Well, our August meeting certainly brought out a crowd! In case you weren’t there (and shame on you if you weren’t), David Gehrig spoke about "The Bible Codes" and gave us all a short lesson in statistics at the same time.
Among the other things he noted, he mentioned an old joke about a man who sees a farmer’s barn covered with targets and notices that all the bullet holes are smack in the middle of the bulleyes. He tells the farmer that he’s impressed with how good a shot he is, and the farmer responds that it’s nothing special: First he shoots at the barn, then he paints the targets around wherever he hits!
This, David noted, is how "Bible Codes" work. You look until you find something – anything – and then you comment on how remarkable it is that you found that particular thing. Frankly, that can apply to lots of things we deal with – everything from Nostradamus to "psychic" predictions involving missing people.
In illustrating this point, David took out a deck of cards, shuffled them, and drew a poker hand of 5 random cards. He pointed out that the odds against him drawing that particular hand were astronomical – yet he performed this miracle right in front of our eyes. Why? Because he calculated the odds after he’d already drawn the hand. Now, if he had painted his target ahead of time – telling us what cards he would draw and then doing so – that would have been an impressive miracle. But hindsight is 20/20, and so is statistical analysis in this type of situation.
His presentation was not without some, er, detractors. Several men in the back of the room came to hear information supporting the Bible codes, and did not appear terribly interested in hearing anything that contradicted their preconceived views. They interrupted David several times, once asking flat-out if he was there to support or "slam" the codes. Before David could really answer, several other audience members said they didn’t want to know – they just wanted to hear what he had to say, so the guy withdrew his question.
One of his friends broke in several times with seemingly unconnected tangents, such as pointing to a Hebrew letter "shin" David had placed on the overhead projector, and saying something about how you can see it in a picture of something-or-other from space (sorry, didn’t get the whole detail on that one). Then he completely missed the entire point of David’s presentation by claiming that if you add up the Hebrew letter values (Hebrew letters also double as numbers) in "Lord Jesus Christ," you get the latitude or longitude (again, didn’t catch it exactly) of Jerusalem – so that proves, er, something. Also, if you stack all the planets together, you get the same number, with lots of zeroes behind it. There were so many problems with both of these claims, it was hard to know where to start, so I didn’t. For one thing, he made it clear that he was not there to discuss these things – just to have his own view supported. For another, his heckling had already turned the crowd against him, and they already saw the same flaws in his argument that I had. Just to name a few of these flaws: Presuming Jerusalem really is at that point, why did he have to add up "Lord Jesus Christ"? Why not just "Jesus Christ" or "Jesus" or "Jesus Christ Messiah," or "Jesus, Son of God" or any of the many other ways to say the same thing? Why? Because he first shot at the barn, and then he painted the target. If any one of these had added up to the right number instead of the one he used, you can bet he’d have been sitting there proclaiming that as proof of his claim. Similarly, with the stack of planets, he didn’t even say what units he was using. Meters? Feet? Inches? Miles? Furlongs? Etc. More shooting before painting.
Most of the audience, however, was there to hear David speak. There were a lot of good questions (especially once the three guys in back left) and I was glad to see so many new faces. I hope we’ll see them again.
This month, we feature another Skeptics Society videotaped presentation: Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture, with David Skal. Skal is described as a historian of horror and monster films and popular culture, and has written several books on the subject. In his presentation, he talks about the mad scientist’s cultural significance, how Frankenstein spurred the invention of the cardiac pacemaker, the folklore of UFOs, and a hit parade of mad scientists, demented doctors, and assorted evil geniuses to help you catch up on your B-movie classics! The folks at the Skeptics Society recommended this as a fun talk, so I hope to see you on Tuesday, September 7 (the day after Labor Day) at 7:00 in the Lincoln Library!