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The Return to Nowhere

By Carl Wyant

There is a growing belief that "things were so much better in the old days"; that if we could only turn back the clock, everything would be hunky dory. In ever increasing numbers, people are retreating back to the good old havens of magic and superstition.

The call of the New Ager is now heard in the land: "Science is bad. Doctors are sinister. In the good old days we treated ourselves with natural roots and magic rocks and Bob was our uncle!" Of course, we did use these methods in the past, but what the rock believers always fail to mention is that the methods didn't work!

Homeopathy, iridology, crystal healing, magic mantras -- if any of this bullfeathered nonsense worked, science wouldn't have had to discover things that actually do work. People were overjoyed as the diseases of the past faded out, things like diphtheria and typhoid. When was the last time we had a good old fashioned whooping cough epidemic? Great Scott!

Basic devices like the hypodermic needle didn't appear on the scene until the mid 1800s. Before that, amputations, for instance, were done using the good old whisky and hand saw method. One could hardly even contemplate an internal operation. And as for dentistry... When, exactly, were these good old days?

New Age hokum has had thousands of years to prove itself, and it hasn't done it. But the believers argue that the continuing popularity of magic and superstition in itself is evidence of its reality, going by the maxim, if enough people believe it's true, then it is true,

Some New Agers, author Lyall Watson for example, take this a step further and suggest that when a certain proportion of a population hold a common belief, the belief is then transmitted automatically to the remaining population by mind power alone.

The theory itself is not such a worry, considering the evidence to support it is absolutely zero; the worry is that the New Agers like the idea! For one thing, it would validate their belief in telepathy, but the really worrying aspect is that it suggests they don't like the notion of free thought. Thinking, they apparently believe, is a process that should be carried out for them by someone else. Why go to all the trouble of figuring out what caused the latest plague when everyone knows it was heavenly retribution, and there's nothing we can do about it, except perhaps pray for greater stupidity in the future and hope for forgiveness.

An increase in superstitious belief is rarely a herald of brightness and light. In an article appearing in The Fringes Of Reason, science writer Alan MacRobert sounds one of many notes of alarm when he comments: "Historically, paranormal movements have drawn more adherents from the right wing than from the left. No nation has a more extensive crackpot literature than Germany, and never did paranormal beliefs of every kind get more of a hearing than as in that country between the two world wars. The Nazis' racial theories were only a small part of the pseudo-science that overran Germany." He further notes: "The sight of intelligent, educated people walking around with pyramids on their heads, a sight you are liable to witness at any New Age festival, is comical. Perhaps the next irrational movement will not be so funny."

Yet belief in magic and superstition is flourishing like never before. Well, actually, this isn't true -- it's flourishing exactly like before, which is why the sceptical view New Age gullibility with such alarm. More and more people are joining the great push backward to the good old days when the law was God's law, men were men, medicine was God's medicine, women were property and life was good.

The reason for the decline of critical thought lies in the wimpification of early education. When I was a kid growing up in California in the late 40s and early 50s, we were taught science every year for the first eight years of school. The goal was not necessarily to make professional scientists out of us, or to impose some materialistic dogma, but to show how to investigate and how the scientific process works. Science is simply a mode of thought and holds good for everything from complex physics to hairdressing. Indeed, a brilliant hairdresser once told me: "When someone claims their hair won't hold a perm, I want to know why it won't."

The questioning attitude once taught in school has been replaced by the concept "if it feels good, then it must be right for me." Rational analysis has gone down the tubes. MacRobert contends that the "feels good" notion has "...served us poorly. It has led countless good people to squander years of their brilliance and energy on shabby falsehoods. It has been responsible for trapping others in vicious cults. It may have even short-circuited just the sort of quantum leap in human thought that our theorists keep saying is just around the corner."

The hunky-dory-past idea is as fallacious as they come. To abandon the tools of science for the superstitious nonsense of yesteryear would plunge us into a nightmare of catastrophic proportions. Science has done more for human rights and conditions -- particularly women's rights -- in a few hundred years than belief in the supernatural has done in tens of thousands. The most casual glance through a history book will convince even the most ardent thickos that the great push backwards is indeed, a return to nowhere.

Carl Wyant is a freelance writer from Auckland.