Of COVID-19 And Witch Burning

Posted: Jun 12, 2020 9:12 AM
Of COVID-19 And Witch Burning

Source: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

René Girard said that we didn't stop burning witches because we discovered modern science, we discovered modern science because we stopped burning witches.

The idea is that the Bible, Hebrew ideas about victims mediated via the Christianization of the West weakened (but did not eliminate) the scapegoating tendency. Scapegoats were the basis of a system of persecution and superstition. When freed (partially) from that, energy was freed up to pursue knowledge.

Might I suggest that in our times, politics is the superstition, the idol which must be appeased by the sacrifice of the victim. If that is right, our science will become captured by superstition. We'll use it to see if the woman weighs more than a duck or whatever far more complex version of the same basic tribal anthropology we practice. I think this has happened with epidemiology and public health. We all have to navigate these little taboo zones, and pay little bits of offering, morsels and libations to various hostile nyads and dryads. Pinches of incense to the emperor as we go from lab to evaluation to analysis to publishing to communication to implementation to self-correction.

We can't really do public health science until we abandon the idols, stop avoiding the allegedly 'haunted' parts of the forest, and stop looking for witches to burn. Because in a scapegoating society, anybody potentially can be burned at the stake and so that status is a constant threat, which consumes far more of our cognitive capacity than we realize.

By the way, Cynthia Haven has that observation in her excellent new book, Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy.

Francis Bacon, the founder of the modern scientific method, actually talked about it this way. He identified various ‘idols’ which stopped science from proceeding. Idols of the Cave, Idols of the Marketplace (ideas held by our in-group or by society in general) which stopped us from following the data wherever it led. We don’t trust our experts because we sense that there is a hefty dose of politics under all that science, and our own politics blinds us as well. We need to abandon our idols, all of us.