The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘deception’

The Mythology of Mother Teresa

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 4, 2016

Chances are that if you mention the name “Mother Teresa” to a random person, they will associate her with all manner of great and wonderful activities, such feeding the poor and aiding the sick and dying. Indeed, MT is almost universally accepted as the model of a good and selfless person. But, as with all myths, the reality is quite different and not so rosy.

Since the Vatican is about to declare Mother Teresa a “saint”, I think it’s appropriate to remind people of some unpleasant facts about her. One of MT’s earliest and harshest critics was Christopher Hitchens, who authored this article for Slate in 2003, wherein he refers to her as a “fanatic, fundamentalist, and fraud.” Here’s an excerpt:

… MT was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction. And she was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti (whose rule she praised in return) and from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings and Loan. Where did that money, and all the other donations, go? The primitive hospice in Calcutta was as run down when she died as it always had been—she preferred California clinics when she got sick herself—and her order always refused to publish any audit. But we have her own claim that she opened 500 convents in more than a hundred countries, all bearing the name of her own order. Excuse me, but this is modesty and humility?

And if that isn’t bad enough, check out this investigation of MT and the con job of her mythology and its propagation by the Vatican from Penn & Teller’s show Bullshit (warning: some of the images are disturbing).

Last, but not least, there are critics of MT from within India, who have been demanding accountability from her organization for years. One such critic is Dr. Aroup Chatterjee, who grew up in Calcutta amid MT’s organization that supposedly helped the sick and dying poor of the city. His article in the New York Times is scathing:

Over hundreds of hours of research, much of it cataloged in a book he published in 2003, Dr. Chatterjee said he found a “cult of suffering” in homes run by Mother Teresa’s organization, the Missionaries of Charity, with children tied to beds and little to comfort dying patients but aspirin.

He and others said that Mother Teresa took her adherence to frugality and simplicity in her work to extremes, allowing practices like the reuse of hypodermic needles and tolerating primitive facilities that required patients to defecate in front of one another.

Wow. That’s pretty rough stuff. It almost makes one want to question the motives of the Vatican, doesn’t it? Why would the Catholic Church create and propagate this myth of Mother Teresa, her “saintliness”, and the supposed miracles she performed? Maybe it has something to do with the institutional corruption and scandal brought on by rampant sexual abuse and related cover-ups?

Ah well, nothing like that old-time religion to distract one from some unpleasant facts.

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“An Honest Liar” Comes to PBS

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 14, 2016

One of my biggest skeptical heroes is James Randi.  I’ve read many of his books (I highly recommend them – here’s a good list), I have had the good fortune to meet him a few times, and for a time I even worked with his organization, the James Randi Educational Foundation. He is a small man with a big laugh, an even bigger heart, and an even bigger love for the pursuit of skeptical analysis into all manner of paranormal, mystical, or odd-ball claims. For Randi, no questions are off limits and skepticism knows no bounds; he and his legacy are one of the primary reasons why I am here, doing what I do on this blog and in my daily life as a skeptic and teacher, and I know his work has reached and inspired countless others. Now a movie, called “An Honest Liar”, which documents his life and his legacy will be coming to the Public Broadcasting Service on March 28, 2016…

An Honest Liar


About the Film

For the last half-century, James “The Amazing” Randi has entertained millions with his dazzling feats of magic, escape, and trickery. Along the way he discovered that faith healers, fortune-tellers, and psychics were using his beloved magician’s tricks to swindle money from the credulous. Fed up with the fraud, he dedicated his life to exposing con artists with a wit and over-the-top showmanship all his own. An Honest Liar is part detective story, part biography, and a bit of a magic act itself.

An acolyte of Harry Houdini, Randi became a famed magician-turned-debunker of psychics and mediums in his own right with a series of unparalleled investigations and elaborate hoaxes. These grand schemes fooled scientists, the media, and a gullible public, but always in service of demonstrating the importance of skepticism and the dangers of magical thinking. Randi was a frequent guest on TV variety and talk shows, most notably The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, uncloaking high profile scams, like the “spoonbending” of illusionist Uri Geller. Eventually Randi’s efforts won him the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Award.

When dealing with a master deceiver, however, the truth can be elusive. A sudden and shocking revelation threatens to bring down Randi’s own house of cards, and the magician who spent his life exposing phonies may be the victim of a devastating deceit himself.

An Honest Liar is told through interviews with Randi, vintage footage of his TV appearances, and interviews with illusionists, performers, and skeptics alike, including Adam Savage, Penn & Teller, Bill Nye, Geller, Alice Cooper, and more.

Watch the trailer, pass it on to your friends (even if they aren’t card-carrying skeptics), and spread the word. This is a film which everyone should see, because as Randi himself states, “No matter how smart or well-educated you are, you can be deceived.” 🙂

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Fun with Pareidolia: Mr. Bill in my Soup!

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 28, 2012

I’ve been meaning to post this for awhile, but I keep forgetting to do so.  During my summer vacation to the Adirondacks in New York, my wife and I took a break from hiking to get some dinner.  As we were getting ready to chow down, lo and behold, I observed the following “miraculous” appearance in my wife’s soup!…

Laugh if you will, unbeliever, but you should tremble in awe at the miraculous appearance of…

Mr. Bill!  Ohhhh Noooooo!!! 😦

Of course it isn’t Mr. Bill in my soup, folks.  It’s just another classic case of pareidolia, the same phenomenon by which people think they see dogs or cars in the clouds, the so-called Face on Mars, the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast, or visions of Jesus in a window.  Essentially, our brains work as pattern-recognition machines, and one of the most familiar patterns which we are evolutionarily programmed to recognize is other human faces.  So we tend to see human (or human-like) faces in bits of random data even when there really is no face there to begin with!

I really like how skeptical magicians Penn & Teller put it during their Bullshit! episode on supposed “miracles”, so I’ll let them have the last word 🙂

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The “Invisible Gorilla” and How Seeing is NOT Always Believing

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 19, 2010

We’ve all heard the oft-repeated phrase: “Seeing is believing” – as if our human senses (specifically that of sight) are somehow, magically infallible.  Of course, most people don’t want to admit just how fallible our senses can be – or, more to the point, most people aren’t willing to admit just how fallible their own senses can be (they’re more likely to admit that other people’s senses aren’t up to snuff).

As anyone who has experience with court cases & law enforcement can tell you, the least reliable kind of evidence is typically that of eyewitness testimony, because we tend to place an over-reliance upon our senses in place of other, more rational & consistent forms of evidence.  Not only that, but our tendency to over-emphasize the trustworthiness of our senses can lead us into fooling ourselves that we’re seeing ghosts, alien spacecraft, the Virgin Mary in a grill cheese sandwich, and similar deceptions.

The fallibility of the human sense of sight and the associated phenomenon of inattentional blindness is beautifully outlined in this recent article…

‘Invisible Gorilla’ Test Shows How Little We Notice

Charles Q. Choi
LiveScience Contributor
Tue Jul 13, 10:00 am ET

A dumbfounding study roughly a decade ago that many now find hard to believe revealed that if people are asked to focus on a video of other people passing basketballs, about half of watchers missed a person in a gorilla suit walking in and out of the scene thumping its chest.

Now research delving further into this effect shows that people who know that such a surprising event is likely to occur are no better at noticing other unforeseen events – and may even be worse at noticing them – than others who aren’t expecting the unexpected.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Live Blog of CFI Chicago’s “Dangerous Nonsense” Entry 4

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 24, 2010

Now it is time for some fun… The Mentalist ‘Mystopher’ and Carolee, “Serving Fork-Fulls of Magic and Imagination”.  Mystopher used to be a Baptist preacher back in the day…

He became interested in magic & deception from the shell game which takes place all too often on the streets of Chicago.  He calls himself Mystopher because when he wanted to bring this magic show to his church but ran into resistance his fellow church-goers didn’t want to do it because “magic”, “illusion”, etc were somehow evil.

Okay, Mystopher is now working on his tricks, so I’m going to stop blogging because I’m going to miss them!…

What’s the difference between magic, luck, and miracle?  “God did it!” (joke from the audience)

I just got pwned in a great card trick by Mystopher – very slick & well done! 🙂

Now the straight-jacket is coming out – this is going to be good… he has been put into the straight-jacket, tied up with locked chains, and is now escaping this mess – wow!!!  He has one arm free and is opening an envelope to get a deck of cards so he can perform a reveal… undoing the back of the jacket now, both arms free… less than one minute to go!

30 seconds to go… he’s free and the revealed card is coming out of his mouth! Awesome!!!

The next trick is to disappear a $20 bill, make it into a $1 bill, and the original $20 bill (signed) was reappeared into a lemon.  I have no clue how he “miracled” the $20 bill into the lemon. Nice…

Now for some mentalism.  Mystopher’s wife Carolee has come to the front and been blindfolded by Adam Walker’s tie.  In the meantime, Mystopher is regaling us with some poetry… miracles for less.

Now some interesting mentalism from Carolee, using “clairvoyance” to tell people’s names on their nametags, what is in their pockets, how many fingers they’re holding up, the name on the back of a man’s tie, a picture in an envelope, etc.

Posted in humor, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Lessons from TAM7: Magic, Deception, and Promoting Skepticism

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 15, 2009

Well, I got back from The Amazing Meeting 7 in Las Vegas a couple of days ago, and now that I’m back to some semblance of normalcy I can get back into a routine.  Which includes keeping up to date with this blog.  I wanted to take a few minutes to summarize some of what I learned at TAM7 in the two workshops I attended…

1. The first was with magicians Jamy Ian Swiss and D.J. Grothe – their workshop was on the relationship between magic, skepticism, and science.  The basic premise of Jamy and D.J.’s workshop was that because scientists are used to dealing with nature (which doesn’t lie) then they are just as easily fooled by charlatans & pseudoscientists as the rest of us.  On the other hand, magicians are professional deceivers, so they have an intimate knowledge of how people can be deceived and (perhaps more importantly) how people can deceive themselves.


In the process of their talk, Jamy and D.J. went through a history of magic & deception, touching upon the Reginald Scot, French magician Robert Houdin, founders of the Spiritualist movement (such as the Fox Sisters & Davenport Brothers),  Houdini, Joseph Dunninger, Milbourne Christopher, and Uri Geller.

Read the rest of this entry »

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