Observations and inanities by a second-shift assistant supervisor in the Puppy-Grinding division of the Evil Atheist Conspiracy® (our motto: "Sure it's cruel, but think of the jobs!"), your host, Brent Rasmussen.
The Skeptic's Circle Saloon (SC #69)
The ride had been long, but coming back to the town of Skeptic's Circle after being away for nearly two years felt good.
My appy mare smelled the fresh hay layed in next to the livery about a mile out of town and I let her prance a bit. I looked to my left and grinned. This time the UTI brand was represented well. Jim Downey, my ranch manager, trotted his horse alongside mine, his Sharps 50 rifle riding high in it's scabbard, the vernier sights packed away in their own leather pouch. Rick Ulrey, a former soldier, rode slightly behind us, his eyes scanning our backtrail for sign. Hank Fox, a grizzled veteran of many skeptical campaigns, rode ahead. Eric Lorson, brought up the rear, his oiled-leather guitar case strapped where a long rifle scabbard would normally go, his crossed pistols secured with leather.
My old partner DS, who had been with me two years ago when we came in to town, had started working for the Kos brand a while back, and from what I'd heard was doing good work there. Not that I ever doubted it. DS was a hell of a hard worker.
As we got closer I noticed that the town of Skeptic's Circle was...
(This one ran a lot longer than I thought it would, folks. There were a lot of submissions! If you want to skip reading the story, and instead just have a plain-jane list of links, you can find them here. Thanks for reading! -Brent)
"Big" said Hank, reining his horse in beside me and gesturing at the town ahead. "Bigger then I remember! It looks like old pumphouse has been torn down and replaced, and there must be some twenty buildings along Main Street."
I squinted up the street as we rode through town. "At least the Saloon is still there, thank the big magic juju guy."
We rode up to the front of the Skeptic's Circle Saloon and dismounted. Where once there were only two hitching posts, seven stood in their place. "Old Doc Orac must be doing something right," I said with a smile.
I had heard that Doc had taken over running the Saloon from St. Nate a while back. I also heard that he had moved out of his office in town and had put up his surgery right in the Saloon. I adjusted the weight of my pistol, carried on the left, butt first, and made sure the leather thong was between the hammer and the firing pin. I'm a careful man by nature, but it pays to be extra-careful sometimes. Music came spilling out of the bar as the bat-wing doors swung outward. An obviously drunk man stumbled past us and into the street, mumbling something about homeopathic hangover cures.
We entered the dim, smoky interior and I waited a few seconds for my eyes to adjust. The main bar was larger than I recollected, with more tables. Doc Orac's surgery was indicated with a small sign over the door of the old poker room. We moseyed up to the long, polished bar and leaned on it. Glancing sidelong at my men, with a smile, I cleared my throat loudly and raised my voice to a gravelly roar.
"What's a cowboy got to do to get a gol-durned drink around here?"
Doc Orac stepped quickly out of the small cold room behind the bar. "Quit shouting at me, for one thing," he said, walking towards us and wiping his hands on a bar towel tucked into his apron.
We shook hands across the bar, trading grins. "Where's the mask?" I asked.
He produced it from an apron pocket and showed it to me. "I only wear it in surgery now. It gets to be an inconvenience when I'm tending." He took in my new ranch hands arrayed at the bar. "Beer and Rye for you, right?" he said to me. Damn. I was getting predictable. "What'll the rest of you boys have?" He busied himself settin' us up with libations, then came out from behind the bar. "You're timing is impeccable, gentlemen. The Circle is about to start."
"Where?" I asked, looking pointedly at the surgery sign above the door to the poker room.
"This way," he said, heading up the stairs to where the rooms for rent were. I shrugged and we followed him. At the top of the stairs, past the four rooms, was a door at the end of the short hallway. Doc opened it with a flourish and we entered into a large, well-lit room filled with comfortable chairs - and with the Circle. I recognized most of them, knew the others by reputation. It was a good draw.
I walked to the middle of the room, and solemnly said, "Ladies and Gentleman, the Circle has begun."
I pointed to a tall, thin, balding drink of water named Steve Snyder, originally from the four-peaks area. Not far from my neck of the woods. We just called him "SG" for "Socratic Gadfly". Steve was now a newspaper editor up Texas-way. "What do you have for us today, SG?" I asked.
SG stood up slowly and took a sip of his drink. "Well," he began, "I found a biologist, a scientist named Lynn Margulis who should know better mind you, falling for 9/11 conspiracy theories!" The Circle gasped. "An acquaintance informs me that Margulis has also jumped on the bandwagon of deniers that HIV causes AIDS, with the certain amount of conspiracy thinking that goes with that, as well." He sat down heavily.
"Wow," I said and shook my head. It was hard for an old skeptical cowboy like me to understand that mindset. I walked to the back of the room where several folks were quietly sitting and listening. Trent M. Toulouse, a Ph.D. candidate from way up North in the Canadian wastes looked up owlishly at me. His broadcloth suit was impeccable, and he carried a cane. "Howdy Trent," I said and shook his hand. "What's cookin' up in the Great White North?"
"Non-Materialist neuroscience, if you can believe that." he said with a smile. "Because it explains human thought so well, modern neuroscience is the death-knell of dualism and supernaturalism. Like creationism and intelligent design this "new" neuroscience is a reactionary movement against science. Rather than a hypothesis that leads to predictions and experiments, it is simply a catalog of things modern neuroscience supposedly cannot yet explain." The Circle murmured and nodded their heads at this now-obvious similarity between creationists and the NMNs.
I was just about to select another Circle member to speak - seein' as how I was hosting this little shindig - when a bearded cowboy with long hair streaming out from under his hat knocked back a shot of something vile looking and dusted off his chaps. I turned to look at him. It was Jeffperado, a.k.a. "The Man With One Brain" from out in the wilderness of the Nevada territory. "What's on your mind, Jeff?" I asked.
"I been thinkin' on it for a while, and I challenge the Answers in Genesis folks to put up, or shut up!" He glared around the room as if hoping to find any of those yellow-bellied sap-sucking jokers here, in the Circle. "I'd like to see them build a ark, sail it for a year, and come out with all occupants alive and ready to breed. It is simple enough, the bible gives precise details as to the shape, size and construction of the ark. So it can be reproduced. Simple, neat, and evidenciary." He stalked off to the small auxiliary bar in the corner and ordered another drink in frustration.
"Sounds like a reasonable request to me, folks," I said with a smile to defuse the tension. I raised my glass to Jeffperado in a sincere salute, and he returned it a mite sheepishly.
The Professor from the virtual seminary at Evangelical Realism spoke up. "An outfit called the “Satellite Imaging Corporation” has sent out a press release breathlessly announcing a new 3D Terrain Visualization for Mt. Ararat Anomaly [sic]. According to SIC, this could be a major breakthrough in the field of Biblical archeology." He sat forward a bit more with an intense look on his face. "We already know that this is not Noah’s Ark. If you watch the video, you’ll see a broad, wind-eroded glacier with slightly concave depressions here and there and some random light and dark splotches on the surface. There’s nothing “anomalous” about the formation, and in fact it’s not even clear what the anomaly is supposed to be." He sat back with a satisfied grunt and took a swig from the bottle on the table.
I noticed a young farmer from Indiana who I knew by the handle "Berlzebub". Not sure what that meant, but he was raising his hand of all things. I gestured for him to stand up. "Who do I ask to host a future Circle?" he said with a quizzical look on his face.
"That'd be Doc Orac over there," I replied. Doc waved at him from the bar.
"Send a request to me, and I'll see about getting you on the schedule. I want to line up hosts as far in advance as I can manage."
"Thanks. Well, my question to Creationists is this: What are the odds? One of the arguments for Creationism is the odds of our planet being suitable for life. Another one is the way the moon is located in such a way that it can "perfectly" eclipse our Sun. They say that the odds are astronomical." He grinned. "I say they are 1:1! And I can prove it!"
The Circle erupted in approving discussion. I had to get them back on track or it'd turn out to be a long night. "OK, OK," I yelled above the noise. The hubbub died down a bit. "Let's move along. If you want to talk to Berlz after the Circle, feel free." I looked around for the next candidate and spied my old friend Lord Runolfr. He was drinking homebrewed mead from a pewter mug, dribbling it into his beard and mustaches like usual. The hilt of the hand-and-half longsword buckled onto his waist glittered with precious stones. His chain mail shirt made soft clinking sounds as he stood up and placed one booted foot on his stool.
"Chain letters have been around since the beginning of time, it seems like. I recently received one that didn't ring true to me, and lo and behold, it was a hoax!" Lord Runolfr slammed his mug down on the table, slopping mead everywhere. "If you’ve got a good heart and you don’t want to pass up the opportunity to just maybe, possibly help find a missing person : always Google the information in chain letters before you forward them."
Jim had wandered in, and was standing next to me. He leaned in and whispered, "What's a 'Google'?"
"Don't know, Pard. Just go with it." I whispered back. Walking into the center of the Circle, I stopped in front of a chair occupied by the beautiful Greta Christina, a writer who lived in California near the city of San Francisco. I took her hand and bowed humbly. "I'd shore like to hear your story, ma'am," I said, remembering at the last minute to grab my hat off my head.
"Thank you Brent," she said very graciously, standing up and turning slowly to face the room. "An increasingly common refrain among religious writers and leaders is that the recent surge of atheist writing is unacceptably offensive and insulting. Intolerant, even." I saw many folks around the room nodding their heads knowingly. "Just for saying 'I don't agree with you.'." She stopped. "Questioning religion and expressing disagreement with it doesn’t force atheism down anyone's throat. But it does force religion to stand on its own feet and prove itself. What I don't understand is why that's a bad thing."
"Here here!" said Dr. Pete from the White Coat Underground, a shadowy organization of Doctors who mercilessly hunt down and debunk medical-related irrationality of all kinds. "But we also need to be on the lookout for woo and extraordinary claims! Given many of the interesting properties of vitamin C, including its potential as an antioxidant, it has been touted as a treatment or cure for many diseases. Unfortunately, clinical studies have failed to show any benefit to vitamin C supplementation." Dr. Pete's eyes looked tired for a second, then firmed up. "Still, the idea persists, to the point of absurdity."
A mysterious cowboy using the handle "Bad" piped up. "Speaking of woo," he said with a smirk, "Mike Adam's alt-med site claims that microwaving cooking violates your vibrant vittles... and "proves" it by nuking soggy CDs." I couldn't help myself. I started chuckling. Most of the Circle broke up with laughter, imagining the alternative-medicine guru cooking his CDs.
Paul, the Canadian on an Aurora Walking Vacation, stopped laughing with difficulty and said, wiping tears from his eyes, "Religious folks also take woo to the extreme sometimes." He adjusted his collar a bit and continued. "In the case of Mother Teresa, and her "Dark Night Of the Soul", Absence of evidence, they tell us, is, in fact, evidence of presence. And they say it with a straight face."
The Circle seemed to have reached that critical mass whereby it ran itself, practically. I'd just as soon ride this meeting with a light rein hand and no spurs, and I had my cowboys out keeping an eye on the town for any signs of trouble.
Mark Hoofnagle, a happy, bearded young gentleman from Virginny spoke up next. "Here's a sobering thought," he began, resting his hands by grasping his suit coat lapels. "My coverage of the recent research suggesting that in the course of debunking myths - like we do - that people often inadvertently reinforce them. The Washington Post reports on research that correcting mythical beliefs is more difficult than you'd think. The interesting finding seems to be that if you repeat the myth in the course of correcting it, people are more likely to forget the correct information and remember the myth!"
"He's absolutely correct," said Sandy Szwarc, nodding her head in agreement. "Recent research led by Dr. Norbert Schwarz, Ph.D., of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, confirmed this phenomenon. They found that presenting factual, accurate information that contradicts erroneous beliefs, and encouraging people to think about issues, not only often doesn’t help, it can actually reinforce the very myths being corrected!"
"Well, shoot, Mark and Sandy! What are supposed to do then?" I asked them.
"Well, silence is not the answer," said Sandy. "If the truth was never given a voice, then everyone would believe myths."
"I agree. The focus of skeptical writers should be on providing positive statements of correct information, while avoiding repetition of the false information." Mark replied.
"Sounds easy enough, " I said with a relieved sigh. "Who's next?"
Akusai, dressed in a strange mixture of ninja clothing and what seemed to be ratty pirate gear, complete with an eyepatch, katana, and a stuffed parrot on his shoulder, jumped onto the table in front of him and struck an action pose. "Arrh... The term "UFO" has come to mean "alien spacecraft," he opined loudly. "UFO Pictures will get you nowhere because even a non-hoaxed picture of a "Unidentified Flying Object" is necessarily a picture of an "alien spacecraft. One dead alien, one crashed spaceship, one piece of inexplicable technology...each of them is worth as many pictures as you care to take." Suddenly, he leaped nimbly from the table and vanished in the cloud of colored smoke from the smoke bomb he threw at the floor.
I waved my hands in the air to clear it a bit. "Thanks Akusai," I said with a slight cough. "You want to tell us what's happening over in your neck of the 'sphere?" I asked Adam from Daylight Atheism.
"I recently put together a skeptical analysis of the Catholic miracle of "incorruptibility", in which the corpse of a dead saint supposedly fails to decompose after death." He gestured at the Skeptics Circle Graveyard, just barely visible through the slatted window on the far wall of the upper-story room. "It turns out that there are many natural explanations for this, as well as simple embalming by humans, that explain the "miracle" of incorruptibility much better than supernatural ones."
I scanned the room and located another mysterious, skeptical figure who called himself "The Factician" from The Conspiracy Factory. I pointed to him and he stood up nervously. "Newsflash!" He shouted. The Circle jumped, startled. "Man invents perpetual motion machine! Again! And fools journalists into thinking it is revolutionary - or even real!" He sat back down slowly with a bemused look on his face.
The Circle was never dull, anyways, I thought.
Whorechurch from My Other Blog Is A Porsche then showed us some trumped-up sitemeter stats from a conspiracy theorist. "He claimed to have almost 800,000 visitors! But then, my conspiracy radar came up. Does this site really attract that many visitors? It seemed unlikely. I clicked on the stat, hoping Sitemeter would not have it set as private." He cleared his throat and continued. "Turns out he had only had 359 visitors since March. It was a Conspiracy of Conspiracy Theorists!." There was good-natured laughter all around the room.
My throat was dry so I went to the bar for another beer. On the way there, I ran into Dr. Martin Rundkvist. "How's the chess-playing, Dr. R?" I asked.
He smiled at me. "It's funny, but some folks consider chess-playing machines to be, well, intelligent. Nothing could be further from the truth! For one thing, intelligence is about versatility, about being able to perform innumerable different and unfamiliar tasks that take smarts. No software in the world, least of all chess software, is anywhere near passing the Turing test. If you talk to present-day software you soon become aware that there's no intelligence in the box."
I just smiled back at him and nodded, then continued on to the bar. What the heck does a cowpoke like me know about "software"?
At the small bar I hunkered down next to Christian Bachmann, the Danish dude who keeps an eye on the various medical journals out there. "Howdy, Christian," I said amicably, "how are thing in you part of the world?"
Christian took a long pull of his drink, then said, "Denmark has a good reputation as an export nation of fairy tales. You know Hans Christian Andersen's story called 'The Emperor's New Clothes', yes? Well, a Danish medical journal of a good reputation has published a study in Danish language called 'The cost of obesity on the Danish health care system'." He smiled again and drank from his glass. "However, the study authors have analyzed medical and economic data and have fabricated a piece of cloth and present it to the public. But when I take a closer look at it, I see that it is made out of nothing. The weavers have woven air, just as in the fairy tale!"
I laughed with him and thanked him for his story, then grabbed the fresh beer and rye that Doc had set on the bar and turned back to the room. There was a flash, a bang, and then a young man was standing in the center of the room. Richard Rockley, better known as The Amazing Skeptico had appeared. He spotted me and his eyes got wide and he started to wave. "Hullo Brent!" He shouted.
I waved back with my rye glass. "Good to see you, Richard! How's life treating you?"
"Good!" He replied, coming towards the bar. "Had to explain what Occam's Razor was to Dembski again."
"Yep. The guy's about as sharp as a bag of intelligently-designed doorknobs." Skeptico grabbed my beer and drained it in one draught.
His innocent eyes stared back at me. "That wasn't for me?"
"Nevermind," I said. Sheesh. Tack "The Amazing" onto someone's name and they all start to act like they're Randi himself. "Doc, can you refill my glass please. And get Richard here a keg? Thanks."
Doc Orac quickly filled glasses and set them in front of us. "Doc," I said, "We haven't heard from you yet tonight, and this is your place!"
"Yes, well," the Doc started, "I have been busy catching up after being away. As you know, one of my passions has been to emphasize evidence-based medicine and to advocate applying the same standards of evidence to alternative medicine that we expect of "conventional" or "evidence-based" medicine."
"Sounds reasonable to me, Doc," gurgled Skeptico, drinking his beer directly from the tap.
The was an audible pop as the Doc disconnected the keg and Richard was suddenly gulping foam. With a sharp glance at Richard, he continued. "Any "alternative" (a.k.a. "non-evidence-based") medicine that becomes "evidence-based" ceases to be "alternative" and is added to the armamentarium of scientific medicine, just as many medicines derived from plants and herbs have been over the last couple of centuries." He wiped down the bar and continued. "I have also been to London."
"I heard about that!" I exclaimed.
"I heard you took a leak on the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital." Said Skeptico with a smirk.
Doc looked pained for a minute, then grinned. "It is no more than mere coincidence, I assure you. I would never do such a thing."
Blake Stacey, a soft spoken young gun, came nervously up to the bar. "Um, guys?"
"What's happening, Blake?"
"Of course we do Blake." Said Orac.
"I think so..."
"Well, they're downstairs. I think they're trying to sue the town of Skeptic's Circle! For a million-billion dollars!"
The Circle members thundered down the stairs and gathered around the crackpot and his flunky.
"You have defiled my good name, Skeptic's Circle!" He crowed, looking around in a menacing fashion. "And now you shall pay, and pay dearly!"
"Yeah, pay dearly!" squeaked the PR flack, peeking out from behind Pivar's coattails.
I set my hand on the butt of my pistol and felt, rather than saw, the Circle members taking up defensive positions around the saloon. "And how, exactly," I asked him, my eyes locked on to his, "do you propose to do that? There's only you and your pitiful little flack. We've got you outnumbered almost ten to one."
A slimy smile spread across Pivar's face as he and his flunky began sidling backwards. He stopped just inside of the batwing doors.
"You'll find out." he said with contempt, then walked outside.
I looked around the room. Something didn't feel right.
Just then there was a crash, and a summons wrapped around a rock came crashing through Doc's plate-glass front window.
"Lawyers!" I screamed, thumbed the leather thong out of the way, and hauled that old shootin' iron out where it could start talkin'. People dived under barstools and tables, scattering cards and drinks every which way. "Head out the side door and get us some cover!" I yelled to Hank, Eric, and Rick. They nodded and disappeared. "Jim, get your Sharps and get up to one of the rooms! Get some high ground!" Jim grabbed his rifle and pounded up the stairs, ducking as a nasty bit of legalese smashed through the rail where his hand was a second before.
I turned a table up on it's side and Richard and Doc crashed down next to me. Doc Orac had St. Nate's old scatter-gun from behind the bar and Skeptico had his pistol. I noticed Blake had one of the biggest rifles I'd ever seen. He was cocking it with his foot. I wondered if he'd have to brace it against the bar to fire the dang thing.
The lawyers Pivar had hired started firing subpoenas and legal writs at us through the broken glass. We had just begun to return fire, Doc's scatter-gun booming, and the rest of us adding to the chorus with pistols, when I heard shots from above and up the street. Jim, Eric, Rick, and Hank must be in place, I thought.
The lawyers grabbed cover as fast as their $2000.00 Italian-leather shoes would allow them, and I made a decision. "Let's go, folks! Let's run them out of town while we can! Skeptic's Circle is our town, and it's gonna stay that way!"
With a roar the Circle stood up and ran outside, firing their posts at Pivar and his lawyers with uncanny accuracy. The lawyers melted away into the shadows, as they are wont to do, and Pivar was left standing in the middle of the street, bleeding metaphorically from a dozen well-aimed posts. He raised his arm, as if to shake it in anger - but Blake stepped up to him and put the muzzle of the huge rifle in his face.
The tension crackled, and I could see Blake's finger tightening on the hair-trigger.
Then he dropped the muzzle and spat on the ground. "You ain't worth my time." he said, and turned and walked back towards the saloon.
Pivar started running down Main Street out of town. "I knew Andy Warhol, you know!" he screamed as he left. I aimed a kick at the PR flack's backside and he took off running in the same direction.
Jim, Rick, and Hank joined me in the street as the Circle members filed back into the saloon.
"Heck of a Circle this week," said Rick laconically, pushing the brim of his hat up and holstering his pistol. We walked towards our horses and mounted. The horses danced a bit from all the excitement, then settled down as we prepared to head back to the Inscrutable Ranch.
Doc Orac stood on the front stoop of the saloon, with Skeptico by his side. "You comin' back soon?" he asked with a ready smile.
"Only if you stop yellin' at me," I answered with a grin of my own. "And you need to hire a damn Sheriff."
"Safe journey, gentlemen!" the Doc said with a wave and a laugh, and swung through the batwings. Life goes on, I guess.
The Amazing Skeptico raised his bucket of beer and saluted sloppily. "Don't be strangers!" He said, then hiccuped and headed back inside.
"The next Skeptic's Circle was being held at The Factician's Conspiracy Factory on September 27th, 2007, right?" asked Eric.
"I think so," I replied. "You boys want to go?" Shrugs all around. They'd go, I thought with some amusement, they were all good men.
We started those horses back the way we came. About a mile out of town, Eric pulled out his guitar and began to sing a traveling song. The coyotes joined in with a harmony, then the rest of us sang along as we rode into the desert sunset painted beautifully across the western sky.
Who said skepticism isn't exciting?