On a Wing and a Rooster’s Anus

In 2004 Jeanna Giese, a teen in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin was bitten by a bat, in a church.  She contracted rabies and, against all odds, survived. In 2013, telling Jeana’s story, WNYC Public Radio’s “Radiolab” podcast established how deadly rabies is (almost 100% fatal for all of human history), and listed absurd folk-remedies that had been applied in an attempt to defeat this killer. (Listen here: http://www.wnycstudios.org/story/312245-rodney-versus-death/ )

Reputed cures ranged from, “eating a cock’s brain,” to “smearing goose grease mixed with honey on the wound,” to “eating the flesh of a mad dog.” (I have to pause here to say I kinda see how this might have made the list. It sounds roughly like the basis of vaccination theory – putting some of the disease into yourself, to allow your immune system to establish antibodies and immunity. Frankly it also sounds a bit like a hangover cure: “A bit of the hair of the dog that bit you.” Or maybe that folk hangover cure is a lingering reference to a supposedly functional folk rabies cure? But I digress.)

The point is, when a disease is killing everyone who gets it, the human tribe is willing to throw just about anything against the wall to see what cure sticks –including “applying the dung of red poultry, especially if it is of a reddish color,” or.. best of all, to “pull out the feathers from around a rooster’s anus and apply the anus to the bite wound.”

Not “Chicken Butt”

“Apply the rooster anus to the bite wound.” I can as easily hear Buffalo Bill intoning this in “Silence of the Lambs” as I can imagine a doctor seriously offering it as a remedy!

The logic in such a “cure” catching on, the producers surmise, is that some of the people who received this treatment MUST have survived. The belief that a properly plucked rooster’s anus could cure rabies was established on a case of false correlation. The people may not have had rabies at all.

That’s a long setup to the Giese story, in which a Milwaukee doctor tries something new, Jeanna survives, and the world believes it has found something to replace rooster anuses in the battle against rabies!

The producers unspooled this gripping tale of “The Milwaukee Protocol” as they are so expert in doing. Twice, the novel treatment appears to be leading Jeanna to death, or worse: Once when the parents have to decide to put their daughter in a medically induced coma, and once after she comes out of the coma and appears she may be in a “locked-in” vegetative state for the rest of her life.

At each of those moments, Radiolab cuts –first to Jeanna’s dad, and then her mother — recounting their pain and how they recited different prayers to get them through. Prayers, repeated over and over, by the very parents of the child who survived.

Radiolab tells science stories well, and makes a point of helping listeners understand scientific nuances and flaws. And that is where they turn next in discussing “The Milwaukee Protocol’s” adoption and results over the 9 years since Giese’s “cure.”  Suffice to say, the program discusses a scientific debate over whether or not the Milwaukee Protocol does what it purports, or if perhaps — as this show later establishes – survival was conferred by a rare genetic makeup that includes immunity from rabies.

Or, as the host of Radiolab asks, “So the Milwaukee Protocol turns out to be another Rooster’s Anus?”

I’ve been debating the best time to note that Radiolab receives significant funding from the John Templeton Foundation, and that time appears to be now.  The Templeton foundation provides large grants to scientists (and “other discovery oriented disciplines” including theologians to result in, as their web-site leads with gigantic print, “Inspiring Awe and Wonder”) in an effort to harmonize science and religion.  They’ve been about this a long time, and their rhetoricians are evolving their message, because the website no longer explicitly states this as it used to.

It is in the light of Templeton funding that I find it inexcusable that the hosts included weepy, dramatic recreations of prayer scenes, immediately before a positive result was reported. Yet, they later go out of their way to explicitly say that the scientific “cure” may not be all its cracked up to be. “Perhaps” it’s just another rooster’s anus?

Perhaps prayer is a rooster’s anus, and it TOO has nothing to do with Jeanna Giese’s survival? But this Templeton funded program does not ask that question.

This episode of the show goes to prodigious lengths to set-up the tear-down of a scientific hypothesis, yet it includes prayer in its story-telling, without treating prayer the same way it treats all the other superstitious cures advanced in the story.

This, friends, is how one slides down the slippery slope to science denial, and a right-wing Christian government willing to offer “thoughts and prayers” over replicable, scientifically based solutions.  Yes, hypotheses need testing, and, yes, something seen as a solution one day may turn out to be the leeches, salt-over-the-shoulder, mustard poultice, or chicken anus superstition of tomorrow.

But to include prayer in the story without critique implies a power, and grants a favored rhetorical position, that it does not deserve.

Prayer is a rooster’s anus.

The next time you hear any program funded by the Templeton foundation, recognize their motives and impact on the delivery of science news. They are injecting faith, woo, and “awe and wonder” into areas where we must not confuse outcomes  — by giving free passes to faith, or applying false, untested, or unnecessary causal claims.

And if, like me, you’ve grown tired of the cliché platitude of “sending thoughts and prayers,” the next time a friend dies, or a tragedy happens, you can now offer thoughts and a rooster anus applied to the affected area.

Copyright R.A. Schneider, 2022