Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Skeptic Thing

Even though it was winter in the north, where the Sun would not rise for many days and snow and ice held the land in a ferocious grip, the great Lords of skeptical thought would not rest. They had searched their realms for the claims of the foolish and credulous, and now they journeyed to the hall of Ulfsheim, where Runolfr, son of Ulf, called the Word Chooser, would host their discussion of matters unproven.

As they entered the hall, servants took their great fur coats and hung them on pegs along the walls. They seated themselves on benches around the great central fire, and more servants brought out drinking horns brimming with mead. They muttered among themselves and sipped from their horns until the last of had arrived, then Lord Runolfr rose from his seat at the head of the hall and raised his arms for silence.

“Great Lords and Ladies of the Realms of Clear Thought. Let our business begin!” he shouted. “The Skeptic Thing has begun! Rise and share your wisdom!”

Lord John McKay rose to stand upon his bench, tossed his empty drinking horn aside, and addressed the Thing. “Some people can look at a water stain and see the Virgin Mary playing canasta with Elvis. This dentist looks at a rock and sees a woolly mammoth battling a dinosaur,” he said. “The tooth-inspector in question, one Jack Cuozzo, would have us believe that scientists have been conspiring for decades to cover up the Biblical truth of our ancestry. Let his duplicity be made plain to all.”

Lord Gadfly jumped up onto a table, and all eyes turned to him. “Hear me, wise ones,” he said, “For my tongue is struck with inspiration!” Whereupon he launched into a poetic tale of his youth, and how the events of that day set him upon the path of critical thought. The assembly listened in rapt silence, then erupted with cheers at the conclusion, and the points of many drinking horns turned toward the rafters. “That is not all!” the Lord exclaimed, bringing quiet to the hall again. “In long thought, I have determined how evil undermines omnipotence.”

Now Lord Parker stood upon his bench to address the gathering. “I bring grave news of the state of medicine in the land,” he said. “The land is thronged with sickened folk who fear that tested medicines and procedures may do them more harm than the disease, and there are all to many physicians of dubious integrity willing to treat them with alternative methods” He went on to relate the latest news of just such a practitioner.

The Autism Valkyrie sprang lightly to a table top, and her voice rang across the hall. “We must all be more wary than ever, “ she said, “for I have seen that even documents that have supposedly been reviewed by qualified peers may in fact make contradictory claims.” She then elaborated in great detail about quicksilver measurements in the hair of children, and how the measurements were often higher in “normal” children than in those affected by autism.

Lord Orac now took his turn to stand and address the Thing. “As I often I do”, he began in an oddly mechanical tone, “I bring word of those who pontificate upon matters of which they know nothing. Indeed, I suspect they prefer their state of ignorance.” He continued at some length about celebrities who think they can speak with authority about the origins of life and others who simply enjoy being contrary by ranting against tried-and-true developments like vaccines before settling back onto his bench.

Lord Skeptico then stepped onto his seat. “Those who speak from ignorance or ideology are bad enough, but those who falsely claim to critically assess a subject are perhaps worse.” He then related the tale of a questioner who missed an opportunity to demand evidence from charlatans. He was not yet finished, though, and after a quick draught from his horn, he continued, “The tricks of the credulous are easy enough to spot”, he began, going on to relate the trick of using the incompleteness of science as an indictment of it.

Having heard Lord Skeptico's first story, Ryan the Skald could wait no longer and rose to sing, for he could not resist a bawdy tale about the same hypocritical effort to be skeptical of psychics. The assembly applauded and raised their horns as he returned to his seat.

Lord Max stood up as the applause subsided. “I bring a story of local woes,” he said. Evidently a cabal of tinkers had arisen in his domain who made irrational claims about how to provide energy. He ranted on for some time about this intrusion before returning to his seat to nurse his horn of mead.

Lord Max seated himself, and Lord Thursday stood. “If I were just a little bit more dishonest, I might be a very wealthy man by now,” he began. He then related not one but two thoughts on how easy it would be to become wealthy with pseudoscientific deceptions aimed at his subjects. Having spoken, he took a deep draught from his horn, as if in despair, before seating himself again.

Lord O'Donnel rose next, saying “First, the future looks grim for emerging medicinal knowledge”, he said, referring to the woes of the field of stem cell research. He then turned and raised his horn to toast Lord Orac, for as he told next, he dealt with more anti-vaccination foolishness in his own realm.

Lord EoR then stood upon his bench. “I invite the entire assembly to laugh at this deception,” he said. His tale was, indeed, mirthful, for he spun a marvelous yarn of a homeopath who claimed to have evidence too grand to be believed. “He even claims to have discovered life force,” he said in conclusion.

Lord Phil the Astronomer stood upon his bench. “Let me be the one to relate the good news!” he shouted. For the new education stewards of Dover had reversed the foolish decision of their forbears.

Lady Ditz then arose. “I have discovered yet another worthless healing claim”, she said. She expounded upon a baseless claim that hypnosis could be used to cure dyslexia.

Skald Xiphias then stood to relate a new theory that he had been working out with his family. “It all makes perfect sense, when you think about it”, he said in conclusion, although it was certainly a twisted sort of sense.

Lord Runolfr now stood a final time at he head of the hall. “It is good to hear that there are those in our lands who do not accept an extraordinary claim without sound evidence. You have all brought wise words and ways to share among us and with all the people of the land. I now charge you all to continue in your good works and teach others how to sift the claims they hear with the fine mesh of skepticism. The Skeptic Thing is ended, but we shall look forward to hearing from you again in two weeks at the Skeptic Rant.”

With that, servants came out to escort the guests to their bowers, and the hall fell silent, attended only by a few servants who brought more wood to keep the great fire burning.


Bora Zivkovic said...

Amazing! How creative! Looking forward to read it all.

Anonymous said...

That doesn't look anything like me.

-The Bad Astronomer

John McKay said...

Odd, the picture of me is amazingly accurate: hale, young, full of strength. Yep, that's me.

Anonymous said...

Woohoo! I'm a skald!

Autism Diva said...

Wow! Thanks Lord Runolfr. Autism Valkyrie always springs to the top of table when holding forth on skeptical topics. Nice of you to notice.

Nice picture, too.


Lord Runolfr said...

Most people already figured out that many of the pictures are characters from The 13th Warrior. I love that movie; and I don't recommend the book, Eaters of the Dead. Ahmed is a jerk in the book.

You may not be familiar with Beowulf and Grendel, which is a recent-but-obscure film telling essentially the same story (but not trying to make it plausible, afaik). It didn't make it to general release (in the US, at least), so look for it to come out on DVD. I know I will.

Thursday said...

Thanks for including me in this august company! I had a friend who was an extra in that film and was also in a play of mine: his name's Rusty, he played the third screaming maniac on the left.

Thursday said...

Oops - one other thing: I post as Thursday, not Erin. Got the drinking part right, though!

Monado said...

A solitary carline adds, Lord John McKay spoke truly when he said that the tooth-inspector sees what he wills. Others have gazed upon the same fearsome cave walls and seen visions of otters, waterfowl, strange beings from distant worlds, and even the most puissant monster of pasta in flight! Behold for yourself their visions:
imaginary dinosaur.