An Honest Liar…an honest review

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After hearing several of my most trusted podcaster friends talk about the new documentary on James Randi, I decided to watch it. Netflix is streaming “An Honest Liar”, so I added it to my list, made some popcorn, and turned it on. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, only that several like-minded friends recommended it. My friends may have enjoyed it, but I didn’t, for reasons I am still struggling with, so bear with me.

For those who don’t know, The Amazing Randi, is a magician/escape artist turned debunker. He is famous for debunking Uri Geller’s psychic spoon bending tricks, and faith healer Peter Popoff, who it turns out, was not hearing the voice of God, but that of his wife through a hidden earpiece. Randi’s life long quest was to expose fakes and frauds like these and for that I have enormous respect for the man.

The movie documents Randi’s role as a debunker and the lengths he would go to in order to flush out con artists and fakes. It was fascinating to see just how elaborate some of his debunking tactics were. Randi teamed up with Australia’s 60 Minutes program to demonstrate the gullibility of people and the media. Randi released a fake press package (that no one bothered to check), and by doing so built up publicity for a “spirit channeler” named “Carlos”. Carlos who was actually an artist named Jose Alvarez. Alvarez drew crowds with his paranormal channeling abilities. After a few weeks of touring Australia, Randi and Carlos explained the hoax to 60 Minutes. Randi proved people would believe just about anything given enough authority and credibility. This is still true today. Con artist and pseudoscience peddlers get away with their snake oils largely because the news media either ignores the obvious, or in the case of Doctor, Oz, actually feeds into people’s gullibility.

As I watched the movie, my admiration for Randi and the work that he did grew. As many of my readers know, some of my biggest frustrations are those who peddle pseudoscience, and unsupported “facts”. Those who make money off these types of endeavors are near the top of my worst people list; right below those who harm children, and animals for pleasure. Yet as the movie continued, I started to become depressed. You see, the more frauds and fakes Randi exposed, the more the masses seemed to turn on him. A hard truth hit me, people would rather believe in mystical abilities over scientific facts. No matter how much is at stake, people would rather take their chances with faith healing rather than Western medicine. To be far, it doesn’t start and end with religious beliefs. There is the willingness of otherwise smart people (usually woman) to have a herbal practitioner push a tube up their colon in order to “detoxify” rather than have a Western doctor place a camera in their same colon to check for precancerous polyps. As much as I think we need more people like Randi who are willing to expose myths and frauds, the movie showed me that my views might be in the minority.

This doesn’t mean that I will stop. You will still find me outing pseudoscience through my blog, and my own podcast, once I can find a co-host with a better science background than mine. But what I won’t continue to do is comment on friend’s Facebook posts and contribute to Internet conversations. If nothing else, “An Honest Liar “showed me the futility of trying to educate someone who didn’t ask for it. But this is not why I didn’t like the movie. It was the filmmaker’s agenda that bothered me. Or, maybe, I just didn’t get the director’s goal. Did he make the movie as a tribute to Randi, or as we learn late in the film, expose a “hoax” that Randi willingly participated in.

I don’t want to spoil the movie by giving the ending away, so it’s hard to fully explain why I’m torn. Randi is involved in something that admittedly does harm to a family, yet I am not sure the world needed to know about it. As I watched as the very painful and personal drama unfold, I kept asking myself, “Did I really need to know this? What good does it do to expose this very bad (but understandable) life choice?” For all of the good Randi has done for the world, I am not sure he deserved to have this exposed. On the other hand, maybe Randi has found some measure of peace now that it is out there. If I could have been convinced that this was the reason behind the director’s decision to include this, I would have liked the movie more. As it is, I was left feeling uncomfortable and sad. This is not a good way to end a movie about a man who devoted his life to exposing fakes who made millions off of desperate and gullible people. This is how I will remember Randi, who at 86 is now retired, not as someone who helped keep a personal hoax hidden. I just wish the director were a little more forthcoming with his agenda.

The What if game: how humans evolved from apes to Shakespeare

Bradshaw rock paintings  Western Australia
Bradshaw rock paintings
Western Australia

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god!   Hamlet

The second book in Terry Pratchett’s “The Science of Discworld, the globe” tackles an important question in the evolution of man. How did humans go from being ape like creatures to ones that can write eloquent poetry? In other words, how did the human mind evolve to think beyond its immediate surroundings?

Science has proven that our closest relative is the chimpanzee. We share 98% of our genomes with them, yet we have little in common. That 2% difference seems to be a pretty big deal.

Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, Pratchett’s co-authors, walk the readers through the evolution of the human brain. It’s a rather convoluted story, one with gaps and seemingly full of conjectures* (*This is what one scientist thinks when another disagrees) . The biggest mystery and subject of debate is how over time we acquired a large brain, and how that brain developed the capacity to think beyond instinct. We know from the fossil records that 8 millions years ago the ancestors of humans and chimps parted, and since then the human brain has tripled in size. What we don’t know is why.

In two recent studies, researchers from Duke University suggest the human brain boost may have been powered by a metabolic shift that meant more fuel for brains, and less fuel for muscles.

Two researchers from the UK noted “the human brain uses more energy, pound for pound, than any other tissue. Yet our body burns the same number of calories as other primates our size”. They think we may have diverted our energy to the brain, allowing it to develop. This may also be the reason why our muscle mass differs from apes and chimps; what we gained in brain mass we lost in muscle mass.

Yet another theory, the Aquatic Ape theory, suggests at some point millions of years ago our ancestors moved from the Savannahs and back into the water. While most scientists balk at this suggestion it does answer some questions on why we look much different from our ape cousins. The theory suggests that a diet rich in seafood would account for brain development. If you would like to read a truly wonderful article on this subject I highly recommend reading Martin Clemens, “Aquatic Ape theory: An argument for our water origins.

Yet none of these theories explain how we developed into the philosophical apes we are today. As Cohen and Stewart explain, it’s not the big brain that counts; it’s what we do with it. They map out what they think is important to human evolution: the idea that by becoming storytellers we gained language and culture.

It is a large map, one too big to fully flesh out here, but the idea goes something like this: Our early ancestors learned to play the “What if game”.

Imagine one of our ancestors out in the Savanna plains, just chilling and taking in the breeze when he or she, notices a lion in the grass to the right, and possibly one to the front. Instead of acting on instinct or freezing in place, our ancestor thinks, “What if?”. What if I slowly back up towards that tree?” What if one runs out before the other, could I make it to the tree?” A story of what if starts to play out in our ancestor’s mind, and from that an idea of escape begins to form. Now let’s say he does escape and goes back to his clan and tells the story of how he escaped. His experience is shared with others. This is the beginning of what Cohen and Stewart call “extelligence”. The idea that shared knowledge benefits a clan as a whole and allows for group survival. As early humans began to share more and more information or stories, the more structured their world became. Structure led to stability and stability led to civilizations. This makes sense, yet I found myself asking a question: What allowed for the development of the what if game, and how did our earliest ancestors share this knowledge? Here is where some of my own conjecture comes in, so take it for what it’s worth.

 

“To sleep, perchance to dream” Hamlet

We know animals learn and share their experiences. Parents pass down survival methods to their young and we see group think in many species. Yet without the ability to communicate we cannot be sure if this is intentional or instinct. And even if it is intentional, we are the only animal to find creative ways to express our ideas and share them with our clan. What was the catalyst for our development of language and art?

Anthropologist Kate Glaskin, in her article, “Dreams, memory, and the ancestors: Creativity, culture, and the science of sleep” reminds us thatEthnography from Aboriginal Australia attests to the significance of dreams in the creation of new songs, designs, and ceremonies”. We know this from drawings, and oral traditions that talk of how early Aboriginals shared knowledge gained through dreams. Other early cultures such as the Native Americans did the same. Before written language and possibly before fully developed language, dreams played an important role in the development of early culture. Glaskin notes, “Advances made in neuroscience mean that, increasingly, scientists are able to map neural activity occurring in different sleep phases. Can this capability help us to understand the emergence of creativity, such as that which appears to have its origins in dreams?”

If it is true that creativity emerged from dreams, couldn’t it also be true that storytelling, a form of creativity, also emerged from dreams? Perhaps early man learned to play the what if game because he may be the only animal to have complex dreams? Let’s play the game.

What if our early ancestors found themselves dreaming of past events, only in the dream the outcome was different. And, what if they used these same dreams as learning tools? Early man may not have just learn to be creative on cave walls and in song from dreams, he may have used dreams as a way of learning to think beyond the immediate and start asking himself and his clan, “What if”? If these dreams became oral teachings then we would have our first storytellers and shared emerging extelligence.

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream—past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Bottom, Midsummer’s Night Dream

Clemens, Martin. Aquatic Ape theory: An argument for our water origins. Mysterious Universe. org

Glaskin, Kate. Dreams, memory, and the ancestors: Creativity, culture, and the science of sleep. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute JSTOR.com

Scientific American. How did human brains get to be so big? Scientific American.com