Twenty years ago, Italian philosopher and novelist, Umberto Eco, suggested that we post-millennials were in some important respects remarkably like mediaeval Europeans in our capacity for magical thinking. In a talk titled Science, Technology, and Magic (subsequently published in La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper), Eco proposed that many people in the new millennium mistook technology for science, and furthermore, postulated that our faith in technology mirrors the mediaeval European faith in magic. Like our predecessors, we tended to invest in everyday thinking which erased the long chain of events between cause and effect so fundamental to scientific thinking, trusting in technology to deliver instant solutions much in the way magicians and magic produce instant effects in their tricks.
South Africans, of course, are not exempt from the pattern which Eco perceives in the public in Italy. Far from it. Additionally, there is ample evidence in recent historical record showing how much and how easily people here, like people everywhere, have mistaken technology for science, and relied on magical thinking in their understanding of and response to phenomena in their lives. Recall the magical thinking rife at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one about HIV/Aids, and what could be done to ‘cure’ anyone who tested positive for the virus. One sees echoes of this response in many views promulgating ‘cures’ which may be little more than means of alleviating symptoms, or immune boosting attempts at preventing infection in the current Covid-19 crisis.
Eco suggests that part of the reason for the conflation of technology and science which underpins the magical thinking so rife among ordinary people lay in the ways in which science is communicated to the public. He suggests that mass media, including journalism, often focuses on the spectacular aspects of technological innovation, and seldom explores that long chain of events which lead from cause to effect in their reportage on what is called ‘scientific advance’. One only has to look at the many, understandably hopeful news reports on various aspects of the scientific research into how this novel coronavirus spreads and affects the human body, and what researchers are doing to try to end the pandemic, to realise that this penchant for the headline grabbing spectacle over the quotidian work of virologists, epidemiologists, immunologists, and a variety of other clinicians, remains in place.
One would think that we would have learned from the historical record not to be quite so quick to believe, after nearly a century of claims that the ‘cure’ for cancer is imminent, that science will simply step up and make this crisis go away. In fact, no individual scientist or group of scientists of repute have made this claim. On the contrary, several clinicians have pointed out that in the early stages of this pandemic, scientists are still learning much about this disease, how it spreads, and more significantly, how it impacts on the complex systems of the human body. Clifford Marks and Trevor Pour, two emergency room physicians in the United States of America, outlined the multiple and complex, not yet fully understood effects of Covid-19 infection on the organs and systems of the human body, from the brain and heart to the kidneys and skin. And if people dedicated to such understanding are still figuring it out, it would be premature to imagine that a cure already exists, as some claim, or that it is imminent. Elsewhere, there are reports of Kawasaki disease in children who were thought to be mostly unaffected by the disease. What effect the disease will have in the bodies of people in a population with a significant incidence of health challenges like tuberculosis, HIV/Aids, hypertension, and diabetes, among others, the highest per capita alcohol consumption on the continent, and a record of non-compliance with medication dosage regimes, remains to be seen.
While many believe that we live in an age of science, and that we have left the age of magic far behind, in South Africa the evidence that this may not be so is ubiquitous. Think of the roadside tabloid headlines that rhythmically recycle invisible beings and animist beliefs to explain phenomena or psychological trauma every day. Recall that the majority of South Africans continue to profess religious faith which is founded upon belief in the unprovable. Also recall the spectacular examples of people willingly consuming grass or allowing themselves to be sprayed with insecticide as symbolic proof of their faith, despite the warnings about what the physics and chemistry and biology tells us about the effects of doing so are. Think of the millions of lottery tickets sold in South Africa every week. What could explain these and other such habits of thought and being?
In South Africa there is a long history of inadequate science education. In international benchmarking tests in the first decade of this millennium, South African pupils scored consistently poorly in mathematics and science, but also in tests for literacy. That has changed somewhat given interventions made by government, but the cohorts of pupils who were subjected to the poor education served up during those years have not magically disappeared. Additionally, in this decade we have evidence that up to 78% of 10-year–olds could not read or write meaningfully in any language whatsoever. Again, there have been interventions to remedy this, but these have not eradicated the problem. When I taught science undergraduate students in KwaZulu-Natal, colleagues who taught mathematics bemoaned the number of teachers who taught the subject in school but could not pass the very examinations for which they were preparing their pupils and were assessing. Parents doing home schooling during this crisis may identify with this problem.
We also know that of the millions of children who start school, up to half drop out long before the twelfth grade. Now add to this the millions of black South Africans who had the deliberately designed poor education of the apartheid era which wanted to engineer hewers of wood and drawers of water, not engineers and doctors. The historian Saul Dubow, in his book A Commonwealth of Knowledge (2006), traces the complex relationship between science and political power in South Africa over the last two centuries. When read alongside his earlier book, Illicit Union: Scientific Racism in Modern South Africa (1995), one gets an understanding of how what is proposed as science can be bent to ideological ends which have long-lasting political and social consequences. Now add the millions of South Africans who were educated through such science, which produced men and women who believed what had been disproven elsewhere and continued to do so deep into the post-millennial post-apartheid era. Recall the methodologically and theoretically poor paper on ‘race’ produced by academics at the University of Stellenbosch a few years ago.
Given this history, it is not surprising that conspiracy theories have taken such a powerful hold in people’s everyday lives here. Eco, of course, is no stranger to conspiracy theories. As a novelist he used their potential for good storytelling in books like The Name of the Rose (1980) and Foucault’s Pendulum (1988). However, if the belief in technology mistaken for science mirrors the belief in magic for its erasure of the long and complex chain of events between cause and effect, what conspiracy theories do is populate the gap between phenomena and their proposed causes, but not with what would pass as scientific evidence, or with what would be accepted as rational argumentation. In South Africa, the evidence for people’s reliance on conspiracy theory in their every day lives surrounds us. Think of the posters which claim the ‘Illuminati’ have an office in Randburg and will help you to wealth and prosperity if you call the pay-as-you-go mobile telephone number displayed on the bill. Recall the ease with which the stories made up by a British public relations firm affected people’s beliefs about and understanding of the workings of the bureaucratic state they live in, and how those stories formulated by the discredited and now defunct PR firm continue to fuel political battles here in South Africa.
Now think of the stories circulating over the world wide web which suggests that Covid-19 is a human made virus, or that mobile telephone towers are responsible for lowering our immunity to it, or that the pandemic is a hoax. These stories would, prior to the internet, have circulated in local communities in much the same way and with similar localised consequences as those racist urban myths about the lone Asian man in the long black car cruising streets in search of gullible children some of us who grew up in the 1970s can recall. Only, with already lowered levels of trust in the established social institutions of the society (politics, news media, religion, education, among others), and with alternatives ready to hand on any smart phone screen or home computer, the consequences of bad education are plain to see.
Part of the problem, of course, is that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the value of scientific explanation. John Cornwell, director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Cambridge University, published a collection of essays by prominent academic scientists called Explanation: styles of explanation of science (2004). In one essay, Peter Lipton, of Cambridge’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science, painstakingly outlines the method and value of scientific explanation, its fundamental concern with unearthing the causes of phenomena, and its insistence on understanding over mere knowledge. In another essay Steven Weinberg, a physicist at the University of Texas, suggested that while science was good for explaining phenomena in the physical world, its methods were not best suited for addressing moral principles. Various forms of explanation circulate in our society, and they serve different purposes: faith-based explanation may help individuals and communities live ethically with others and with the environment, and scientific explanations may help us understand the physical world and our place in its as a species. These forms of explanation need not be commensurable (in some important senses they are not), but our folly lies in applying the explanations of one to objects and matters best examined by another. What conspiracy theories do in this case is akin to offering a new kind of magical thinking: instead of taking the shortcut between cause and effect, it populates that gap with a chain of imagined events which are often counterfactual, however passionately it is argued to be true, based as such explanations are on the belief that the evidence need not be verifiable through replication by another, one of the core principles of experimental science.
One of the many crises highlighted by the current pandemic is the challenge to scientific understandings of the modern world. The germ theory of disease is just over a century old, and smallpox is the only disease we have truly successfully eradicated since this development in scientific thought. But older forms of understanding disease persist, and they resurface at times of crisis, almost cyclically. Think of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), which reimagines a history of the mid-1600s plague outbreak in London. Recall Albert Camus’s La Peste (1947), a similar story about a plague in the French Algerian city of Oran. It ought not to be surprising that our responses are not so different from these novels. On the contrary. In fact, if history repeats itself first as tragedy and then farce, we should, like Hal Foster, ask ourselves, what comes after farce, and hope it is not a pantomime of extinction.
As the complex medical, social, political, and economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic unfold, we may need to urgently address the gaps in a scientific understanding of the world millions of people in South Africa suffer from for a variety of reasons. After all, given the bad science education many have survived, it is perhaps not surprising that in a viral pandemic a prominent celebrity can imagine that his health is a private matter of individual choice, and that public health protocols are infringements of his right to individual self-expression. One recalls the lament of Edward Said, the Palestinian American professor at Columbia University, in ‘Loss of Precision’ (1997), originally published The Gulf Today: “An imprecise, not very concrete hold on language and reality produces a more easily governable, accepting citizen, who has become not a participant in the society but an always hungry consumer. Literate, critical education has an extraordinarily important role to play in providing the instruments of resistance to this.“ Science education which would afford everyone the ability to understand scientific explanation and their value, is an invaluable component of such literate, critical education. – Health-e News
Angelo Fick is the director of research at the Auwal Socio-economic Research Institute. He taught across various faculties in the humanities, sciences, and applied sciences in universities in South Africa and Europe between 1994 and 2018. His work has appeared in English in Africa, the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Funambulist (Paris), the Mail & Guardian, and the Johannesburg Review of Books.
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