Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Off the rails

One of the saddest things to me is to see a brilliant mind veer off course, and to be powerless to stop it.  I'm not talking about actual mental illness here, although that is a tragedy of considerable magnitude as well; I'm talking about someone with intact cognitive faculties who becomes, for whatever reason, attracted by an ideology, and abandons any sort of critical thinking in favor of its appeal.  I've only seen this happen a couple of times myself, but in my experience, any kind of rational argument is generally fruitless once it has occurred.

My most striking example of this was a young man who studied both introductory and AP-level biology with me.  I remember him as a humorous, friendly, open boy, who had an inquisitive mind and a fine understanding of science.  I was shocked to be contacted by him a couple of years ago and to find out that he had become an ultra-fundamentalist Christian, a young-earth creationist whose sole reason for writing to me was to express concern about the fact that I was headed to hell.  I was, he said, using my influence to draw teenagers away from god, not only by my teaching of the "flawed science" of evolution, but by my being an out-of-the-closet atheist.  He admitted that I didn't push my atheism on my students, but said that my standing as a respected teacher was "making atheism appealing."  His email was a long, rambling diatribe about the evil that "secularizers" like myself were perpetrating upon society, and completely devoid of the sense of humor (and perspective) that I recall as one of his best qualities.  After some consideration I wrote back, and this led to two or three back-and-forths -- but neither of us, of course, budged, and (I suspect) both of us were left saddened by the encounter.

A dear friend and former colleague of mine, one of the most talented teachers I've had the privilege of working with, told me yesterday about a recent similar occurrence.  She told me about a former student, with "a seemingly brilliant mind," who had contacted her by telephone.  The reason for the call was to ask her for money, because he was trying to get to Europe to meet with a healer, Dr. Philippe Sauvage.  My friend said she was not in the position to donate money to his cause, and the young man asked her to refer him to "any rich friends she might have."  Receiving a negative answer to this, the young man ended the conversation, presumably to canvass others to try to raise the money he needed.

I hadn't heard about Philippe Sauvage, so I decided to look into him, and what I found was fairly scary.  Sauvage's site (here) strikes me as the ravings of a megalomaniac.  Here's a sampling:
Philippe Sauvage has accomplished more in one of his 50 Earth years than any human dreams of in a lifetime. The contents of this page offer the barest sketch of his unbelievably dramatic career as Bio-Cosmic Justice Enforcer. Humanity has been not only blessed by his very presence this past half century, but just as we have begun to reap full force the effects of our own carcinogenetic destruction of our planetary organism (the Geo-Self), Philippe Sauvage has arrived to usher the Worthy through the cataclysmic geopolitical, geological, atmospheric and immunological disasters now emergent...  Know, beyond the shadow of ANY doubt, that you are now introduced to the greatest figure the inhabitants of this planet have ever seen. Know that this is THE pivotal time of Your Life. Nothing else matters now but what You DO in response to this knowledge (or, most unfortunately, what you do NOT DO). Awaken or not, it is of no consequence to Philippe Sauvage as he completely fulfills his role regardless, but be certain it is of VERY Real Consequence to You.
 He claims to be the World's Last and Most Powerful Druid, a shape-shifter, and the inheritor of "ancient Hyperborean spirituality" through his Breton ancestry.  He has made "revolutionary contributions" to evolutionary biology, criminology (through "subliminalistics" -- advanced technologies of distant subliminal mind control), psychology, anthropology, and medicine (this last was as a "charismatic miracle worker and healer").  He was also an undercover special agent, a paramilitary undercover anti-terrorist leader called "009."  (No, I'm not making any of this up.)

And more interesting, none of it is true.

An October 2009 BBC exposé (here) calls Sauvage a "conman," a "sham," and a "fraud," who has bilked people out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and whose claims (including healing third-degree burns "overnight") are pure bullshit.  Sauvage has been the subject of a number of legal investigations, and in fact fled France because he was about to be jailed for fraud.  He has lived for a time in the United States, where he founded a "healing organization" called Catharsis, but after a judge in the US failed to grant him asylum with regards to the jail sentence pending in France, Sauvage went to England, setting up shop in Devon (and convincing dozens of people there of his powers, ripping more money off from the ill and vulnerable).  His latest home has been Italy, but no one really seems to be all that sure where he is.

Interpol, of course, would love to find that out.

I am mystified as to the appeal that people like Sauvage have.  I suppose, having never had a life-threatening illness, I may not fully understand the desperation that can sometimes engender.  But I'd like to think that even if I were dying of some terminal disease, that my mental faculties would not go off the rails to the extent that I would fall for the claims of someone like Sauvage.

And as far as my friend's former student: all I can say is that it is doubly sad to see a promising mind pulled into the orbit of a counterfactual, irrational, toxic worldview.  And unfortunately, from the (thankfully) few experiences I've had with this sort of thing, I don't hold out a great deal of hope for a positive outcome.  I can only wish, in the case of this student, that enough of his friends and family refuse to fund his trip to Europe that he is forced to stay here in the US... and can be helped to escape from the influence of these charlatans.


  1. 'the inheritor of "ancient Hyperborean spirituality" through his Breton ancestry'
    Really? So...everyone of Breton ancestry is an inheritor of this "ancient Hyperborean spirituality"? - Cool! I have Breton ancestry - does that mean I get it too? (of course, my Breton ancestry is really far back - my Breton ancestors left Brittany in 1066 to invade England with William the Conqueror...but, still - that's what it sounds like. I expect the people of Brittany must be really super-spiritual as a result, right? Uh...I don't actually know any statistics on that, but I highly doubt that's the case.

    And you'd think if this guy was so super-awesome, that he'd find ways to make money without having to bilk the desperate...or even having to charge them at all.

    1. Hey, I have Breton ancestry, too... I didn't even think of that. Cool.

  2. Gordon, in fact I've been meaning to speak with you about your corruption of the young and probable destination in the afterlife.

    1. Given the number of years I've taught, I suspect that there's a special spot in hell saved for me. Oh, that, and the fact that I play the bagpipes.

    2. Oh, never mind then. If you're a bagpiper, it pretty much doesn't matter what else you do.

    3. Yetis dumping snow on your head at 4 o'clock every morning.

  3. I can only imagine the profound experience I would have being in the presence Mr. Sauvage.
    Does enlightenment normal coincide with overwhelming nausea, clenched fists, and a desire to blurt obscenities?

    As far as your student is concerned... Religion is serious business. Figuratively and literally. No room for jokes when your soul is at stake. He is, however, partly correct. Critical thinking classes have been under fire for having the natural consequence of pulling students away from religion. Faith and logic do not play well together.

    I would enjoy hearing one of your bagpipe performances, if you have one recorded or ever get the chance to.

    1. I don't have any recordings of my pipe-playing, but you can hear my fluting (and singing) here:

  4. I have been in a similar situation for some time now. An old and dear friend of mine started going overboard in various areas. First it was UFOs, then ancient aliens, which is a logical "evolutionary step", now it's "chemtrails". It has come down to organizing demonstrations in the center of the city, with his friends from Facebook that have similar opinions, and all 20 of them shout at everyone else to wake up and see the death that is falling from the skies.
    I have more than once tried to discuss these outlandish theories with him but it appears that no argument, no matter how powerful (in my not-so-brilliant mind), can shake him.
    Since he is a friend, maybe not a brilliant mind but still a friend, I really want to do something, but apart from using drugs on him, I don't know what.
    Anyone has a suggestion, or is he too far gone?

  5. Theodore,

    Appeal to his rationalistic side.

    "Hey friend, I understand where you're coming from. But I just gotta say a couple things:

    1. If Nationally syndicated networks like The Discovery Channel and History Channel are doing documentaries on these subjects, you can't claim that there isn't enough awareness.

    2. Even if it is true that there are Aliens among us, what purpose does it serve to be consumed with doom & gloom from the skies? What do you think you can actually do about Aliens that, by your own beliefs, are vastly more advanced than us? If these Aliens do exist, the real illusion is that you could actually do anything about it.

    3. Your preoccupation with Aliens is only alienating your friends who don't want to spend all of their time being consumed with this subject.

    4. If all I ever wanted to talk about was Global Warming, you'd probably accuse me of being a 'Debbie Downer' and wouldn't want to hang out with me. Think about it."