Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Suspension of disbelief

It isn't nice or neighborly to cast aspersions and make assumptions about the intelligence of people you haven't met ... but, boy, is it easy sometimes.
Police in Bekasi arrested a so-called shaman on Tuesday for allegedly swindling a man out of Rp 400 million ($44,400) by claiming he could double or triple a sum of bank notes within a short period of time.

The suspect, whom police have identified as Mustofa Kamal, allegedly told the victim he could control something he called “miracle money,” which grew exponentially the more money the victim gave him.

Bekasi Police Chief Comr. Ade Ary Syam Indradi said the victim, Wagino Harjo, of East Bekasi, reported Mustofa to police after the miracle funds did not materialize.

“So far we have only confirmed one victim, but this shaman says he duped three people in the past three months. We are looking for the other two,” Ade said.

The arrest comes two days after police announced the arrests of a former Tangerang mayor and his wife. They are accused of bilking people out of billions of rupiah by promising to increase their fortunes through special prayers and magic.
Mr. Mustofah is apparently a fan of Dire Straits. I'm not so sure I'd want my name put into the public by police if I got caught asking a shaman to produce money from nothing.

Of course, succumbing to superstition isn't exclusive to the littles. People of great wealth and power are just as susceptible to letting their brains go on vacation in the face of a bit of wizardry. In Romania, witchcraft is a matter of life and death -- and, more importantly, taxes.

Angry witches are using cat excrement and dead dogs to cast spells on the president and government who are forcing them to pay taxes. Also in the eye of the taxman are fortune tellers, who should have seen it coming. [Boom! -- Ed.]
And President Traian Basescu isn't laughing it off. In a country where superstition is mainstream, the president and his aides wear purple on Thursdays, allegedly to ward off evil spirits.
Witches from Romania's eastern and western regions will descend to the southern plains and the Danube River Thursday to threaten the government with spells and spirits. Mauve has a high vibration, it makes the wearer superior and wards off evil attacks, according to the esoteric group Violet Flame — which practices on Thursdays.
A dozen witches will head to the Danube to put a hex on the government and hurl mandrake into the river "so evil will befall them," said a witch named Alisia. She identified herself with one name, as is customary among witches.
"This law is foolish. What is there to tax, when we hardly earn anything?" she said by telephone on Wednesday. "The lawmakers don't look at themselves, at how much they make, their tricks; they steal and they come to us asking us to put spells on their enemies."
The world throws up dozens of these kind of stories every day -- the sometimes cute, sometimes puzzling tales that at some point have you thinking "well, that's dumb, but it's mostly harmless."

Most times, it is. But not always.

The scientific realm also has its share of head-scratchers. Some are fairly innocuous (searching for Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, dowsing for water), while others can be downright vexing, like people who continue to deny that man ever landed on the moon.

What is even more frustrating -- not to mention potentially harmful, not just for science but for people's well-being -- is when scientists choose to ignore mountains of evidence in order to serve their paymasters. Dancing for the fiddler is about the only way I can explain the mind-boggling testimony from some scientists during the Indonesian government's debate over whether tobacco is an addictive substance.

You remember that whole song and dance, right? The US had its turn in the 1990s:

REP. RON WYDEN: Let me begin my questioning on whether or not nicotine is addictive. Let me ask you first, and I'd like to just go down the row, whether each of you believes that nicotine is not addictive. I heard virtually all of you touch on it. Yes or no, do you believe nicotine is not addictive?
MR. WILLIAM CAMPBELL (President & CEO, Philip Morris, USA)
I believe nicotine is not addictive, yes.
REP. RON WYDEN: Mr. Johnston?
MR. JAMES JOHNSTON (Chairman and CEO, RJR Tobacco Company)
Mr. Congressman, cigarettes and nicotine clearly do not meet the classic definition of addiction. There is no intoxication.
REP. RON WYDEN: We'll take that as a "no." Again, time is short. I think that each of you believe that nicotine is not addictive. We would just like to have this for the record.
MR. JOSEPH TADDEO (President, U.S. Tobacco Company)
I don't believe that nicotine or our products are addictive.
MR. ANDREW TISCH (Chairman and CEO, Lorillard Tobacco Company)
I believe that nicotine is not addictive.
MR. EDWARD HORRIGAN (Chairman and CEO, Liggett Group Inc.)
I believe that nicotine is not addictive.
MR. THOMAS SANDEFUR (Chairman and CEO, Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp.)
I believe that nicotine is not addictive.
MR. DONALD JOHNSTON (President and CEO, American Tobacco Company)
And I, too, believe that nicotine is not addictive.
How'd that all work out for them? Oh yeah.

Now it's Indonesia's turn. It isn't receiving a great deal of coverage because 1) it's in Indonesia and 2) just about everyone with two working brain cells who isn't on the payroll of the tobacco industry knows smoking is bad for you.

Not here, though. No sir.
In testimonies defying logic and scientific knowledge, experts on Tuesday told the Constitutional Court that smoking had little to no impact on the human body and could even prove healthy.

Sutiman Bambang Sumitro, a molecular biology professor from Brawijaya University in Malang, East Java, said cigarettes “could be used as media for energy transfer that would benefit normal human physiology.”

“This hasn’t been done yet because tobacco companies don’t have the proper research units for product development,” Sutiman said. “Given enough knowledge, anything considered a toxin can be neutralized and used as medicine.”
Aris Widodo, a professor of pharmacology at Brawijaya, told the court smoking could help reduce stress and other problems, and that its health impact was not as severe as people feared.

“We’ve never heard of someone dying from smoking. It might be strongly addictive, but if one stops smoking, the withdrawal symptoms don’t last long and [will] disappear more easily than with other drugs.”

The idea that various cancers, as well as degenerative, cardiovascular and neurological diseases, were the result of smoking were “not really correct,” he said.
Jack Rubiyoso, a public health expert from Brawijaya, also testified on Tuesday, saying most of the studies linking smoking to various health complications were published by Western researchers with imperialist agendas.

“There’s a medical imperialism in the mindset of the [Western] doctors,” he said.

“The impact of smoking, if it’s managed in a holistic way by family doctors, could be limited [and made to be] as small as possible. The so-called dangerous substance is easily handled by family doctors.”
Is your head spinning yet? Light up if you need to ... I'll wait.

So why is the Constitutional Court reviewing the Health Law, something that would normally seem pretty straightforward? Funny you should ask.
The review was requested by Bambang Sukarno, a tobacco farm owner and legislator in Temanggung, East Java, who said Article 113 of the law — which deemed tobacco an addictive substance — was unconstitutional and called several expert witnesses to testify in support.
I'm sure his motives are pure, though.

Testimony began in December and is still ongoing (which should tell you something right there). Is it getting any better? Well....
In a bizarre twist to the ongoing legal debate over tobacco’s addictive nature, the government contradicted its own law by siding with the country’s powerful cigarette industry.

One of the witnesses, Mualimin Abdi, the director of litigation at the Justice and Human Rights Ministry, said it was preposterous to call tobacco addictive.

“It’s nonsense to say that it’s difficult to quit smoking,” he told the Constitutional Court. “It didn’t take me weeks to stop smoking. I just stopped. It only takes strong willpower.”

After Wednesday’s hearing in a judicial review called for by Bambang Sukarno, a legislator from the tobacco-growing hub of Temanggung in Central Java, Mualimin expounded further on the merits of tobacco.

“Tobacco is a halal product [accepted under Islam], therefore cigarettes are halal too,” he said.

“People should also not close their eyes to the fact that we receive Rp 60 trillion [$6.66 billion] in tobacco excise every year."
Ah, anecdotal evidence. Where would the legal system be without it?

But that's not all -- oh, heavens no.
The Constitutional Court invited its own witnesses, three tobacco industry executives, to testify on Wednesday.

Justice Harjono justified the move by arguing they were industry stakeholders who would be affected by the outcome of the judicial review.

The executive from Djarum, the country’s second-biggest cigarette producer, said any move to further regulate the industry would have a negative impact on the tens of thousands of people employed in the sector.

“In 2010, we had 73,896 employees and had a turnover of Rp 21.8 trillion, of which 56 percent went to the government,” said Subronto, an industrial relations executive for Djarum. “Our workers are now being threatened with discriminatory laws.”
It's clear the tobacco industry has Indonesia by the short and curlies, even the Islamic authorities whose sway in the country at times rivals the president's. In a way, I suppose it's somewhat laudable that its proponents here are willing to say what they mean: We know this country is addicted to tobacco and its money, so don't you dare try to regulate us or you'll only end up hurting yourself.

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