Monday, July 5, 2010

Crackpot "Virginity Test" Tests Skepticism

I am a skeptic. I don't believe in "psychics" or alien abduction or sasquatch or any of that other nonsense. I believe that pseudoscience is harmful to people (and here is a website -- What's the Harm? -- that is tallying the human cost of lack of critical thinking).

And yet, there was a story from the Associated Press last week that, if true, suggests that a belief in ridiculous pseudoscience might have helped free three men wrongly convicted of rape in Vietnam.
An acupuncturist who claims she can detect a man's virginity based on a small dot on the ear has become a minor celebrity in Vietnam, where she is credited with helping to free three convicted rapists from prison.

Traditional medicine practitioner Pham Thi Hong started lobbying for the men's release, pleading their case all the way to the president, because she believes all three men are virgins and therefore could not be guilty of rape.

"They all had small red spots on the back of their ears," said Hong, 54. "The spots should have disappeared if they had had sex. My many years of experience told me that these men did not have sex before."
Right off the bat, this woman sounds like a crackpot. She is, after all, an acupuncturist. Acupuncture is a let's say highly controversial "alternative medicine" (or, as the article calls it "traditional medicine") for which no scientific evidence exists.

Then, you get to her theory. That men have small dots on the backs of ears until they have sex. This idea is crackpot for a couple of reasons. The first is, there is no such thing as a virginity dot on the back of the ear. The second is, how can "rape" be considered "sex"? After all, later in the article we're told that this virginity dot knows the difference between heterosexual sex and masturbation and homosexual sex:
She says she was first taught how to determine if a man has ever had sex by feeling their pulse. She later developed the ear-spot method on her own. She says the spot will only disappear after heterosexual intercourse and is not affected by gay sex or masturbation.
So why does the violent and not sexual act of "rape" count as sex, but not consensual homosexual sex?

Answer: This is pseudoscience and therefore is resistant to anything like logic.

Nonetheless, this woman's dedication to her cockamamie idea led investigators to re-open the case:
Hong's determination to have the case reopened — even threatening to light herself on fire — led to prosecutors re-examining the case. The convictions eventually were suspended due to flaws by initial investigators.

"Thanks to her efforts, investigators revisited the case which otherwise could have been buried," said Nong Thi Hong Ha, a lawyer for one of the freed men.

Hong says she discovered the spot on Nguyen Dinh Kien's ear the first time he visited her for treatment four years ago. He was brought to the hospital from prison, where he was serving a 16-year sentence after being convicted of gang raping a 20-year-old woman in 2000.

After seeing the spot on Kien's ear, Hong believed his insistence that he was innocent. She later examined his two alleged accomplices and began a campaign for their release. Eventually, President Nguyen Minh Triet ordered that the case be re-examined.

Investigators who revisited the case discovered flaws, including the fact that testimonies of witnesses indicating their innocence were not included in the case's files, according to the local Pioneer newspaper. The three men, having served 10 years in jail, were released in January.
So if this story is true -- if the men really were innocent and if the police really did withhold evidence as to their innocence, then is this a case of three men owing their lives to pseudoscience? Did a lack of skepticism about this woman's insane virginity dot idea lead to their freedom?

Of course, those are some big ifs. I don't know anything about how the criminal justice system works in Vietnam, but I do know that here in America, there have been plenty of cases of police and prosecutors withholding evidence that would have helped clear a person accused of a crime.

(Aside: do the men claim to be virgins? It's been a long time since they were convicted of this crime.)

This paragraph, later in the story, makes me wonder if maybe the AP writer isn't having a little bit of fun with the whole thing:
Her virgin-detecting claims have drawn skepticism from other traditional medicine practitioners, who work with needles, herbs and other methods using centuries-old techniques to manipulate energy, or chi, in the body.
Yes, the "legitimate" traditional medicine practitioners, who manipulate chi, are skeptical of the woman's claims.

Then again I suppose it's possible that this another one of those "man dies from getting an eel shoved up his rectum" stories that the western media loves so much (Most of what I found about this on the internet referenced the AP story). Or, it's possible that this woman thought her claims of these mens' innocence would be ignored unless she did or said something totally flamboyant to get attention.

Whatever is going on, I now have a headache.

Is she a crackpot, or crackpot like a fox?

Acupuncturist Pham Thi Hong pic source.

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