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.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Peopling the world with pyromaniac goblins

In many cases, the woo-woo view of the world seems to me to come from a sort of fantasy-land style wishful thinking.  Wouldn't it be lovely if our lives were ruled by the stars?  Isn't it a nice thought that our deceased loved ones could communicate comforting messages to us through the voice of a medium?  Wouldn't it be grand if deep down, there was a pattern, that all of the craziness and chaos we see around us actually meant something?

It seems, however, that there are (at least) two other motivations for espousing a counterfactual view of the world.  One comes from a kind of free-floating paranoia, and that's what gives rise to your conspiracy theorists, the sort of people who think that HAARP (the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program) caused the Japanese tsunami last year.  A third cause of woo-woo-ism, however, consists of jumping to a wild explanation because the rational, logical alternatives nearer at hand are simply too awful to contemplate.

Consider the recent goblin attacks in Zimbabwe.  (Source)

The news outlet that reported the story, ZimDiaspora, tells of the homestead inhabited by the Sithole and Muyambo families, which had been plagued by "mysterious occurrences."  Stones were thrown at family members by an unseen hand.  Dirt was put into cooking pots, ruining the meals.  And now, four buildings in the homestead have been burned to the ground, leaving the families "sleep(ing) in the open, while the few belongings they managed to salvage from the raging fire are heaped outside."

And what, pray tell, could wreak all of this havoc upon this poor family?  The answer, of course, is:  goblins.

Or a magic spell.  Something like that.  One of the household's members, 52-year-old Sarah Muyambo, said that magic was definitely a possibility, because a "traditional healer" had told her that her son, Enoch (29) had "laid his hands on some money-making magical charms and things are now backfiring."  Of course, another member of the homestead said he had seen "snake-like creatures wearing sunglasses, a suit and a pair of shoes" near the houses, so maybe it could be that.

Or, maybe not.

Let's quote another bit of the news story:  "Whenever one young male member of the family, Taso Sithole (16) entered each of the huts and as soon as he came out, that hut would unexpectedly go up in smoke and this happened on all the four structures that were burnt at the homestead."

So, what do you think is the most likely explanation here, for the tragic burning of the buildings in the homestead?
1)  Goblins did it.
2)  It was because a money-making magic charm backfired.
3)  A snake-like creature wearing shoes and sunglasses set the fires.
4)  It was a teenage boy, who amazingly enough was on the scene every time it happened.
Okay, I've been a teacher for 25 years, and I've known a lot of teenage boys -- I even helped to raise two of them.  And one thing that seems universal is that teenage boys like to set things on fire.  That a teenage boy would burn down four houses in his own homestead does seem pretty extreme, even by ordinary teenage-boy-standards -- honestly, it seems to point to a dangerous pyromania, something considerably beyond the ordinary enjoyment of watching stuff burn up.  And I suppose that on some level you can understand why Taso Sithole's family isn't all that eager to consider this possibility.  But seriously -- goblins?  Snakes wearing shoes?  Magic spells?

It can't be easy to realize that someone in your family is deranged.  But it seems like, just for safety's sake, it is better to confront the painful truth than it is to make stuff up, peopling the world with pyromaniac goblins so that you don't have to face reality.  To quote Carl Sagan:  "Better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy."

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