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A spurious system of natural law as well as a fallacious guide of conduct
July 26, 2012 8:29 AM   Subscribe

A critique of Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough by Colin Dickey. "For all its erudition and analysis, The Golden Bough has for more than a century helped cement the idea that magic is inappropriate, wrongheaded thought. Yet what separates magic from religion or science is not its methodology—Frazer himself notes that it 'is therefore a truism, almost a tautology, to say that all magic is necessarily false and barren; for were it ever to become true and fruitful, it would no longer be magic but science'—it’s that ordinary people can do it, transforming their lives with the ambitious power of everyday thought." Via Lapham's Quarterly's Magic Shows issue.
posted by Kitty Stardust (62 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
Its methodology conforms to intuitive, peculiarly human rules of causation, which leads to emotionally gratifying but externally meaningless rituals, which is entirely different from science.
posted by clockzero at 8:45 AM on July 26, 2012 [10 favorites]


Get your magical woo bracelet now!
posted by kmz at 8:46 AM on July 26, 2012


Far more caustic was Horace in his Satires, who wrote of a block of wood carved into a statue of Priapus, who then has to suffer the rituals of two witches, Candidia and Sagana:
They held two dolls, one made of wool, the other
Of wax. The first was big and seemed to threaten
The one who had its waxen arms upraised
In supplication like a slave afraid
Of death.
The poem continues in this vein, speaking ominously of black magic and terrifying rites, though all of this is suddenly undercut when the statue’s “figwood ass” looses a fart:
The hags ran off in panic, back
To town. You should have seen Candidia.
Her teeth fell out. Sagana’s wig flew off
Her head. The magic herbs and voodoo charms
They’d dropped lay scattered all across the ground.
It was enough to make you roar with laughter.

posted by nebulawindphone at 8:48 AM on July 26, 2012


Describing what Semmelweis did as a form of "sympathetic magic" simply because he did not have a complete account of the mechanism by which "cadaverous particles" infected pregnant women is blatant intellectual dishonesty.
posted by yoink at 8:49 AM on July 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


If you think magic/religion and science are the same, you probably don't understand magic and you definitely don't understand science.
posted by DU at 8:57 AM on July 26, 2012 [9 favorites]


A thread that discusses how a book that defines certain things as superstitious nonsense is the product of intellectually bankrupt 19th century ethnocentric scholarship is sure to please almost everyone.
posted by mobunited at 8:59 AM on July 26, 2012 [6 favorites]


"externally meaningless"

External to what? Humanity?
posted by phrontist at 9:01 AM on July 26, 2012


Listen, I'm absolutely sure that modern skeptics despise the supernatural for reasons that are in NO WAY RELATED to the cultural-supremacist thinking of yore.
posted by mobunited at 9:01 AM on July 26, 2012 [10 favorites]


I'm always interested in this sort of thing because magic has a great psychological/symbolic appeal to me, despite my being a pretty strong atheist. I like the Satanist's (as in Church of Satan) stance on it: it's an empty ritual full of showy psychodrama that satisfies the practitioner's psychic needs without any call to believe in spiritual things. The ritual is a manifestation of your desires, nothing more. But then, with that stance I wonder why even drag any supernatural beings into it. Is there a secular witchcraft?

I struggle with it because though I cannot say I really believe in anthropomorphic supernatural powers, I like the idea that there are hidden dimensions to our reality. It's like astrology. I study it, but I can't really say I think a planet is having a specific influence on my life. I look more at the artistic-symbolic side of it--as a group of interesting archetypes that make for a more compelling and complex psyche-map than the old Id-Ego-Superego configuration. I enjoy learning systems of symbols. I guess I could say I prefer the idea of magic to any attempted practice.

Or maybe I just got hard-wired by all that Catholicism to really respond to things involving candles, incense and weird chanting.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 9:16 AM on July 26, 2012 [14 favorites]


To say that magic is "that which does not work" is missing the point, I think. Magic is "that which is unseen" -- the occult, the occluded. The purpose and the source of magic is power: the ability to claim credit for remarkable things, whether it's getting a job or making an egg disappear. You don't make the egg disappear by exerting arcane forces to make the egg pop out of existence -- unless you can claim that you do. You do not get a job, improve yourself, increase your understanding, or other magical goals by the help of spirits, demons and gods -- unless you can claim that you do.

Magic is in the trick, the ability to elide the true mechanism of things. In sleight-of-hand, you obscure the moving fingers. In personal magic, you throw your will and your actions into the chaotic maelstrom of the real world and its random forces, turning and orienting yourself through study, worship and ritual until success comes to you, and using that success to increase your own sense of your personal power, which increases your ability to guide yourself towards where you want to be, and so on. At least, some people find that a useful approach to the world.

You can make stage illusion mundane by researching the hand movements; you can make personal magic mundane by refuting the reality of spirits, demons, gods and magical forces. But a stage magician can still make an egg disappear, and the spirits can still bring aid to the mage, if they can be sufficently occult.
posted by Drexen at 9:16 AM on July 26, 2012 [24 favorites]


I think it is unfair to blame The Golden Bough, which is hugely helpful in understanding how magical and mythical concepts inform Western culture and literature, for "cementing" negative views of magic. I suppose Mr. Dickey forgot, for example, the long Western tradition of reviling and sometimes killing witches, which long predates The Golden Bough and was well cemented before that tome was ever published.
posted by bearwife at 9:16 AM on July 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


"I suppose Mr. Dickey forgot, for example, the long Western tradition of reviling and sometimes killing witches ..."

Actually, a discussion of that was a major part of the article.
posted by kyrademon at 9:18 AM on July 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


Your favourite 19th century armchair anthropologist sucks.
posted by daniel_charms at 9:19 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Describing what Semmelweis did as a form of "sympathetic magic" simply because he did not have a complete account of the mechanism by which "cadaverous particles" infected pregnant women is blatant intellectual dishonesty.

Why? Isn't justifying this description the whole point of the article?
posted by oliverburkeman at 9:20 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I suppose Mr. Dickey forgot, for example, the long Western tradition of reviling and sometimes killing witches, which long predates The Golden Bough and was well cemented before that tome was ever published.

I thought he addressed that quite well. I especially enjoyed this part:
"As the world was becoming more ordered and codified via patriarchal religion and a burgeoning system of capitalism, magic was seen as a threat because it circumvented these structures: it offered a life outside the authority of the Church and the hierarchies it had carefully cultivated."
Later in that paragraph he mentions that one of the perceived violations of the witches' Sabbaths was the commingling of men and women from various social strata, which, naturally, had to be against God's plan.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 9:21 AM on July 26, 2012


Describing what Semmelweis did as a form of "sympathetic magic" simply because he did not have a complete account of the mechanism by which "cadaverous particles" infected pregnant women is blatant intellectual dishonesty.

Yeah. If every piece of "sympathetic magic" were as efficacious as that of Semmelweis, no one would have any issue with it.
posted by Fritz Langwedge at 9:21 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am not sure, to be honest, what Dickey's ultimate point was. Anyone have a notion?
posted by kyrademon at 9:22 AM on July 26, 2012


"Frazer is much more savage than most of his savages." - Ludwig Wittgenstein

(He wrote a lot about The Golden Bough, but I don't have my copy at hand. If someone does, they should post some quotes.)
posted by phrontist at 9:28 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


They tried to tell us we're too Jung.
posted by Fritz Langwedge at 9:34 AM on July 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


I get the impression he isn't arguing for a position so much as telling a story about cultural history and then sort of riffing on it a little. Which may be why we're seeing so much frustration in the thread. (But he hasn't told us whether he believes in the supernatural! How can we tell whether he's an Enemy Of Progress or not?!)
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:34 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


He seems to be saying something about how we all need a bit of woo in our lives, or something. Which, incidentally, has also been used to justify organized religion, the kind that persecuted witches back in the day.
posted by kmz at 9:36 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


This passage struck me:
Instituting a regime of hand washing with chlorinated water, Semmelweis lowered the mortality rate at the first clinic to levels equal to the second clinic almost overnight.

Nevertheless, he was roundly criticized for his methods, which critics claimed were grounded in assumption, never rigorously tested, nor based on any explanatory theory.
There is still some irrational application of this concept in science today, wherein scientists themselves are confused about the scientific method. If one can demonstrate rigorously that a particular intervention is effective, it matters not one whit to that efficacy if the mechanism is known or understood. Aspirin worked for centuries before we began to understand how it worked (and still don't entirely).

Now it's great if some careful research applying known theory to a problem results in an effective intervention, but assuming it works is, in fact, an abomination of science. Theories cannot be relied on until the prediction has been tested rigorously. Having only a theory and a mechanism has been demonstrated over and over again to be inadequate to guarantee efficacy, and often-times even when the efficacy of an intervention is proven, the hypothesized mechanism turns out to be wrong later. Yet I hear this criticism of studies all the time from otherwise sound scientists, that we can't be confident in a proven therapy if we don't know quite how it works. They ignore both science and history.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:38 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


We sure do love us some dualities, no matter how false may be.

This could end up being just a magic vs. science squabblefest, but I wish we wouldn't confuse either folk knowledge (aka old wives tales), or the strange self-modifying system that is human consciousness with either of them.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:38 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


To put it another way: magic is successful if the intended result happens, and the magical mechanism is more true to the people involved, or to any given observer, than it would be to an 'ideal'/perfectly scientific observer. When humans are not ideal observers -- i.e. most of the time -- magic is possible.
posted by Drexen at 9:41 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, while I'm quoting by proxy, someone should post the exchange between Billy Terwilliger and the member of the committee to define science from Don Delillo's Ratner's Star.
posted by phrontist at 9:42 AM on July 26, 2012


I actually found it distasteful how much he dwelled on witch persecution, as if trying to imply that modern disdainers of superstition are just continuing in that line of thinking. As he said, Christian persecution of "witches" was because they were competing in their space, not because they thought it didn't work. I would guess most modern skeptics are just as suspicious of organized religion as they are of "sympathetic magic".
posted by kmz at 9:45 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Describing what Semmelweis did as a form of "sympathetic magic" simply because he did not have a complete account of the mechanism by which "cadaverous particles" infected pregnant women is blatant intellectual dishonesty.

Why?


Because science is not a means of uncovering mechanisms. Science is a means of proving statements. Semmelweis's statement was not "here is the mechanism whereby washing hands leads to pregnant women being killed" his statement was "women are being killed because we aren't washing our hands". Later, other scientists can attempt to prove specific statements about the mechanism.
posted by DU at 9:47 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd be more sympathetic to the notion of "sympathetic magic" if I understood what it's supposed to do. Is it, like the hand-washing ritual of Semmelweis, supposed to effect an inexplicable but real outcome? Or is it just blah blah archetype blah?
posted by Fritz Langwedge at 9:50 AM on July 26, 2012


Why? Isn't justifying this description the whole point of the article?

Yes, indeed--the whole article is an exercise in intellectual dishonesty.
posted by yoink at 9:52 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


The bit about Semmelweiss, I agree, is a bit misleading. Dude was not really a paragon of magical thinking. If anything, he was being more scientific than the doctors who were bashing him. The trouble was that he looked unscientific.

For instance, he was one of the first people ever to use statistical evidence in clinical medicine, and part of his problem was that doctors of his day weren't used to listening statistical evidence. Now, if you propose a surprising or counterintuitive treatment with no causal story but with a clinical trial to back it up, people say "Good, let's look into this more." (As I understand it, we don't have any consensus on the causal story behind lithium for bipolar — but the evidence that it works is so solid that nobody questions it.) At the time, it didn't work that way. You needed a causal story or you were run out of the profession as a pseudoscientist.

I think the best way to read Semmelweiss's story is as a cautionary tale against getting hung up on the surface appearance of rationality. It is possible to be too violently opposed to superstition, in a way that actually clouds your judgement. Your job isn't to judge whether a hypothesis "sounds rationalist" or "sounds materialist" or fits any other standard of ideological purity. Your job is to test the damn hypothesis. If you can reject it, reject it. If you can't, then accept it provisionally, think up some alternatives, and find ways to distinguish between them. That's all.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:54 AM on July 26, 2012 [7 favorites]


I agree with DU and yoink about the author's mistreatment of Semmelweis. Semmelweis' case involved some simple causal reasoning, not "sympathetic magic". But it's kind of interesting to articulate the difference, because the author would probably reply that sympathetic magic also involves a kind of causal reasoning.

The difference lies in the process of reasoning itself, I think. To see the difference, we need an example of real, hard-core magical reasoning in action.

Take the Westboro Baptists, who believe that evils visited upon certain Americans are caused by evils that have been performed by other Americans.* (Why did the Colorado shootings happen? Not because of one man's insanity, but because some Americans are gay. Which, apparently, God hates.) The "contact" that allows the evil to transition from one person to another is, for whatever reason, shared nationality. This is about the worst sort of causal reasoning imaginable, but what really distinguishes it from Semmelweis' reasoning about handwashing? After all, they bear a variety of superficial similarities: Semmelweis could be described as thinking that deaths visited upon some people (the babies) are caused by deaths that happened to other people (the cadavers) by indirect contact. More importantly, the ultimate mechanism at work is unknown. The author suggests that this alone is enough to show that Semmelweis' is appealing to magical reasoning.

I suspect the line between these two sorts of cases is vague, and it's easy to mistake a vague difference for no difference at all. But there are some important differences between these two cases. One relevant difference is that, in Semmelweis' case, the explanation he proposed could be falsified, and had it been falsified, he (I suppose) would have tested a different explanation. By contrast, the only way to falsify the Westboro Baptists' "explanation" would be to institute traditional biblical law and discover that our troubles did not miraculously vanish. And even if that happened, the magical mindset would demand that they locate the problem not in their proposed explanation, but in the experimental design (i.e., "Well, we outlawed being gay, but earthquakes are still happening. I guess the problem must be that women can vote, so God's still angry.")

Put briefly, this points to a difference in intent between someone like Semmelweis and someone appealing to magic. The process of Semmelweis' reasoning involves the (in this case unnecessary) intention to test different hypotheses until an explanation goes undefeated. People appealing to magic have already determined that their explanation must be right, and when magic fails it must be because they didn't make the right invocation, supplication, or what have you.


* Well, caused by God as punishment for evils performed by other Americans. The details aren't important for the point at issue.
posted by voltairemodern at 9:54 AM on July 26, 2012


> put on wizard hat and robe
posted by octobersurprise at 9:55 AM on July 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


People who are interested in modern applications of magical thinking could do worse than to read Persuasions of the Witch's Craft, which is the result of fieldwork the author did among modern British magicians. (The author has also written a book about American evangelicals that I haven't read).

Luhrmann does a better job of drawing some parallels between types of "scientific thinking" and "magical thinking" (note the quotation marks!) than Dickey.
posted by immlass at 10:00 AM on July 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


To put it another way...

This is sort of turning into a debate about whether "magic works." And the trouble is that, when you ask "Does magic work," there are a lot of possible questions you could be asking.

Question 1: Do the Law of Contagion and the Law of Similarity actually describe causal mechanisms that are active in the universe? Answer: Hell no. This is false with as close to certainty as humans can currently get.

Question 2: Among all the open hypotheses that I've categorized as "magical thinking" and decided to ignore, are there any true hypotheses? Answer: If you've considered enough open hypotheses, then the answer is likely to be "yes" just as a matter of probability. But it's okay, we'll get around to testing them and finding out eventually.

Question 3: Among all the hypotheses whose proponents have been guilty of magical thinking, have there been any true hypotheses? Answer: of course! People are right by accident all the time!
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:04 AM on July 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'd be more sympathetic to the notion of "sympathetic magic" if I understood what it's supposed to do. Is it, like the hand-washing ritual of Semmelweis, supposed to effect an inexplicable but real outcome? Or is it just blah blah archetype blah?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sympathetic_magic
posted by Kitty Stardust at 10:07 AM on July 26, 2012


What I find interesting, then, is that this article — which as far as I can tell is taking a position on Questions 2 and 3, saying "hypotheses that would count as 'magical thinking' by Frazer's definition can still sometimes turn out true when you test 'em" — is arousing a violent reaction among people who are mostly worried about Question 1 and concerned that someone might mistake the Law of Contagion for a real scientific law.

I dunno. Yes, yes, creeping agnosticism and the Overton window and the Enemies Of Reason lurking among us to spread uncertainty and doubt and blah blah blah. But can't we read an article about cultural history without getting all suspicious and het up because the author does not explicitly state "I am not now and have not ever been an enemy of the scientific method"?
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:13 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is sort of turning into a debate about whether "magic works."

True, and the annoying thing is that the author of the article hopelessly muddies the waters in the way he addresses that issue. What he wants to talk about is the benefit of magical thinking in terms of the psychological and sociological goods it (purportedly) brings to us and he is just horribly confused when he seems to think that denying the explanatory efficacy of magic is somehow the same thing as denying its sociological, cultural and psychological significance. The two things are utterly unrelated. It's like those religious believers who cite research that shows that people of faith live longer and report higher levels of happiness and so forth as this had any relevance whatsoever to an argument about whether or not the religious belief is well justified. To say that a belief is false is to say nothing at all about its cultural significance or psychological importance, and vice versa.
posted by yoink at 10:13 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Take the Westboro Baptists, who believe that evils visited upon certain Americans are caused by evils that have been performed by other Americans.* (Why did the Colorado shootings happen? Not because of one man's insanity, but because some Americans are gay. Which, apparently, God hates.) The "contact" that allows the evil to transition from one person to another is, for whatever reason, shared nationality. This is about the worst sort of causal reasoning imaginable, but what really distinguishes it from Semmelweis' reasoning about handwashing?

This is illustrative, but not for the reasons you might think. WBC's MO as a moneymaking scheme powered by publicity and lawsuits is. Fred Phelps simply found the right structure within Christianity to keep this moneymaking scheme going. If history had turned out differently, they'd make great Maoists, picketing funerals for people who represented decadent religious values or the other Olds.

See, those of us with strong metaphysical beliefs desperately want them to make a moral difference, but they usually don't.They provide the narrative cladding for raw material interests. The Mongols are my favorite example of this, as they ran the most religiously tolerant premodern empire. They tolerated entire cultures to fucking extinction, they did.

You want to believe you are better because you think the universe has a sky fairy, or rules your meat-brain finds consistent, or whatever. But it just doesn't matter, boys and girls. You are better or worse because your parents, friends and culture guided you through the muddle of reflexive act and rules based utility systems, and you muddle along according to your ability. Call the closest thing you have to family and give them credit for how you are, because the sky fairy doesn't matter and your brains are plastic enough that for the vast majority of you, the configuration of your meat doesn't matter to your morals either.

Certainly, the notion that it is praiseworthy to simply believe in one abstract meta-idea or some form of structured doubt, and that morals will follow on from that, is a foolish one.
posted by mobunited at 10:15 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I actually found it distasteful how much he dwelled on witch persecution, as if trying to imply that modern disdainers of superstition are just continuing in that line of thinking.

Hm, I guess I didn't read it that way. It seemed more like he was pointing out what happened to competing strains of magical thinking. King James & his belief in witches are validated because they support the existing power structure. Likewise, the "primitive" beliefs Frazer examines are discounted because they run counter the prevailing power structures of colonialism.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 10:19 AM on July 26, 2012


> put on wizard hat and robe

He's worked all his life (and he's terribly old)
At a wonderful spell which says, "Lo, and behold!
"Your nursery-fender is gold!"-- And it's gold!
(Or the tongs, or the rod for the curtain);

But somehow he hasn't got hold of it quite,
Or the liquid you pour on it first isn't right,
So that's why he works at it night after night
Till he knows he can do it for certain.

-- A.A. Milne, "The Alchemist", When We Were Very Young
posted by jfuller at 10:19 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Does anybody know where I can find a copy of the Golden Bough with the Jesus parts in it that he took out of later editions?
posted by nooneyouknow at 10:21 AM on July 26, 2012


this article — which as far as I can tell is taking a position on Questions 2 and 3, saying "hypotheses that would count as 'magical thinking' by Frazer's definition can still sometimes turn out true when you test 'em"

You misunderstand what we find irritating about the article. It is utterly conventional to note that hypotheses that arise from magical thinking can prove to be true when you test them--the biomedical industry is constantly testing compounds that are claimed to be medically efficacious in folk medicine to see if some active, medically useful effect can be determined.

What is irritating is the laughably silly claim that simply because Semmelweis was unable to account for every part of the mechanism by which doctors were infecting pregnant women it is correct to call his hypothesis "magical thinking." This is just a shockingly profound misunderstanding of the difference between magical and scientific accounts. Take an incredibly simple case of cause and effect such as a cue ball striking a billiard ball and causing it to move. Can you give me a non-magical account of why that happened? Apparently not by this author's standard, because until such time as we have a "theory of everything" there must remain some questions about even such basic problems as "why does matter cohere at all?" So if any elements in your explanation remain "TBD" you are, apparently, engaged in "magical thinking."

This is just an absurd misunderstanding of what makes an hypothesis 'scientific,' which has nothing at all to do with its completeness and everything to do with a willingness to put it to the test and a willingness to discard or refine it in the light of experimental evidence.
posted by yoink at 10:23 AM on July 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


is just horribly confused when he seems to think that denying the explanatory efficacy of magic is somehow the same thing as denying its sociological, cultural and psychological significance

See, that's what I find funny. As far as I saw he never actually claims magic has any explanatory efficacy. I mean, okay, he doesn't explicitly deny that it has explanatory efficacy either — but there are are all sorts of falsehoods that he doesn't explicitly deny. The concern here seems to be that

This essay is a fun, lightweight bit of cultural history. Mostly it's a platform for some entertaining anecdotes about premodern and early modern art and politics. (This business about Semmelweiss takes up all of three paragraphs.) The author is being a contrarian in how he presents things, and he's being a bit arch and playful in some of his uses of the word "magic." But seriously — where's the harm?

On preview, you mention the "laughably silly claim" that Semmelweiss vindicates the magical approach to understanding the world. And I agree with that description. The author here isn't seriously advocating that we abandon the scientific method. He's making a cute playful borderline-silly rhetorical flourish. Are we really obligated to tear him to shreds over this just because he didn't say "HA HA JUST KIDDING I AM NOT A CREATIONIST OR A HOMEOPATH STAY IN SCHOOL KIDS" afterwards?
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:43 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


As far as I saw he never actually claims magic has any explanatory efficacy.

He doesn't as far as I can see either. You don't seem to be reading what I or others are saying so much as responding to an argument you imagine that people might make in response to this piece.
posted by yoink at 10:45 AM on July 26, 2012


The concern here seems to be that.

Sorry, trying to get out the door in a hurry and this damn conversation keeps being interesting.

It sounds like we probably agree on the facts and just disagree on How One Should Feel about them. I think, yeah, okay, he's being a contrarian and maybe once or twice he overplayed his hand trying to be clever, but this is a pretty cool article and a fun read. It sounds like you think, "Well, okay, but he shouldn't have overplayed his hand like that, because imprecision on an important issue is harmful and irritating." Fair?
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:48 AM on July 26, 2012


I'm with you, yoink. The article had some very interesting history but when I read the Semmelweis bit I just immediately rejected his misuse of it. I took Semmelweis as simply practicing the scientific method: see a phenomenon, hypothesize about what may cause it (whether you know the entire mechanism or not), and then test for it.

It's also not really critical of Frazer. Frazer was skeptical, but he valued these things for what they were: cultural relics. It's not "a shame" that he didn't take these things seriously in their magical capacity.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 10:48 AM on July 26, 2012


On further reflection: Okay, I owe you an apology, because I'm doing a thing here that really pisses me off when other posters do it.

Like, okay, we'll have a post where for instance the author seems to be hinting at an underlying meaning that's racist or sexist or objectionable to me for some reason like that. And I'll complain, and another commenter will say "Dude, why are you so upset? Stop complaining! I agree with you on all the political issues, but this author was clearly just being playful and silly and joking around. And anyway, he didn't say women were inferior, you're just reading that into his tone! Don't get your panties in a wad!" And I find that consistently really upsetting and infuriating.

But so I feel like I've sort of been doing the same thing to you here, yoink. What I'm hearing is, you think the implications of the piece are problematic even if the author hasn't straight out said that the scientific method is wrong or whatever. And I've basically been telling you, "He didn't even say that! They're just implications! Don't get your panties in a wad!" Which is a shitty way to be.

I guess it's easy to feel like the read-between-the-lines implications are really important and worth quibbling about when it's My Pet Issue, and trivial and silly and not worth quibbling about when it's Someone Else's Pet Issue.

So, sorry about that.

(And if I'm still misreading you or misunderstanding why you're irritated, I'm sorry about that too — but I'm also way the hell late to meet a friend for lunch and I need to clear out of here. Sucks not to be able to do a proper sort-it-out-and-shake-hands over this, but memail me if you want to talk more?)
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:14 AM on July 26, 2012


Or perhaps it suggests that people are way too prone to getting their panties in a wad over things not actually said? And one should be a little less prone to spitting fury over things not actually said?
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:30 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't understand the problem with the Semmelweiss anecdote. His point is clearly that at the time doctors thought it was something akin to "magic," even though now we clearly know it's "science." Which naturally casts doubt on what we, as scientifically enlightened people, "clearly know."

The author's case is clearly to shed light on the divide we've made between magic and science (or myth and science if you like) and show in a few entertaining historical anecdotes that in the past, that divide has been somewhat artificial and very much ideologically driven. He's not making an ethical judgement either way, and in fact strives to avoid such moralization. And this also is hardly anything new. It's classic Adorno.

As for those who think that there is some definitive difference in the way c-19 doctors and witch hunters behaved when faced with outsiders or marginal figures, ask yourself how the great atheist scientists arguing for secularism have been deployed in some of the worst acts of xenophobic violence and military imperialism in this and the last century.
posted by Catchfire at 11:32 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


This issue of Lapham's Quarterly has a lot of good stuff in it, including a nice essay on Yeats:

W.B. Yeats, Magus
posted by homunculus at 11:43 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Dickey's defense of magic is unnecessarily weak and diffident, in my opinion.

Something stronger might begin by noting that any ritual or tradition handed on from generation to generation, especially by predominantly unwritten means, bears a considerable resemblance to a gene in the genome in that it's copied by the next generation, but not necessarily faithfully, and any change or mutation, if it has a favorable effect on the people who adopt it, can spread through the population and displace competitors (I'm trying to avoid some of the baggage associated with the broader idea of 'memes', here).

I found my favorite example of this in a book co-authored by Iona Opie after her husband Peter died, A Dictionary of Superstitions, which recounts a tradition I recall as being said to be widespread in rural England at least through the 19th century of requiring any unmarried older sister to dance barefoot in the pig's trough at her younger sister's wedding. Here's an alternative reference to this tradition:
An interesting wedding tradition is the Pig Trough Dance. In this tradition it is considered bad luck if a younger sibling marries before the older. In an effort to “deflect” or rid the bad luck (though I fail to see the logic) the older sibling must dance in a pig trough. I did a brief search on this tradition and several websites attribute this tradition to German farming communities. However, one site lists it as a Native American wedding tradition as indicated by the St. Regis Mohawk Indian Reservation. There are several wedding traditions from various cultures at one particular site which is http://www.worldweddingtraditions.com. In a periodical published in 1976 there is mention of the Pig Trough dance at a wedding in a list of expressions which can be found at http://thelibrary.org/lochist/periodicals/bittersweet/wi76c.htm. Furthermore, I came up with a site that had a pair of pig trough stockings which were given to a couple after the older sister used them to dance in the pig trough at a wedding. Information on the stockings and this custom can be found at http://www.victori.com/quick_topics.html along with a picture of the pig trough stockings from 1829. Christine Patrice Gebera? October 30, 2008, at 10:17 PM
The prospect of such ritual humiliation would certainly have served the objective of getting daughters out of the house and situated favorably so as to reproduce themselves as soon as possible, which was apparently almost universal among farmers, of course, but what we know that the farmers who evolved this tradition presumably did not, is that Boar's saliva contains lots of a potent pheromone which, when applied to a sow's neck, makes her more receptive to the boar's advances, and may also have an effect on human beings.
posted by jamjam at 1:12 PM on July 26, 2012


"Frazer is much more savage than most of his savages." - Ludwig Wittgenstein

(He wrote a lot about The Golden Bough, but I don't have my copy at hand. If someone does, they should post some quotes.)


Wittgenstein's "Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough"

/jfgi
posted by mrgrimm at 1:16 PM on July 26, 2012


mrgrimm: Those are remarks on remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough. They quote LW sparsely.
posted by phrontist at 2:07 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


> science is not a means of uncovering mechanisms.

But Semmelweis did propose a mechanism, namely "cadaverous particles" on the doctors' hands, to account for the difference in death rate between the two clinics. Maybe he felt that "particles" were more scientific/materialist than "cadaverous spirits", but actually he didn't have any evidence for either one. What he did have evidence for was a) that there was a measureable difference in death rate between the two clinics, the rate at the doctors' clinic being worse, and b) that handwashing by the doctors fixed the problem. There's nothing about this that forced him to propose an explanatory mechanism, he just did it.

Now the black box approach is perfectly valid in science... today, anyway. It's OK to state "my theory addresses these phenomena only, not whatever gives rise to them." Darwin, for instance, was quite within his rights to say "I don't know why there is phenotype variation within a species, and my theory doesn't attempt to explain that. I just know that variation exists, and if it exists then natural selection will operate on it."

Whether Semmelweis could have gotten away with such a black box approach in 1840 is another question. "Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem" has a long history (Occam was born in 1288) and Isaac "We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances" Newton published the Principia in 1687. But the opposing explanatory tradition going back to Aristotle and before was to explain X with a "because of Y". If you had a good Y you produced it; if you didn't, you made up something plausible-sounding. Got to have some named thing to appeal to as your explanatory entity, or you don't have much of an explanation. Egg? Because of Chicken. Fire? Because of, uh, Phlogiston. Propagation of light? Because of, um, er, oh yeah the Luminiferous Aether. Which physicists still believed in right up to the Michelson–Morley experiment in 1887.

Darwin's taking a black box approach to things he wasn't going to try to explain is actually one of the most modern and forward-looking things he did. And even now "He doesn't propose any mechanism to account for his results" is enough to get lots of papers rejected. So whether a mere practitioner like Semmelweis (in a day not all that far removed from when surgery was performed by barbers, and twenty years before the Origin of Species was published) could have gotten away with offering no mechanism to explain the death rate differences he saw is an open question. Maybe Semmelweis really did believe in his particles; or maybe he proposed them because he felt he had to propose something, because it's the way such things were done, and chose unobservable, handwaved-up "cadaverous particles" as slightly prefereable to equally unobservable "cadaverous spells".
posted by jfuller at 3:11 PM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Does anybody know where I can find a copy of the Golden Bough with the Jesus parts in it that he took out of later editions?

The Jesus part is included in all complete editions. In the third and final edition the passage was moved to an appendix with a disclaimer that in no wise did he, Frazer, think that Jesus of Nazareth was a mythical personage. The passage can be read here. It is on page 412, and can be arrived at by searching the phrase "Jesus of Nazareth."
posted by No Robots at 3:21 PM on July 26, 2012


emotionally gratifying but externally meaningless rituals, which is entirely different from science.

Sort of like publishing fraudulent research results, then.

Or getting an award from the inventor of dynamite.
posted by Twang at 3:31 PM on July 26, 2012


Question 1: Do the Law of Contagion and the Law of Similarity actually describe causal mechanisms that are active in the universe? Answer: Hell no. This is false with as close to certainty as humans can currently get.
posted by nebulawindphone

From Kitty Stardust's wiki link:

"For the Law of Contact [Contagion] see also quantum entanglement."

Like, Wow man.
posted by marienbad at 5:05 PM on July 26, 2012


phrontist >

"externally meaningless"

External to what? Humanity?


Yes, exactly what I meant. External to humanity and humanity's thinking. Religion and rituals are very meaningful to people but don't exist outside us.

Twang >

emotionally gratifying but externally meaningless rituals, which is entirely different from science.

Sort of like publishing fraudulent research results, then.

Or getting an award from the inventor of dynamite.


You're quite right that committing fraud is not an example of best practices in science, just really broadly speaking here, though I cannot begin to guess what point you're trying to make in suggesting so, and likewise I have no idea what my remark had to do with accepting the Nobel Prize or the putatively complex ethical status of dynamite. I mean, really.
posted by clockzero at 5:29 PM on July 26, 2012


Is there a secular witchcraft?

There is, actually. Look to chaos magic and that sort of stuff. Elements of religious paradigms and mystical traditions can be drawn from to prepare rituals, but are not taken at all seriously. And many chaos magic rituals deliberately avoid any known existing mystical tradition.
posted by hermitosis at 10:48 PM on July 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


I do a lot of rituals which some might view as secular witchcraft. I don't really take any of them seriously, but each, any, and all of them help provide me with a sense of passage and meaning which I've been unable to find outside of this particular system of practice.

Example: New Year Ritual
required materials: paper, markers and/or crayons

On one sheet of paper, in the most plain lettering possible without thinking too much about how you are writing it or what it looks like, write down all the energies/events from the past year you would like to have leave your life.

On as many other sheets of paper as needed, write down the energies/events you would like to see manifest in your life in the coming year. Take time with each of these sheets, with careful embellished lettering and lots of designs and decorations that suit those particular wishes for the coming year.

Burn the first sheet.

Bury each of the other sheets in separate holes in various places, each chosen for some specific reason, each being related to the wish you are burying there or having personal significance.

The point and focus of the ritual:

By reflecting on the past year and declaring in simple terms without much elaboration the things you found troublesome, you are helping to locate and externalize these things without spending undue time or energy or focus on them. By burning that list, you are removing those things from your life in a concrete manner.

By taking time with the wishes for the coming year, making elaborate pages for each, you are allowing your conscious and unconscious mind to take time absorbing and helping envision what you want to manifest in your life in the upcoming year. By burying each of these individually in different places, you are symbolically "planting the seed" for each of these to grow in your life.
I pretty much came up with this on my own out of my interest in ritual, hippie/faerie expression, and Jungian reading. It's been a pretty effective way to mark the passing of each calendar, and is one of the things I look forward to during the Dark Of The Year each year, whether it is spent with friends or alone.

Is this magic? I don't really think so. But some might say it is, and I don't really care. It works for me. Maybe it will work for you. (It's more interesting than getting drunk and hoping you have someone to kiss as Anderson and Kathy count backward toward zero.)
posted by hippybear at 11:05 PM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


(We used to do that one with fortune cookies. Open cookies until you find the fortune you want for the coming year. Eat the cookie with the good fortune in it. Burn the rest.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:24 PM on July 27, 2012


Repetitious, Time-Intensive Magical Rituals Considered More Effective, Study Shows
posted by homunculus at 1:38 PM on August 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


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