Haunting through the Centuries: Witchcraft, Sorcery, Ghosts

In the familiar book from 1997, A Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan dismisses ghosts and monsters and fairies and demons. He bemoans the state of science literacy.

It's a common theme. In 1883, in an article in Science, "From Superstition to Humbug" (41: 637-639) an anonymous author wrote that the natives of India "exalt[ed]" English commanders "as more than human beings". In a tone that would resonate with many anthropologists of the day, the author comments on such "savage" inclinations:

"a benighted and superstitious populance, astonished by exhibitions of power...should, for a time, turn from its own hazy gods to new and visible wonder-workers"

Unfortunately, the article goes on to say, concepts of science are similiarly treated as some supernatural power, distorted and distended by so called civilized charlatans and naifs:

"It is curious to see how those, who a generation or two ago, would have been believers in witchcraft and all things 'supernatural' are now turning to be caught in the toils of scientific charlatanry..."

The newest topic that this 19th century author is concerned with is electricity:

"It is not with any intelligent reference to these exceedingly minute [physiological] currents...a man speaks...offers to rub a weak or disabled arm because he is 'strong and full of electricity, you know'. The fact is, we don't know, and we wish the man would explain..."

He fears the subject is corrupted by media and the public:

"It should be observed, however, that the kind of half-knowledge of this subject [physics] which is frequently obtained from newspapers and even from public lectures and popular scientific books, is the very pabulum of such errors and humbugs as we have described...It is the advance from pure superstition, in which men did not reason at all, to humbug, in which they reason from false or insufficient premises to wrong conclusions...Take, for instance, the modern master of that ancient black art of divination by rods..."

The author notes hopefully -- as we ever are -- more fuel for the notion of our flawed psychology, that physics education will improve and students will learn truth from fiction via better classroom teaching techniques:

"The tendency of the times, however, is toward the objective and experimental in teaching; and it is probable that the next few years will see considerable changes in the methods of general instruction in physics."

Over a century later, we are amazed at the constancy of human nature through distracting flashes of scientific progress -- whether the appearance of progress is a sleight of hand we don't know -- but witches, ghosts and appartitions and superstitions are alive, well, and always entertaining. CNN reports on witchcraft class deductions allowed by Dutch Law. According to the story on CNN a letter from Finance Minister Joop Wijn wrote of the decision, "Under the circustances, the cost of a course to become a witch qualifies as school fees."

The teacher of witchcraft Margarita Rongen's noted to one disbelieving lawmaker: "If he would come her and try the divination rod and see how important it is to find things..."

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