Debunking supernatural belief with Deborah Hyde
Deborah Hyde – known as @Jourdemayne for those of you on Twitter, came up to Cambridge Skeptics to talk to us about unnatural (or rather super-natural) predators. Now, being the sort of person that hangs out with a dragon fairy, I thought this would make for interesting hearing. It did – and pleasantly not from an angle I was expecting. I wasn’t a “Stupid people in times gone by believed in stupid stuff because they were stupid/uneducated/oppressed & boo to them” sort of thing. It was actually a really interesting combination of history and geography in a manner that I had never seen before.
Historical infant mortality rates
This was part of the context – high fertility and high mortality rates. As any parent who has lost a child will tell you, the impact is devastating. Yet it’s only in very recent times that both the IMR has fallen in the industrialised world – followed by lower fertility rates. Deborah compared historically high IMRs in times gone by with current levels in countries suffering from high levels of absolute poverty. Ditto with levels of mothers dying in childbirth. In one example, she cited a level of 1:15 – one in every 15 births will lead to the death of the mother. In countries with such levels that also have high fertility rates and low levels of women’s rights, she said that this was a death sentence for women in those countries.
“What’s this got to do with vampires?”
It sets the context of peoples at various times in history suffering from the trauma of untimely deaths. We can see this today in our institutions. It’s why we have coroners – the “independent judicial officer charged with the investigation of sudden, violent or unnatural death”.
One of the questions coroners are charged with finding an answer to is “Why did this person die? (Or rather, what was the cause of death?” It’s one of the questions the bereaved may ask when someone close dies an untimely death – explaining perhaps why we may turn to institutionalised religion when such things happen. Institutionalised religions have ‘institutionalised death’ in some respects – with established rituals and explanations of what happens after we die. I saw these rituals growing up having to go to church and being an altar server at a number of funerals – including that of my late and much-missed aunt who died from cancer in the mid 1990s.
Deborah took us through numerous examples of where untimely deaths and seemingly unnatural things happening to corpses were attributed to vampires and witches. You’ve all seen the Monty Python scene on witches – haven’t you? She then compared those explanations with what today seem like more scientifically/medically accurate or more plausible ones. (Ranging from what happens to the body as it decays to why people living in parts of the world where wolves are found claimed to see vampires and wolves regularly having punch-ups in graveyards).
“Why did wolves and vampires have fights in graveyards?”
It was more to do with carnivores going after corpses buried in shallow graves. Burying the dead under 6 feet of earth significantly reduces the likelihood that they will get dug up by scavengers. Where wolves successfully dug up a corpse buried in a shallow grave, it may have looked to someone that wolves were fighting with a zombie or a vampire. Hence one of the legends being that wolves and vampires don’t like each other.
Aren’t people who believe in these myths just stupid people?
The thing is, once you dismiss people as ‘stupid people’, why should they listen to you? Lack of academic ability, ignorance (in terms of ‘not knowing about stuff) and desperation to seek an explanation to something are not the same things.
One thing I took away from this talk was an explanation of sleep paralysis – something that every so often affects me. It’s not pleasant but I don’t think too much about it. Others on the other hand can be devastated by it. Hence making them vulnerable to those claiming that it’s either something else (e.g. demons!) or that there is a cure that has not been properly tested and approved for the general public.
In this regard, individuals cannot know everything about everything. Having watched (and advised) ministers on huge portfolios, I’ve seen for myself how it’s simply not possible for ministers to know every detail of their policy areas. They rely on advice from experts in the field. This is how it is for us with healthcare. I don’t know the details of how the medication I take works beyond the basic summary. That would require having degree-level understanding of how the brain works.
At the same time, I’m desperate to be free from the condition I suffer from – and the symptoms too. Yet scientific research has not reached that stage where I can be cured from it – let alone the NHS being in a position to provide me with the treatment programme to deliver that cure.
How can you explain to a parent that science can explain the cause but has no cure for their child?
As a historian by heart, this is what intrigued me about the case of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II & his wife Alexandra – both of whom were first cousins to the Queen’s grandfather George V. Their youngest child and only son suffered from Haemophilia. Science offered no cure or decent treatment at the time – despite the vast riches the Empire could have thrown at researching a cure, hence one of the reasons why a desperate Alexandra turned towards Rasputin.
Taking my own case with my own symptoms of my own mental health problems, when trying to cope with acute problems and when despairing over both the scientific and medical communities’ inability to find a cure or suitable treatment, it’s no wonder why people turn towards less mainstream alternatives. When this happens, how can you protect people who are otherwise desperate, from abuse? It’s not just in the ‘treatment’ but taking money off of people for things that have no proof that they work.
“Still not getting the vampires & feminism link, Pooffles”
What you have is weird and frightening explanations to try and explain worldviews in times of high mortality and high fertility. The advances of science – not least in experiments and documenting what was going on, did much to dispel many of those myths. Hence no longer being afraid of ghosts as I was when I was about eight years old. Today I/we can lampoon such things.
The feminism link is in education and women’s rights on health, contraception and fertility. Education for all helps dispel the worst of the myths while increasing women’s rights on health, contraception and fertility can significantly reduce the likelihood that women will die in childbirth.
The point being that myths around supernatural predators – to the extent that authorities of the day take actions to deal with them – whether burning/drowning of witches to rituals to ward off ‘evil spirits’ – diminish.
I also think there’s a wider ‘disposition’ issue here too. I can’t help but feel that people have different dispositions that we simply have to live with – ie there’s no scientific explanation for it. Some people crave stability and order to things. It’s like the police officer on telly that said his job was to enforce the law, and that other people far more qualified and intelligent than him were the people to discuss the merits of the law. That was beyond both his remit & interest. It’s like with my late grandfather. I never really knew why he went to church. He just did. He never talked much about religion. It was just something he – and subsequently most of my family did during my childhood. Other people within the institution think about the complicated stuff.
In one sense it’s why I can’t see myself seeking ministerial or political office – despite the suggestions from various people. I don’t have the disposition to be the decision-maker. I have the disposition to be a scrutiner, but I don’t have what it takes to be the person where the buck stops. During my career as a civil servant, I was quite relieved that there were people above me to be those decision-makers. As I explained to those lower in the grading order, we were simply not trained or paid enough to be the decision-makers – hence should not feel the weight of responsibility stemming from decisions taken.
And that’s fine.
It’s OK to say “I don’t know” – I just wish more politicians would say this rather than trying to waffle out an answer instead.