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