A Skeptic's Guide Afterword:

Dangers inherent in belief systems

(Investigator 144, 2012 May)


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 Solar Temple.

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 illness.

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.

Notwithstanding the 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 still valid.

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 1990.

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"

From: Edwards, H. A Skeptic’s Guide to the New Age, Australian Skeptics.