Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Angel of Carolina! Or not...

The story of an angel photographed over the South Carolina state fair has been making the rounds. I found it at Bad Astronomy. I promptly made a lesson of it. My students dug right into it. They had even less patience for this story than I did!

The original story from South Carolina is here.

The Bad Astronomy post and about 100 comments are here.

An interesting recreation of the pic can be found at the Xenophilia blog.

As far as the classroom lesson goes, here are a few of the questions I thought to ask after showing the video clip.

1. What was the source of the broadcast: cable news, network news, local TV news, etc.?
Local TV news is never-ending fountain of "too-good-to-verify news." Here in Sacramento, the ABC affiliate, News10, seems to take pride in their extreme credulity. Of course they linked to this story; they seem eager to jump on every wacky story that comes along.

2. Was the story skeptical/critical or accepting/sympathetic toward the photographer?
Once you've seen two stories of this nature, you know how they always play out. It wouldn't even *be* a story if an ounce of skepticism had been applied. So the "reporter" shepherds the story along to make it seem like there's actually a story going on.

3. Who provided the skeptical perspective?
The self-proclaimed believer in angels mentions that not everyone agrees with her assessment. She promptly dismisses the nay-sayers, but she provides the only hint that any kind of alternative interpretation is possible. Let's just say she's no James Randi. Or Michael Shermer. Etc....

4. Are there any inconsistencies between the photo shown and the verbal descriptions of the photo given by the photographer or her son?
Despite the short duration of the piece, there was enough time for a few to slip in. The photographer describes the "angel" as being centered in the middle of the photograph. Her son refers to legs that can be seen. Wha?

5. What's the best explanation for the photo and how could one go about reproducing such an image? Assume *no* manipulation of the photograph (via Photoshop or anything else).
The best I've seen was an argument in favor of a hummingbird. But the moth advocates make strong arguments as well. The illumination of the critter is due to the fact that nearly everyone who points-and-shoots a camera leaves the camera in "auto" mode. The camera meters the dark scene and fires the flash. The critter was in darkness before and after the shot was taken. Thus giving the photographer and her son the sense that the "angel" was invisible to the naked eye when they were at the fair. This "only the camera can see it" phenomenon is a common thread in paranormal flummery.

After the discussion on the true nature of the photo...

6. What's the key difference between moths/hummingbirds on the one hand and angels/fairies on the other?
The fact that moths and hummingbirds actually exist, as The Bad Astronomer says, is something of a clincher!

The guilty party in all such stories is the reporter. The participants might have shown poor critical-thinking skills, but the reporter is the one who exploits these people. Strokes them and encourages them, knowing better all along. But working on a deadline and desperate for a byline.


Anonymous said...

But, Channel 10 is the station that made this segment!

Dean Baird said...

OK, Plait; I'll give you that! That segment gets them some cred back. It would raise them up to zero if they weren't so fond of things like this.

You can rest assured that I sent a "corrective missive" to News10's Elizabeth Bishop regarding that journalistic gem.

Anyway; thanks for stopping by! And thanks for digging these nuggets up. It's great fun turning them into classroom lessons and watching my students completely trash the extreme bogousity of them. Hope for the future!

See you at TAM5!

Anonymous said...

A great activity suggested in "The Universe at Your Fingertips" by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific is to challenge your students to create a fake UFO picture. Giving them an option of an angel picture would add some variety (and maybe get them on the TV news!)

Dean Baird said...

Worse yet, have them create a photo of the Virgin Mary. In a way, it's too easy; nearly any photo of anything (including grilled cheese sandwiches) could be interpreted as including an image of Mary. And the local affiliate news would run with it. We had a "weeping statue" in Sacramento last year, and it was the lead on the local news for a week.

Anonymous said...

What have you got against grilled cheese sandwiches with 'An Authentic Portrait Of The Virgin Mary" TM! I still have posted to my (cork w/ thumbtacks) bulletin board where 'Ripley's Believe It Or Not'(@ SF MARINA a few years ago) was getting $11.00 a head to look at it! I thought George Foreman should have put out a sandwich grill which would have made every lunch miraculous (and profitable)!
Dave in SF