New Internationalist

Do You Believe In Magic?

Issue 182

new internationalist
issue 182 - April 1988


Do you believe in magic?
Magic or modern medicine: what's the difference? Not much,
argues Debbie Taylor - except that magic is more logical.

The X-ray showed there was something growing inside me,' Esther said. 'But the doctors at Harare hospital told me there was nothing they could do.'

She looked at me hard for a moment, searching my blue eyes with her black ones. 'Do you believe in magic?' she asked suddenly.

Esther had been ill for weeks, with a stomach pain so bad it made her groan aloud. Already slim, she grew gaunt and her bones began to appear as hard ridges in her dulled brown skin. She couldn't work she couldn't sleep; her younger sisters had to carry her from the bed to the toilet Eventually her mother summoned her son-in-law - the only one in the family with a car - and persuaded Esther to visit an apostolic healer.

'They use water and prayer, just like Jesus did. A quarter of people in Zimbabwe never go near a health clinic. When they fall sick they go straight to an apostolic healer. The healer prayed for a long time, then told me I had been bewitched.'

He told Esther that one of her neighbours was jealous because she was doing so well in her Ministry of Agriculture job. When Esther started building a new house for her mother, right next door to the neighbour's house, it was the last straw and the neighbour had sought the services of a nganga to punish Esther for her success. That was why she had fallen ill, the healer explained.

'Then he told me to take off my dress and lie on my back. And he pushed his hands into my stomach and pulled out a... a. something horrible.' Esther shuddered at the memory. It was a tangle of thorns, claws, feathers and the beaks of birds, about the size of a man's fist. There was no anaesthetic; no surgeon's knife: just the healer's hands reaching in and extracting the evil thing from her soft flesh.

'That was about three weeks ago. Look,' she said, lifting her blouse for me. I looked and my blood ran cold. On her smooth brown skin was a terrible jagged mass of livid purple scars.

Do I believe in magic? Yes, I'm afraid that I do. What's more, I believe that a magical model of the universe is a better one than the sterile scientific model that now holds sway over much of the so-called civilized world. By 'better' I mean not only richer, more meaningful, than the scientific model; but also more practically useful, more logically consistent, more comprehensive. More 'scientific' if you like. Magic wins over science not only on its own terms - but on science's terms too.

Take Esther's illness and cure, for instance. I have already given the magical explanation: A employs B to cast a spell on C, who falls ill; C then employs D to remove the spell; C recovers. For the people concerned every element of the equation is real: the malevolent intent, the spell, the illness, the healer's power, the recovery. Obviously the evil object was burnt immediately it was extracted, but if more 'objective' proof be needed, there is the hospital's X-ray and the scars on Esther's belly.

Science is nonplussed when faced with such occurrences. It calls them 'supernatural', on the astoundingly arrogant assumption that science has so complete an understanding of nature that anything puzzling to science must, by definition, be outside the realm of the natural. It then energetically sets about proving that the 'supernatural' is 'natural' - that is, explicable in scientific terms.

After all, Esther's scars could conceivably have been made by the healer's own nails; the evil object could have been produced by sleight of hand. In a cause célèbre in France a few years ago, for example, a renowned healer called Michel Carayon, who performed surgery with his bare hands in a similar way, challenged a prominent film-maker, Claude Sauvageot, to prove that his operations were hoaxes. After many hours of filming, Sauvageot exposed the healer as a fraud who used animal blood and sleight of hand to produce his spectacular effects. What were not fraudulent, however, were the thousands of real cures - often of otherwise incurable, inoperable diseases - he effected before he was unmasked. Regardless of the hoax theatrics, those cures were nothing short of miraculous.

Science doesn't approve of words like magic or miracle. It prefers to talk of 'spontaneous remission' or 'placebo effect' - in the hope that giving the inexplicable (in scientific terms) a polysyllabic name will be sufficient explanation in itself. This is understandable. Because if a scientific discipline such as medicine were really to acknowledge the power of the 'placebo', it would find its own claims to power disintegrating before its very eyes. In fact it has been said that the entire history of medicine as we know it in the West is tantamount to a history of the placebo.

So what is this magical mystery thing, the placebo? First here's science's definition: a placebo is a substance (a sugar pill, for instance) or procedure (such as bogus X-rays) which can have no direct physical impact on an illness, but which nevertheless effects a cure. In magic's terms a placebo is a spell.

Occasionally it's a question of kill or cure. George Washington's throat infection was treated originally with molasses, vinegar and butter. It turned into pneumonia, for which he was given purgatives which produced violent vomiting and diarrhoea. Mustard poultices were then applied to bring his skin out in blisters, and two pints of blood were drained from his body before, mercifully, he passed away. In those days only an estimated three per cent of medicines used by doctors were based on understandable scientific principles. The total is somewhat better today - but nowhere near the 100 per cent medics would have us believe.

Ironically it was the wise women or witches that the physicians replaced who were the true scientists of that time. These women practised - very much like Indian dais, Thai morpanurans, Zimbabwean ngangas today - with a mixture of herbal remedies, midwifery skills, psychotherapy and spells, the majority of which were based on experience and painstakingly tried, tested and refined over generations. In fact Paracelsus, the acknowledged 'father (sic) of modern medicine', burnt his textbook of drugs in 1527 confessing that 'he had learnt from the sorceresses all that he knew'.

Today's medical profession is still operating largely by means of magic and its recent attacks on the burgeoning 'alternative' medical disciplines, like acupuncture and homeopathy, shows it is still vigorously attacking practitioners who threaten to expose the magical means by which so many of its own cures are effected.

Take heart surgery, for instance. One experiment has shown that simply slitting a patient's chest open and sewing it up again has exactly the same beneficial effect as a real heart bypass operation. Placebo painkillers have been shown, on average, to be as powerful as 10 milligrams of morphine. In fact, placebos have been found to relieve cancer, angina, strokes, epilepsy, diabetes, ulcers, asthma and a huge range of minor ailments.

The funny thing is that the more 'scientific' the placebo, the greater the effect. For instance an elaborate dosage regime, coupled with monitoring by a complex-looking computer, followed by intricate surgery, has an incredibly strong effect. This means that every so-called 'scientific advance' in treatment methods could really be due to an increase in the power of the placebo effect.

The other major factors that increase the power of the placebo effect are the beliefs and attitudes of the person administering it. The confident doctor who has no doubts about the efficacy of the treatment is much more effective than the inexperienced novice hovering between one treatment and another. The beliefs and attitudes of the patient, on the other hand, have no appreciable predictable effect whatsoever. This means that many doctors are operating in exactly the ways that witches and magicians are thought to operate: magically.

But this magical power of belief is not only effective with other human beings. The humble planarian worm - which has no brain at all, let alone what we might normally call a psyche - is equally susceptible to control by the mind of the scientist. Experimenters were led to expect that one group of worms had been especially bred to behave differently to another group of (identical) worms and, lo and behold, that is exactly what they did. Scientists have called this power of belief the 'experimenter effect', a term with approximately the same explanatory value as 'placebo effect', namely zero. I prefer the word 'magic'.

If a sentient being like a human and a non-sentient being like a worm can be manipulated by - well, what shall we call them: thought waves? magic spells? experimenter effects? Take your pick. If humans are this powerful over their fellow living creatures, surely this raises the possibility that humans (or any other creatures, for that matter) can cast similar spells over non-living objects.

This, in essence, is what psychokinesis is: the magical movement of objects by the sheer exercise of the human will. Poltergeists - those mischievous spirits that literally go bump in the night - are similarly suspected (though not by scientists, of course) to be the manifestation of the power of the unconscious human will over material objects. Are such occurrences any more unlikely than Esther's miraculous cure?

The scientist would argue that such occurrences are counter to the very 'laws of nature'. What the scientist fails to realise, however, is that these seemingly incontrovertible, logical, immutable laws of nature are based on a simple act of faith.

The leap of faith, the crucial article of belief, to which the scientist clings as if for dear life, is that all events are caused by prior events. This is tantamount to believing in magic, because, as philosophers Kuhn and Popper have pointed out, there is absolutely no way of proving causation. That two events have always followed one another in the past is no guarantee that they will continue to do so in the future. We simply believe that they will. And so they do. But perhaps it is the very power of our belief that they will that makes them do so.

Debbie Taylor is a New Internationalist co-editor.

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