Hotel clerk lacking critical thinking skills does $50,000 in damages.

I’m a big promoter of critical thinking skills because it’ll save you much embarrassment and expense. “Skeptic” is not a four letter word and skepticism can be a very useful tool for determining the truth of a claim especially when said claims come from complete strangers who are presenting themselves as an authority figure. People like the prankster who phoned up the front desk clerk of a Holiday Inn Express in Arkansas claiming to be a representative Grennel Fire Sprinkler service.  Hotel employee Christina Bergmann was working the front desk that morning and apparently didn’t bat an eye when the fake Grennel rep told her there was a problem with the hotel’s sprinkler system and that she needed to reset it by pulling the fire alarm:

“Bergmann proceeded to pull the fire alarm at this point, causing the audible alarm.” Bergmann, aided by a hotel guest, would subsequently follow a series of directions from the caller that would result in about $50,000 in damages to the hotel’s windows, carpets and electrical system. Hotel guests, who were evacuated during the incident, were allowed back into the Holiday Inn after police and fire officials determined that the caller was an imposter.

Now I can see how someone non-technical might be able to be convinced that pulling the fire alarm would reset the sprinkler system, but when you read the full police report at The Smoking Gun you have to wonder why the next instructions didn’t cause her to pause and ask what the hell was going on.

The caller then advised Bergmann to push the lever back up. When she was unable to do so, the caller told her that in order to keep the sprinklers from coming on and causing serious damage to the hotel, she had to break all the exterior windows.

I don’t care how non-technical you happen to be the above instruction should be a major red flag that the caller is not who he claims to be. Smashing the windows to keep the sprinklers from going off? How exactly is that supposed to work? Especially considering that the sprinklers themselves are usually activated by the heat of flames and not some sort of electronic switch. Even if you didn’t know that though you still have to wonder how broken windows would stop sprinklers from activating.

It’s at this point that our story takes an even more bizarre turn for the absurd. It seems Bergmann wasn’t the only person not thinking critically that day as about this time a customer by the name of Rusty Brown walked into the lobby and identified himself as an Incident Commander. That’s someone who’s been trained in how to coordinate an emergency response. The sort of person you’d hope would have a highly developed critical thinking skill and the knowledge of how to apply it in an emergency.  Rusty Brown apparently did not have such a skill as he didn’t bat an eye when handed the phone by Bergmann and told by the phone rep that the exterior windows had to be broken to reset the alarms and keep the sprinklers from activating:

At this point Bergmann and Brown began breaking the lobby windows with a fire extinguisher. While Brown was breaking the lobby windows, the caller advised Bergmann that she must break a portion of one of the sprinkler heads to keep it from activating.

Again we come to a point where you’d think a red flag would pop up and start bashing Bergmann over the head. Activating the fire alarm didn’t work, breaking windows doesn’t seem to be doing the trick, so how would intentionally breaking the actual sprinkler head help in any way? Well, what could it hurt to try, right?

At this point Bergmann removed a portion of the sprinkler head, causing a large amount of water to flow through it. After breaking several windows and realizing the alarm was not deactivated, Rusty Brown got back on the lobby phone with the caller.

Surely Rusty Brown realizes at this point that they’ve been had and is going to curse out the caller in a lengthy and graphic way. Then again, maybe not:

The caller told Brown that he must reset the control panel for the system. Brown told the caller that the water from the sprinkler was keeping him from reaching the panel. The caller told Brown that he had to find the breaker box and shut down power to the hotel.

Again, this should be a red flag. Sprinkler systems generally don’t require power to function as they are activated by heat breaking a fluid filled chamber in the sprinkler head and the flow is driven by pure water pressure. If you want to shut them off you need to find the valve for that section of sprinkler heads, not a breaker box. You’d think that an Incident Commander would know this, but apparently that’s not the case:

At this point Brown gave the caller his cell phone number in order to stay in contact while mobile. The caller made contact with Brown by phone and continued to give him instructions. Brown found an employee and gained access to the main electrical room and shut down the main power.

And now we come to the big payoff:

Brown advised that at this point the unknown caller called his cell phone again and advised that he was connecting him to the hotel manager, whose number he had gotten from Christian Bergmann. At this point Brown was in contact with Candlewood manager Donna Caldwell who was unaware of the situation.

So there you are, a trained Incident Commander who’s supposed to be able to coordinate a response to an emergency situation, and you’ve just finished helping a clueless hotel clerk smash a bunch of windows, set off a sprinkler system, and shut down power to the hotel all to avoid something that wasn’t going to happen in the first place and you’ve got to explain all of that to the hotel manager. Sucks to be you.

All of that could have been avoided with just a little critical thinking and a question or two. Rusty Brown should have known at least a little about how fire suppression systems work, but even without that knowledge there were several points where a reasonable person should have questioned what they were being told to do.

Rusty Brown, the Holiday Inn guest who helped Bergmann follow the prankster’s instructions, told TSG he was “an innocent bystander and got involved in domestic terrorism.” Bown, 36, remarked that there was “absolute panic in that hotel,” adding that, “all I did was make it worse. I’m not proud of breaking windows. It is very disheartening.”

Domestic terrorism? I suppose that’s one way to look at it. Being played for a fool is yet another. I don’t know who determines who gets to be an Incident Commander, but if I were them I’d be seriously reconsidering if Rusty Brown is right for the position.

Good essay on being open minded.

I’ve been accused of being closed minded for rejecting supernatural beliefs more times than I can remember. Wish I’d had this video a long time ago as a rebuttal:

Found via Atheist Media Blog

“Here Be Dragons” is a free 40 minute film on critical thinking.

I’m very big on critical thinking and I try to promote it where I can. So when I stumbled across this video over at Richard Dawkins’ website I knew I had to include it here.

Here Be Dragons is a free 40 minute video introduction to critical thinking. It is suitable for general audiences and is licensed for free distribution and public display.

Most people fully accept paranormal and pseudoscientific claims without critique as they are promoted by the mass media. Here Be Dragons offers a toolbox for recognizing and understanding the dangers of pseudoscience, and appreciation for the reality-based benefits offered by real science.

Here Be Dragons is written and presented by Brian Dunning, host and producer of the Skeptoid podcast, author of Skeptoid: Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena, and Executive Producer of The Skeptologists.

Good stuff.

Examining the fictional morality of “Star Wars.”

I have to admit that I really didn’t care much for the Star Wars prequels and I thought it was because of idiotic plot devices such as the “midichlorians” and JarJar Binks, but perhaps the reason I didn’t like them was more involved than that. Perhaps I didn’t like them because the morality they present just plain old sucks. And not just in the prequels, but in the original movies as well.

I came to realize this after reading Fictional Morality: Star Wars over at Action Skeptics which turns a critical eye on the “Jedi Code” and explains why it’s one of the worst moral systems ever imagined:

Even bigger problems arise when we look at the Star Wars universe as context. The biggest implication of this part of the Jedi Code is that Jedi are urged to be completely emotionless. On one hand, this allows them (potentially) to deliver impartial judgements. On the other, it denies them things that might well make them better people, put them more “at peace,” so to speak. Anakin Skywalker could have had a perfectly fine marriage were it not for this code. Instead, he hid his marriage and was wracked with (poorly acted) anxiety over his breach of the code. Were this tenet absent, he would have had emotion and peace. Instead he had emotion and emotional turmoil because he was breaking Jedi dogma.

This tenet is also inherently cruel given the structure of Jedi training. The Padawan learner inevitably builds a strong emotional bond with his teacher, all the while being told that such emotion is immoral and wrong. We have problems from the outset. It is almost reminiscent of the oft-told story about various militaries through time: the troops are each given a puppy and told to love it and take care of it, then once they have bonded with it are instructed to kill their puppies. The Padawans are thrown into a situation where emotion is inevitable but are led to believe that such emotion is wrong and should be eliminated.

I hadn’t really sat down to think about it, but seeing it spelled out by Akusai in this essay really brings home one what is arguably the most irritating thing about the whole Star Wars universe. Namely that its system of morality sucks and results in some pretty piss-poor storytelling as a result. In the original trilogy the Jedi mythology was kept murky enough that you could overlook it, but we become much more familiar with the Jedi in the prequels and it’s then that the problems with the morality become more pronounced. Why it never occurred to me prior to reading Akusai’s excellent essay about it is puzzling. It’s a good read and you should check out the full essay. Next up is the morality of Dungeons and Dragons and I can’t wait.

Pastor uses “spare the rod” verse to spank and rape female parishioners.

As if we needed more proof of the detrimental effect deep religious faith can have on one’s ability to think critically there’s the following news item out of Texas. A woman is suing the pastor of her church after her attempts at receiving spiritual guidance led to his using Biblical verses to forcibly spank and rape her:

According to the lawsuit filed by former church member Davina Kelly, she went to Mr. Allen for spiritual counseling in November 2001. At the sessions, he would talk to her and assign her biblical passages. If she didn’t read them, she would be punished, she said.

Ms. Kelly, a 34-year-old mother of three, said Mr. Allen then gave her a Bible and asked her to turn to passages such as the one that yielded the phrase “spare the rod, spoil the child.”

“It ended up being a lot of Scripture on spanking for the most part – parents disciplining their children,” she said in a February interview. “When he had me read them, it became obvious he meant for it to be spanking me.”

You’d think, assuming that this woman has more than a single kernel of candy corn for a brain, that this would be a major warning flag that perhaps this is not the spiritual guidance she is looking for. But perhaps it wasn’t immediately clear to this poor deluded woman at the time.

After the third meeting, she said, Mr. Allen told her to grab her ankles and swatted her once with a green wooden paddle.

“I felt a bit confused,” she said. “Afterward, he hugged me, told me he loved me. He just wanted me to obey.”

Here we have the second major warning flag that the dear pastor was interested in more than just her spiritual health. You’d think that’d be obvious at this point, but then you’d be under estimating the true power of faith!

The paddling escalated from there, she said, with Mr. Allen ordering her to pull down her jeans and then her underwear. Ms. Kelly said she was hesitant but believed so devoutly in Mr. Allen’s power that she viewed it as a spiritual father/daughter relationship.

“I looked at him as a man of God, my pastor,” she said. “I just revered him. I always thought he was hearing from God.”

It seemed wrong, but she just assumed God was telling him what to do so she went along with it. Makes perfect sense, if you have the brains of a trout.

Around March or April 2005, Mr. Allen made sexual advances and eventually added sex as part of her punishment, she said.

Because having sex with your pastor is a perfectly logical punishment for God to order upon someone, right? Perhaps we should be asking, “Who Would Jesus Do?”

What’s really amazing about this story is that since Ms. Kelly filed her lawsuit at least eight other women have come forward with similar accusations at least one of whom was 13 years old at the time she was assaulted. The pastor is accused of engaging in this behavior over a 25 year period and isn’t being charged with any criminal offenses at this point in time, though he has been suspended by the national body of the Church of God in Christ, which is something I suppose.