Sunday, August 24, 2008

When adults are no more enlightened than their kids

In a city in Mindoro, Philippines, some two dozen students mostly female have experienced "seizures" in the past two months. The Inquirer reports that the children "were crying in pain as they suffered from seizures and shortness of breath in a paranormal [emphasis mine] phenomenon that has left a public high school here petrified and perplexed." The reporter has dutifully conveyed the symptoms to us readers. But how does she know the phenomenon is paranormal? How was she able to make the leap from observed facts to causal explanation? What's her definition of paranormal anyway?

So what could have afflicted these kids? School principal Henry Tungol tells us the students have been "possessed by evil spirits." Yep, the head of the school has promptly diagnosed the children as having been the victims of invisible supernatural entities. How did he come to know this? Through the process of natural ignorance of course. If something puzzles you, if something gives you goosebumps, if you have no medical expertise, if in your omniscience you can't explain it any other way, if all you can fall back on is the tradition of superstition you were raised in, then the phenomenon must be supernatural/paranormal. And if what's before you bathes you with a warm fuzzy feeling, then it must be good spirits, otherwise it's those pesky evil ones. Simple.

The Mindoro "epidemic" reminds me of St. Vitus Dance. A search on CSICOP revealed the following on what was known as tarantism, a disease that supposedly occurred during the summer months of July and August:
Symptoms included headache, giddiness, breathlessness, fainting, trembling, twitching, appetite loss, general soreness, and delusions. Sometimes it was claimed that a sore or swelling was caused by a tarantula bite, but such assertions were difficult to verify because the bite resembled those of insects. The dance frenzy symptoms resemble typical modern episodes of epidemic hysteria, in addition to expected reactions from exhaustive physical activity and excessive alcohol consumption.

The seizures did occur in the last two months, although as to the degree of difference in seasons/climes between Europe and Mindoro I don't know. The article doesn't say anything about "dancing" or any wild frenzied behavior so this may be a totally different type of hysteria we're dealing with here.

Among the various candidate explanations, there is one which for now I don't give high points. We're told that exams were just around the bend. It's possible that some of these high school kids conspired to play a prank on their community and feigned "possession," not least to disrupt exam week.

But whatever the nature of this Mindoro event, the most prudent course of action is to check mundane, natural explanations before even entertaining notions of paranormal, demonic, supernatural, or what have you. We know that children can be mischievous, we know that medical and psychological conditions exist. We work with and from what we know, not from that which has no empirical base to support it whatsoever.