Can You Believe That?

“If you open your mind too much, your brain may fall out!”

Attributed to The Telegraph commenting on a video purporting to show an alien body being dissected. (Although I have also noticed someone recently attributing it to G K Chesterton!)

It seems a harmlessly endearing quality of the human race that it seems capable of believing the most preposterous things. It is fitting that at the time of the year when two of our most favourite myths are being widely propagated, one being about a purported virgin birth and the other about an avuncular old fellow who flies through the skies on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, that we should give pause to examine some of our more dubious beliefs.

There is such a wealth of material here, I hardly know where to start. But to begin with let us have a look at astrology, soothsaying and the various supposed techniques of fortune telling. History, augmented by the works of Shakespeare, has shown us that from Roman times those in power had consulted soothsayers and auguries to give them guidance. We forgave them their predilection of consulting chickens’ entrails and the alignment of the planets because in the time before the Enlightenment and scientific progress these arcane techniques seemed reasonable options for predicting the future and making reasoned decisions. It was with some alarm however that we learned that President Ronal Reagan, under the influence of his wife Nancy, resorted to such stratagem in the twentieth century. It is a very scary notion that the most powerful man in the world would rely on such dubious advice. Despite the fact that millions of our fellows regularly consult their horoscopes. there is, of course, no evidence whatsoever to support the notion that astrologists can predict the future.

A cousin of mine once worked for a provincial newspaper. He related to me that the astrology column was generated by randomly drawing various prognostications out of a hat for the next morning’s paper.

The evolutionary biologist and writer Richard Dawkins once complained that if a pharmaceutical company who marketed birth control pills with no demonstrable effect on fertility would be prosecuted and sued by trusting consumers who found themselves pregnant.

“If astrologers cannot be sued by individuals misadvised, say, into taking disastrous business decisions, why at least are they not prosecuted for false representation under the Trades Description Act …?”

And of course, without a skerrick of evidence to suggest they have any better knowledge of the future than you and I, astrologers and fortune tellers abound and seem to make a reasonable living preying on a gullible public.

One such example has been the undue influence of Nostradamus. Nostradamus was a sixteenth century apothecary and supposed seer. His book Les Propheties (The Prophecies) has been deemed by many as predicting many major world events. There is little evidence that he had any ability to predict the future whatsoever. Most academics maintain that the associations that some have drawn from his writings predicting world events are largely the result of misinterpretations and mistranslations of his writings.

Mind you, Nostradamus himself expressed reservations about the credibility of astrologers.

“Let the profane and the ignorant keep away,” he warned in one of his verses. “Let all astrologers, idiots and barbarians stay far off!”


Nostradamus has been popularised by dubious TV series and alarmist articles predicting all manner of disasters. So far all the catastrophes that his writings are purported to portend have never eventuated. But still he manages to command a huge following!

We seem also to believe in things that we would like to be true. We would like to be able to foretell the future. We would like to fly, if not at least to levitate. We would like to have the power of psychokinesis and be able to move things just by the power of our minds. But overwhelmingly we would like to be able to cure ourselves when conventional medicine fails.

In Great Britain, for example, by then end of the twentieth century the country’s 36,000 general practitioners were well and truly outnumbered by 50,000 purveyors of complementary and alternative medicine. In Australia we face the same burgeoning suppliers of these services, often supported by Government subsidies via medical and pharmaceutical benefit schemes, despite the fact that there is little or no evidentiary support for the efficacy of such treatments. Everything from acupuncture to homeopathy is treated as though it has the same proven benefits as penicillin or angioplasty. (Mind you, conventional medicine has something to answer for among other things in the way it has embraced some drugs purporting to aid depression when later analysis has shown they have little impact more than placebos. Beware the vested interests of drug companies!)

I suppose it is easy to put aside our rationality when our very lives are at stake. When the British journalist, John Diamond, disclosed he had cancer, he found himself bombarded with well-meant but batty advice. He described his experience in his final book Snake Oil and Other Preoccupations.

Have you tried squid’s cartilage? Establishment doctors scorn it of course, but my aunt is still alive on squid’s cartilage two years after her oncologist gave her only six months (well, yes, since you ask, she is having radiotherapy as well). Or there’s this wonderful healer who practices the laying on of feet, with astonishing results. Apparently it’s all a question of tuning your holistic (or is it holographic?) energies to the natural frequencies of organic (or it orgonic?) cosmic vibrations. You’ve nothing to lose; you might as well try it. It’s 500 pounds for a course of treatment but what’s money if your life’s at stake?

Richard Dawkins wrote the preface to Diamond’s book in which he pointed out that if a healing technique is shown to have curative properties in properly controlled double-blind trials it ceases to be an alternative: it becomes medicine. He continued:

Conversely, if a technique devised by the President of the Royal College of Physicians consistently fails in double-bind trials, it will cease to be part of “orthodox” medicine. Whether or not it will then become “alternative” will depend upon whether it is adopted by a sufficiently ambitious quack (there are always sufficiently gullible patients).

Even those who have access to the best medical treatment available are often illogically prone to resort to alternative medicines.

For example certain members of the Royal Family (surprise!) have been alternative medicine proponents. The Queen apparently carries homeopathic remedies with her at all times, Princess Diana was a devotee of reflexology and Prince Charles has long been a champion of “holistic” treatments.

But our burgeoning imaginations and insatiable desire for fantasy and magic goes well beyond alternative medicines. A browse through the New Age books in any bookstore will unearth volumes that tell of people communing with angels, encountering fairies or being abducted by aliens. (Here is my suggestion for the title of a possible best seller – I Was saved from Alien Abduction by Fairies Who Were Guided by my Angel’s Wisdom!) There is also a plethora of literature concerning the magical properties of crystals, encounters with UFO’s and how the history of the earth has been shaped by extra-terrestrials. Breathless authors with little or no evidence proclaim the wisdom of ancient civilisations (Atlantian, Egyptian and Mayan are among their favourites) that will be ours to make our lives wonderful if we could only crack this code or translate these runes.

We also have an inherent tendency to interpret sacred writings to support our own proclivities. It is bewildering and horrifying to know that Islamist fundamentalists believe, from their interpretation of Islamist writings that jihadist martyrs will gain automatic entrance to paradise and be welcomed by seventy two virgins (houris) ready to satisfy every sensual need. A scholarly Koranic study by Christoph Luxenburg suggests that the legend of the virgins is based on a misinterpretation of the word hur which translates from Arabic as houris but in the Syriac language meant white raisins. As journalist Francis Wheen wrote:

Imagine the disappointment of a suicide bomber who arrives in heaven expecting a bevy of gorgeous maidens, ‘chaste as hidden pearls’, only to be offered a bowl of dried grapes instead!

But beyond this fascination for the marvellous there is a darker side. The human mind seems strangely configured to anticipate, almost wish for catastrophes. I guess this accounts for the interest in Nostradamus’s predictions and the various interpretations of the Book of Revelations, or even perhaps the legend of the Bermuda Triangle.

No doubt it is wise to take precautionary measures where there is a chance of a real catastrophe. Just like we did for the Y2K threat, swine flu, and a host of other things that had minimal impact on our society.

(I have fond memories of the Y2K issue. The Government was paranoid that our power plant was vulnerable and insisted we took all sorts of precautions to avoid catastrophe. One of my senior engineers came to me to argue that there was little evidence that we had a problem and what’s more it would be relatively easy to test our systems. Of course we knew the Government wouldn’t approve of such a test being paranoid about a possible failure. Consequently in the dead of night one weekend when the electricity demand was low and consequently the loss of a generating unit was unlikely to have serious consequences, after taking a number of precautions to ensure a plant failure could be easily isolated, my engineers manually advanced the digital clock which provided the time input into our control systems to the year 2000. And of course nothing happened! Over coming weeks we tested the other three generating units with the same effect. Consequently we sailed into the year 2000 with supreme confidence. It was probably a career threatening decision having not alerted the Government if we would have fumbled! I made a career as an executive trusting those who worked for me. They hardly ever let me down!)

Remember the horrific ads warning us of the danger HIV Aids – which really only presented a threat to a minority.

And (dare I say it?) now we have climate change. I will, as usual, have to acknowledge that I concede climate change is real but I don’t believe its likely impacts are as catastrophic as the alarmists would have us think and I firmly believe we would be spending our money more wisely in pursuing adaptation strategies rather than trying to reverse a phenomenon that we so little understand.

The human mind is such a fascinating thing. It is the source of our humanity. But it is hard to argue that it is the source of our rationality. Despite all our modern advances in science and technology we are so easily seduced into putting such considerations aside in favour of fantasy, intrigue, wishful thinking and even more illogically, catastrophism.

Of course, I am not posing as a high-minded critic of the human condition being sure that I suffer from the same logical deficiencies and unduly idealistic beliefs. I, for example, believe that Australia one day might have a budget surplus and that the West Indies might again field a competitive test cricket team!

2 Replies to “Can You Believe That?”

  1. All those who believe in psychokinesis, raise my hand.

    What do you call alternative medicine that works? Medicine!

    Ted, you are sounding less like a mystic and less spiritual over the years. Are you swinging to a rationalist materialist? A reductionist?

Comments are closed.