The Power of Stupidity

Stupidity and Superstition

Giancarlo Livraghi – July 2006

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We generally agree that superstition is stupid. And, like stupidity, sometimes it can be just silly, while in many ways it can be dangerous. But it isn’t easy to understand what it is, because it’s a vague, uncertain definition. It can be very subjective. What one person (or culture) sees as foolish superstition can be something that others want to believe. And all people, of course, must be free to believe in whatever they choose.

It has happened in all cultures, at all times, that something was labelled as superstition, myth or witchcraft, and only later understood as progress in science and knowledge. And vice versa. We may believe that now we are more “enlightened” – but things of that sort are still happening. And we may have tomorrow scientific validation of something that we are perceiving as a quaint theory.

To get to the core of the subject we must stay away (as we did in The Power of Obscurantism) from consideration of faith – religious, political, ideological or of any other sort. Though the separating line is often uncomfortably thin.

One can, for instance, be a true Christian without believing in the miraculous power of a relic, a token or an image, the countless apparitions of angels, saints or devils and the proliferation of weeping or bleeding statues and simulacra. Just as many people can “believe” in such things without having any deep religious faith.

In another perspective, it can be exaggerated to label as “superstition” some small fetish, that sometimes is a harmless habit also for non “credulous” people (such as “touching wood” – or whatever is considered lucky – without believing that it really matters.)

For instance in sailing there are omens and auspices that nobody really believes, though it’s quite often avoided, if only jokingly, to unnecessarily invoke “bad luck.“ One of these is that green is an unlucky color (when it isn’t a semaphore, a position light or part of a flag.)

One of many episodes that could be quoted was in the preliminary races of the 2000 America’s Cup. One of the strongest teams decided to defy the legend by hoisting green spinnakers. The tearing of many of those sails was one of the reasons why it didn’t win. Was that because of the untested chemistry of some rarely used dye? Or a mistake by a sailmaker that was uneasy with the color? Or poor coordination in a crew made nervous by the ill-omened green? It’s hard to tell. But I must admit that I wouldn’t feel very comfortable at sea on a boat with green sails.

We can all, occasionally and jokingly, treat as omen prevention what is simply common sense, being prepared for unexpected problems. We can draw the line, where we feel it’s most appropriate, between gullibility and belief or between perverse credulities and harmless habits, such as wearing or carrying a small “lucky charm.”

That can actually work, but it doesn’t need to be magic. Wearing or touching something that reminds us of somebody, or in any way gives us a pleasant feeling, can improve our state of mind, reduce tension, make us more comfortable and aware.

In between, though it isn’t easy to define its boundaries, lies the insidious power of superstition. It’s quite surprising to discover that people, who are not foolish or ignorant, can “believe” bizarre absurdities without even trying to understand which may have been the origin of habits, fears or prejudices.

With a bit of research we can find that walking under a ladder may have had esoteric meanings, but it was (and still may be) dangerous if someone working on top of the ladder drops a tool. The fear of black cats may have been originated by associating them with witchcraft – but but something dark moving unexpectedly in the night could scare a horse.

In the seventeenth or eighteenth century, when the idea was born that we should never put a hat on a bed, it wasn’t healthy to place where people slept a container of dirt, ointments and lice that proliferated in whigs and headwear. Replacing a broken mirror was very expensive and could take a long time (though not necessarily seven years). Etcetera.

A list of examples could be very long. Some superstitions relate somehow to potential real problems, most are based only on old beliefs and fears that now are forgotten, but the habits are still followed without knowing why.

They are not as harmless as some may seem. If we fall into the habit, even in small things, of believing the unbelievable, we can slide into dangerous delusions. We can hurt ourselves, or the people we care for, by using, for illness or other problems, the wrong remedy or protection. We can become prisoners of behaviors that go beyond the limits of “harmless” little whimsand become haunting obsessions.

It’s made even worse by exploitation. Superstitions are often the tool of those who use them to gain power and influence over others. To steal some money – or to cause much greater damage. Such as exploiting disease, pain, unhappiness or fear to offer bad remedies or unlikely luck and so make things much worse for people who are already in trouble.

There is a perplexing behavior of mainstream media in many countries. They publish horoscopes and report prophecies (rarely going back, after the fact, to find that whatever was predicted didn’t happen). They offer much more space than they deserve to soothsayers, healers, wizards and necromancers. They insouciantly report that someone belongs to this or that astrological sign. Etcetera.

The excuse is clumsy. «If that is what people want, that we must give them.»That’s ridiculous. Media can be popular, amusing, relaxing, without spreading false beliefs. There is no proof whatsoever that a newspaper or a magazine ever lost readers, or a television show viewers, by staying away from superstition. And even if they had to get into those subjects, a touch of irony and humor would help to put them in the right perspective.

In a not-so-remote past astronomy and astrology were relatively close. If anyone assumed that astronomical events could have an influence on human affairs (which, of couse, is possible) the way if trying to guess was based on astronomy as it was perceived. Now we know that even Copernicus had a very limited perception of the universe and the movements of planets and stars. If anyone really wanted to look into possible relations between human events and outer space, they should do so by starting from scratch in a completely different perspective.

It may be too much (and probably counterproductive) to put a warning on horoscopes (and other wizardries) like the ones on cigarette packs: “scientifically meaningless and may cause mental disorientation.” But it would help if mainstream information didn’t continue to support all sorts of prejudice and so spin the vicious circle of stupidity.

Of course astrology is only one of many examples. There are all sorts of things that we are in the habit of believing or that we like to believe for a variety of reasons, from the desire to be comforted to the fear of what we don’t understand.

The remedy isn’t a hypothetical (and often debatable) “absolute rationality.“ Emotions, feelings, intuitions, imagination are essential for the completeness and balance of human nature. They are as necessary in the development of knowledge as the methodic use of reason. But we can pleasantly read a fairy tale without fearing that we will be devoured by an ogre or hoping that we can be helped out of trouble by a benevolent genie.

We can dream, asleep or awake, of riding a gryphon or floating above the clouds on a flying carpet. But when we wake up, or after some relaxing daydreaming, we must get back to a world where, if we want to fly, we need an airplane – or, al least, a parachute. We can study and old myth or legend, discovering its meanings and values (often deep and fascinating) without literally accepting he reality of the story. We can heed the warnings of Hamlet’s father without believing in ghosts.

Of course the most widely quoted statement is not in what his father’s ghost said, but in Hamlet’s comment to his friend: «there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.» (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5.)

Difficult as it may be to draw the line between bewildering possibilities and ridiculous beliefs, or to separate harmless habits from mischievous delusions, the fact remains that superstition is a dangerous form of stupidity. We can be tricked by hucksters who steal our money – or, much worse, we can be exploited and enslaved. And even when nobody else is trying to deceive us we can hurt ourselves for all sorts of absurd reasons.

* * *

A particular form of obnubilation is called “fundamentalism.” We are aware of its extreme consequences in crime and violence, oppression and slavery, murder and exploitation, war and genocide. But it’s lurking in many other ways. Not only in religion or ideology. There is fundamentalism in politics, sports, society, economy, corporations, professions, all sorts of groups and communities – even in family feuds and neighborhood conflicts.

It can also be called integralism, dogmatism, absolutism, extremism, fanaticism – and of course it relates to obscurantism and superstition.

In this era, that we hoped would be a time of civilization and freedom, enlightening and awareness, there is an awful resurgence of intolerance. Not only in remote places or repressive cultures, but also close to home, wherever we are.

We can be fans without being fanatics, enjoy spectator sports without becoming hooligans, disagree without fighting, have fun without humiliating or hurting anyone, etcetera. But we are still living in a dark eclipse of good sense and civility. One more prof of the fact that stupidity can hide in all sorts of disguises and prevail in many insidious ways.


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