Tanya Luhrmann in the NYT: I melted a bicycle light with my mind!

What on earth has happened to the New York Times? I can’t imagine that it’s suffering from a dearth of contributors, as America is full of good journalists and writers with lots to say and no place to say it. Instead, the paper hires Tanya Luhrmann to write regular pieces on its Op-Ed page, pieces that are becoming increasingly full of woo and superstition-coddling.

Luhrmann, an anthropologist at Stanford University, did respected work on an anthropological analysis of psychiatry. But right about when her 2012 book came out—When God Talks back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, an anthropologist’s look at a Christian evangelical sect—she began slipping off the rails. To me, she now seems to be going down the track built by Deepak Chopra: making nebulous statements about spirituality—statements whose meaning is hard to pin down—to corral the many people in this country who, even though disaffected by traditional religion, want there to be Something More than Reality. And, like Chopra, Luhrmann uses her cachet as “scientist” to sell the woo.

If you read When God Talks Back, as I did, you’d see that she vehemently claims “objectivity,” passing no judgment on whether the members of the Vineyard sect, who practice talking to God, actually heard back from the old guy. In other words, she said nothing about her own beliefs, although there were subtle hints that she was sympathetic to religion. (Her work on that book, by the way, was sponsored by the Templeton Foundation.)

That sympathy seems to have gotten stronger and stronger over the past few years, and I’ve pointed it out in my many posts on Luhrmann’s enabling of religion.  At one point one of her friends emailed me, chewing me out for saying that she was a faith-enabler, which he adamantly maintained she was not. Well, I wonder what her friend would say about her new NYT op-ed, “When things happen that you can’t explain.” The piece is not only embarrassing in its sycophancy towards All Things Numinous, but makes some elementary errors of inference.

Luhrmann’s thesis is that spooky things sometimes happen—one happened to her, in fact—and when they do we just don’t know whether there’s a rational scientific explanation or one that involves Something Beyond Our Ken. She recounts an incident that occurred when she was riding a British train and reading a book about Buddhist mysticism:

The author wrote that all these were just names for forces that flowed from a higher spiritual reality into this one, through the vehicle of the trained mind. And as I strained to imagine what the author thought it would be like to be that vehicle, I began to feel power in my veins — to really feel it, not to imagine it. I grew hot. I became completely alert, more awake than I usually am, and I felt so alive. It seemed that power coursed through me like water through a chute. I wanted to sing. And then wisps of smoke came out of my backpack, in which I had tossed my bicycle lights. One of them was melting.

People believe what they believe for a range of reasons, but one of the most puzzling — at least for those who have not had events like these — is an explanation from personal experience. Such moments have cherished roles in conversion narratives, of course.

She then recounts similar experiences from other people—people who feel “electricity” course through them when worshipping God, or an Englishman who, waiting to bat at cricket, felt that “[s]omething invisible seemed to be drawn across the sky, transforming the world about me into a kind of tent of concentrated and enhanced significance.” In other words, she reprises all the experiences of the spiritual, numinous, and divine that fill William James’s book The Varieties of Religious Experience. In that book, James argues that such personal experiences are the main reason why people turn to God, though he was careful not to say whether he thought they were genuine evidence for the divine.

Luhrmann is equally careful, but in a bad way, for she simply characterizes such experiences as if there were a roughly equal probability of their having either a natural or a supernatural explanation:

I walked off that train with a new respect for why people believed in magic, not a new understanding of reality. Sometimes people have remarkable experiences, and then tuck them away as events they can’t explain.

. . . I’ve talked to hundreds of people who have had remarkable, unexpected experiences that startled them profoundly. Some see them as clear evidence of the supernatural and others do not. And there are those who come to a conclusive view of what these events mean, and those who hold them as evidence of the mystery of the human imagination itself.

As for me, I never did figure out what was going on with those bicycle lights.

But of course Luhrmann didn’t really try to figure out what was going on with the bicycle lights! Did she take them to an electrician, or even open up the lights and see what happened?

And so Dr. Luhrmann dangles before us the tantalizing possibility that maybe Something We Don’t Understand melted her lights. Was it her imagination? Was it God, sending her a message? We don’t know, and so everything is on the table.

But what was probable?  Maybe there was an electrical short, maybe one of the batteries malfunctioned: there are many non-supernatural possibilities. But she doesn’t want to know, for by holding out the possibility that it could have been something numinous, she caters to the audience she wants to retain: New Age spiritualists and Seekers, as well as the Templeton Foundation, which loves this kind of ambiguous take on the supernatural. But possiblities aren’t the same as probabilities or likelihoods, as Greg Mayer points out below (and which philosopher David Hume realized in 1748 in his discussion of the likelihood of miracles).

When Greg Mayer sent me this link, along with a lot of words like “charlatan” and “loon,” he added his own take:

She seems to think that her anecdote makes it plausible that the batteries were melted by the power of her spiritual experience, and that this hypothesis is to be accorded as much deference as any other (some of the others being 1. she’s misrecalling the whole thing; 2. there was a natural explanation, like an electrical problem; 3. invisible Wellsian Martians used a very concentrated heat ray on the batteries; 4. Cthulhu was attempting to reenter the world of the living, but failed, giving off a puff of smoke and heat in the process; or 5.  any other crackpot idea you might have). Since she has no evidence for her spiritual hypothesis, but no evidence for any of the others (in her estimation), she regards that as a warrant for believing her hypothesis.

Because she can’t explain the melting, then we are entitled to believe anything we want about it. It’s a “believe-anything-you-damn-well-please-of-the-gaps” argument. In her epistemology, a gap in knowledge is filled not by God, but by whatever the hell you want.

From a Bayesian perspective (and I’m not a Bayesian), my hypotheses 1) and 2) have substantial prior probabilities, while the others (including hers) have a prior probability near 0; and if you regard the data as uninformative (as she apparently does), then misrecalling the incident or electrical problems win the Bayesian analysis by a landslide.

Her whole argument seems like a potpourri of the elemental errors of reasoning in a book like Schick and Vaughn’s “How to Think about Weird Things”.

Greg teaches a course at his university called “Science and Pseudoscience,” and added some information he gleaned from the material he assigns his students, including the book cited above:

Here are some of Schick and Vaughn’s (Schick, T. and L. Vaughn. 2014. How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age. 7th ed. McGraw-Hill, New York) principles of reasoning that Luhrmann violates:

Just because a claim hasn’t been conclusively refuted doesn’t mean that it’s true.

Just because you can’t explain something doesn’t mean that it’s supernatural.

There is good reason to doubt a proposition if it conflicts with other propositions we have good reason to believe.

The more background information a proposition conflicts with, the more reason there is to doubt it.

When there is good reason to doubt a proposition, we should proportion our belief to the evidence.

Just because something seems (feels, appears) real doesn’t mean that it is.

It’s reasonable to accept personal experience as reliable evidence only if there’s no reason to doubt its reliability.

(And the book details why there’s much reason to doubt it’s reliability: selective memory, confirmation bias, errors in perception, etc. Much of the above is explicitly Humean.)

I could go on– the book really does demolish the “Appeal to Mystical Experience”. And it’s an undergraduate freshman general education text! Her piece is the sort of thing you assign to students in a critical thinking class and say, “OK, list as many errors of reasoning found here as you can.” Normally you have to use back issues of the Weekly World News to find so rich a lode of intellectual malfeasance! And she’s got a Ph.D. herself, and slipped this by the editors of the NY Times—there’s a lot of shame to go around!

I won’t psychologize Luhrmann here, for the possibilities are many: she could actually believe that a paranormal/goddy explanation is likely or at least has a substantial likelihood; she could simply be catering to an audience she wants to get; she could be saying what she thinks Templeton wants to hear, and so on. But whatever the explanation, it doesn’t speak well for her objectivity and rationality as an analyst of human behavior.

I would love to ask the Times‘s op-ed editor why the hell he put this piece on the page. I surely agree with Greg, though, that this is a black mark for the newspaper: a slice of tripe masquerading as informed opinion.

90 Comments

  1. Posted March 6, 2015 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    What a macaroon.

    Seriously? She had an hot flash at the same time her flashlight batteries shorted…ergo Shirley MacLaine?

    And the Times actually pays her for this nonsense?

    I am so in the worng business….

    b&

    • Posted March 6, 2015 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      Those were my thoughts exactly…a hot flash.

      • Posted March 6, 2015 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        Well, she says this happened to her when she was 23 years old, so if you’re implying a menopausal hot flash, that can’t be the case.

        • Posted March 6, 2015 at 10:37 am | Permalink

          We call them flushes rather than flashes…

          • Heather Hastie
            Posted March 6, 2015 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

            We do too.

        • Posted March 6, 2015 at 11:07 am | Permalink

          If your hot flashes don’t seem connected with your period, you might have a thyroid disorder. Overactive thyroid, or hyperthyroidism, can cause sweating, intolerance to heat and hot flashes. It often emerges in women under 40.

    • Posted March 6, 2015 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      I have to admit that my hot flashes have been bad enough to melt iron. 😉

      • SA Gould
        Posted March 6, 2015 at 11:36 am | Permalink

        As a long-time practicing bi-polar, I always had extraordinary events occur before and during a manic episode.

        One started with finding a smily-face balloon bouncing down the middle of a street while I was driving, which I ‘rescued’ on the way to the Thompson Center building opening (Chicago, 1985), and shook the hand of Jim Thompson who was just leaving. This ‘told’ me there would be a message (and always an object) for me at the top of the stairs, if I hurried. And there was, a uninflated balloon waiting for me.

        Which all was great fun for me. But I never, ever, concluded I had magical powers that I should write about.

        • Yiam Cross
          Posted March 6, 2015 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

          Well there’s your mistake, then! Get writing, sounds like the Times will buy all you can type.

  2. Posted March 6, 2015 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    I cringed with embarrassment for her as I read about her supernatural wonder over her bicycle lights.

  3. muffy
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    I am at a loss for words.

    Her experience makes me think of that terrible movie:

    “What the Bleep do We Know”

    Where, apparently, we can manipulate reality through the power of wishful thinking and quantum mechanics.

    • Posted March 6, 2015 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      Truly, ridiculously horrible movie. I only watched the whole thing because I wanted to write a scathing review of it — which I did.

      • darrelle
        Posted March 6, 2015 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        Hah!

  4. John
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    You don’t need lowly me to tell you, but you perform a great service to society when taking down these wooists-for-profit! More is needed, but the fact that you were confronted by a friend of hers shows that your efforts are getting through.

  5. Posted March 6, 2015 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    It’s more likely that the chain of causality was the reverse of the one she inferred: maybe the warmth in her backpack, or subconsciously-detected burning smells caused her to feel warmer and have thoughts of heat?

    • Pascal Nelson
      Posted March 6, 2015 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      Exactly! I have had the identical thing happen to me. In the seconds before I realized what was happening, I had some pretty interesting perceptions and thoughts triggered by the sub-threshold sensations of heat and smell.

      I was just so relieved that I wasn’t ignited to flames by the shorted battery.

      My response wasn’t “God?”, but “God!!!”

    • rickflick
      Posted March 6, 2015 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      I remember Dennett in one of his books reported on experiments that showed that generally our recollection of the sequence of events was extremely inaccurate. As I recall, subjects were shown a film of people and events and then asked to report on sequencing of the events. They did not do so good.

      • Posted March 6, 2015 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

        But did they do well? 😉

        • Posted March 6, 2015 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

          I’m not sure what you’re trying to convey… ?

          /@

        • rickflick
          Posted March 6, 2015 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

          I think they did not so well, but they were good people. 😎

    • winewithcats
      Posted March 8, 2015 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      That was my first thought as well. Do melting batteries release hallucinogens?

  6. Jeff Rankin
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    4. Cthulu was attempting to reenter the world of the living

    I just received a psychic message from R’lyeh: it’s spelled “Cthulhu”. For such a powerful being, it’s oddly sensitive about spelling and pronunciation of its name.

    Interesting article. I always wonder, when something odd like the bike light incident occurs, how one “gets there”. “There” being some kind of magical, numinous explanation. And why would this give one more respect for magical explanations of such occurrences? Isn’t it more likely that there was an electrical short (note: IANAE) in the light, and it sent her a weak electrical shock and also warmed up her backpack??

    • Posted March 6, 2015 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      Fixed now!

      GCM

    • aspidoscelis
      Posted March 6, 2015 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      IMO, if you want to understand why people arrive at a particular belief, examining whether that belief is true misses the point entirely. I think we can be pretty certain that religious beliefs are not based on objective assessments of truth or falsity. If we focus on that–e.g., on what actually happened to a bicycle light–we’re pretty much guaranteed not to understand why and how religious belief arises. Instead, we should focus on what is happening in people’s minds–not on what objectively happened, but on how events were experienced and why that experience led a person to a particular belief.

      I think that this is a very important field of inquiry and appreciate Tanya Luhrmann’s writing on the topic precisely because (in this instance) she “didn’t really try to figure out what was going on with the bicycle lights”. I don’t really care what happened to the bicycle lights, but I do want to understand why people hold religious beliefs. An explanation of the former sheds no light on the latter.

      • Jeff Rankin
        Posted March 6, 2015 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, I can see your point.

        My only thought if this happened to me would be “what the !$%!% happened to my bike light” not “magic is real” just because someone recently told me a story about a magic man.

        • aspidoscelis
          Posted March 6, 2015 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

          Likewise. I wouldn’t see such an event as evidence of the supernatural (at least, I hope I wouldn’t!), but some people do and I’m curious about why that is. My reading of Luhrmann’s work is that this is one of the basic questions she is interested in answering. I don’t fault her for not trying to answer truth value questions as well. A “perfect” author on religion might tackle both the “true / false” and the “how / why” questions, but I’m pretty happy to see someone do a good job at either one. When God Talks Back is the best book I’ve read that tackles the “how / why” questions. I don’t need her to tell me that religious belief is false to find that work valuable.

    • Mike Paps
      Posted March 6, 2015 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      I always wonder, when something odd like the bike light incident occurs, how one “gets there”.

      Yeah you really have to be inclined to believe in strange things in order to buy into them. I had one particular “psychic” experience, and another amazing one where I and several friends saw an unidentified flying object that certainly looked like a vehicle. I don’t believe I saw the future or spied a visitor from another planet because there are far more likely explanations. I would need far more evidence than my personal experience to convince me such things actually happen.

      • Mike Paps
        Posted March 6, 2015 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        oops sub

  7. Jeff Rankin
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Was it God, sending her a message?

    And why would god choose to communicate through a bicycle lamp in such a way that the message itself is indistinguishable from an electrical malfunction?

    • muffy
      Posted March 6, 2015 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      God works in mysterious ways.

      What’s sad is, she is an anthropologist. She should be asking questions like the one you just asked – why do people often resort to “spirituality” instead of thinking critically about the world.

      • Posted March 6, 2015 at 11:10 am | Permalink

        Why do people binge-watch cable series on Hulu when they have work to do? One feels groovy, the other not so much. Unfortunately Ms Luhrmann is unlikely to feel the regret that follows procrastination: she gets paid for feeling groovy! FTW!

        • muffy
          Posted March 6, 2015 at 11:14 am | Permalink

          My point being, she’s an anthropologist. Marvin Harris, whom I adore, always tried to look for environmental reasons as to why people would engage in seemingly irrational behaviours – such as worshipping cows, and sacrificing warriors caught in battle.

          • Posted March 6, 2015 at 11:41 am | Permalink

            Quite right. It is difficult to reconcile, the magic lantern story, against what she must well know from her education alone.

    • Posted March 6, 2015 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      Yes, if God wanted to really get her attention, why didn’t he/she/it choose something less likely to heat up and melt, like the straps on her backpack. Or better yet, skip the whole melty bit and simply send her an ambiguous message she can hear/read.

      Seriously, this is one of the worst offenders of not paying attention to Occam’s Razor: Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate or “The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct.” For the ‘God melted my lamp to send a message’ explanation, we have to assume that:

      1) God exists
      2) God can read my mind,
      3) God can interfere with physical reality at the moment I am thinking or feeling something
      4) Rather than simply send a simple message like ‘Hello there, mortal’, God is limited to performing some sort of magic trick that I then have to connect with a rational intention of communication.

      The simpler explanation, that the light simply shorted out due to some accumulated moisture or a worn metal part, and coincidentally happened when she had a hot flash. I’m not certain how many assumptions that explanation requires, but I’ll bet it takes quite a bit fewer than her interpretation of events, which is ‘instead of a burning bush, it’s a bicycle lamp.’

      Children reason this way, but they grow out of it. Some, like her, don’t.

  8. Posted March 6, 2015 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    The problem seems to be with how you think about odd experiences. It is correct to say that odd things can trigger musing about the paranormal. It is inexcusable to pander to this.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted March 6, 2015 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      Assuming she had a religious upbringing, this demonstrates the dangers of such an education. She’s an educated, intelligent person, but has instinctively reverted to the explanation for weird stuff she was probably given as a child – that a supernatural explanation, such as “God did it”, is valid. Another reason to abhor the religion being taught to children the way it’s mostly done now.

  9. darrelle
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    It has always seemed to me, as an outsider looking in, that there is a strong current of spirituality (and by that I mean the woo kind) in anthropology. It also seems like anthropologists that are less . . . wooey(?), are often fairly critical of their own field.

    • Posted March 7, 2015 at 8:03 am | Permalink

      I suppose the difference is between cultural and physical anthropologists, with the latter criticizing the former.

  10. Graham
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    “an explanation from personal experience.” A personal experience is a personal experience. It’s NOT an explanation!

  11. gluonspring
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    While her presentation is risible, she could framed these observations differently and made a decent point. I know a great many religious people and a great many of them do, indeed, hold on to odd experiences they have had as a sort of touchstone proof of their religious beliefs. It is true that our brain reacts in a tingly way to coincidences of all sorts. Merely thinking about a friend and looking up to see them come into the same restaurant is enough to make the typical brain light up with the delight of the coincidental. Given our brains ever-roaving desire to see and understand patterns in the world, the thought, “My thinking caused the friend to show up” is never far off. If you add in some sort of perceptual break down, some altered brain state as can obviously happen, as when one is fainting, or even has a drop in blood sugar, or any of a thousand physiological blips that can occur, or even if your thoughts themselves induce your brain into some slightly altered state, as with meditation, then such experiences can feel especially profound. It is a high hill for reason to scale to overcome such visceral feelings that people have. Perception feels like reality, and it takes a bit of practice and commitment to understanding to think of one’s perceptions as something other than identical with reality. A better article than the one that appears in the NYT would have then used The Dress (http://slate.me/18sqUJN) as a teaching moment on this point.

    • Posted March 6, 2015 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      Yes, but that point has been made a gazillion times before, by Shermer and Dawkins among others. But if you’re expecting Luhrmann to say that there is a perfectly natural explanation for these “spooky” experiences, you’ll have to wait a long time!

  12. Joseph Stans
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Ah, there is nothing like a short-circuit in a bicycle light to help you notice the finger of God pointing at you.

  13. Kevin
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Oh how my alma mater has failed…

    • The Very Rev. Dr. (Dean) Jane Shaw
    • Stanford Law School Religious Liberty Clinic
    and
    • Tanya Luhrmann…she is the quintessence of all that could go wrong on the academic side of an academic institution. Only American football may exceed the incompatible aims of higher education.

    • Randy Schenck
      Posted March 6, 2015 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      I like that comparison…very close indeed.

  14. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Lets’ just say the the NYT seeks a very ‘broad’ audience. There is also a great article in the online section from Carl Zimmer on the junk DNA wars.

  15. Posted March 6, 2015 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Was it her imagination? Was it God, sending her a message? We don’t know, and so everything is on the table.

    If everything is on the table, may I propose that it was Mrs. Michael Shermer’s grandfather, up to his afterlife tinkering again. It would be interesting to know just when this occurred: perhaps he caused the energy from her lamp to transcended the veil and yield its life essences to that old radio.

    And that’s why I was meant to read this! So I could piece it together. Someone get Shermer on the blower! Never mind – I’ll face south and cogitate my aura vibes at him … 👻

  16. Posted March 6, 2015 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Battery rapid discharge, full stop. Almost certainly either internal or external short.

    I have seen this happen many times and have witnessed well-sealed batteries explode during rapid discharge. This is part of my normal (for pay) work.

    Yes, yes, it’s not nearly as much fun as some fuzzy woo-woo maybe-ness that something really cool that we can’t explain happened. Such is life.

    And why is it that “mystery” appeals to so many people? Isn’t seeking and discovering the real reasons more interesting?

    And why do they immediately want to brand it as “evidence” for something other than material reality? Sheesh, weird things happen all the time! It’s just laziness to want to write them off as “mysteries”! Get in there and figure it out!

    • darrelle
      Posted March 6, 2015 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      Killjoy. Debbie Downer. Party Pooper.

      • Kevin
        Posted March 6, 2015 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        Did someone say Karl Popper? Maybe Luhrmann needs some falsifiability in her spiritual life.

      • Filippo
        Posted March 6, 2015 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, you don’t have to tell everything you know. Why do you have to unweave the rainbow, huh?

  17. Dermot C
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Health and Safety has taken a dive since they privatized British Rail. x

    • Posted March 6, 2015 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      How is it now? I last rode BritRail when it still was.

      Friends who moved to the UK shortly after the privatization said is was horrible then.

      Any better now?

      Cheers.

      • Dermot C
        Posted March 6, 2015 at 11:06 am | Permalink

        I’m no expert: the big debate is over pricing, over-crowding on South-East commuter trains, apparently random and unfathomable pricing structures. Mind you the govt. is floating the idea of selling off the public’s 40% share in the profitable Channel Tunnel. I get the impression that nationalization of the rail industry, rather unusually these days, is popular. x

  18. Posted March 6, 2015 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    When I read this yesterday, one of my first thoughts was “I hope that Jerry takes this apart!” Thanks for coming through – obviously supernatural ESP at work!! 🙂

  19. Posted March 6, 2015 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    The last time I felt something coursing through me with subsequent warmth, I had wet myself thoroughly. Which could explain the short circuited batteries and an instinctual reluctance to remember the public humiliation in any other way than as a mystical experience.

    All theories being equal that is.

    • Posted March 6, 2015 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      Ah – wee begets woo.

      /@

      • Posted March 6, 2015 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

        So what you’re saying is “wee, woo, wee, woo wee woo wee woo”? Don’t worry, no need to call the authorities, an ambulance is on the way.

  20. Posted March 6, 2015 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Knowing that Ms Luhrmann is a Templeton Stable Pony™, I suspect her descent is pointed directly where the money is. Not to say she is dishonest, it’s just that lucre and approving nods can do a lot to encourage thinking a certain way.

    It was weird when Michael Shermer neglected to give the fullness of his material world understanding of what happened with his wife’s haunted radio, and how their elevated emotional state in the presence of coincidence gave him the feeling of the supernatural at work. But when he wrote that piece, he likely did not have the kind of editorial supervision that The Newspaper of Record is supposed to (or should) have to make sure there is some kind of filter on complete bullsh**t.

    Sadly, this – serious people in a serious publication saying very unserious things – is only going to get worse in the race against Fox News to the bottom.

  21. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    I recall years ago that we had a riding pony for the kids that had a battery that would make it sing when you squeezed its ear. Its jaw moved as it sang: ‘I’m a little pony, clop clop clop…’ it sang on like that.
    We completely forgot about it as they were getting older. Then one day we heard a creepy raspy sound from our basement. I investigated and found the forgotton pony, with nearly dead batteries, rasping out its hideous song in slow ‘mo. It sounded ghastly and haunted.
    So can I haz my Templeton money too?

    • Draken
      Posted March 6, 2015 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      Was its name “Chucky”, by any chance? Then I advise caution.

  22. Posted March 6, 2015 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Luhring Them In: An Op-Ed Journey into Protean Credulity.

  23. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    “What on earth has happened to the New York Times?”

    “All the news that pitches a fit”?

  24. Linda K
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    This Luhrmann one is nothing — did anybody see Wonkette founder Ana Marie Cox on The Rachel Maddow Show? Before, she was a progressive, but she lately has become so broadminded that her brain is falling out. Check out this baloney on the Daily Beast:
    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/02/28/why-i-m-coming-out-as-a-christian.html
    She has lost all credibility for me, but good luck to her with her new delusion.
    Unless she’s punking us all…?

    • Posted March 6, 2015 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      Sheesh…so if she “accepted the infinite grace” what the hell is left to do? What point does any of it any longer have?

  25. Posted March 6, 2015 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    For a comparable lapse in editorial judgment, I was immediately reminded of “Our Lady of the Dolphins”, Peggy Noonan, who infamously got a piece published in the Wall Street Journal (which has, or had, a quality news operation) in which she claimed it was reasonable to suppose that God had sent dolphins to bring Elian Gonzalez to America. She actually wrote that if Reagan had been president at the time, he

    would not have dismissed the story of the dolphins as Christian kitsch, but seen it as possible evidence of the reasonable assumption that God’s creatures had been commanded to protect one of God’s children.

    That’s a direct quote– you couldn’t make this stuff up! Read more about it here.

    GCM

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 6, 2015 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      The Wall Street Journal had, and to my knowledge still has, a first-rate news operation, but its editorial-board policy (under the aegis of which Noonan’s column appeared) has long been capital-S Shite.

  26. JohnW
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    If invisible fairy power of the universe melted my bike light, I would be really, really pissed. It’s an Ixon IQ commuter light and cost me an arm and a leg….I see myself getting off the train and letting rip “WTF?? Oh gimme an effin break!”

  27. Denis McDaniel
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    I wonder why only the light was damaged. An energy field strong enough to do that should have damaged/burned other items in her bag…?

  28. Posted March 6, 2015 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Early this morning I awoke from a dream; my thoughts were clear but my perception was still in a dream-like state. My hearing was amplified, my sense of body/self virtually nonexistent, and my perception of space/size was altered. I could understand the temptation of ascribing this hallucination to Something Out There, but this would be an intellectual failing. The reasonable explanation is that my brain was simply in an altered state of consciousness.

  29. Posted March 6, 2015 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Funny…I just took a phone call and my ear started getting hot. I then noticed the back of the phone where the battery sits felt slightly hot to the touch. Not just warm like a normal piece of electronic equipment, but hot. It was probably just the battery overheating OR equally likely, Lucifer himself possessing the phone.

  30. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    The universe is fermions and bosons, mass and forces, matter and energy. Until Dr. Luhrmann can hazard a hypothesis as to how the events she purports to have occurred mesh with our understanding of the universe — or can plausibly propose something beyond the physical universe (and how the two interact) — she really has nothing worthwhile to say.

  31. Sastra
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    I’ve talked to hundreds of people who have had remarkable, unexpected experiences that startled them profoundly. Some see them as clear evidence of the supernatural and others do not. And there are those who come to a conclusive view of what these events mean, and those who hold them as evidence of the mystery of the human imagination itself.

    See, it’s all about different kinds of people. We all see and experience amazing things … and then we make choices.

    To the general public this sounds so fair and even-handed. It probably seems that way to Luhrman, too, who doubtless thinks she’s skirted the danger here of becoming judgmental and taking sides. But by failing to grant any sort of priority to the honest approach of the skeptical scientific mindset — what after all is likely? — all Luhrman does here is allow the automatic privilege of Spirituality to take over.

    And Spirituality is a bully. It’s a passive aggressive bully which pretends to not notice what happens when one conflates an empirical question with a moral one and rejoices over the “winners.”

    In the supernatural world view we are always being tested, always faced with opportunities. Objectivity and dispassionate curiosity is framed as weakness or arrogance. It’s cold. It’s closed-minded. It’s not who anyone wants to become — not if there’s any desire to advance onward in the journey to transcendence and growth. Rational analysis is not just an epistemic no-no, it’s a personal dead-end.

    Instead you’re supposed to be drawn towards supernatural, mystical, woo-filled conclusions. You want to be that person. You want to embrace potential and higher truths and the depth of meaning below the surface. Expand and be filled with the comfort and joy of supernatural potential! Rise towards the reason you’re here!

    Not that there’s anything wrong with those left grubbing around in the lack of potential due to their own narrow perspective, of course. The world has both kinds of people. For now. Until even their eyes are opened and ‘science and reason’ are finally recognized by the wise to be woefully inadequate in this area. We can wait for the killjoys.

    Tch. Of all the things which piss me off about religion, I think my own personal pet peeve is this particular version of insidious smugness, the judgmental attitude of those who think that of course numinous and extraordinary experiences should be treated with the kid gloves of respect and let’s not draw any objective conclusions lest we break the enchantment.

  32. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Why is Greg Mayer “not a Bayesian”? My understanding of the equations is too meager to claim the mantle of Bayesian myself, but as an approach to decision-making it seems to me largely on the money (as Greg deftly demonstrates here, for example, in his Bayesian takedown of Luhrmann’s spurious contentions).

    • JohnW
      Posted March 6, 2015 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      That struck me as an odd thing to say also..

    • Posted March 6, 2015 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      Bayes’ Theorem is true and useful. Bayesianism is an approach to scientific inference that, while using the theorem, goes well beyond it. I once gave a talk entitled “Why I am not a Bayesian”, and Clark Glymour and Elliott Sober have published papers with that title or content. Perhaps I’ll post the notes for my talk here at WEIT some time.

      GCM

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 6, 2015 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

        I thought you might respond and, if you did, that you would have a reasoned basis for your determination. “Bayesian” is one of those terms that seems to cover a lot of ground — or to have varying meanings (and shades of meaning) in various fields. I certainly have no reason to question your conclusion that it has been over-extended as an approach to scientific inference. I would find it interesting to see you post about that some time here.

  33. DrBrydon
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to start referring to god as Spooky, the ultimate cause of all things spooky.

    • Posted March 6, 2015 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      🎶 Life is kinda crazy with a spooky little God like you … 🎶

      It’s really a trinity of Sppoky, Jeepers Creepers and The Holy Ghost

      👻

      Allah BOO! Akhbar

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 6, 2015 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

      It’s the “Power of the Poof” — the ability to poof things into and out of existence without leaving a trace of any interaction with the material world.

  34. Posted March 6, 2015 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    As Hitch said, we need to distinguish the numinous from supernatural.

  35. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    Something melted, all right…

    From a Bayesian perspective

    I think it is worse.

    Luhrmann makes the mistake to claim actual observations. But then, and even if she is mistaken on the observations, we have a null hypothesis of natural mechanisms. Because that works, while “believe-anything-you-damn-well-please” has not.

    Luhrmann’s claim is an extraordinary claim, and need extraordinary evidence. But in fact she has nothing. Even if anyone else would believe her coincidence, they happen all the time.

  36. Derek Freyberg
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    One might almost retitle the post “Tanya Luhrman melts her mind with a bicycle light”

  37. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    I was driving along a back road (fortunately a straight bit) at around 40mph at night when everything went dead – motor cut, lights went out. I managed to stop in a straight line. Tried all the switches – dead. Scratched my head for a bit, tried the starter again – motor started, lights came back on, car worked perfectly. I could never find anything wrong with the wiring and the fault never recurred. There is no rational explanation for this. (But I never though of blaming God).

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted March 6, 2015 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

      Actually my experience there is more ‘spooky’ than Luhrmann’s. Hers can be explained by mere coincidence. Mine can’t.

    • Posted March 7, 2015 at 2:08 am | Permalink

      Space aliens! À la _CE3K_.

      /@

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted March 7, 2015 at 3:12 am | Permalink

        Yes exactly that crossed my mind. But I didn’t see Stephen Spielberg lurking anywhere.

        That was probably the most creepy – and the simplest – special effect in any sci-fi movie. When the headlights pulled up behind the ute and then just gently but so unexpectedly rose out of frame.

    • Posted March 8, 2015 at 12:17 am | Permalink

      Right, God wouldn’t do that. Likely it was the Prince of Darkness himself.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted March 8, 2015 at 1:15 am | Permalink

        Oh _that_ Prince of Darkness. I thought you meant the original Prince of Darkness, Joseph Lucas.

        (And the car was a 70’s English Ford Anglia, so it would have had Lucas electrics…)

        • Posted March 8, 2015 at 1:54 am | Permalink

          But did Lucas ever eat a live bat? I doubt it, but if he had, maybe that explains your malfunction.


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