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Monsters that Linger Beyond Halloween: Skepticism, Belief, and Tomorrow

The monsters in my house departed shortly after midnight, Halloween 2010. A vampire, Medusa, a few Seussian abominations, and an assortment of night-things and Lovecraftian Deep Ones. Oh, and two zombie couples. You know the zombie genre has gotten out of hand when two zombie couples show up to your party. (Hey Hollywood! Time to retire the undead and try out something new, like maybe the Manitou and Wendigo.)

So I sit here, official member of the Rogue’s Gallery now, and write my first post for one of my favorite places on the Internet. Rogue. The shark in Jaws was a rogue. The crazy guy with beer bottles on his fingers was leader of The Rogues, if you remember your 1979 classic The Warriors.

So let’s talk about monsters. “The sleep of reason,” says the Goya painting’s placard, “produces monsters.” Historically this is a blazing, crackling truth. And history is also right now. We’re a part of it.

Let’s start playful. Stories of the fabled chupacabra – a livestock-chewing blood-drinking monstrosity which leapt onto the cryptozoological stage with Bigfoot-bashing gusto in the mid 1990s – is starting to look a lot like a coyote with mange.

Barry OConnor, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Michigan, is pointing to Sarcoptes scabiei as the culprit behind the ghastly stories. Sarcoptes scabiei sounds like some diabolical Egyptian revenant (see Hollywood! New monsters can still be invented!) when in fact, it is a mite whose infectious bite causes scabies in local coyotes and dogs. As they lose their hair and undergo some disfiguring transformations, they serve to inspire the local legend of grave goatsuckers. Specifically, the disease makes their face swell, their teeth become prominent, their skin thickens, and in their weakened state, they deviate their normal prey animals to escapades of bolder nature (like raiding ranches.)

“To me, the most interesting aspect of this whole system is the fact we are talking about a human parasite that has moved from us onto other animals,” OConnor reported on LiveScience, “as opposed to all the things that have gone in the other direction,”

That’s right. The chupacabra is likely to have been caused by humans after all, although not so much as a horror unleashed from secret government laboratories (as has been claimed) or even as an outright invention of enterprising locals wanting to give Bigfoot a run for his money, but rather, something founded in fact.

But then, skepticism has always been about confronting monsters. The charge is often made that being skeptic is synonymous with being close-mindedness. But true skepticism — as I wrote in my cover story for this summer’s issue of The Humanist — is precisely about being open-minded… just not so open that you’re a vacuum. Skepticism is also not a belief system. “The fact that you people don’t believe in the healing power of crystals,” we hear, “Means that you actually subscribe to your own religion of sorts, one in which crystals don’t heal people!” The correct rebuttal is that no, we subscribe to reality. In the reality we know, crystals are fascinating structures that display curious repetitive patterns, but hanging them over a diabetic child’s bed is not an alternative to insulin. To amend our worldview requires scientific data that can demonstrate some new, exciting, and hitherto unknown facet to crystalline structures.

For example, I don’t believe that there are fish in the sea. Rather, I have seen the evidence for fish in the sea and accept that evidence. I have seen documentaries on fish and have visited aquariums, have gone fishing, caught fish, fried fish, and eaten fish. It’s not an issue of belief.

I also don’t believe that humankind landed on the moon. I have seen the evidence for a moon landing and accept that evidence. And when naysayers made the argument that we never landed on the moon, I examined their evidence (and saw how quickly it vanished under the first light of serious scrutiny.) By the same token, I don’t believe in a Hollow Earth, chupacabras, or that the Holocaust was invented by Zionists, because the evidence for all three is less than compelling. It’s not about emotion. It’s not about disliking a claim. It’s about what the evidence shows.

I was in college when reports of the chupacabra began surfacing. I found it fascinating. I didn’t discount the eyewitness reports, but sought scientific evidence. Ranchers in Puerto Rico might well be seeing something, even if we subtract the media hype and sensationalism from those seeking to cash in on it all. But it was huge and unjustified leap for people to make when they pointed to dead sheep and said, “See? An alien monster killed my livestock!”

Maybe it was an alien monster, I mused. Yet that hypothesis is clearly in want of evidence. How about we look more local?

Skepticism is about promoting critical thinking and rational inquiry in a world utterly entrenched in belief. As a society we tend to believe things without demanding much in the way of evidence. We’re addicted to it. And this addiction is extremely dangerous. If we’re not promoting rational inquiry, then we risk being swallowed by irrational tides. The belief that vaccination causes autism leads to a downswing in protecting our society again epidemics that have wiped out entire continents in the past. And how do we have grownup discussions on cloning, stem cells, or genetic engineering when roughly half of America is stubbornly certain that the human species is about six thousand years old and was carved from clay? What does it say when a large constituency of voters casts ballots based on who they think the Anti-Christ is?

How do we achieve progress when so many are convinced that the world is ending in a mere two years? When reason sleeps, monsters are inevitable.

And remember that the word “monster” comes from the Latin “monere,” which means “to warn.”

As Bob, Steve, Rebecca, Jay and I discussed on the SGU, there is an entire movement in America today which seeks to warn about the so-called dire consequences of getting your children vaccinated. But the monster here is how utterly deadly this movement is to children. Their movement is entrenched in belief and alarmism and bad science. Vaccination represents one of the greatest strides humanity has made against its most implacable enemy: the microorganism. Fueled by conspiracy theorists and ignorance, anti-vacciners are cracking open the door to epidemics of tomorrow, in which diseases like the measles raises its specter once again. And that’s only the beginning.

Those who know me are aware of my fondness for all things Greek and Roman, so let me turn to one of favorite thinkers of that era, Titus Livius: “We fear things,” he wrote, “in proportion to our ignorance of them.”

And ignorance is the monster we battle against. It is our Grendel, our chupacabra, and our Wendigo, if we seek to move forward into a rational future.

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