, no one would call it scary, especially after the Pez dispensers, breakfast cereals, and other paraphernalia it directly or indirectly spawned. I’m sure that Stephen King would be the first to agree that King's own works would hardly hold up as pure terror 80 years from now. Horror is very much part of its moment.

Where Lovecraft succeeded brilliantly was in his use of ideas. Though Ms. Miller belittled Lovecraft's alternative mythology (and many titles she attributes to many of Lovecraft's alien-gods are not his own), his stories mythologize the new materialism that evolution and relativity had created. Lovecraft's work captured a particular moment of uncertainty between the two World Wars. Miller and Stephen King may be disappointed that Lovecraft did not focus on, or recognize, the primacy of sexual impulses and organs, but he painted on a larger canvas. Lovecraft purposely created a remote fiction that played out on a cosmic scale and dealt with the purposeless and meaninglessness of a universe that created suffering and pain.

Does this make him literature? I’m not sure, but I know he is much more relevant and important than his critics pretend. In my forthcoming book, "The Cult of Alien Gods: H. P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture," I explore the profound effect Lovecraft’s work has had on science, pop culture and even the cloning/stem cell debate. Few authors have had such influence almost 70 years after their deaths.

-- Jason Colavito

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June 2004

 

Homeopathy Invades Vegetarian Magazine

 

by Jason Colavito

for Swift, the newsletter of the James Randi Educational Foundation

 

The June issue of Vegetarian Times magazine, a kind of meatless version of Martha Stewart Living, carries an article in their monthly "wellness" section called "Healing with Homeopathy" by Alan Pell Crawford. This "news" feature portrays homeopathy as a cost-effective alternative to "arrogant" Western medicine, and it makes some far-fetched claims about why homeopathy works.

 

After describing homeopathy as diluted quantities of a remedy that at full strength would mimic a disease's symptoms, the author makes this claim: "Although most physicians reject homeopathy, they readily embrace a similar approach in their use of vaccines, which operate on similar 'like cures like' principles." Later in the article, Crawford again emphasizes this claim, quoting "naturopath" Darin Ingles of New England Family Health Associates, who said that "high-dilution medicine is nothing new to science because allergy shots and vaccines also involve medicines that are highly diluted." The article offers a list of conditions that homeopathy can alleviate or cure, including chicken pox, sunburns, and bronchitis.

 

Crawford fails to indicate that the NEFHA is a "naturopathic" and Chinese medical center. On its website, it informs visitors that they should choose NEFHA over Western medicine because "[w]e have classical music playing in the background and a variety of hot teas to drink while waiting for your appointment."

 

More importantly, by equating homeopathy's chemicals, diluted to the point of non-existence, with the vaccines' weakened viruses that train the immune system to recognize and fight disease-causing agents, Crawford and Ingles try to appropriate the power of vaccines for homeopathy's cause. Worse, most vaccines are designed to prevent illness; homeopathy claims the power not just to prevent but to cure.  Bizarrely, they claim that "like cures like." We know how weakened viruses are akin to their more potent counterparts.  How much are eye strain, chicken pox, bruises, or constipation like plain water?

 

Crawford apparently watched the January 30, 2004 ABC News report in which skeptic James Randi told the audience that homeopathy is "mythology." Discussing the $1,000,000 Challenge, Crawford introduces us to Houghton, Michigan resident Marcia Goodrich, who claims homeopathy, not her surgeon's skill or the prescribed medication she took, prevented bruising and swelling following a tooth extraction. Goodrich told Crawford she has no interest in collecting the million: "It is satisfaction enough," Crawford--not Goodrich--says, "to live in a close yet diverse community where healers and other freethinkers abound. Where people live this close to the edge, they come to rely on each other--and on folk wisdom that sophisticates in cushier conditions all too often forget."

 

This is disturbing not just for the obvious reasons but because the article plays to its generally liberal audience's respect for diversity to further the fallacious claim that homeopathy is the equal of medical science because in a diverse climate, all the diverse elements must be equal.

 

Perhaps the Vegetarian Times believes its readers are not "sophisticates," but it seems insulting to vegetarians to include in a glossy recipe magazine a monthly feature on alternative therapies that are both unproven and potentially dangerous.

 

___________________

A version of this article first ran in Swift, the newsletter of the James Randi Educational Foundation on May 21, 2004. Click here to read the original version.

 

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March 2004

 

Can An Equation Prove the Existence of God?

 

A new book claims that that it is probable that God exists--67 percent probable to be exact. Physicist Stephen Unwin makes this claim in his new book The Probability of God: A Simple Calculation That Proves the Ultimate Truth. However, on closer examination it seems that Unwin's calculations are less than simple.

 

The physicist, a British attaché to the U.S. Department of Energy, calculates the odds of energy-related disasters, like the catastrophic failure of nuclear power plants. Inspired by his work with statistics and theories of uncertainty, Unwin turned his attention to God.

 

Unwin believes that by plugging in values for six major criteria into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, he can calculate the probability that the humanistic, personal God of the three major monotheistic faiths--Christianity, Judaism, and Islam--exists. These six areas include the recognition of good, the existence of moral and natural evil, two types of "miracles", and religious experiences.

 

According to Unwin, altruism, the aiding of another without immediate expectation of reward, is evidence for God because such good is more likely in a world controlled by a deity. On the other side, natural disasters weigh against the God hypothesis. Unwin told Blogcritics.org that he adopted the issues philosophers have argued over for years and merely determined how effective the arguments were: "I took those same issues but instead of using them to narrow or eliminate uncertainties, I wanted to look at each issue and the counter arguments and see how they balanced and feed them into the process of rating those uncertainties." By tallying the arguments and weighing them, Unwin determined that the arguments in favor of God win two to one.

 

However, Unwin's method is problematic, and not just from a mathematical perspective. Why, the critic might ask, is altruism necessarily an argument for God? Evolutionary biology holds that altruism is a selfish behavior many species use to guarantee that at least some of their genes are passed on, usually through aiding a close relative. In this scenario, altruism is not good but amoral.

 

Similarly, evil is also problematic because those actions considered evil are so only in the eyes of the beholder. Thus to Spanish conquistadors Aztec human sacrifice was a moral evil, but to the Aztec themselves it was a high honor and a sacred rite. Even more ambiguous is the idea of miracles, many of which may defy explanation today but will eventually be revealed as a previously unknown natural process or fraud.

 

Based on evidential categories like these, what Unwin has uncovered is less the probability of God (though he includes spreadsheets for the reader to plug his or her own numbers into his equation) than the combined weight of all the rhetoric voiced on this issue over the centuries.

© 2004-2009 Jason Colavito. All rights reserved.