Bullshit detection & kevlar deflectors

Cartoon Image of groundhog Yesterday's news headlines prominently proclaimed that neither Shubenacadie Sam (Nova Scotia's furry forecaster), nor Wiarton Willie (Ontario's marmot of meteorology) saw their shadow when they awoke from their slumber yesterday morning. The apparent lack of a two-dimensional rodentia replica, the pundits tell us, means we can expect an early spring. Punxsutawney Phil, on the other hand, arguably America's most notable weather woodchuck, did see his shadow when he emerged from his burrow a few miles east of Punxsutawney in the sleepy hollow of Gobbler's Knob. (I can't help but wonder if the residents of Gobbler's Knob are known as Knob Gobblers or, more succinctly, just Knobs). In any event, the eastern seaboard of the Excited States is, according to an oversized rat, condemned to at least six more weeks of winter.

Presumably, it's the ability of a rodent to see its shadow every February 2nd that establishes not only the duration of winter but the planet's ability to actually sustain the season. "Someone ought to tell David Suzuki about this real quick! I mean really... seems to me all we have to do is plunk a varmint into a Soyuz rocket and blast it off to the International Space Station where it'll see its shadow every February 2nd. We can summarily toss all that other nonsense about greenhouse gas emissions and global warming right out the window."

Surely no one gives credence to this Groundhog's Day lore, do they? Carl Sagan, in his erudite work entitled The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, encourages us to be critical of myths, superstitions, moire's and dogmatic belief systems; anything that cannot be held to the scrutiny of the scientific method.

"It's a harmless tradition", proponents opine, commenting on its origins and innocent character. Notwithstanding the seemingly innocuous nature of the Groundhog Day tradition, some critics have advanced the notion that a casual acceptance of the inconsequential, or a nonchalance towards it, serves a discursive function which reinforces an unquestioned acceptance of similarly tenuous beliefs. In other words, the distance between meteorological rodentia and talking snakes might be shorter than one might imagine. The critique, then, emphasizes that it is precisely the act of considering the veracity of the rodent's ability to predict long-term weather events which lends credence to (and reinforces) other, often less tenable, hypothesis.

Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are gimmies. Not a lot of disagreement there from anyone past the age of about six or seven. But is there as much consensus when you toss constructs such as the Bermuda Triangle, Sasquatch or the Lochness Monster into the fray? What about ghosts, auras, spirits, demons, the evil eye and the occult? How about astrology, biorhytms, extrasensory perception, telepathy, precognition or psyschokinesis? "Alrighty then... all those who believe in telekinesis... raise my hand!"

Carry a raccoon's head around in a handbag, and legions of atrazine-crazed animal rights zealots will be demanding you be clubbed to death with a hakapik. But put a rabbit's foot on your keychain, or a dashboard Jesus in your car, and only the most cynical would consider you to be moderately delusional. Clearly, there's safety in numbers. And let's not forget palmistry, numerology, tarot, tasseography, pyramidology, calligraphy and, my personal favourite, phrenology: the prediction of behaviour based on the shape of the skull. (I'm still not sure if the dents on the side of my skull are from being twacked upside the head with a lunch box by my cousin Colleen, or from being yanked out of the chute at birth by a huge set of ice tongs.)

And then there's the mother load: the entire debate over the existence of god (let alone which god) that pits theists against rationalists and theisceptics. Thomas Paine, critical of religious doctrine, in The Age of Reason wrote:

"It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what one does not believe. It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime."

The biggest challenge facing rationalists is not recognizing the irrationality of absurd beliefs; it's a consequence of vocalizing one's objection to those irrationalities. Discount the ability of future roadkill to predict the weather and you'll be labelled buzzkill or spoilsport. Challenge the existence of Kris Kringle and you're a grinch. Suggesting astrology's characterizations are but mere overgeneralizations makes you unimaginative, doctrinaire or ignorant. Challenge the dogmatic principles of creationism and you'll miraculously [pun intended] achieve the new found status of a savage, hedonistic infidel. As a minion of the Dark Underlord, destined to an eternity of torment and damnation, you'll be in the company of the most nefarious of sorts. Don't even bother trying to slip a pyrimad-shaped tinfoil helmet on your head. It won't help you in the least. Nothing short of full body armour and Kevlar deflectors are going to protect you the instant you turn on your bullshit detector.

The groundhog is, in my view, like every other prophet: it delivers its prediction then screws off leaving itself unaccountable to the unwashed masses to whom it has prophesized. If it's a shorter winter you're really after, try borrowing a shit load of money that's due in the spring. Winter will be over before you know it!

Submitted by Jeff Dubois, 03 February 2012