A Skeptic's Guide Afterword:
Dangers inherent in belief systems
(Investigator 144, 2012
In the preface I stated
as my objective a balanced presentation of the various paranormal
'isms, 'ologies and ‘ancies. My hope being, that the need to question
extraordinary claims would soon become apparent to the reader.
Belief systems, once
indoctrinated, are notoriously difficult to reject, for it is
tantamount to admitting that one is wrong, which goes against human
nature. The extent to which an erroneous belief can adversely influence
not only an individual, but the destinies of entire nations, is
evidenced in contemporary history. Adolph Hitler was well aware that if
a misconception or a lie is repeated often enough it will be accepted
as fact, the ramifications for millions of Jews and other allegedly
"racially inferior" peoples were horrendous. So too were the 911
senseless deaths of men, women and children, the followers of Jim Jones
in Guyana in 1978; those who died with cult leader David Koresh at
Waco, Texas in 1993; and in 1994, the worshippers of the Order of the
The very nature of this
digest precludes an exhaustive examination of its topics, consequently
there may be some areas lacking clear cut conclusions. This
unfortunately is the result of a near insurmountable paradox; in the
absence of testable hypotheses the critic is faced with the task of
proving a negative. Various techniques are available however, including
logical deduction using known natural and physical laws as paradigms,
or in some cases, using one metaphysical claim to contradict and
undermine another. In the case of the latter, take for example the
Ouija board and Automatic Writing. In the chapters on automatic
writing, channeling, seances, spirits and spiritualism, if one is to
believe all the claims made by mediums, there is nothing physically or
mentally spirits cannot do, including physically manifesting
themselves, talking and writing. This being so, why is it necessary to
resort to the slow and cumbersome use of a Ouija board to communicate,
and why not with anyone or everyone rather than one who claims
extraordinary, albeit unproven, powers? Further, why do the spirits
choose to manifest themselves at the behest of "housewives",
"uneducated women" and "ordinary people?" Surely if they exist at all,
their extraordinary talents are worthy of seeking out more
authoritative, scholastic or specialist attention.
But let's assume for a
moment that these and other paranormal claims such as ESP and
psychokinesis were verified as genuine phenomena. Of what earthly use
is the ability to bend a spoon, move a ping pong ball or a compass
needle using the power of one's mind? It could be argued of course,
that by developing these putative powers they could benefit mankind,
and while this may be true, since the advent of a more scientific
approach to the investigation of such claims, not one person has
advanced beyond a stage that cannot be explained away as a simple party
trick, an illusion or just plain fraud. The sad part is when the
deception (deliberate or in good faith) is applied to the sick and
desperate, it raises false hopes and denies them any chance they may
have had, had they continued with orthodox treatment.
As good mental and
physical health is a prime concern of the community as a whole, and
they are adequately provided for through a variety of scientific and
social disciplines and medical technology, why is it that more and more
people tend towards fringe medicine and alternative health services?
To answer this question
it is necessary to recount a brief history of medicine and examine the
change in physician-patient relationships in the Western world which
has taken place, particularly over the past two decades.
As far as we can
ascertain, primitive man did not regard death and disease as natural
phenomena. Common maladies such as colds, fevers and general aches and
pains he accepted as part of his existence and were treated through a
process of trial and error with herbal remedies, some of which have
endured to this day. Serious disabilities however, were thought to be
of a supernatural origin — possession by malevolent demons, to be
exorcised by incantations, prayer and magic. Trepanning (making a hole
in the skull to provide the disease [demon] with the means to escape)
was also practiced. Primitive physicians treated their patients as
whole beings, spiritually as well as physically.
Well before the birth of
Christ, the Chinese had discovered many drugs, and acupuncture and
massage were widely used. Medical thought was based on the concept of
Yin and Yang, an energy flow between two points. A disturbance of
balance between these two principals being the root cause of all
By 460 BC, illnesses
based on a conception of magic and religion had been partly discarded.
In Greece, Hippocrates, who became known as 'the father of medicine',
relied on his powers of observation and logical reasoning. Of epilepsy,
then known as 'the sacred disease', he wrote, "it is not any more
sacred than other diseases, but has a natural cause, and its supposed
divine origin is due to man's inexperience... every disease has its own
nature and arises from external causes." Some of Hippocrates' works
were still in use as textbooks until the 19th century, and embodied a
code of teaching and principles that are surprisingly modern. His
greatest legacy is the charter of conduct adopted as a pattern by
medical men throughout the ages and known as the Hippocratic oath.
The early Christian
Church can be said to have had an adverse effect upon medical progress,
the human body was held to be sacred, dissection forbidden, and disease
was regarded as a punishment for sin demanding prayer and repentance.
Arabia contributed the materia
medica and chemistry, many of today's drugs are of Arab origin as
are also the processes of distillation and sublimation.
Medical progress during
the Renaissance was slow as many of the teachers of medicine clung to
the past concepts of astrology and the humors.
Great strides were taken
between the 17th and 19th centuries — William Harvey's (1578-1657),
discovery of blood circulation laid the foundations of modern
cardiology; John Hunter (1728-1793), became the founder of surgical
pathology; physiology became established as a distinct science under
the guidance of Johannes Miller (1801-1850); credit goes to Louis
Pasteur (1822-1895), for the establishment of the science of
bacteriology, and to Joseph Lister (1827-1912), for his work in the
antiseptic field. Other advances in the fields of medicine and surgery
in our present century have progressed dramatically and are too
numerous to mention here.
Along with all the
advances were also those who clung to the 'whole person' concept, and
who sought to find an easy system. Among them, John Brown (1735-1788),
in whose view only two diseases existed, sthenic and asthenic, for
which there were only two treatments, stimulant and sedative, (alcohol
and opium), and Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), the originator of
homoeopathy. Phrenology and Mesmerism were two other pseudosciences
which also flourished but eventually became the province of charlatans.
tremendous advances in the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses, there
has been in the last two decades, a resurgence of belief in
pseudoscientific methods and therapies long discarded. Now known as
'alternative' or 'complementary', they are popular with the proponents
and followers of the New Age movement who believe in the concept of
treating the whole person and not a particular part.
To determine why this
trend has come about we must first look at the beginnings and
development of what we generally term 'illness'. Usually the initial
symptoms are indeterminate — a vague feeling of uneasiness and twinges
of pain which suggest that something is wrong. If these bodily
sensations persist, some will resort to the pills and medicine lying
around the house or consult the local chemist for a similar palliative.
Others make a Beeline for the local general practitioner where the
patient's vague symptoms will be given a name and a prescription. The
GP is the universal adviser in medical matters and a referral to a
specialist is only made when the doctor considers the problem beyond
his sphere of knowledge.
The significance of the
consultation process is that the special success of the twentieth
century scientific approach to diagnostic treatment has largely stemmed
from a concern with how illnesses arise, specialization resulting in a
shift from treating the whole person to a particular cause. This trend
is further compounded when an analysis of the sorts of complaints with
which the general practitioner is presented is examined. Less than ten
per cent will consist of acute or major illnesses, about thirty per
cent are those major chronic conditions generally associated with the
aging process and liable to go on for years, and over fifty per cent
are either self-limiting complaints or those which will clear up easily
with the help of palliatives and supportive treatment alone.
There is a great deal of
evidence to show that in the latter group there is a psychosomatic or
neurotic element much of which can be attributed to relationships with
others. Consequently, when confronted with psychosomatic problems, most
general practitioners will adhere to a scientific approach and give
patients a rational explanation of their symptoms and take a similar
approach to therapy. Unfortunately, a few patients prefer the fantastic
or mystical explanations given them by New Age practitioners whose
approach to health is often far from rational, hence their increasing
popularity and, as many will claim, their efficacy.
There are of course other
influencing factors such as a general disenchantment with, or suspicion
of science; the desperation of those suffering from a terminal illness,
and the proclivity of some to believe in the supernatural.
The dangers inherent in
the blind adherence to belief systems based on superstition, the
supernatural and non-science, are evident in those communities where
they thrive — India is a typical example.
During a lecture tour of that country in 1990, I was able to gather a
considerable amount of data from psychologists and psychiatrists
specializing in the treatment of physical and mental disabilities
arising from such beliefs.
While it may be argued
that because of the wide divergence of Eastern and Western cultures any
comparison between the two would be onerous, the premise however, is
Health fraud is rampant
in both Eastern and Western civilizations, and those ready to believe
unquestioningly in extraordinary pseudoscientific and simple untested
therapeutic remedies are vulnerable game for the quacks. One does not
necessarily need to be scientifically, medically or technologically
literate, just a little caution and commonsense should be enough to see
through the claims.
Ask why, if the gadgets,
gizmos, pills and potions are so simple, efficacious and cost so
little, they have not been universally adopted, so doing away with the
necessity of training doctors and specialists, and building expensive
hospitals with highly specialised and expensive equipment. The best
defence against being taken for a ride by health charlatans is accurate
information, without which an intelligent decision cannot be made.
Finally, where is the
harm in believing in astrology, numerology, tarot cards and other
divinatory systems? A horrifying example was reported in the Washington
Post (May 13, 1991). Writing from Beijing, Post
foreign-service reporter, Lena H. Sun, reported that the abortion rate
in China is up because many Chinese believe that children born during
this lunar year, the Year of the Sheep, "will be plagued by a lifetime
of bad luck."
In the city of Tianjin,
Sun noted, the birth rate is down 25 percent and the abortion rate up
60 percent for the first quarter of 1991 compared to the same period in
Superstition and belief
in the supernatural have nothing to offer those who take the time to
think, and with this in mind, I feel it would be appropriate to
conclude with a quotation from Aristotle:
"If a man
wishes to educate himself he must first doubt, for in doubting, he will
find the truth"
Edwards, H. A Skeptic’s Guide to the New Age, Australian