Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Posts Tagged ‘mass hysteria

The McMartin Preschool Trial: Grown Ups Behaving Badly

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My post on the Lawndale Thunderbird case has inspired me to write a series a series of blogs on how people deceive themselves and other oddities of the human mind. Or more accurately, the oddities of human perception and how setting and beliefs and preconceptions can colour, and sometimes wildly distort, our view of reality. Yes, as long time readers know, one of the great mysteries of life to me is historical situations where the first question that comes to mind is “What were they thinking?” Battles and even wars have been lost because of a failure to think clearly, among other myriad disasters. One of which is the longest and most expensive trial in US history, a trial that ruined many lives and ultimately resulted in zero convictions. Yes, the trial we’d all like to forget, the McMartin preschool trial.

This story starts off with a quiz. Imagine a day care center. A potential client calls, they are informed there are no vacancies. Despite this, the client shows up at the daycare center and begs for them to  admit their child. The center refuses, saying they are already fully booked. The agitated parent then leaves … leaving her child on the front porch of the day care center. Well, gentle reader, what should the daycare center have done at this point?

Sadly, the daycare center chose a compassionate response, and made room for one more child. In retrospect they should have called the police, who would have called social services and taken the child away from the mother and more than likely had her charged with a number of crimes. Why? Well, aside from the fact that it’s the legal thing to do under the circumstances, abandoning a child is a crime; shortly thereafter their new client went to the police and made accusations of child molestation against employees of the daycare center. Nice way to reward the people who compassionately agreed to make room for her child at their school.  This disturbed woman’s name was Judy Johnson. It goes downhill from there.

What did the police do? Well, they took her allegations seriously and investigated them, even though some of them were bizarre and the complainant was obviously a little off her rocker. The police didn’t really find anything, so they decided to look further. They sent a letter to 200 parents who had children at the McMartin preschool currently or in the past, explaining that the police were investigating claims of child abuse at the center, and asking parents to question their children about any abuse they might have seen or heard about at the McMartin preschool.

The parents question their children. And what did the children reveal? All sorts of child abuse! Children had been taken into tunnels and abused! Children had been flown in balloons and abused! Animals had been sacrificed, including a giraffe! Children had even been flushed down toilets, abused, then cleaned back up before being returned to their parents! Children had been photographed naked with movies stars! One of the children even identified one of his abusers from a photo lineup as Chuck Norris! In the face of all this horrible abuse, the police went wild and arrested everyone even remotely connected with the McMartin Preschool. The press went wild and uncritically repeated the allegations against the preschool, and the District Attorney, facing a tough reelection campaign, did everything in his power to hype the case and make sure it succeeded in court. Other people with private agendas promoting repressed memory theories and ritual abuse conspiracy theories also got involved. The fact that there was a compete absence of evidence of any sort didn’t faze them one bit. Nor the fact that the woman who had made  the original allegations kept her child enrolled in McMartin preschool!

Balloons? Tunnels? A giraffe? Chuck Norris? One would think that cooler heads would have prevailed at some point. Sadly, they didn’t, careers were at stake I suppose, not to mention that plenty of the parents involved had absolutely convinced themselves that their children had been abused. It didn’t help that the prosecution handled the case shamefully and withheld damning evidence from the defence. Seven years, two trials, and 15 million dollars later it was all over … without a single conviction.

Yes, this was the 80s, we know more now so something like this could never happen again. Snort. Sadly this sort of thing is pretty good evidence that despite our ipods and kindles, we haven’t progressed much such the Salem Witch Trials. The modern belief in Satanic ritual abuse is no different and just as illogical as the medieval belief in witchcraft. Then as now though, if authorities promote a belief, however absurd, many people will fall for it hook line and sinker.

Sadly, most people don’t analyze what they hear to determine if it makes sense, they are far more likely to filter what they hear so that it only reinforces their current beliefs. And even sadder, almost every leader in history, religious or political, is far more likely to reinforce this tendency in people rather than encourage them to think for themselves. It’s no wonder the biggest organized sport on the planet is still killing each other over absurdities.

Have a great weekend everyone.

(The above image, being a reproduction of a 19th century painting, is claimed as Public Domain under US copyright law. “Examination of a Witch” (1853) by T. H. Matteson. It was inspired by the Salem Witch trials. Yes, I know, some good did come out of the McMartin trial fiasco, not much though. And just for the record, the idea that  a nation-wide conspiracy of Satanists was kidnapping and torturing children was a classic case of mass hysteria.)





Written by unitedcats

January 28, 2011 at 7:34 am

The Devil’s Footprints

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The Devil’s Footprints. This was one of my favourite earth mysteries in my youth, right on up there with ancient astronauts and the Bermuda Triangle. And even after the latest two had ceased to be all that mysterious to me, the Devil’s footprints soldiered on. And to this day in fact, the case has never been wholly explained.

OK, so what are the Devil’s Footprints? On the morning of February 9 1855 the residents of Devonshire in southern England woke to a fresh fallen snow. And in the snow there were tracks, mysterious U shaped tracks. Tracks that led through villages and across the countryside, over walls, over houses, across rivers, and even reportedly into and out of pipes with a diameter as small as four inches.  And while there was some wandering, the tracks extended more than 100 miles. People were a little alarmed to say the least, and in Devon there were reports of a devil like creature being seen. This prompted people to arm themselves against the unknown maker of the tracks. The first day was the most extensive, though there are some reports that some tracks were seen here and there on a few subsequent days.

Much speculation followed in the newspapers about what had created the tracks. An escaped kangaroo was one popular theory, with the obvious caveat that it seems odd that a kangaroo could travel over 100 miles without being seen. Chains dangling from a drifting blimp was proposed, although that seems even more ridiculous than the kangaroo theory with a bit of thought. And yes, people ascribed the tracks to supernatural forces, this was an era when many people literally believed in the devil. And while there have been a few isolated similar cases, nothing nearly so extensive or widely reported upon is in the historical record.  To this day it’s a mystery, recycled by modern alien believers ascribing the tracks to alien activity of some sort. One thing is clear though, it’s not a hoax, there’s no way one person or even a team of people could have made such an extensive network of tracks in just a few short hours in the middle of the night and not be seen, we are talking tracks that ran through towns and villages.

Frankly, I was baffled for decades by this case. Sadly, I don’t find it as baffling anymore. Since I first studied these sorts of things some decades back, I’ve learnt a lot. A lot about history, culture, human nature, psychology, and last but not least … logic. And the first thing we have to look at in a case like this, is the facts. And what do we have here? A bunch of nineteenth century newspaper reports. And that, my friends, is that. No one thought to write a book on it. No scientists wrote any papers on the topic. It was all pretty much dismissed as hysterical superstitious nonsense, and life went on. At this point, anyone who knows anything about the history of newspapers should be thinking, “Ub oh, nineteenth century newspapers are the primary source?” As the Jacko or cow in a UFO incident shows, anyone who takes old newspaper reports literally is taking  a leap of faith.

However, since newspapers are all we have, what have we? Well, there’s a lot of letters to the editor about the Devil’s Footprints in those newspapers. In fact, lots of letters from first hand witnesses to the event. And there’s a fair number of very sober letters by reasonable sounding people who said they went outside when they heard the commotion, saw no more than the usual fresh animal tracks in the snow, and don’t understand what the commotion was about. And when we look at the tracks themselves, descriptions of which vary by the way, they are not dissimilar to all sorts of tracks made by a  variety of creatures hopping and prancing about. In other words, a strong case can be made that this is simply a case of mass hysteria of some sort. And it almost goes without saying that the newspapers of the time certainly exaggerated what hysteria there was.

Something to keep in mind is that this was the first generation of a revolution in human communication. For the first time in history people across England were in real time communication with each other. Yes, telegraphy was exploding across the developed world, and by 1855 there were already news agencies operating via telegraph. So that morning when someone somewhere in this whole mess thought they saw strange tracks in the snow, within hours breathless reports were being sent along the wires, and the rest is history. Not to mention that people of that era moved around a lot more than most of us moderns would think, and news could indeed travel quickly. They had horses for God’s sake.

So can it be proved that the devil’s Footprints was a mild case of mass hysteria, exaggerated by newspapers of the time … and modern chroniclers searching for evidence of the trans-mundane? No. It does however strike me as being a perfectly reasonable and rational explanation for what we know of the phenomena.

My alternate theory is that it was some sort of hopping alien unmanned probe. It was small and moving very fast. May not even have been hopping, might have just been extending some sort of sensor downwards to take samples and maybe “ping” the Earth with any number of microwave or other radiation, while reading reflections from same. Even with what we know of the capabilities of robots, a  lot of data could be gathered with a single one track probe like this. And as for its speed, if the aliens are actually robot intelligences, they may think at near light speed and perceive the  world as very “slow,” so to them a probe that’s zipping along at hundreds of miles an hour is painfully slow. Prolly another good reason to avoid aliens. If they are robots, and they are hostile, they would think (and likely move) so much faster than us that there would be no contest.

Alien probe or mass hysteria, that’s my votes. Or something else? Reader’s choice.

(The above image is public domain under US copyright law and pretty much all copyright law since it dates from 1855. It’s not even known which newspaper it came from from what I can tell, since it’s been so copied and distributed in the 150 odd years since it was created. I grew up with snow, I know darn well how many mysterious animal tracks one finds all over the place in fresh fallen snow. Especially since wind and weather conditions can do all sorts of things to tracks.)

Written by unitedcats

July 30, 2010 at 6:59 am