Wednesday, July 06, 2005
The Skeptic's Circle Saloon (SC #12)
DS rode in from the east, and I rode in from the west. It was hot. The sun had shown mercilessly down for days as we converged on the saloon.
"'Lo Raz," said DS with a tip of his ten-gallon hat.
I raised my hand and he shook it, dust springing from our grip. "Howdy DS. How was the ride?"
"Long. Hot. 'Bout what you'd expect, I reckon." His grin was infectious. I returned it.
"Being from Arizona, I actually had a nice cool ride." I swung my reins in a fast arc and they spun tight around the rail.
"Bullshit," he said, tying his dun next to my appaloosa mare, their matching UTI brands obvious, "you look like someone's been beating you with an ugly stick."
We stepped onto the front walk and looked up at the sign. "Skeptic's Circle Saloon" was painted in fancy red letters with filigree. I looked sideways at at DS and adjusted my gun belt to be a little more comfortable on my hips. "That damn thing gets fancier every couple of weeks, seems like." I said, squinting back into the sun. "Seen the others yet?"
"Not yet. I reckon we'll just have to go inside and see if they're here yet."
"I reckon we will".
I walked the five steps to the saloon's entrance and pushed open the bat-wing doors. DS and I stepped inside and let our eyes adjust a mite.
The Skeptic's Circle Saloon was unlike any bar I'd ever been in. For one thing it was cool. Some gadget that old Nate - St. Nate to his friends - had cooked up to circulate air across one of them big blocks of ice and pump it through the room. St. Nate had a deal worked out with the iceman in town. Free rye as long as he kept the cooler box filled with ice. There were tables, but they were low and the chairs were low-slung and padded. Comfortable-like.
I walked to the bar and St. Nate moseyed over cleaning a beer glass with a towel that had seen hard times. "Howdy Raz". He said, shifting his unlit cigar from one side of his mug to the other. "Long time no see."
"Howdy Nate," I said, "where's the Circle meetin' this week?"
"Back room," Nate gestured with his thumb, nearly dropping the beer glass, "you want a drink?"
"Gimme a shot of rye and a beer. Thanks."
I wandered into the back room where we usually played poker and found the Circle already in session. Folks were jawing at each other something fierce - which is always how the Circle began, so I didn't pay it no mind. It never came to fists or gun play. Almost never, anyways.
I heard DS walk in and say hello to a couple of Circle members, gregarious and friendly as always. It'll get him into trouble one day, but maybe not. He's tough enough to handle it in any case.
I found an empty seat and sat down next to a big feller in an eastern suit and a beard. Doc Myers was a professor from up Minnesota way. Real smart. Smarter than an old cowpoke like me. But I liked him. He always made me think. "How are you, my boy?" he shouted in my ear. I think Doc's a little deaf.
"Doin' fine Doc, you old heathen! What's up?"
The room seemed to hush as every body in the joint leaned in to hear what Doc Myers had to say.
The Circle had started.
"You know that fine looking dance hall girl from a couple of years back, um, Madonna was her name?"
"The "Like a Virgin" gal?" I said, scratching under my hat brim.
His eyes twinkled, "Well, it is said that she'll only drink something called Kabbalah Water, which she claims has magic healing powers. It's a simple, familiar scam. Start with something common and cheap, like water, and claim to have added all kinds of mystical properties to it, for which they will charge you extra. It costs the con artist nothing. This is classic mumbo-jumbo. Pseudoscientific hokum."
"How'd someone so purty get to be so stupid?" Asked DS from across the table where he'd light an' set.
A starry-eyed young man with spectacles from out on the Californy-coast - Phil Plait was his handle - sat forward and and began to speak. "Oh, heck, fellas, just about anyone will fall for strange stories like that." He removed his specs and began to clean them slowly while looking up slightly through the upper window at the moon just beginning to rise in the dusky sky. "Doesn't matter how pretty they are. Why, a while back their was this gent by the name of Bill Kaysing who would tell folks that the Apollo moon landings were a hoax! And they'd believe him! He's dead now, but I must admit that his death leaves me with mixed feelings. I'm sad that he up and died, but I must be honest and say he was a monumental antiscientist, responsible in many ways for one of the most colossal wastes of time and effort in my memory." Phil sat back with a troubled look on his face.
Looking around the informal gathering of chairs and tables, I spotted Alun, that archeology student from across the pond. Seein' as how I seemed to have taken over this meetin' of the Circle, I nodded to him. "How're things going out your way, Alun? What stories kin you tell us, partner?" Alun was always good for a story or two.
Alun smiled a bit. "Well, when I was five, me and my Da' went to West Kennet and - unintentionally, mind you - had some poor tourists thinking that the barrow there was haunted." He shook his head mischieviously and looked around the Circle. "Seems like supernatural-minded folks will see mystical experiences in anything - even in a five-year-old stomping his feet on top of a long barrow!"
The laughter around the room was refreshing. I grinned and pointed to Mark, my favorite semi-Canadian. He was wearing that funny hat without the brim - A torque? A took? - and sitting on the couch (which he insisted on calling a "Chesterfield" for some odd reason,) next to the unlit fireplace. There was a Canadian flag beautifully sewed onto the backpack at his feet. "Mark!" I said, "I know you've got something on your chest. Speak up!"
"There was this one letter-to-the-editor from a woman claiming that Evolution requires more faith than believing in a supernatural Creator! Can you believe that?" He stopped and sat forward a bit on the chesterfield. "Accepting solid evidence requires no faith. Invoking the supernatural because you’re not happy with the explanation provided by science is what requires faith. If evolution is a religion, then so is aerodynamics, astronomy, botany, and any other scientific endeavor you care to mention."
"Hear hear!" shouted Lord Runolfr Orthlokarr Ulfsson, slamming his wooden mug of wine down on the oak surface of his table and clapping fiercely. "Good point!" He scooped up his wine again, nearly tangling up his foil in his doublet and hose. His plumed cap sat rakishly on his head as he swallowed a huge draught of the ruby liquid, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "As good as this wine is, there's a company who will swindle you with a useless magnetic clip that they claim will make the wine taste better!" He nodded to the astonished eyes of the Circle. "'Struth! They have lots of testimonials and lots of pseudoscientific jargon, but no real evidence that the Wine Clip has any effect on wine at all. Poppycock!" Satisfied, he sank back into his seat.
Chris Hallquist, a young gun from soon-to-be-Madison, Wisconsin, piped up. "Even smart folks get suckered by things like that." He adjusted his hat back further on his head and fiddled with the tie-down on his six-shooter a bit before continuing."I'm not a smart enough cowpoke to understand how a computer works, but I don't go thinkin' it's got evil spirits in it when it goes on the fritz." Heads nodded in agreement around the Circle. "Pseudoscience is rarely about stupidity or generalized ignorance. Irrationality plays a role, but it's not the main ingredient. The key issue is ignorance of knowledge needed to evaluate a claim." He ducked his head and swallowed a bit. "Leastways, that's what I think."
This was shapin' up to be a rip-roarin' Circle. St. Nate opened the roll away window in the poker room and Circle members crowded close while he refilled their glasses and passed out bottles.
Richard Rockley from San Francisco, also known by his stage name, The Amazing Skeptico, raised his voice above the clinking glasses and guzzling throats. "You know. I've always said that sports people seem to think that God stops whatever he’s doing to help their team win a game, but now they are buying necklaces, at $23 a pop, that are made of nylon, and coated in a titanium solution that the manufacturer claims helps improve circulation and reduce muscle stress." He stopped to sip from his beer bottle. "The manufacturer claims it improves the alignment of ions – of course, if ions are involved it must be real. Hey, I do believe this product would qualify for Randi’s Million!"
The entire room got quiet and folks raised their glasses in a solemn toast to The Amazing Randi.
"Alright!" I shouted in the sudden lull. "Who's got another story?"
Out of the shadows stepped a man in surgeon's scrubs, complete with mask, hat, and booties. The folks in the room gasped. I had to calm them a bit. "It's okay, pards. This is Doctor Orac, a.k.a. The Man From The Eastern Standard Time Zone. He's okay." I turned back to the doctor. "What's on your mind, Doc? Whadd'ya know"
"Orac knows..." He said, looking dramatically over his mask and piercing the crowd with his sharp surgeon's eyeballs, "that RFK Jr.'s one-sided deceptive screed against the pharmaceutical companies blaming mercury in vaccines for autism, and Dr. Jay Gordon falling all over himself to swallow this nonsense, shows that it is quite possible to do a ton of research and come up with an utterly incorrect conclusion if you berry-pick the data and ignore data that does not support your thesis." His breath rasped against the thin paper. "Also, trust your doctor when they tell you something, kids, not your astrologist or holistic crystal-gazing therapeutic touch psychic friend. Your doctor is trying to help you get better, and those other folks are just after your money. Look over there!" He shouted, and blended into the shadows once more, and seemed to disappear.
"Didn't you help him out with that autism thing?" I whispered to The Amazing Skeptico, who had stayed close.
"Yeah, yeah I did. Together with Majikthise, we made a hell of a tag team."
Lex Alexander, a tall, bearded cowboy wearing a string tie and crossed pistols, watched the corner where you could barely see Orac lurking all-knowingly, nursing and drink of some sort. "Well, my story's not nearly so in-depth, but it goes to show that conspiracy theorists can be found anywhere." He sat down at an empty chair where the Circle was beginning to form up in a loose fashion again. "Morgan Reynolds, an ex-labor economist for the administration, proves once again that expertise in one field does not mean that you are an expert in other fields. His claim that the 9-11 WTC disaster was an intentional thing done by our own government is just not supported by the engineering and the physics involved." He smiled ruefully. "And all I had to do was talk to a real engineer - my brother - to figure that out."
Suddenly, the doors to the poker room slammed open and in stalked S. Watcher, hand on his pistol butt, hat pulled low. "Star!" He shouted, "Rock Star, I'm a-callin' you out!"
Ryan Michael Whitmore, aka Rock Star, turned slowly and placed his hand lightly, above his pistol. "Randi can fight his own battles, Watcher. We don't want no trouble from your kind here." The crowd tensed in anticipation of the philosophical violence sure to follow. "Why don't you just take your hand off that weapon of yours and we'll discuss this over a drink?"
Sweat beaded on Watcher's upper lip, and his eyes looked wild. "The time for commenting is over, Star!" Watcher's hand slapped leather and instantly Rock palmed his pistol and fired from the hip. The materialistic bullet smashed into Watcher's arguments, and he fell heavily to his knees, clutching for his unspecified non-religious, non-supernatural assumptions as they spilled invisibly to the dusty floor. His pistol fell from his lifeless grip and disintegrated into nothingness.
"Why, his pistol was also based on non-materialistic assumptions!" shouted DS, pointing at the spot where it had just lain.
"So was he, apparently," said Rock Star and gestured at the slowly fading form of S. Watcher. "He collapsed, just like the Apostle rock formation in Australia after being quickly eroded away."
Anthony Cox, stumbled away from the fading body and sat down in a seat heavily. "Wow!" He exclaimed. "That was even more entertaining than watching Tom Cruise say that psychiatry is a pseudoscience!"
"Tom Cruise reminds me of the Anti Thimerosal Brigade." Whispered Kevin Leitch quietly, thinking about the damage done by the anti-vaccine quacks to autistic children.
Dr. Terry Polevoy clapped Kevin on the shoulder. "There are quacks all over, my friend. Especially in the medical field, and they claim many innocent victims. The answer is to keep pointing them out and exposing them for the frauds they are. Keep fighting the good fight!"
The conversations continued long into the night. At one point, Austin Cline showed up and tried to tell us all about how to tell the truth from bullshit, but he was instantly barraged with with peanuts, so he sat down and started arguing with St. Nate about how many mythical angels could dance on his head.
Jayson Harshbarger showed up real late and told some lies about his mother - or told about the lies his mother told him, or something. I guess we were all pretty lit by then.
All in all, I'd say it was a great Circle. I helped DS saddle up his dun, then slapped her on the rump and sent her east. She'd take him home just like she always had.
Me? I led that old appy mare out to the desert and looked up at the sparkling swath of stars lighting up the midnight sky.
The universe is strange, mysterious, wonderful, and mundane - all at once. There's no reason to invent cock-and-bull stories about it when the real ones are so amazing. All we have to do is discover those truths - and that's half the fun right there.
I hope to see all you skeptical cowboys and cowgirls at the next Circle in two weeks at old Doctor Orac's Place. He'll be throwin' quite a spread, from what I hear. Be sure to visit and let him know you're comin'. (He loves to know things, you know.) Heh.