Aaaaagh! Vampire log!

Or is a saintly log? Surprisingly good preservation is often cited in folklore and history as evidence for a) vampires and revenants or conversely b) the very pious, depending largely upon one’s social status. If you’re a peasant with retarded decomp, you’re a tool of the devil, whilst if you’re a dead abbot or similar, you might even get canonised.

The deceased tree member in question seems to have attracted the interest of the superstitious because the locals expect wood to rot underground or in water. Well, sometimes it does. Other times, not so much. It depends entirely on the conditions involved, included the levels of oxygen in the water. The fact that they equate the decay rate of wood with that of metal shows a misunderstanding of how things decompose. I’m no expert myself, but I would certainly consult one before leaping to the conclusion that I had a magical garden fence.

4 Responses to “Aaaaagh! Vampire log!”

  1. Alison Says:

    HI BS blog. I left a similar comment on SkepticBlog but wanted to respond here as well. I’m an archaeologist (i.e. someone who values critical thinking and often faces foolish misinterpretations of archaeological data). I’ve also been working in Cambodia since 2005 and studying Khmer since 2006. Yes, many Cambodians are superstitious. Although the official religion is Buddhism, it is mixed with with a healthy dose of animism. Cambodia is also an extremely poor country, with a deeply troubled past, and more importantly for the point of this article a (to be blunt) shitty education system. Most of the people visiting this log are poor, rural villagers who have barely had an education. They likely don’t have a strong background in science or critical thinking. To make fun of them in this context seems deeply condescending. Most of my well-educated Cambodian friends/colleagues no longer practice or believe these types of superstitions. Cambodia is quickly changing and expanding, but the majority of the population is still rural, underfed, and undereducated.

    It’s great that we as Western, educated, and (compared to Cambodians) rich people (with reliable internet access too!) can study and understand why a log hasn’t rotted in the ground. To make fun of Cambodians who don’t understand this because they haven’t had access to the same education and opportunities seems like bullying to me.

    • bshistorian Says:

      Hi Alison. My light-hearted title wasn’t particularly aimed at the Cambodians – it was a reference to my research into vampire and revenant beliefs, which, as you point out re magic logs, when one has no access to critical thinking, are actually quite rational.

      Now, in fact, I don’t think this post had a particularly mocking tone at all. Should we not comment on irrational stories that involve other cultures at all, for fear of causing offence? I think it would be more condescending of me to deal only with stories featuring those who’ve had access to ‘western’ education. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong, and if someone has the information to set you right, they should share that. I appreciate it when people point out that I’m wrong, as happened recently on this very blog. Of course Cambodians can’t be expected to have knowledge of materials science or critical thinking for that matter, but if any of them who can access the internet and comprehend English, they might read this and learn for themselves. If they don’t have those requisites, then they’re hardly likely to take offence at my comments, are they? Either way, I don’t think your accusation of ‘bullying’ is fair. Or if it is, it applies to everyone that is criticised by, or takes offence from, this blog.

  2. Alison Says:

    Yes, perhaps the term bullying was a bit strong in the context of this post. Skepticblog, on the other hand, crossed a line into bullying IMO. It is well worth your time and effort to point out the logical problems in a story like this and use it as a teachable moment. However, the cultural and historical context of how a group of people come to believe a log is magical is equally worthy of investigation (here my anthropological training is showing). You actually seem to allude these kinds of contexts in your opening paragraph, although from a Western perspective, not a Cambodian or Asian perspective.

    Another important point: If a news story about a third-world or perhaps less well-known country appears in the “offbeat” section of a newspaper or website, one should also exercise great caution in taking everything they write at their word. In my experience, those stories are often have no byline and show no real research or journalism. They gloss over many important nuances. A well-written and researched example of one of these types of stories can be found here: http://ltocambodia.blogspot.com/2012/07/the-sacred-cows-of-bet-trang.html

    • bshistorian Says:

      Absolutely right – some of my contemporaries are quick to leap on media stories that happen to fit their pre-conceptions. It’s easy to do when it’s all you have to go on, but I try my best not to do it. When you have direct quotes from interviewed people, you can have a slightly higher degree of confidence, but having been misquoted in the media myself, even then it’s dicey.

      I do work with Exploring the Extraordinary, who are mostly parapsychologists and anthropologists, and so are less interested in whether something is ‘real’ or not, and more in the experience of believing that it is. I’ve shifted more that way over time, and am actually an archaeologist by training myself, but still come from a rationalist perspective as for me, it’s the only game in town. But I realise that it isn’t for everyone, and try to reserve my hectoring for those who are wilfully ignorant even when given access to information to the contrary.

      Thanks for a thoughtful and challenging post. If you get to the bottom of this particular story and feel like writing a summary, I’d gladly (cross)post it here.

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