Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Indian Mystic Doesn't Live Without Food and Water, and a Journalist Actually Does His Job

You remember the ridiculous story of the man who supposedly died when an eel was shoved up his rectum? I just can't let it go because it points to something that I find infinitely irritating-- that news organizations often just pick up ridiculous stories and present them as fact without bothering to check if they're true or not. Because the stories are just so good, you know?

And yesterday I wrote about the wonderful Kenny Strasser ("K Strass"), the supposed yo-yo champion who is actually a performance artist whose venues happen to be local news programs gullible enough to put him on the air without checking him out.

For crying out loud, if the news can't get it right about something as simple as a "champion yo-yoist," why should you trust them about things that are actually important?

Anyway, today I saw something-- linked on yahoo's main page, no less-- that made my heart glad. Not in that cynical, K Strass way; but in a genuine this-is-how-the-media-should-handle-outrageous-claims way. The story is headlined "Indian Mystic Claims Not to Eat for 70 Years."

Right away you will notice how this deviates from the eel in the rectum story. The headlines states that the "Indian Mystic" claims not to eat. It does not state "Indian Mystic Does Not Eat for 70 Years."

The story itself is even better. Everyone at the Huffington Post who reposted the story about the eel in the rectum guy should read this.
As remarkable as his story is, Jani is not the first, nor the only, person to claim such a supernatural power. The claim that people can live without food or water is called inedia, and is actually somewhat of a common claim among religious fakirs and godmen of India. Unfortunately none of the cases have withstood scientific scrutiny. The human body needs both food and water to function; it's as simple as that.

It's easy for anyone to claim that he or she has not had anything to eat or drink for the past few weeks or months (or years). But unless the person has been carefully and continuously watched during that time, it's impossible to prove the assertion true.

Several people who have claimed to survive without food or water were later caught eating and drinking. It can take only a few seconds to eat something, and other than in specific areas such as prisons, conducting a close around-the-clock surveillance on a person is not easy. Often the person will ask for privacy to sleep or go to the bathroom (which is suspicious in its own right) - and then snack surreptitiously. One well-known breatharian advocate in the 1980s, a man named Wiley Brooks, claimed he did not eat yet was caught consuming junk food.
...
Reports claim that Prahlad Jani "has now spent six days without food or water under strict observation and doctors say his body has not yet shown any adverse effects from hunger or dehydration." Assuming the claim is true - and it's not clear just how strict the observation is - Jani's inedia so far remains unproven. If he really doesn't need food or water, he should be under close observation for months or years to prove it. Given that he claims not to have consumed anything since World War II, this shouldn't be a problem.
The author reports on the claim, and then explains why you should be skeptical. He states that others who have made this ridiculous claim have been found to be liars, and then offers some skepticism about the level of "strict observation" related in the "reports."

And he states unequivocally that "Jani's inedia so far remains unproven."

Yes!

In a world where K Strass can make it on the air six times in a month, when news gathering organizations can pass along stories about eels in rectums, and people dying from playing video games for 72 hours straight, this story is small victory for reason.

Except. There is this, in the first paragraph of the story:
An 82-year-old man in India is claiming to have not had anything to eat or drink since 1940 - and doctors from the Indian military are allegedly studying him to learn his secret.
Apparently the Indian military has money to burn and time to spare. If only they'd read the article, they would know not to waste their resources on this guy.

That's why we need to be vigilant about this stuff. There are real-world consequences that come from not thinking critically. No way should any money or time be spent on this guy. Isn't there a global recession going on? Aren't we all losing money?

The author of the article, by the way, is Benjamin Radford, a name well-known to skeptics-- he's one of the editors at Skeptical Inquirer magazine. It's heartening that he has a regular column for LiveScience.

If he's not going to eat, why is he holding a fork?

Pic source. (By the way, this link is to a credulous story on the "Indian Mystic." So you can see how not to do it.)

1 comment:

A.Jaye said...

There's an classified advert in a national 'paper. Dude claims to have cured AIDS. Without snake oil.