In the early days of the Puritan settlements, colonial Massachusetts was gripped by fear. Between the British and French warring over colonial dominance, smallpox, and potential attacks from Native American tribes, the residents of Salem Village lived in a constant state of anxiety and worry for their safety. In addition to these real concerns, an overlying and persistent worry that some people possessed supernatural powers tickled away in their psyche.
When two young girls began exhibiting strange symptoms of fits and screaming (now believed to be caused by fungal contamination of grain stores), the local doctor diagnosed ‘bewitchment’, because why not. The first to be accused were a family slave, a homeless beggar, and an elderly woman- but they weren’t to be the last.
As the hysteria spread and some of the accused confessed in an attempt to save their own skins, others took note: accusing someone you don’t like of witchcraft is an effective way to get them out of your hair while also setting yourself apart as someone virtuous enough to be worthy of bewitchment. Rivalry, desire for power, fear and suspicion, ego- pretty much everything except reality itself seemed to play a role in the accusations.
It was quite effective- after all, how can you prove you aren’t a witch? After all was said and done, 19 people were hanged that year before everyone came to their senses.
The evidence that sent them to the gallows? Dreams and visions; and of course, some very self-assured charlatans.
Nowadays, we scratch our heads at how this could happen, how people could go so easily down the road of hysteria and gullibility. Or do we?
In 1998, a medical researcher named Andrew Wakefield published a now discredited study linking the MMR vaccine and autism. Young parents, petrified at the increasing incidence of autism in children and worrying that their own choices could play a role, began delaying or declining vaccines altogether.
In first world countries where preventable diseases were being, well, prevented, parents felt the risk of a vaccine injury was now greater than the risk of the disease itself. There’s only one problem: it wasn’t true.
As the research proved Wakefield a fraud and everyone came to their senses, the medical community assumed that people would go back to business as usual. But, people are funny creatures, and sometimes we don’t really evolve. It only took the people of Salem a year to come around, but a strange thing happened at the turn of the millennium.
The “all natural lifestyle” turned out to be a very lucrative phenomenon, tapping into all our current fears: corporate conglomerates controlling the food chain. Large pharmaceutical companies more interested in lining their pockets than curing disease. Money over health. Go back to nature, they proclaim, and the world will be a better place.
The era of social media. There was a time where in order to be heard, you had to earn a spot at the podium through having something worthwhile to say. Now, you just have to get there first and have the loudest megaphone. Also: be a babe.
On the sidelines of the ‘nature vs chemicals’ battleground, people with no stake in either the pharmaceutical industry or the coconut oil industry shook their heads. “But look!” they said, holding up science papers. “That’s not how it works! GMOs aren’t causing cancer, vaccines aren’t causing autism, and pet food doesn’t contain dead cats!
“I appreciate your desire for transparency in consumer goods,” they continued, completely misconstruing the authenticity of those with the pitchforks, “but do we have to say things like airplanes should contain 100% oxygen and a bleach enemas cure autism? Surely we can be reasonable here.”
They smiled, holding their papers in front of them with their palms up, waiting for the coconut salesmen to welcome them with open arms.
The coconut salesmen, who had just celebrated their millionth Facebook fan and launched a new website selling crystals, lowered their pitchforks. They looked at the people with the papers, pointed their fingers, and in a clear, loud, voice they yelled-
And the pitchforks came out, because how can you prove you aren’t?
A word from the stake
Whenever I speak on the worrisome outcomes of the current trend of science illiteracy, people say to me, “but don’t you agree that pet food should be transparently sourced? And that companies should tell you where their food comes from?” I imagine them saying this as they hold a match to the pile of wood underneath my feet, shaking their heads sadly.
And to those well-meaning but nonetheless about to burn me people I say, “Yes, but I don’t understand how you can make the leap from ‘I’d like more information about my food’ to ‘Subway contains yoga mats’ and ‘vanilla ice cream contains beaver butts.’ ”
Industrialized society is a double-edged sword. There are great benefits and some pitfalls, worthy of trying to improve. But why bother with such nuanced debates? It’s much easier and faster to call someone a shill. Next!
Toxins are today’s sorcery. Shills are the modern day witch. I take pride in being put to the stake, because I know history will vindicate me. And the only reason I’m not laughing at the absurdity is because while we sit here and have these nonsensical fights, children are dying. And there’s nothing funny about that.