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Nonsense is Nonsense

There are many times when I have to check the date to see what century we are living in. Generally these occasions relate to crazy and antiquated beliefs, most often associated with religion and other forms of superstition. It’s difficult to believe that the outdated and ridiculous ideas often reported in the news can persist into an age where we should all know better.

So what’s the latest example of this phenomenon? Believe ot or not, it’s witch doctors operating in New Zealand’s biggest city, especially in the Indian community.

Of course, just about everyone is completely ridiculing the whole idea that witch doctor’s have any place in modern society but I couldn’t help but notice that other, very similar, forms of superstition are still accepted by most people.

For example, the claim that the witch doctors’ “patients” might be possessed by demons is (quite rightly) ridiculed, but if a similar claim is made by a person in a similar position in the Christian church it is taken far more seriously (although you do often notice an edge in those stories where it is implied, but not stated, that demonic possession is just silly).

So when one of the witch doctor’s victims says in horror: “He wasn’t a priest, he was a witch doctor!” I would wonder whether she was really all that much worse off.

Clearly from the point of view of getting a cure for whatever problem the person is seeking help for they are no better off with either practitioner, but I do have to admit that at least most priests don’t engage in such predatory charging regimes as the witch doctors do.

But what about other alternative medical practices which might not be quite so obviously false but might involve similar substantial fees for something which doesn’t work (beyond placebo effect, of course). What about our old friend homeopathy, for example?

Let’s compare witch doctors and homeopaths: they are both engaged with a superstitious worldview which has been discredited many years ago, they both promote medical techniques which have no credibility and have been shown not to work, they both accept substantial fees for the provision of these services, and they both exist in an unregulated environment where “anything goes”.

You might say that the patients (or victims if you prefer) who engage the services of these people are doing it as a result of a freely made decision and yes, I can see the merit in that point, so maybe we should be doing more (as a society) to point out how ridiculous these ideas are.

But that doesn’t just mean we should continue to ridicule witch doctors. Let’s extend that and also deride any belief in demonic possession, any idea that “vibrations” remain and have a medical effect even after all the original substance is gone, any belief that crystals have some mysterious healing energy, and all other support for potentially harmful superstitious beliefs.

And let’s extend that to a lesser extent to other therapies too. For example, there is little chance that acupuncture and chiropractic have any merit, at least in their pure forms. These aren’t as silly as demonic possession, of course, but they still deserve a healthy dose of skepticism.

In summary, I think it’s quite unfair to just pick on the Indian witch doctors (has anyone noticed a potentially racist element here?). If we are going to criticise dishonest, superstitious forms of healing let’s look at them all, including those with a certain amount of support in the mainstream.

After all, nonsense is nonsense, no matter what it’s origin.

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