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Friday, July 30th, 2004 | ISSN 1556-5696

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Catholic Church Says Weeping Statues Fake

Drawing of bleeding statue

On July 29, 2004 the Catholic Church issued a statement that their investigation of two bleeding and weeping statues in the Vietnamese Community Church in Brisbane (Australia) are not a miracle but fakes. Since the sightings first began the church has drawn thousands of worshippers who hoped that substances seeping from the statues are signs of a miracle.

According to the Brisbane Catholic Archbishop John Bathersby, the red substance weeping from the statues was synthetic. “The substance that seeped from the artifacts is very like one that is commercially available and it is possible that the substance was applied to them by human hands,” he told a news conference. The Archbishop consulted a judicial vicar named Dr. Adrian Farrelly, who was aided in his investigation of the alleged miracle by a retired chemistry professor. Archbishop Bathersby ordered the statues be removed from display, nothing that a similar inquiry in Western Australia last year had also concluded that such bleeding and weeping statues do not constitute a miracle.

This is a fine example of religious skepticism, whereby the burden of debunking does not always fall on skeptics. Such stories are useful when skeptics are asked about such “miracles.” We can answer that even the Catholic Church does not accept most of them as miracles, and therefore by Hume’s Maxim we can inquire which is more likely: that the other miracles are also fake, or that some of the claims are faked and the others are miracles? The question answers itself.


photo: Francis Crick and a model of DNA, borrowed from the National Library of Medicine (Profiles in Science, profiles.nlm.nih.gov/SC/B/C/D/X/).

Astonishing Mind:
Francis Crick 1916–2004

recollections on the life of a scientist,
by Michael Shermer

Science has lost one of its brightest luminaries on Wednesday, July 28, when Francis Crick died at age 88 after a long battle with colon cancer. Crick was co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, pioneer researcher on the neural correlates of consciousness, a powerful promoter of science and critical thinking, and a good friend of the skeptical movement in general and the Skeptics Society in particular. I did not have the opportunity to work with Francis, but every year he made a generous unsolicited donation to the Skeptics Society for no other reason than he believed all scientists should support science education and the scientific exploration of fringe and revolutionary science. I know because I called him once to thank him for a munificent check he sent; he responded by saying that such acknowledgments are unnecessary because he felt it was his duty in the name of sane science and a rational society.

Francis Harry Compton Crick was born on June 8, 1916 in Northampton, England. He attended Northampton Grammar School and later the Mill Hill School in North London, where he showed an early aptitude for science while receiving a basic education in chemistry, physics and mathematics. Upon graduation Crick attended University College in London where he received a bachelor of science degree in1937, majoring in physics. His Ph.D. work was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, during which he helped to design magnetic and acoustic mines for the British Admiralty.

After the war Crick grew less interested in physics and began exploring other areas of science where major contributions could still be made. As he recalled for a Rutgers University honors seminar in 1997:

I used what I call the ‘Gossip Test’ to decide what I wanted to do. The gossip test is simply that whatever you find yourself gossiping about is what you’re really interested in. I had found that my two main interests which I discussed the most were what today would be called molecular biology, what I referred to as the borderline between living and the nonliving, and the workings of the brain.

Crick’s “Gossip Test” led him in 1947 to the Strangeways Laboratory in Cambridge. Although he knew little biology and almost no organic chemistry or crystallography, Crick mastered both, and in 1949 he joined the Medical Research Council Unit as a laboratory scientist in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University. It was during these formative years that Crick and his collaborators at the lab worked out the general theory of x-ray diffraction by a helix, which ultimately led to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA.

In what has become one of the most famous collaborations in the history of science, in 1951 Crick and an American postdoc named James Watson teamed up to crack this greatest mystery of biology. Crick and Watson (now as famous a duo as any two names in any field) were both convinced that DNA, not proteins, was the critical factor for passing on genetic information. “It was obvious that I knew more about x-rays and structures than Jim did and he had more background in biological things which I’d only toughly taught myself,” he said. “So you might have guessed that I did the structural part and he did the more biological aspect. That really wasn’t true. For example, Watson discovered exactly how the base pairs went together, which is structural. He made that discovery.” This led to the discovery in 1953 of the double helix nature of DNA, for which both men, along with Maurice Wilkins, received the Noble Prize (for which Rosalind Franklin probably deserved equal recognition for her work on x-ray crystallography).

Their paper in the journal Nature, entitled simply “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid,” is now a classic of science literature. The paper’s opening line reveals the authors’ awareness of the importance of their discovery, albeit in the understated tone appropriate for such an august venue: “We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.” The novel feature, or what they also described as “a radically different structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid,” is that the “structure has two helical chains each coiled round the same axis.” The short paper (only one typeset page in the journal), ends, as it began: “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.” Indeed it does.

Crick’s restless mind led him in 1966 to turn his attention to embryology, and a decade later, in 1976, he moved to the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, for a one-year sabbatical year that lasted three decades and gave him the opportunity to pursue research on the brain and consciousness. In his 1990 book, What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery, Crick equated the brain sciences of today with the state of molecular biology in the 1920s and 1930s.

The brain sciences still have a very long way to go. But the fascination of the subject and the importance of the answers will inevitably carry it forward. It is essential to understand our brains in some details if we are to assess correctly our place in this vast and complicated universe we see all around us.

Although Crick was best known for his co-discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, he stirred up both the scientific community and the general public in 1994 with the publication of his book, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, in which he called consciousness “the major unsolved problem in biology.” The “problem” is explaining how billions of neurons swapping chemicals give rise to such subjective experiences as consciousness, self-awareness, and awareness that others are conscious and self-aware; or as Francis wrote,

that ‘you,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.

Crick wanted to ground the study of consciousness in solid experimental neuroscience. When I was a graduate student in experimental psychology in the 1970s neuroscience was a burgeoning rigorous science, but in the late 1970s and early 1980s “consciousness” was usurped by New Agers who turned it into an airy-fairy notion that drove scientists to avoid it in droves. When Crick took up the subject, however, the study of consciousness regained scientific respectability.

To me, the most astonishing aspect of Crick’s hypothesis is that it is astonishing to anyone. Where else could the mind be but in the brain? I was astonished, therefore, to receive numerous critical letters in response to several articles I wrote for Scientific American in which I supported Crick’s hypothesis, from correspondents who believe consciousness exists somewhere other than the brain. Part of the problem has been that finding the neuronal correlates of consciousness (NCC) has proved elusive, so instead of concocting a grand unified theory, Crick, and his young and brilliant collaborator Christof Koch of Caltech, undertook a very specific research program focusing on the visual system, to understand precisely how photons of light striking your retina become fully-integrated visual experiences.

One of the more interesting lines of inquiry pursued by Crick and Koch was tracking the neural pathways of facial recognition. It turns out, for example, that there is a single neuron that fires only when the subject sees an image of President Bill Clinton. If this neuron died would Clinton be impeached from the brain? No, because the visual representation of Clinton is distributed throughout several areas of the brain, in a hierarchical fashion, eventually branching down to this single neuron. The visual coding of any face involves several groups of neurons, one to identify the face, another to read its expression, a third to track its motion, and so on. This hierarchy of data processing allows the brain to economize neural activity through the use of combinatorics.

In Koch’s recently published book, The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach, with a foreword by Francis Crick, Koch explains what he and Crick deduced from their research:

Assume that two face neurons responded either not at all or by firing vigorously. Between them, they could represent four faces (one face is encoded by both cells not firing, the second one by firing activity in one and silence in the other, and so on). Ten neurons could encode 2 (10), or about a thousand faces. It has been calculated that one hundred neurons are sufficient to distinguish one out of thousands of faces in a robust manner. Considering that there are around 100,000 cells below a square millimeter of cortex, the potential representational capacity of any one cortical region is enormous.” Given that the brain has about a hundred billion neurons, consciousness is most likely an emergent property of these hierarchical and combinatoric neuronal connections. How, precisely, the NCC produce the subjective experiences of consciousness (called “qualia” by philosophers) remains to be explained, but Crick’s and Koch’s scientific approach, in my pinion, is the only one that will solve the “major unsolved problem in biology.

Since Christof was such a close friend and collaborator of Francis, I asked him for a comment. Christof was understandably upset, but managed to compose this thoughtful observation:

Francis Crick was a close personal friend and mentor to me for the past sixteen years. He was the living incarnation of what it is to be a scholar: brilliant, rational, dispassionate, and always willing to revise his own opinions and views in light of the actions of a universe that never ceased to astonish him. He was editing a manuscript on his death bed, a scientist until the bitter end.

An end that is only a beginning.


The following is Anusuya Vethanayagam’s review of the movie I-Robot (directed by Alex Proyas, screenplay by Jeff Vintar, starring Will Smith, James Cromwell, Bridget Moynahan). Singapore resident Anusuya Vethanayagam (anvs1@singnet.com.sg) is a part-time student and freelance writer/web designer who manages her own e-magazines ‘Wow Mag’ and ‘Celebrity Jam’. In addition to following eSkeptic, she also reads up on archaeology, technology and science.


A Review of I-Robot

by Anusuya Vethanayagam

Image of Will Smith from the  I-Robot website

Will Smith in I-Robot

Can you imagine robots collecting rubbish and mailing letters? Well it happens in the futuristic film I-Robot. Although it is “suggested by” the famous science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s book by the same name, there are, (predictably by Hollywood standards) not many similarities between the book and the film.

Directed by Alex Proyas (Dark City, Garage Days, The Crow), I-Robot is set in year 2035, with a focus in Chicago, and we immediately see that robots are everywhere, working and living among humans. A company named U.S. Robotics is a huge corporation manufacturing these robots, something along the lines of Microsoft Corporation.

The suspense begins with the mysterious suicide of a scientist named Dr. Lanning (James Cromwell), the pioneer creator of the robots produced by U.S. Robotics. A homicide cop named Spooner (Will Smith) investigates the case; since he already distrusts robots he wastes no time in suspecting—and accusing—the robots as the culprit. However, his suspecion falls on deaf ears as others keep telling him that robots cannot harm humans because of the three laws of robotics. These “laws” are taken directly from Asimov’s book, which have been canonized into science fiction literature:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Spooner is skeptical of the laws, and soon turns his attention to Lanning’s personal robot named “Sonny” (voice by Alan Tudyk). Spooner suspects that Sonny could have murdered the scientist because this robot seems extraordinarily active, even capable of delivering the martial arts moves of Bruce Lee.

We soon learn that Sonny is the favorite robot of the dead scientist, and as the film progresses Sonny reveals his intelligence, even recounting his dreams. This is a robot with feelings and emotions.

To help his investigation Spooner relies on a pre-death holographic recording made by Lanning. This offers clues to his murder and pinpoints possible problems with the release of the new NS-5 robots. Like Microsoft, U.S. Robotics hopes to install a robot in every home.

As Spooner gets deeper into his investigation, aided by a scientist named Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), he realizes that there is more to who’s really behind the controls of the robots; he soon finds that his prime suspect, Sonny, is harmless after all.

Towards the climax of the film we discover that the culprit who controls the robots is neither a human nor a robot, but a computer generated artificial intelligence machine called “V.I.K.I.” (voice of Fiona Hogan).

Being in charge of all the safety measures in the building and the main controls of all robots, this female voiced V.I.K.I. reigns over the master controls, brainwashing all robots and triggering a raging war of robots against humans by imprisoning them in their own homes.

Will Smith delivers well in the action scenes, especially in his one-liners that add his usual touch of humor. Bridget Moynahan comes across dull and lifeless in the first part of the film, but in the second half she shows some emotions and warms up.

But something is not right in the script! The only things borrowed from Isaac Asimov’s original 1950 short story collection are the three laws and the names of two characters, Alfred Lanning and Susan Calvin. The film also raises a few questions, such as whether it is right for humans to depend too much on robots and whether or not an over-reliance on Artificial Intelligence and technology could bring chaos.

For those who enjoy sleek fast action and great CGI, I-Robot may be entertaining. For true science fiction fans, especially Asimov aficionados, the film will be disappointing.

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