Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Exposing a Dangerous Meme and a Powerful Cult: My Failed Attempt to Save Mrs. Jenkins

A few years ago in Wisconsin I tried to rescue an elderly woman who was infected with one of those silly religious memes that can spread like a virus. This meme, propagated by a lucrative cult, is based on the bizarre idea that ordinary mortals can somehow use "the force" or something to communicate across great distances with nothing but ordinary paper and ink if they carry out certain  rituals such as folding the paper, putting it in a cult-approved envelope, affixing a mystical adhesive icon purchased from the cult's many official outlets, and placing the envelope in a magic box controlled by the cult. True believers think that their message will somehow travel into the hands of the designated recipient even if they are in a state far, far away. It's a lot like the  old notion of personal prayer to a distant listening God.

I've heard that the cult running this scam has some kind of bizarre sci-fi name, something like the Universalist Pre-millennial Post-alien Supremacy teleportation service, or USPS for short, but this Post-alien "service" is often just called the Post-al service. You may have seen this "service" operating in your neighborhood without even recognizing that it was a cult.

Every week or so, that poor woman in my neighborhood would write her expressions of love or whatever to her grown-up son, and then fold it carefully and put in an envelope. She would then attach the adhesive USPS icon. These icons often had images of beloved dead people on them, or even alien (post-alien?) figures like Yoda. Maybe they are supposed to appeal to patron saints of some kind to move the message along its magic way. She would put her son's alleged location on the letter--someplace in California--and place it faithfully in an official USPS "mailbox" in front of her home. The USPS cult apparently has dozens of USPS jeeps and trucks that drive around collecting these envelopes, creating a sense that "something" is going to happen to the letters of their adherents (only if they had spent enough on adhesive icons, of course!).

Part of what make this sick meme so effective is the other end of the USPS business model. The USPS agent that comes around doesn't just take envelopes away. He or she dumps new envelopes in the box. This fuels a ridiculous thought: "Wow, a miracle--I've received something back!" Of course, upon inspection, nearly all these "blessings" are actually requests for money or advertisements for products to buy. What a scam!

I couldn't stand it any longer and tried to deprogram her from this destructive, wasteful meme.

"Mrs. Jenkins, excuse me for asking, but have you ever received a letter back from your son in California?"

"Well, not exactly." Her eyes teared up. Maybe I was reaching her!

"How do you think your letter will get to California?"

"Through the air--it goes by airmail"

"So it's just going to fly magically by itself all the way to California? You really believe that?"

"It doesn't fly by itself--it goes on an airplane, of course."

This was my chance to use a little logic. I asked her to think about the price of her magical USPS icon--about 41 cents at the time, a price that keeps expanding far faster than the rate of inflation (like I said, this cult is all about money--what a scam!). Now I asked her to compare that to the price of an airplane ticket. Even if that postal agent got the cheapest ticket possible to California, and even if he or she carried a whole bag filled with other petitions from believers with loved ones in California, there is no way that they could afford to buy plane tickets for every batch and still stay in business.

"Mrs. Jenkins, logic proves that this just can't work. Your son doesn't write back. They aren't flying your letters to California. It makes no sense. You've been deceived by a cult that is just a big business taking your money and exploiting your hopes."

I thought I had her, but she wasn't yet ready to be honest and admit that I was right. She resisted by offering anecdotal evidence of a friend or two who claimed they had gotten letters back from their children. Scattered, unreliable, second-hand stories. I asked her to come with me to the local library, where I would ask the librarian a question for which I already knew the answer: "Are you aware of any peer-reviewed, scientific studies that show that letters to children sent via the USPS cult actually reach them and cause communication to happen?" She thought it over and then said that wouldn't be necessary. I could see I was winning as she started to cry again. I gave her an awkward hug and said, "It's OK, Mrs. Jenkins. Welcome to the 21st century!"

Sadly, the next week I saw her sneak over to her mailbox and deposit another letter. And she even sorted through the pile of junk mail waiting for her to see if something might be there from her son.

So terribly sad. What an awful, powerful meme. How can anyone be so deluded as to believe such silliness and go through all those ridiculous rituals so devoid of logic and so lacking in reliable scientific evidence? What a sinister group that Post-al "service" is.

Pray for Mrs. Jenkins--of course, I only mean that figuratively.

Comment: This brief post was intended to illustrate how seemingly iron-clad arguments came sometimes fail because of flawed assumptions built into the logic. Many times I think the arguments used to "decimate" the Book of Mormon or the existence of God are that way.


Orbiting Kolob said...

Writing good satire is not easy.

James Anglin said...

Some atheists seem to advance science as an ideology of pure empiricism, where nothing is accepted except upon overwhelming evidence. In a way that's true; but still it always shocks me to hear it. It's like hearing someone describe your spouse as "the cranky one". You may know that lack of sleep makes him or her grumpy, but you don't think of crankiness as their defining characteristic. Most of the time, in daily life with your spouse, you see quite different qualities.

To actually work in science involves a lot of faith. Not necessarily faith in God or immaterial souls, to be sure; but faith in the sense of willingness to bet heavily on an uncertain proposition. Do you have to believe in the theory, to spend years of your life trying to test it or clarify it or complete it? If 'believe' means being certain that the theory is exactly true as it stands, then, No. But you do have to believe that the theory is worth those years of effort. And since what scientists most want from their working lives is to get their hands on some truth, believing that the theory is worth effort does pretty much mean believing that, in some sense and to some degree and in some part, the theory must have some truth in it. Even if the theory's answers are not true, one has to believe that the theory at least asks some of the right questions — and that's not just a cheap consolation prize. To ask the right questions is to correctly answer No to a whole lot of questions about what issues are relevant.

Overwhelming evidence and reliable knowledge are things for elementary textbooks. But writing textbooks is like going into university administration. It's one of the exits that a scientist can take from their scientific career. It consumes so much time that, if you're writing textbooks, you're not doing much research.

The research frontier is, by definition, the place where the evidence is not yet overwhelming, and the unknowns outnumber the knowns. As a scientist I sort of feel like a Wild West sheriff. My job may be to bring order, but once things do start to get orderly, it's time for me to move on. At heart I really have more in common with the outlaws who ride around shooting out church windows than I do with the schoolmarms who write out their rules in the towns I have tamed. So, whether Science needs faith or not is apt to depend on whether Science means textbooks or research.

Scientists are hardly the only people who need faith in their daily lives, of course. One of the reasons that atheists may point to Science, as an alternative to faith, is that textbook science is about the only place where you can get away from faith. I think that mailing letters is a good example. The economics and logistics of modern courier and postal service is astonishing; unless you either really know a lot about how it works, or else don't think at all about how it works, it seems pretty implausible.

Now, nobody in my family sends letters any more, but my faith in the mail has been greatly strengthened by ordering stuff from Amazon and quickly getting precisely the stuff for which I clicked. Still, I'm sure there are plenty of people like Mrs Jenkins who believe in postal service only by hearsay. Are they right or wrong to do that, wise or foolish?

I dunno. It seems like a tough question to settle. And I'm afraid that, in this case, I lack the faith that the investigation will be worth the effort.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Amazon? They are part of the scam. You're telling me that your faith in mail has been increased because you give money to a big corporation with links to the USPS scam, who them gives some of your money to the USPS cult, who then brings you a product worth less than what you paid, resulting in a profit to both Amazon and their partner in crime, the USPS cult. It's an awesome business model, but not the basis for actual faith in the USPS!


Jeff Lindsay said...

But seriously, your comments on faith and science are much appreciated. Hold on a second, I'm so used to people using fake names here, but it looks like this is your real name and, wow, you've got some awesome publications. So you're the James Anglin who has published in Nature (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v406/n6791/full/406029a0.html), etc.? OK, wow. "Theoretical physics: Why trapped atoms are attractive" -- discussing Bose-Einstein condensates. Do you have some favorite publications you would recommend for folks here to read to get a good overview of your work? And can you tell us a little more about your latest work? Again, very kind of you to spend any time here chatting with us. Thanks!

James Anglin said...

Yeah, that's me — but that Nature piece was only one of their 'News and Views' items, not a report of my own research. I've been dinged a couple of times to write little commentaries like that. It was nice to get the big pulpit for a few moments, but it's not at all the same as publishing an actual research article in Nature. So far all my attempts at doing that have failed. I am not a scientific big shot, by any means.

I have a lackadaisical blog about my research themes, which I do mean to update soon with a few new posts that actually talk about some of my specific projects. It's been years since the last entry, at this point, but some of the stuff I've been working on for the past couple of years should finally be published soon, and I'd like to try to explain it to a general audience then.

I'm glad if anything I say is of interest. I'm afraid my recent surge of posts here is not so much kindness as an attempt to deal with writer's block in composing an overdue contribution to a big grant proposal. It's not working out as a strategy. I'd better just get back to work and bash on.

Anonymous said...

While reading this, I thought about the "rituals" people do for their favorite sports team to win. Or to even watch a game in person or on television.

People also do "rituals" to bring them good luck, when travelling, playing the tables at Las Vegas and elsewhere. There are also "rituals" when getting married.

Non have anything to do with religion, I don't think, but yet these rituals are done by many Christians.

Anonymous said...

Anyone may verify the actual operations of the USPS which are consistently delivered to anyone who buys a postage stamp. People may go to the USPS and arrange a tour and see its operations with their own eyes. No doubt children all over the country have taken such field trips. If anyone is interested they may see the balance sheet of the USPS. And if anyone has a significant issue with the USPS they can take it to their Congressperson and have it addressed.

Is that the sort of thing you intended to illustrate?

Mormography said...

Aside from the obvious items Anonymous 5:46 PM, September 24, 2015 pointed out, your false analogy creates some really bizarre juxtapositions detrimental to your client. You are probably correct in assuming that there are not any peer-reviewed studies that suggest the USPS is an elaborate conspiracy, but surely there are peer review studies that declare actual faiths just that, a matter of faith.

The worst part of your false analogy is the presentation of God as an ungrateful child not showing the slightest consideration for those flawed beings that have given him everything. …. No wait ….. You are right …. Now that I read how cruel that sounds, inventing the USPS cult may have been a justifiable medicinal application of the opiate.

Wow, no wonder Mormon apologetics is in such much decline.

James Anglin said...

That's a part of the analogy that I like, because it's honest. For all that some religious people like to talk about having a personal relationship with God, hardly anybody reports hearing God say so much as, "Yo!" in response to our prayers. The few that do claim to hear personal responses from God are mostly obvious lunatics.

Where the analogy is indeed inaccurate, of course, is in implying that most people do get reliable responses, even though one person doesn't. A more accurate analogy would be one in which everyone is sending letters to their sons in California, and getting spam in return; but some people claim to detect meaningful patterns, perhaps only discernible on reflection with hindsight, in precisely what kinds of spam come.

At which point one would have to say that, even if those spam-studying believers are right about the subtle patterns in the spam, the postal system as such is a scam, because whatever it does, it doesn't really work as a postal system. And as a believer I have to admit that. Whatever God is, God is not a good pen pal.

James Anglin said...

As a scientist I feel I need to say something about peer-reviewed studies. Kind of the way a letter carrier feels a need to talk about dogs.

Peer review is important, but not because it's a gold standard that ensures truth. Very far from it. Lots of peer-reviewed research is wrong. Very little of it supports any strong conclusions about anything significant.

Peer review is just this. You send your work to a journal. If the editor doesn't just decide that your work is obvious crap, then the journal picks one to three names from its list of people who have published something within your same discipline, and who have expressed some professional interest in your general topic. Journal sends those people your manuscript. When they get around to it, they read through it, and return a verdict to the journal: accept or reject. 'Accept' is usually conditional on a list of things the reviewer thinks need to be fixed.

Peers are peers. They're not gods. They're just bozos like me. Most peer reviewers try to be critical and careful, but there is no control to ensure that they do their job perfectly. Nobody works as hard at peer reviewing as they do at producing their own work. Reviewers don't want to let crummy work through to get published, because letting other researchers get easy publications just makes it harder for the reviewer's own work to stand out. Reviewers don't want to set the bar too much higher than they themselves can achieve, though, because they want to believe that their own work is good enough.

And all that is fine, because journal publication is not about codifying certain truth. It's about continuing the investigation. The goal is to publish stuff that's worth reading. Establishing truth happens way down the line.

Peer review is a low bar to jump over, not a gold standard. If somebody can't get past peer review, then you can pretty much ignore their claims. But never imagine that you have to respect a conclusion just because it has been through peer review.