Skepticism, tourism and history

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Luciana Nery
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Skepticism, tourism and history

Post by Luciana Nery » Thu Mar 31, 2005 5:04 am

The tourism industry thrives on the sensational. Thus cities or sites entirely dedicated to promoting UFOs or paranormal events.

I wasn't looking for anything out of the ordinary when I signed up to visit the historical churches in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil.

In the 18th century, gold and diamonds were found in that region. Brazil was still a Portuguese colony back then, and very fast a burocracy was installed, with the purpose of collecting taxes on the mining products (1/5 of production). The Portuguese could have built factories, invested in infrastructure or at least sold the products wisely instead of overflooding the international market with gold, like they did. Instead, with this money they paid debts to England and... built churches. Incredible churches, with altars in solid gold. A thing of beauty. Barroque style. Wonderfully crafted statues of life-sizes statues of saints. Gold, gold, gold everywhere.

We were in a group of about 20 people, and we had a guide for each church. Sitting on the pews, you couldn't help but wonder about the stories behind the building of those churches, under very adverse conditions.

Slaves built a church at night, when thye left work. Hidden in body orifices and hair, they brought gold enough to decorate their church a little bit. All the stones, tools, wood, everything was the fruit of theft. Well, that's hardly a novelty, considering we're speaking of the Catholic Church here... obviously, their church was never accredited as one by the RCC, but at least they had one that was just theirs, in which they were welcome to sit in the front, and not just in the back as it was mandatory at the time.

The story above is a confirmed one. What I won't bother to tell you are the stories I heard about conspiracies, ghosts, "odd" coincidences, myths of all kinds involving those churches. Some guides were heavy on that, some told that a bit tongue in cheek.

What irritated me is that everytime they spent any length of time telling stories that set off my skeptical bells, he wouldn't be talking about the really interesting facts surrounding those churches and the mining cycle that lasted less than 75 years in that region.

Whenever I could challenge the guides on facts, I would. And more - after we left the church, I'd start telling to people in my group what respectable historians had to say on those matters, and how what we had just been told had either been discredited long ago, or were downright inventions.

Then I remember how, travelling through Europe, and being less knowledgeable in their history, I must have been fed inaccurate facts, and never even noticed...

If, on one hand, skeptics can't be expected to correct anyone's history, at least we can act on thining critically and challenging this unprofessional attitude. Because real history can be just as entertaining as "made up" history.
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Luciana Nery

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Post by Nyarlathotep » Thu Mar 31, 2005 3:56 pm

Since most people, even people who don't beleive in ghosts, enjoys a good ghost story from time to time, I think some people look at it as a means to get people interested in the historical stories. It is a double edged sword, though. For the people that are already good critical thinkers, it is little moe than a campfire story meant for entertainment that also happens to convey a bit of real history along with. For the rest, though, it puts a kind of 'seal of approval' on their delusions.

I've thought of this a lot too, because my hometown puts on an annual "Ghost Walk" every year around Halloween, where people tour various historic sites around the town and get treated to both a little bit of a ghost story about it and also learn some of the real history. I have always found the ghost stuff annoying but the historical stuff fascinating. I would be just as happy to learnt he hsitory with out the hocus-pocus mixed in but I know that that it would be a lot less interesting for my fellow citizens. Whatchagonnado?

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Post by DanishDynamite » Fri Apr 01, 2005 12:11 am

"Real" history is indeed very fascinating, at least if told by an engaging person.

[Off-topic]
I didn't care much for history during my school days. It seemed to me it was all about memorizing obscure facts which you would then later regurgitate on exams.

Later in life, I've often wished I had a better command of history. Somehow, it continues to pop up as a relevant skill, often in the most unlikely places.
[/off-topic]

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Post by Nyarlathotep » Fri Apr 01, 2005 1:14 am

DanishDynamite wrote:"Real" history is indeed very fascinating, at least if told by an engaging person.

[Off-topic]
I didn't care much for history during my school days. It seemed to me it was all about memorizing obscure facts which you would then later regurgitate on exams.

Later in life, I've often wished I had a better command of history. Somehow, it continues to pop up as a relevant skill, often in the most unlikely places.
[/off-topic]


So do I. Heck, history fascinates me enough that even a dull person can enthrall me if the story itself is interesting enough.

But I harbor no illusions that my fellow humans are quite so interested as I am. So I still don't know how to feel about mixing ghost stories with history. I am glad to see people getting some historical education but I chafe at hearing such tales presented as fact. Though I will say that I don't know about Luciana's example, but the ghost stories in Carson City's "Ghost Walk" are done in a "scary campfire tale" sort of fashion, so that makes it less annoying, IMO.

As for your off topic comments. It kind of annoys me that so many teachers present history the way you describe it, as a series of dry facts and figures to be regurgitated later. I think it defeats the purpose. Any dolt can grab an encyclopedia and look up what year the Magna Carta was signed or who Martin Luther was. But it's much more interesting to study why the Magna Carta was signed and how Martin Luther's ideas snowballed into the Protestant Reformation. The fun part of history is the analysis and I think far too many teachers give that part short shrift.

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Post by Luciana Nery » Fri Apr 01, 2005 3:07 pm

Nyarlathotep wrote:Since most people, even people who don't beleive in ghosts, enjoys a good ghost story from time to time, I think some people look at it as a means to get people interested in the historical stories. It is a double edged sword, though. For the people that are already good critical thinkers, it is little moe than a campfire story meant for entertainment that also happens to convey a bit of real history along with. For the rest, though, it puts a kind of 'seal of approval' on their delusions.


My contention is probably wider than that. As a skeptic, I'm sure you can marvel at the world without having to resort to the paranormal. There is cool stuff everywhere, including things we still don't know. So, my problems are:

a) paranormal is cool, while reality isn't, not as much;
b) "we don't know" isn't acceptable, so let's invent something;
c) history is inherently boring, so let's sexy it up a little bit.

On the other hand, there are some places whose supernatural stories are part of its history, and you can't possibly escape, for example, the Winchester Mystery House. Even then, the account can and should be neutral.

I've thought of this a lot too, because my hometown puts on an annual "Ghost Walk" every year around Halloween, where people tour various historic sites around the town and get treated to both a little bit of a ghost story about it and also learn some of the real history. I have always found the ghost stuff annoying but the historical stuff fascinating. I would be just as happy to learnt he hsitory with out the hocus-pocus mixed in but I know that that it would be a lot less interesting for my fellow citizens. Whatchagonnado?


Yeah, well, the idea that ghost stories are supercool is so entrenched that it won't be the tourism industry that will fight it. Unfortunately, maybe those guides get lazy about researching more, after all their speech is acceptable enough for the audience. And then we have a disservice to the general population.
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Post by Luciana Nery » Fri Apr 01, 2005 3:52 pm

DanishDynamite wrote:"Real" history is indeed very fascinating, at least if told by an engaging person.


I fell in love with history through books. I have had a few interesting history teachers, but maybe it's an in-depth study that makes it interesting, that is, the full account on background, motivations, reactions and consequences. Mostly, it is the consequences that I enjoy reading about, as they help me to interpret my world.
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Post by kimpatsu » Sat Apr 02, 2005 1:15 am

DanishDynamite wrote: I didn't care much for history during my school days. It seemed to me it was all about memorizing obscure facts which you would then later regurgitate on exams.

History is about analysis of the causes of historical events, not mere rote memorisation.
"I suspect that today if you asked people to justify their belief in God, the dominant reason would be scientific. Most people, I believe, think that you need a God to explain the existence of the world, and especially the existence of life. They are wrong, but our education system is such that many people don't know it."--Richard Dawkins

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Post by DanishDynamite » Sun Apr 03, 2005 5:39 pm

Nyarlathotep wrote:As for your off topic comments. It kind of annoys me that so many teachers present history the way you describe it, as a series of dry facts and figures to be regurgitated later. I think it defeats the purpose. Any dolt can grab an encyclopedia and look up what year the Magna Carta was signed or who Martin Luther was. But it's much more interesting to study why the Magna Carta was signed and how Martin Luther's ideas snowballed into the Protestant Reformation. The fun part of history is the analysis and I think far too many teachers give that part short shrift.


Most of my history teachers certainly did give the analysis short shrift. (What is short shrift, BTW :) ?)

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Post by DanishDynamite » Sun Apr 03, 2005 5:44 pm

Luciana Nery wrote:
DanishDynamite wrote:"Real" history is indeed very fascinating, at least if told by an engaging person.


I fell in love with history through books. I have had a few interesting history teachers, but maybe it's an in-depth study that makes it interesting, that is, the full account on background, motivations, reactions and consequences. Mostly, it is the consequences that I enjoy reading about, as they help me to interpret my world.


I've no doubt that properly written history books will be engaging by themselves. I've just come never met any. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that I have never come across one which would trumph books on how the Universe works. Which is afterall more important than what humans have invaded other humans on this ball of dirt where we all live.

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Post by DanishDynamite » Sun Apr 03, 2005 5:45 pm

kimpatsu wrote:
DanishDynamite wrote: I didn't care much for history during my school days. It seemed to me it was all about memorizing obscure facts which you would then later regurgitate on exams.

History is about analysis of the causes of historical events, not mere rote memorisation.


I agree.

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Post by kimpatsu » Sun Apr 03, 2005 10:03 pm

DanishDynamite wrote:I've no doubt that properly written history books will be engaging by themselves. I've just come never met any. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that I have never come across one which would trumph books on how the Universe works. Which is afterall more important than what humans have invaded other humans on this ball of dirt where we all live.

That's a personal prefernce; have you ever read "The 1,000 Days War", which is about Vietnam? Equally as engaging as Cosmos or the Blind Watchmaker, IMO.
"I suspect that today if you asked people to justify their belief in God, the dominant reason would be scientific. Most people, I believe, think that you need a God to explain the existence of the world, and especially the existence of life. They are wrong, but our education system is such that many people don't know it."--Richard Dawkins

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Post by Nyarlathotep » Mon Apr 04, 2005 4:57 am

DanishDynamite wrote:Most of my history teachers certainly did give the analysis short shrift. (What is short shrift, BTW :) ?)


If you give something short shrift you are not giving it the attention it deserves.

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Post by Nyarlathotep » Mon Apr 04, 2005 5:00 am

DanishDynamite wrote:I've no doubt that properly written history books will be engaging by themselves. I've just come never met any. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that I have never come across one which would trumph books on how the Universe works. Which is afterall more important than what humans have invaded other humans on this ball of dirt where we all live.


Right now I am reading Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond. IT's about how diferent forces shaped the balance of power in the world today, i.e why European germs decimated the Native Americans and not the other way around. It's fascinating.

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Post by Coobeastie » Mon Apr 04, 2005 8:44 am

The problem with history is that so much is in doubt. I've a degree in medieval history, and so whenever I visit a site that I know something about I end up thinking 'Well, yes, you could say that, but...'. An example is Orkney: most of the places in Orkney use Scandinavian Saga material to illustrate that period of their history without question. They never say how much the historicity of these accounts are in doubt, how much they've been challenged: they are Old, therefore they are True. There are supposed to be plans in Austria for the re-education of tour guides for the anniversary of Mozart's death (or is it birth?): most of the information they are giving at the moment is based on the movie 'Amadeus' :roll:

I think that there is a lot to be said for interesting people in the past, and if it takes a 'good story' to do that, then so be it. Much like basic science, basic history is a tapestry of little lies; but hopefully, those little lies get some people interested enough to find out more.

From a historical viewpoint, the paranormal was part of people's lives. You can't tell the story of St. Columba without talking about his 'miracles'. No, he didn't magically open gates, or banish Nessie; but people believed he did. Talking about a lot of the more ancient past without any reference to these beliefs is daft.

When St. Columba died it is recorded that several people saw a beam of light shining in the direction of Iona in the night, and took it as a sign that Columba had died. When I was out watching the Aurora Borealis a while back I saw this exact phenomenon; a beam of light coming out of the night sky, and shining straight down out to sea. Perhaps more tour guides could use the paranormal like that?

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Post by Luciana Nery » Mon Apr 04, 2005 7:30 pm

Coobeastie wrote:The problem with history is that so much is in doubt. I've a degree in medieval history, and so whenever I visit a site that I know something about I end up thinking 'Well, yes, you could say that, but...'.


Yeah, exactly. Many of my thoughts were along those lines. Or I would just know that the guide was repeating what was common knowledge 30 years ago, but that reputable historians have challenged it thoroughly since then. I understand guides are pressed for time, but I also think there was room to be more careful with some assertions.

Btw, I find that being a tour guide for small groups of people in museums is a very pleasant activity for retired history lovers. They get the chance to delight visitors and answer interesting questions now and then. Oh, no, I just had another idea for when I turn 80.:)
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Post by DanishDynamite » Mon Apr 04, 2005 7:41 pm

kimpatsu wrote:
DanishDynamite wrote:I've no doubt that properly written history books will be engaging by themselves. I've just come never met any. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that I have never come across one which would trumph books on how the Universe works. Which is afterall more important than what humans have invaded other humans on this ball of dirt where we all live.

That's a personal prefernce; have you ever read "The 1,000 Days War", which is about Vietnam? Equally as engaging as Cosmos or the Blind Watchmaker, IMO.


Yes, it is a personal preference. I forgot to include a smiley for that last sentence. :)

Regarding the "1000 Days war", I'll try and have a look for it.

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Post by DanishDynamite » Mon Apr 04, 2005 7:46 pm

Nyarlathotep wrote:
DanishDynamite wrote:I've no doubt that properly written history books will be engaging by themselves. I've just come never met any. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that I have never come across one which would trumph books on how the Universe works. Which is afterall more important than what humans have invaded other humans on this ball of dirt where we all live.


Right now I am reading Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond. IT's about how diferent forces shaped the balance of power in the world today, i.e why European germs decimated the Native Americans and not the other way around. It's fascinating.


Yes, it is fascinating! Read it about a year or two ago. Excellent stuff.

However, I wouldn't count this as a history book. It's more a book on our origins and how local nature shaped it.

[edited to correct {!#%@}]
Last edited by DanishDynamite on Mon Apr 04, 2005 8:14 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by DanishDynamite » Mon Apr 04, 2005 7:51 pm

Luciana, how about starting a thread on Brazilian history? I, for one, can vouch for your ability to be an engaging speaker on the topic.

Also, I'm afraid I don't remember as much from your great story-telling at TAM as I would wish. Odd that. :wink:

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Post by SkepticReport » Mon Apr 04, 2005 8:08 pm

DanishDynamite wrote:Yes, it is fascinating! Read it about a year or two ago. Excellent stuff.

However, I wouldn't count this as a history book. It more a book on our origins and how local nature shaped it.


Agree. It is, however, a refreshing approach to history. Diamond should be speaking at TAMx.

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Post by DanishDynamite » Mon Apr 04, 2005 8:13 pm

SkepticReport wrote:
DanishDynamite wrote:Yes, it is fascinating! Read it about a year or two ago. Excellent stuff.

However, I wouldn't count this as a history book. It more a book on our origins and how local nature shaped it.


Agree. It is, however, a refreshing approach to history. Diamond should be speaking at TAMx.


I'd certainly vote for that.

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Post by Nyarlathotep » Mon Apr 04, 2005 8:24 pm

DanishDynamite wrote:
SkepticReport wrote:
DanishDynamite wrote:Yes, it is fascinating! Read it about a year or two ago. Excellent stuff.

However, I wouldn't count this as a history book. It more a book on our origins and how local nature shaped it.


Agree. It is, however, a refreshing approach to history. Diamond should be speaking at TAMx.


I'd certainly vote for that.


As would I.

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Post by Luciana Nery » Mon Apr 04, 2005 10:47 pm

Who will send the suggestion for Linda? Even if I don't attend next TAM, or any of you, I agree it would be an asset to the conference.
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Post by Luciana Nery » Mon Apr 04, 2005 10:58 pm

DanishDynamite wrote:Luciana, how about starting a thread on Brazilian history? I, for one, can vouch for your ability to be an engaging speaker on the topic.


Good idea, I'll be doing it later in the month. I'll try and gather a few images also, including a map. :)

Also, I'm afraid I don't remember as much from your great story-telling at TAM as I would wish. Odd that. :wink:


Next time you'll be drinking cachaça, and not tequila, that should boost your memory. :D
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Post by DanishDynamite » Mon Apr 04, 2005 11:15 pm

Luciana Nery wrote:Who will send the suggestion for Linda? Even if I don't attend next TAM, or any of you, I agree it would be an asset to the conference.


Luciana, you orgasmically lovely creature, you somehow forgot to say whether you would be starting a "Brazilian History" thread or not. I realize this is a simple oversight regarding us mortals, but would you have some idea of when you might respond? :D

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Post by DanishDynamite » Mon Apr 04, 2005 11:17 pm

Luciana Nery wrote:
DanishDynamite wrote:Luciana, how about starting a thread on Brazilian history? I, for one, can vouch for your ability to be an engaging speaker on the topic.


Good idea, I'll be doing it later in the month. I'll try and gather a few images also, including a map. :)

Also, I'm afraid I don't remember as much from your great story-telling at TAM as I would wish. Odd that. :wink:


Next time you'll be drinking cachaça, and not tequila, that should boost your memory. :D


Goddess, please consider my previous post as non-existent.

:D

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Post by Luciana Nery » Mon Apr 04, 2005 11:34 pm

DanishDynamite wrote:Goddess, please consider my previous post as non-existent.

:D


Hey, you call me "orgasmically lovely creature" and I should pretend it doesn't exist?? :) Nooooo...

About the thread, actually, I have been meaning to start it for at least two years. You having asked so nicely is just an incentive for me to start it sooner than later. :)
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Post by DanishDynamite » Tue Apr 05, 2005 7:25 pm

Luciana Nery wrote:
DanishDynamite wrote:Goddess, please consider my previous post as non-existent.

:D


Hey, you call me "orgasmically lovely creature" and I should pretend it doesn't exist?? :) Nooooo...


Well, that bit is so obviously true that it would hopeless to suppress anyway.
About the thread, actually, I have been meaning to start it for at least two years. You having asked so nicely is just an incentive for me to start it sooner than later. :)


Date?

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Post by Luciana Nery » Tue Apr 05, 2005 8:36 pm

Should I start a thread about Latin America before, to explain its history in general terms? Then later I start about Brazil. Oh, date? After the 17th. :)
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Post by Nyarlathotep » Tue Apr 05, 2005 8:50 pm

Luciana Nery wrote:Should I start a thread about Latin America before, to explain its history in general terms? Then later I start about Brazil. Oh, date? After the 17th. :)


Sure. It'd be interesting.

My local community college keeps offering a class on Mexican history that I keep wanting to take, but they keep holding on dates/times that conflict with my work schedule. :x