The Liberian Manimal Scam

Chris Blattman is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Economics at Yale. His research takes him to other parts of the world, including Liberia.

That’s where he heard a very strange story back in August…

In Liberia, the guys at our local partner and survey organization swear that the best hunters have the power to change themselves to animals.

Perhaps this is culturally insensitive of me, but I have a standing offer of $1000 cash to any of them if they can find one of these guys, bring him to me, and demonstrate. $2000 if I can film it.

Then, someone mentioned the JREF $1,000,000 challenge to him. And the Liberian staff.

Cut to December, Blattman is back in Liberia, and he wants to meet one of these supposed “manimals.” The Liberians are excited, too, because they think they’re going to soon be rolling in the cash:

A more or less trustworthy and credible staff member says he has located someone, and promises I can meet this amazing man Saturday, where he will turn into an animal.

What animal? “Dog, hog, chimp, anything” was the text reply. And yes, he says, he has seen it himself.

Obviously, Blattman was not taking this claim seriously. No one should.

And surprise, surprise — It didn’t happen:

In the end, it turns out he can’t perform the full transformation in the city, only in forested regions. We offered to drive out of the city, but it seems only in his home county of Nimba can he do so. Nimba will have to wait for my next trip (we have, in fact, a project there) but you’ll forgive me if I haven’t reserved judgment.

None of this should be particularly surprising.

But one reader got upset that Blattman was mocking the claim in the first place:

… this whole post is demeaning, sensationalist, and it casts you on a very bad light. Whether this individual transforms himself into an animal in a way that matches your Hollywood-informed imagination is not as important as the fact that many people around him operate as if this was possible and true. Also, I’m hard pressed to imagine how such a belief could be detrimental to these people…

Blattman defended himself with a really terrific response and I think it’s worth reading:

I think the fact that so many operate as if these powers are real is precisely the reason to be worried. An easy example is the astonishing number of witch killings each year, many of which target poor, single women…

People ought to be left in peace to decide their own spiritual beliefs. If I had to rewrite the manimal post, I’d probably be less condescending. But what I would say is this: When claims of spirit power are used in the pursuit of power and money — whether an American faith healer, a Liberian politician, or a village elder pursuing a million dollar prize — I tend to think the world would be a more peaceful place if we heaped skepticism on all and scorn on the obvious frauds.

This is precisely why atheists should go after all religious beliefs, not just the “worst” ones.

It’s all part of the same family of irrational thought. That way of thinking is dangerous.

It’s dangerous because if you start believing in something without evidence, you’re more susceptible to believe other irrational things.

A neighbor who prays and a friend who attends church may be good people. But it’s their same way of thinking that leads to people getting killed for being “harbingers of evil.” It’s the same reason gay people don’t have equal rights. It’s the same reason proper Science gets thrown to the curb to make room for Christian mythology.

Scam artists know this and they’re more than willing to use it to their advantage. They’ll get your trust and then take your money. Just think of all the televangelists who take in money for their “ministry” and then travel around in luxury.

We need to call out the frauds. And, more importantly, we need to call into question the irrational and incorrect beliefs that people have in the first place. They go hand-in-hand.

(Thanks to Brett for the links)

  • http://www.UnMailBlog.wordpress.com Tyler in SoCal

    Amen.

  • Trace

    What about New Moon?

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    In the end, it turns out he can’t perform the full transformation in the city, only in forested regions. We offered to drive out of the city, but it seems only in his home county of Nimba can he do so.

    Amazing how universal the “moving the goalposts” meme is.

    Whether this individual transforms himself into an animal in a way that matches your Hollywood-informed imagination is not as important as the fact that many people around him operate as if this was possible and true.

    And amazing how universal the “it doesn’t matter whether this is literally true, isn’t people’s faith a beautiful thing” meme is.

  • Jen

    If the transformation is supposed to be some sort of quasi-attitude-shift, a code for “more animalistic” or something to that affect, then that is fine, I suppose. Claim that the spirit of the animal is making you a stronger warrior or something, but “transform” is not going to convey that message. Of course, there might be a language barrier involved here. That said, assuming they are making the claim as presented here, the only danger I see is in dangling such a large prize in front of people who would see it as really, really, really big, and be willing to do some sort of crazy shit in order to get it.

  • http://lyvvielimelight.blogspot.com/ Lyvvie

    *applause* Very well said.

  • muggle

    Yes, but there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

    We need to confront superstition with science. We need to be mildly amused at silly beliefs our friends have while being respectful of them as a person and accept that they are also sure of the foolishness of our position even though they respect us as a person. We need to refrain from being hositle and complaining they are. Since every theist honestly isn’t, we need to not blame the innocent along with the guilty.

    Frankly, time is on our side and we’ve only to look at history to know that. Not many want to live like the Amish. The more we know about the world — and since science insists on exploring it, the learning about it ain’t gonna end any time soon — the more archaic beliefs can’t hold water to it.

    Now as for the extremists of any ilk, including Atheist, give it to them as good as they give but all of them. Any that hold forth to dictate how others should live. Once they stop tending their own garden and start poking about in yours, you certainly should feel free to stamp out the weeds they plant. In fact, they rather make it necessary.

    But I would not agree that the same standard need apply to “A neighbor who prays and a friend who attends church”. If they’re tending their own garden, leave them be and tend your own.

    Peace requires mutual respect.

    So, for that matter, does religious freedom. And enforced Atheism is not religious freedom. Being a minority, it really is against our own best interests to fight for anything other than religious freedom.

    Though, of course, this like any other freedom has reasonable limits. Human sacrifce, uh, uh. Sharia law, uh, uh. Faith killing your children uh, uh. Bottom line, religious freedom when you only delude yourself, curtailed at the point where you harm others. (Living, breathing others before you pro-lifers start equating a person who doesn’t yet exist with that standard.)

  • Vene

    “It’s the same reason proper Science gets thrown to the curb to make room for Christian mythology.”

    The sentiment here is good, but please don’t capitalize “science.” The only time it should be capitalized in the middle of a sentence is if you’re doing SCIENCE!

    Examples of SCIENCE!
    http://img2.moonbuggy.org/imgstore/modern-science-will-save-the-world.jpg
    http://www.vectorvault.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/wearscience_vectorvault.gif
    http://i46.tinypic.com/34rxbiq.jpg

  • Richard P

    curtailed at the point where you harm others

    How about indoctrination that begins at birth which is where the harm begins enslaving a person for life and many other psychological abuses? Or are we only setting the bar at physical violence here?

    Seems to me for the betterment of mankind and to live up to our beliefs, it is in everyone’s best interest to fight for more than religious freedom.
    I think it is imperative we fight for human freedom. That means removing religion from everything, with the exception of superstitious lore.

    You know just musing about it….

  • Vas

    A neighbor who prays and a friend who attends church may be good people. But it’s their same way of thinking that leads to people getting killed for being “harbingers of evil.” It’s the same reason gay people don’t have equal rights. It’s the same reason proper Science gets thrown to the curb to make room for Christian mythology.

    Well said, that is the crux of the biscuit. It is indeed the way of thinking that is a real and present danger, the moderate enables the extremist and the calls for respect and tolerances provides cover for some screwed up shit. If you finance a pedophile ring for example then you are culpable, even if they do other things besides bugger children, and even if your neighbor thinks you are a good person. Freedom of religion is not something I admire about America and really the true intent of it seems to be that the founding fathers didn’t want the COE or the Catholics screwing up and taking over their cool new shit. People die over this insane crap every day. The religious can take their demands for respect and eat it for all I care.

  • Ed

    This is precisely why atheists should go after all religious beliefs, not just the “worst” ones.

    This is the “Sam Harris” argument in a nutshell, even moderate religious beliefs provide cover for and a climate in which fundamentalist thoughts and behaviors flourish. I see this as true but all the same I find Blattman’s statement “People ought to be left in peace to decide their own spiritual beliefs,” compelling.

    It’s all part of the same family of irrational thought. That way of thinking is dangerous.

    It’s dangerous because if you start believing in something without evidence, you’re more susceptible to believe other irrational things.

    This is true but we would do well to cosider how much control we really have over our thoughts and our “way of thinking”. Critical thinking and a degree of flexiblity can be taught when it comes to our opinions and beliefs but perhaps only up to a certain point. Here is a study which examines 2 “ways of thinking” and suggests they may be hardwired into the brain.

    In the experiment college students across the political spectrum were instructed to tap an M whenever it appeared on a computer monitor and to ignore a W that appeared about 20 percent of the time while an electroencephalograph recorded brain activity. Data showed that students who identified themselves as liberal scored higher for accuracy and were almost five times as likely to show activity in brain circuits associated with conflict, suggesting a strong capacity for dealing with change and novelty. Meanwhile, conservative students were better at blocking out distracting new information which may lead them to favor structure and tradition.

    I’ll also point to this study which discusses evidence suggestive that morality is (up to a certain point) hardwired as well.

    Tonight at dinner, my mother in law thanked God that all of us could gather together for the holidays. Of course I could have pointed out how God had nothing to do with people taking leave off, driving 6+ hours, spending money on gas and so on to be there. But, as I sat there listening to her, I realized this is how she is comfortable expressing gratitude to us- she doesn’t feel comfortable saying something a little bit “sappy” like thank you without some sort of “third person” she can talk through. Sometimes civility and respect for a person really ought to trump the opportunity for “a lesson,” or opportunity to challenge a religious belief.

  • http://selfra.blogspot.com dantresomi

    it reminds me of that hero spoof movie where the one guy can become invisible only if he is naked and no one is looking at him…

  • J B Tait

    @Ed

    The same family member who thanked God we could all be there on previous occasions hasn’t blamed God because I couldn’t afford to travel there this year even if I had been willing to drive 10 hours in His blizzard. Instead the blame is mine for not being cooperative or for not caring enough about family values.
    And I don’t see her asking God to help her travel here.
    God wasn’t her way of thanking us–He was just a convenient excuse for her to express her opinions with attribution that would award her bias (at least in her mind) more authority than her own, and as a bonus relieve her of the reciprocal obligation of gratitude for our efforts to please her.

    I would rather she had merely recognized reality with a simple “thank you” when we made the effort, and “you will be missed” when we couldn’t.

    In the extreme, she could have thanked us when we made the sacrifices, and blamed God (He works in mysterious ways) when there was both blizzard and budget crunch. That would have been the loving thing to do.

  • Edmond

    Someone notify Simon MacCorkindale!

  • Philbert

    Strikes me as pretty patronizing when people suggest that ignorance should go unchallenged because ignorance is bliss. Especially so when some groups are viewed as less able or deserving of understanding reality than others.

  • Ed

    JB Tait,

    I hear you loud and clear. I get the whole double standard between what is God’s fault and what is ours, what God gets credit for and what we get credit for. In fact while I was writing my previous post, I was thinking of the way some religious people praise God and proclaim a miracle after some surgery/medical treatment and forget to thank the doctors, nurses, volunteers, and orderlies not to mention wonder why God doesn’t get the blame for the illness.

    My point was simply that there are times when we ought to, for civility’s sake, practice a little restraint.

    In my case it was a rather obvious moment- no one would have appreciated a throw down right before dinner about God, gratitude, atheism and morality. What made it interesting for me though, was realizing my relative, a person who has difficulty expressing affection in a public way, was in her own, however imperfect and flawed way, trying to do just that. I certainly can’t speak for your relative’s motivations.

    I would rather she had merely recognized reality with a simple “thank you” when we made the effort, and “you will be missed” when we couldn’t.

    That would have been much preferable in my case as well.

    Happy new year,
    Ed

  • Angie

    Amazing how universal the “moving the goalposts” meme is.

    Funny you should mention that. I have a story of my own about an ex-boyfriend who conveniently “moved the goalposts” as well.

    My ex, a fundamentalist Christian, believed that one of the “gifts of the spirit” he’d received was prophesy. After spending a weekend in Philadelphia together, he mentioned on the train ride back home that God indicated he would return to Philly someday, but I would not.

    Guess what happened? A few months later, en route to a conference, my train had a three hour layover in Philadelphia. I informed him of this afterwards, and he responded that the prophesy applied to spending time in Philadelphia, not just passing through. When I reminded him that I spent THREE HOURS within Philadelphia city limits, he still insisted that this did not invalidate the prophesy because I wasn’t “really” in Philadelphia, just a train station.

    Talk about moving goalposts!

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Ooh, I can contribute another example of goalpost-moving!

    Last week, I got an e-mail from a Christian who took issue with my article on prayer. I asked why the prayers of faithful believers still fail to be answered, and his verbatim response: “They don’t.”

    Naturally, I asked him if he was willing to prove this. He said, “Tell me what you have in mind,” and I asked him to pray for something to happen in my life that wouldn’t occur in the normal course of events or because of coincidence.

    As you might have expected, this drew an immediate and huffy reply: “Prayer is not something you do to prove if it works or not… I have had many of my prayers answered in my life time and that is all that I need.”

    Just think: Even though, by this person’s own assurance, he could have prayed for a miracle to happen in my life to convert me, he refused to do it! I guess he just wasn’t that interested in saving my soul.

  • muggle

    Seems to me for the betterment of mankind and to live up to our beliefs, it is in everyone’s best interest to fight for more than religious freedom.
    I think it is imperative we fight for human freedom. That means removing religion from everything, with the exception of superstitious lore.

    So then, your idea of human freedom is…

    everyone better live as you fucking think best for them or else?

    Dude, I hope to hell you’re never in a position of power.


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