George Walford: The New Magic

Few of us have any better grounds for believing in germs than for believing in witches. – Professor Gordon Childe.

IN the relationship between science and daily life two distinct and complementary tendencies can be observed. On the one hand the products of science are coming into an increasingly intimate relationship with our everyday activities. On the other scientists are advancing into regions where it is becoming impossible for the layman to follow them. A century ago or more any intelligent man with the necessary leisure could learn what was known in any one field well enough to carry on original research almost as a hobby; now it requires exceptional gifts and many years of intensive training. Many village blacksmiths could make a muzzle-loading musket and few people apart from professional soldiers were affected by it; the atomic bomb menaces every one of us, but the principles governing its operation are fully understood only by a very small number of highly-trained scientists.

The increasingly intimate relationship between everyday life and the products of science leads many people to the conclusion that the thinking of the broad masses is becoming more scientific. It seems obvious that people who drive cars, fly aeroplanes, operate complicated machine-tools, must have a more rational outlook than the savage who has only the very simplest of mechanical devices and implements. When, however, we consider the highly irrational uses to which the products of scientific thinking are put in modern society (in warfare the science of one nation is used to destroy the science of another) the conclusion begins to seem rather less self-evident; it is seen to be more in need of supporting evidence than is usually believed.

What this assumption (for it is seldom anything more) ignores is the tendency which we have mentioned as complementary to the growing familiarity of scientific devices; the tendency, as science progresses, for research workers to become occupied with what appear to the layman as esoteric mysteries having no discernible relation with his personal interests. Every now and again some startling development – V.2, D.D.T., penicillin, radar and above all the atomic bomb – impinges forcibly upon his consciousness and it becomes evident that science affects him in very practical ways. But it is a long way from photos of vaporised Hiroshima, and rumours of mysterious radiations which persist long after the explosion, to an understanding of the structure of the atom, and still farther to a grasp of the methods of thinking which have made modern science possible.

Far from supporting the belief that rational, scientific thinking is permeating the masses of our society, the evidence seems rather to show that, although the scientists have developed this type of thought, very large numbers of people retain the mental attitude which we habitually associate with primitive societies. The parallel between the attitude of many civilised people toward science and that of the savage toward magic is, for those of us who wish to believe that men as a whole are becoming more rational, quite uncomfortably close.

The phrases “Wonders of Science,” “man-made miracles” so often used in popular works, are not merely picturesque; they are significant indications of a very general attitude toward science and scientists. For those whose thought is more or less rational, new developments, although perhaps surprising at first, can be seen as following logically from previous work, as being, in short, developments. But for the irrational masses those innovations which are sufficiently dramatic to reach the newspapers appear as coming from a mysterious realm outside their knowledge, a strange world of test-tubes and bubbling retorts, complicated apparatus and men in white coats. The scientist becomes invested with the attributes of a magician.

The parallel between this attitude toward science and that of the savage toward magic is not difficult to illustrate. Very frequently a patient who has been given a bottle of coloured water under the impression that it contained a drug will declare his condition greatly improved; such a ‘cure’ is largely the result of faith in the powers of the doctor. Similarly, there are many well-authenticated instances of such ‘cures’ in primitive societies, and of natives dying under a curse; such deaths and ‘cures’ are, no doubt, largely the resu1t of faith in the power of the witch-doctor. “Flash Gordon,” who goes to Mars in a rocket-ship and fights with death-rays, heat-rays and similar devices provides a modern American counterpart for the primitive myths and legends of heroes, gods and goddesses and their wonderful adventures. These examples might be discounted as exceptional, but they can be supported by many others, some of which are direct indications of the mental attitude of millions.

Advertising today commonly announces products in such terms as “amazing scientific discovery,” “recommended by specialists”; among primitives, also, the word of the witch-doctor carries great authority. Recently action was taken in America to prohibit misleading advertisements, investigation having shown, among other anomalies, that none of the “skin-foods” advertised actually nourished the skin, and at least one famous brand of “liver-pills” had not the slightest effect upon the liver. That it was necessary to prohibit such advertising shows that the purchasers accepted statements which were not borne out by the actual effect of the preparations. It may be thought an exaggeration to describe the patent medicine as a modern fetish, but the parallel is extremely close; in each case the effect depends very largely on unquestioning acceptance of the pronouncements of initiates, of a small group who are thought of as having access to sources of knowledge denied to ordinary men. One of the clearest aspects of the way in which science replaces magic for the masses is found in the tendency for astrologers, numerologists and so on (whose following runs into millions) to describe themselves as scientific.

The subject of magic ritual in modern civilised society is a theme in itself, but there is one example which we cannot omit:

The great god Fitness has five forms or fetishes under which he can be worshipped with little balls: the princely fetish is Polo, and then in descending order of merit Golf, Tennis, Cricket and Football. The last is slightly plebeian. The peculiar rites attending the worship of these fetishes have often been described, and also the various ways in which the turf must be arranged and marked to consecrate it – Geoffrey Gorer, Africa Dances, p. 168.

To say that the mental attitude, the ideology, of the masses today, is basically the same as that of primitive man is not to say that no progress has occurred. Scientists, unlike the masses, do not – at least within their own sphere – adopt this attitude; they consciously endeavour to be rational and to criticise their premises, whereas witch-doctors probably believe in their powers as implicitly as do their followers. We are not entitled to argue from this, however, that because some men have advanced beyond simple Belief the others must eventually do so. That would be as absurd, in its way, as arguing that because the topmost branches of a tree, have grown to be sixty feet from the ground the roots must also ascend.

This whole question of the relationship between different types of thinking, different ideologies and the laws governing their development, still awaits recognition and co-operative scientific study. All we are attempting to do here is to show that it is not axiomatic that men as a whole are ascending to higher levels of rationality; we can indicate the existence of a problem but its final solution can only be put forward as part of a general study of ideologies. The importance of the subject is evident – to give but one example, such a study would help us to understand the extraordinary success of the irrational propaganda characteristic of Fascism. One Nazi orator proclaimed :

We don’t want higher bread prices, we don’t want lower bread prices, we don’t want unchanged bread prices. We want National Socialist bread prices!” (Quoted by Drucker, End of Economic Man, p. 12.

By any rational standards the man was talking nonsense – but the statement was “wildly cheered” by his audience. Only by seeing “National Socialism” not as a logical concept but rather as a magic word comparable with the invocations of witchcraft can we begin to understand these reactions and thereby to control them.

The Nazis acted on the belief that the masses are, in Hitler’s words, “a vacillating mass of human children who are constantly wavering between one opinion and another.” It would be most pleasant to believe they were mistaken, but the success of their propaganda seems to prove otherwise; it certainly gives cause, even apart from other considerations, for reconsidering the assumption – widespread among scientists and intellectuals – of mass rationality.

from The New Age of Atomics 1, October 1946