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quantum relics

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 21-Oct-2010

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 15

Wordcount: 986

Hair today, gone tomorrow – what will they think of next?



Not having been raised Catholic – admittedly, this was something my Irish father, himself lapsed early and often, had occasion to regret – I first encountered the idea of the religious relic in Chaucer, where the venal Pardoner arranges his fake “relikes” of “pigges bones” so that supplicants must kiss them at crotch level.

I’d come across the odd saint, and even been known to bestow tiny St Christophers on travelling friends as a gentle superstition, like Halloween or astrology. But when I finally travelled myself and found that Europe’s grand cathedrals, revered as the pinnacle of civilisation, reliably displayed mummified fingers for sale, I was thrilled.

The idea of not just keeping but selling crusty old body parts, and the belief in their intercessory power for personal betterment, struck me as both gloriously primitive and surreally comic, not least because of the proximity to voodoo. Three chicken feathers and a Hail Mary.

So imagine my delight on finding that Our Mary’s beatification, borne on the shoulders of its distinctively Australian footy atmosphere, installed in the Vatican a redgum cross draped with three of her hairs.

The sheer unabashed materialism of it astounds me, along with the implication that some contagious magic or witchcraft persists in the long-dead corpus. I don’t know that Catholics are generally more materialist than other denominations, but the theo-geography that seems to draw Catholicism around the equator suggests at least a certain sensual dominance.

But my point is this: superstition, defined as a false belief or credulous trust in magic based on ignorance, unreasoning fear of the unknown or “morbid scrupulosity”, may be more common than we think.

Consider goji berries. They’ve pretty much gone now from the common weal, but for a few minutes we sprinkled these undersized and overpriced food items religiously on our muesli. We did this because they’re said to “tonify” (uh, tonify?) liver and kidneys, enhance circulation, eye function, mood, energy and sex, reduce appetite and free radicals, balance blood sugar and give “quality of life extension”.

True, the firecracker Chinglish (or maybe, Tinglish) should have been a warning, but it was the “life extension” aspect that gave gojis their special aura. Li Qing Yuen is said to have eaten little else and lived 252 years – well past the Enlightenment – to 1930.

That’s a big rap for a wee berry. If gojis kept even half the promises they’d justify their hundred bucks a kilo. Still, I’m glad we did our bit for Tibet’s economy, gladder still that we stopped.

Wheat grass, ditto. Colonic irrigation. Acupuncture. Meditation. Yoga (with proper incense and chanting). Chinese herbal medicine. Pilates. Oxygen Bars. Semen recipe books (I kid you not, including semen scaloppini and “man-made oysters”). Bee pollen. Bird poo cosmetics. Placenta drinks. Mesotherapy. Detox foot baths. Breatharianism.

To the more physical and demonstrable of these, like yoga or pilates, we generally give more credit. And yes, I do them, too. But that’s not the point. The point is each has a string of MD PhDs prepared to make astonishing claims for its life-giving properties, and books or blogs by the similarly lettered who claim to have done the research and verified the claims.

They could be right, or they could be barking. We have no way of knowing which. Even where evidence exists, who actually has time or inclination to dig out the science, read the longitudinal studies, unpick the methodology, scan reviews and make up our own minds in an informed way? To the extent that we partake of these fads, then, it is largely out of belief based on ignorance, and in fear of death – or morbid scrupulosity. Superstition kicks in where knowledge peters out. My experience of Chinese herbal medicine, for example, involved a daily boil-up of vile-smelling liquid the colour of sump oil, but swallowing that was easy compared with the ignorance (mine) I had to swallow with it. I’m roughly OK with the meridian basis of acupuncture but grasping how this changing mix of bark, twigs and rock-chips might remedy my clearly inadequate yin taxed my reason-addicted mind beyond capacity.

Yet, in truth, even your morning sit-ups have an element of obeisance to the gods. We don’t really know that good will ensue, or how many is enough. We do know, most of us, that we’ll never do enough to be 100 per cent fit, whatever that means. But we feel that some may help, vaguely, to ward off illness and (vaguely) death. It’s a short step to pouring libations.

And it’s not just personal knowledge we lack. Modern medicine is marvellous, but you needn’t be in extremis to glimpse its limits. There, where the firelight dies, we still see the eyes of the beasts, circling, waiting, hungry for us.

For science is notoriously fallible. Even behind the popular stuff, serious studies can be found to back just about any claim you want. There are even studies – three, to my knowledge – linking vitamins to cancer.

The thing is, science is a consensus business and, even then, the consensus can be wrong. (Think Galileo. Think stomach ulcers; stress-induced one minute, bacterium the next). Not only are the humanities not sciences; science isn’t a science. Not in the sense of providing clear and certain knowledge. Science is a probability game.

We’d be better off not knowing this, since it lets us lump science and superstition together. That’s why we were so ready to disbelieve climate science, though the science itself was untainted.

Yet it’s this twilight zone between knowledge and dread that feeds the fear-hope dialogue behind all human culture. We’re irrational, curious creatures and probably most of us, given the circumstances, would try the chicken feathers.

Science may build the fire, but superstition points the torch into the dark. Who knows? Perhaps next month’s Nature will measure the magic in those three Marian hairs, proving that energy and matter are one. Like, thanks, Einstein.




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