And here’s why superstition is bad…

On page 13 of the weekend paper, in a tiny article that you’d miss if you were paging fast, was this story:

Six people have been arrested following the murder of three family members near Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape, SABC radio news reported.

The arrested people allegedly hacked to death a 70-year-old woman, her daughter, 56, and a grandson they accused of witchcraft.

The murders were carrier out on Wednesday night after the three were kept captive for four hours.

“The mob of villagers who believed they were witches held them captive at the Gura locality and then killed them,” said Easter Cape police spokesman Captain Zamukulungisa Jozana.

Police expected to make more arrests.

Allowing people to accept a concept such as witchcraft without requiring any real proof that it exists, is allowing them to accept that someone is a practitioner of witchcraft without requiring any real proof that they are.


25 Responses to “And here’s why superstition is bad…”

  1. Con-Tester Says:

    Some recent witchcraft-related material from Zimbabwe.

    About a year ago e-tv’s 3rd Degree programme featured a piece about a place called “Helena” in Limpopo Province where those accused of practising witchcraft can take refuge. Some relevant facts and statistics that were cited in the programme:
    1. Since 1990, more than 3,000 such accusations have been reported to the police (the actual number of accusations is possibly as high as twice that figure);
    2. Since 1990, more than 600 “witches” have died as a result of stoning or burning;
    3. Legislation dating back to the mid-1950s renders it illegal to make any allegations of witchcraft against another person; and
    4. Such allegations can be as glib and facile as ascribing to witchcraft any moderate success in entrepreneurship by one’s adversaries.

    The programme didn’t examine the question of witchcraft’s objective existence at all. Instead, we got unqualified popular opinion of the “Yes/no, I do/don’t believe in witches” kind without any further analysis, as though either answer is equally valid. I think that this omission is a grievous oversight.

    Ironically, Helena’s refugees also began accusing one another of practising witchcraft.

    The media show little mercy when it comes to exposing governmental corruption, for example, and usually receive an appropriate pat on the back for their diligence and social conscience. Why does that same social conscience fail in the even more deplorable situation where people are killed or disadvantaged as a result of a highly dubious superstition? It seems to me overly contrived to excuse this failure of the media on the grounds that a large number of people believed in the reality of that superstition or, worse, some misplaced notion of “cultural respect”. Is a news programme pardonable for remaining silent on the inefficacy against HIV/AIDS of raping two-year-olds simply because lots of people hold a culturally determined belief that it actually works?

    I don’t think so.

  2. Con-Tester Says:

    And before someone starts trumpeting about “journalistic balance” or “journalistic impartiality”, consider this:

    In the pursuit of journalistic balance, it is an oft-repeated mistake merely to present all sides of a story without due regard for the quality and quantity of the evidence that supports each such side. E.g., an opinion based on a biblical inference that the sun will NOT rise tomorrow is obviously far less credible than the contrary view based on much well-established science and observation, and it would be disingenuous to present these opposing views as equally valid for the sake of “journalistic balance”. Thus, it would actually be a journalistic failing because the facts about the disparity in evidential weights between the contending positions are simply omitted.

    It is not an affront to either journalistic balance or impartiality, nor is it counterfactual or an opinion, to conclude, e.g., along the lines of: “Experts (anthropologists, psychologists, etc.) are agreed that there is no reliable evidence that witchcraft is real, and much evidence that it is a convenient and, in this case, a clearly harmful delusion.”

  3. that’s exactly my issue with wikipedia… in their striving to be at all times NPOV they sometimes forget that some sides of an argument are just plain wrong.

  4. Yes, BUT:

    There is a church near me that puts up a new “funny” sign each month. Recently they put one up which read, “National Atheists Day: 1 April.” Several people asked me if I was offended and I have to admit that, on an instinctive level, I was slightly.

    On reflection, however, I realised that I should salute them for making use of their freedom of speech, as I am sure they will do for me when I declare next Easter Sunday to be National Delusional Moron Day. Or perhaps not…

    The point, however, is that censoring oppinions that are just plain wrong is the thin end of the wedge that allows the censoring of oppinions that are simply inconvenient or unpopular. We need to break the culture of believing things simply because They Are Written, and teach people the skill of critical evaluation and thinking.

    That may be a long road, but it relies fundamentally on the freedom to challenge cows that are both sacred and secular. People seem to imagine that they have the right to not be offended by anything and therein lies the problem.

  5. Con-Tester Says:

    Censoring opinions?

    How does pointing out the logical and/or empirical flaws in a contention, even when done gleefully and stridently, suddenly amount to censorship, thin wedge or otherwise? After all, we’re not telling them to shut up and keep quiet, or else; nor are we advocating any such position; we’re saying that when something is unadulterated nonsense, this should be pointed out, not ignored or downplayed for reasons of politeness.

  6. Aquoibon Says:

    Aren’t they some ethical issues one should consider before publicly debunking techniques based on placebo effect (like in witchcraft or homeopathy). While I agree that truth and reason should prevail, these are tricky catch 22 cases. If you reveal the truth, you lose the benefits of the placebo effect while if you don’t, you contribute to the public’s misinformation. My head is not quite clear on this one, but wouldn’t it be a waste not to make good use of placebo, even though it requires maintaining false beliefs?

  7. Salman: i would have to agree with Con-Tester on this – pointing out that someone’s opinion is dead wrong is not the same as censoring it. In fact, I’d rather that it become great public knowledge that their opinion is dead wrong. I would like it shouted from the mountain tops for all souls to hear it. I don’t want the incorrect opinions removed from wikipedia, i want wikipedia to point out that they are incorrect.

    Aquibon: If you remove homeopathy, it’s not as if you remove all of modern medicine with it. The reason that all real medicine goes through double blind trials is because treatment is only useful if its effects exceed the placebo effect. The other thing is that the placebo effect is usually small. So essentially, if someone has a choice between a small chance of getting well due to the placebo affect, or a big chance of getting well due to medication that has been demostrated as better than the placebo effect, I would say the latter is the safer option.

    Your point might be valid if people took the placebo alongside real medicine … but they take it instead of real medicine. Let’s say the placebo effect cures 10% of people for a given illness. That means everyone else taking that drug/ treatment stays sick or gets worse. What that really says is that the drug/ treatment actively endangers the health of 90% of the people who take it instead of a better treatment. Now, with the common cold, maybe that’s okay. But with cancer? Aids? I’d rather people took the treatment that is proven to work more often.

  8. Con-Tester Says:

    The ethical issues would be important – but still not necessarily decisive – if (a) the material effect of the placebo far outweighed the downside to telling the truth, and (b) the placebo can only be brought about in this one particular way. In practice, (a) is difficult to determine and (b) is rarely the case. Another ethical dimension is added when the question arises as to who exactly benefits more from lying – viz. the liars or those being lied to – and it is usually found to be those who have a vested interest in perpetuating the lies. So a balanced assessment must also consider the motivation as well as whose concerns are ultimately served.

    My own view is that the best available truth should prevail as a matter of course, even in cases where it may offend, although we’re all probably guilty of the occasional white lie to avoid giving offence to our loved ones, but this is a rather different sphere of operation.

  9. Aquoibon Says:

    I realise I might have confused witches and witch doctors, not sure if it is the same thing (I’m a french import).

    Anyway, I found this interesting short editorial about the placebo dilemma:

  10. Con-Tester Says:

    Oh, okay. I took your use of “placebo” in the loosest sense, i.e. anything that can bring someone comfort, rather than in its strict medical sense. If you meant the strict medical sense then “witch doctors” would be the correct term to use, although in South Africa we speak of “traditional healers” and “sangomas” rather than “witch doctors”.

  11. Aquoibon Says:

    Thanks for the clarification. It did seem strange that villagers would kill witch doctors.

  12. residentRsole Says:

    I just found this debate between Deepak Chopra and Michael Shermer about the afterlife.

    So, it is true that one can induce hallucinations and OOBE’s electromagnetically. To quote Michael Shermer: Neuroscientist Michael Persinger, in his laboratory at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada, for example, can induce all of these experiences in subjects by subjecting their temporal lobes to patterns of magnetic fields. I tried it and had a mild out-of-body experience.

    Just imagine the entertainment applications of this discovery, once they work out how to engineer it. No more drugs. Just wear a silly looking helmet, flip the switch and one can have their own Ultimate Trip.

  13. Aquoibon Says:

    Sony is working on it. They patented a theoretical non-invasive technology that uses ultrasounds to manipulate brain activity.

  14. Con-Tester Says:

    Allow me to make a prediction: No matter how sophisticated, finely adjustable and/or customisable the technology for such artificially induced sensations becomes, the woo-woos will insist that it’s just not the same as the Real Thing™.

  15. residentRsole Says:

    Con-Tester: Agreed. It’s funny how some of the woo-woos are quite happy to take drugs “to help them reach a higher plane of existence”, go crazy over The Matrix film but will condemn electromagnetic/electromechanical means of achieving the same thing. I think that the woo-woos don’t like the idea that scientists could one engineer and deliver any experience/delusion you may wish for. They don’t like the idea that their “journeys into the unknown” and “meetings with the ascended masters” can be taylor-made. They want to believe that the drugs or transcendial meditation is some sort of trigger or gateway to a new world.

    This geek, for one, can’t wait. I’d love to live in a world one day where any experience you desire (e.g. shagging hot babes endlessly) can be engineered cheaply and safely.

    Actually, what I would really prefer is the “learning machine” from Battlefield Earth (screw L.Ron Hubbard). We need those ASAP. Just imagine how quickly one could learn advanced mathematics and engineering. Any, no more dreaming. Back to work.

  16. Aquibon: in SA, witch doctors are revered, and about 80% of the country will go to a witch doctor before a normal doctor. Witches, on the other hand, are blamed for anything that cannot be explained, like lightning striking your house, your child getting sick, or you losing money gambling. When something like this happens, the village erupts in mass hysteria and usually slaughters the suspected witch. Interestingly in the case of illness it is often the witch doctor who is the cause of the problem, as to them being cursed by a witch is a legitimate diagnosis, and is frequently given as the explanation for illnesses such as AIDS.

  17. Aquoibon Says:

    The hell with the Real Thing. I’d live in the Matrix any day, as long as I get to be Ron Jeremy.

  18. residentRsole Says:

    Aquoibon: You just want to be Ron “Hedgehog” Jeremy so you can do the “self suck” stunt 😉

  19. Aquoibon Says:

    moonflake : I didn’t realise witch doctors held that much power in South Africa. It is sometimes confusing how similar this country is to the “western world” and yet so different in many aspects.

  20. oh, and re the article on placebos, you’ll note the author states “I suggest that it is acceptable to us to use the placebo effect provided there is no more than a negligable risk of harm and the cost of the therapy is insignificant”. Unfortunately, when it comes to most woo practitioners whose entire practice is based on the placebo effect, neither of these conditions tends to be met.

    Also, you’ll find the author is advocating the use of the placebo effect in instances where the allopathic practitioner’s medical training tells them that a placebo would likely be the best treatment e.g. in the case of ‘stress’ it is probably better to prescribe acupuncture than prozac, because the acupuncture has no side effects (it’s not actually doing anything so it can’t). He is not advocating the use of the placebo effect where his training would tell him it is dangerous not to use something stronger. Forcing homeopaths and witch doctors to close up shop is not going to remove the placebo effect from our lives – it’s just going to remove those uses of it that are most dangerous, because they often prevent people from getting the treatment that they need.

  21. Aquoibon Says:

    residentRsole : Sies man. Frenchies are supposed to eat anything that’s alive but …

  22. Aquoibon Says:

    agreed moonflake, although I maintain that one has to exert caution when handling other’s beliefs. Would you, for instance, advocate atheism or discuss the effectiveness of prayer with a catholic cancer patient?

  23. actually, moonflake, acupuncture isn’t on the same level as general homeopathic medicine – a lot of people in the real medical profession recommend it when they’re stumped because as mystical and voodoo as it may seem, it’s gone through considerable trial and error and for some reason appears to work.

  24. totalwaste:yes… because of the placebo effect. And i’m pretty sure that even though you academically know that, it’s not going to stop you going 😉

    aquibon: atheism, every time. It’s like asking me, if i were a doctor, would i tell my patient they had cancer or not. Comfort is not a reason not to give someone the truth, especially when it’s all they really have left. I’d certainly rather that people told me the truth if i was dying, and not patronise just because i wasn’t going to be around for very long.

  25. Con-Tester Says:

    “I’d certainly rather that people told me the truth if i was dying, and not patronise just because i wasn’t going to be around for very long.”


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