Ben Shattuck's The Devil's Trumpet, Bacteriophages, Elfbolts, Ancient Lenses & The Placebo Effect

I'm reading The Devil's Trumpet by Ben Shattuck on The Morning News site.

It's a wonderfully well written meditation on the role of historians which came to be written as a result of his investigation of Suzy Witten's (author of the Salem novel The Afflicted Girls) claim it was jimsonweed not - as Ben supposed - ergot which brought about the Salem Witch Trials.

For me though the one bum note in it's when he quotes Cornell University History Professor Mary Beth Norton an expert on Colonial American:

“Let me remind you that the 17th century was a pre-modern society. This is a society before the scientific revolution. Nobody knew that hurricanes were coming because there were no satellites; nobody understood animal illnesses. When strange things happened—and many things in the 17th century were strange because nobody understood the germ theory—the default explanation became witchcraft. That is, if you didn’t have way of explaining something, you would say to yourself, ‘I bet this person or this animal was bewitched.’”

Let's side aside points such as maybe the reason people used to believe in things like weather witches was precisely because some people DID seem to know when things like hurricanes were coming.

Or that much of modern vetinary pharmacological science's based on traditional treatments discovered and utilised by traditional people for thousands of years.

Let's just take that one point "When strange things happened—and many things in the 17th century were strange because nobody understood the germ theory—the default explanation became witchcraft."

Is it really true nobody understood the germ theory?

I mean what really is the difference between believing in 'germs' (tiny unseen life forms capable of causing illness) and 'fairies', 'elves' or 'spirits' (tiny unseen life forms capable of causing illness)? Especially when many treatments for the former're based on traditional treatments for the latter?

We've even had reports for nearly a decade now of 'germs' (using the term generally to cover such microscopic illness causers as bacteria) demonstrating collective intelligence (if not downright conscious awareness) sufficient to successfully evaluate and choose between a range of strategies capable of dealing with possibilities lying in their future).

And then there's those pictures of that bacteriophage I was looking at a while back.

One of the ways witchy style tiny unseen life forms're supposed to effect their disease causing's by firing teensy-weensy arrows into their victims.

And there's that bacteriophage effecting its own reproduction cycle by firing a ruddy great 'harpoon' into its victim.

We've got all those polished crystal lenses going back almost three thousand years in museums all over the world: maybe some Ancient Assyrians, Chinese or Greeks saw some of those bacteriophages firing what looked more like 'arrows' to them under those lenses making the supposedly primtive belief in elves and elfbolts of our ancestors merely the technical terminology of the day.

Even the ancient practise of warding off illness with magic words still seems to work today.

In fact if you use the magic word placebo the efficacy's recently gone up from 33% to over 50% - and that's even when the person KNOWS they're getting a placebo.

In fact the word's so powerful maybe the efficaciousness of all those drugs approved by the various world drug approving authorities was a result of the placebo effect!


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emlong's picture
Member since:
18 September 2007
Last activity:
2 days 3 hours

Good point. Intent and visualisation have a lot of power. We have tended to forget that. Pre-modern societies tended to have a more highly developed faculty for prayer and intent because they had too. There were not many alternatives. It might also be pointed out that there is a growing body of evidence pointing to the idea that psychology has a bearing on susceptibilty to infections as you mention sort of with the placebo studies. Psychologically depressed people tend to "catch" things more than upbeat people. Of course our ancestors had a lot or morbid hangups too that probably opened them up to a lot of unnecessary nastiness.