Gullibility through the Ages

In the history of our planet, people have had different perspectives of viewing the world. Some perspectives arise from rational and skeptical thinking while others spring up from our imagination. Human intelligence is highly diverse to make everyone have the same views and opinions. Every mind perceives everything in a totally different way. We may not fully understand this thing but when we focus on the most little things in life that we miss out in our busy life, we will come to the conclusion that no two humans have the same perspectives about any particular thing.

This diversity comes with its own pros and cons. In order to have a well ordered perspective of everything, we need to have a proper blend of skeptical thinking and imagination and also openness. As Carl Sagan has said, too much skeptical thinking and we ought to reject every theory or view and too much openness will make us take in every perspective and view which will render us having nothing at the end of the day. This is something that has been a common trait in many people since time immemorial; since humans have been able to reason. People have found difficulty separating fact from myth which have in history led to inhuman and dangerous time periods.

In the times of early humans, people would regard almost any irregular happening in their surroundings, for instance: storm, thunder, lightning, earthquake etc, as the wrath of some deity sitting up there. The people were scared of these events as they couldn’t reason with why they were happening. So they began to worship and please deities in various forms like the sky or fire or animals in order to restore back the usual flow of events. These were the first of religious practices among humans in the form of Animism. Since then with the development of religious practices, mythical culture has become more diverse and richer. But it has been an inevitable practice that humans have from time to time behind the veils of ‘the word of god’, have displayed traits of gullibility and have affected the lives of their fellow humans in barbaric ways.

In ancient times, people noticed changes in their surroundings repeating in certain patterns. Out of them one was the monthly menstrual cycle of women which was determined along with the waning and waxing of the Moon. Over a lot of years (and sadly even now) this natural process is regarded as something dirty and obnoxious. It must have been obvious that ancient humans found this process barbaric due to their lack of knowledge of the natural phenomena but the fact that humans today as well in spite of having scientific knowledge about this process consider it barbaric. Never to forget, this also raises a lot of sexism towards women which is already widespread in our world. In many tribal societies and even in many urban and suburban areas, practices like keeping ‘bleeding women’ separate from other people of the family is a common practice. In ancient China it was regarded that having sexual intercourse with menstruating women can lead to dysfunction of sexual organs and even death. Many physicians till a few decades ago held barbaric views about menstruation as the field has for a long time been dominated by men and thus with no personal experience of the menstrual cycle they formed unwarranted opinions about it often which were sexist in nature. For instance, Pliny the Elder wrote in the first Latin encyclopedia that contact with menstrual blood turns new wine sour. He went on to say that it also kills beehives and has immediate effect in rusting metal. Moreover, ancient religious texts (not to mention often written by men) reinforced these stereotypes surrounding menstruation. Rather than giving up on the primitive notions of menstruation, people go far enough to make the notions more and more superstitious which has a lot to do with our patriarchal society.

Taking a view into the sexist society then and now, a lot of people’s gullibility bore the consequences of women’s suffering. In ancient Alexandria lived one of the most brilliant scholars of that time- Hypatia. She was the daughter of Theon, another mathematician, but had soon surpassed her father’s academic achievements. She opened the school of neoplatonism where she advocated her worldview: she seemed to have noticed the repetitive patterns in musical notes, orbits of the planets, geometry and algebra and believed numbers to be the sacred language of the universe. At that time, the Roman Catholic Church had been gaining power in Alexandria. The local archbishop Cyril had been gaining political power and on his command the Christian monks would torture and harass the people of other religions especially the Jews. But this turmoil had not been resisted by the governor Orestes who engaged in a war with Cyril. Hypatia, being a wise person of the city, had been sought for advice by Orestes whom she told to react with fairness. So when a local group of christian monks wrecked more havoc and caused a riot injuring Orestes, he had their leader tortured to death. This created disgruntlement in the hearts of the Christians and Cyril blamed Hypatia for the loss accusing her of witchcraft used in turning Orestes against Christianity. This belief was strengthened by the fact that Orestes was a Christian and Hypatia was believed to be Pagan. So in this way, the murder of the great scholar was planned. When Hypatia was on her way to the Alexandrian School on her chariot, a group of Christian monks attacked her, dismembered her, dug flesh out of her bones with the help of sharp pebbles and killed her in the most heinous way imaginable.

Hypatia of Alexandria

It was not only Hypatia who had to endure the gullibility of the male-dominated society. In the village of Salem, Massachusetts, from between 1692–93 some of the most gruesome crimes were committed by law and order in the name of religion. The place was recently involved in war with its neighbouring Spanish colonies and everything seemed to be distorted. People became cut off from each other. Added to that 1692 brought with it one of the coldest winters ever. People starved, animals died and everything seemed what the people thought ‘bewitched’. Their beliefs were strengthened by the course of the upcoming events. People reported that some girls they saw contorted their bodies in unusual ways as if by the ‘devil’s touch’. Rumours spread that the devil had been sending his messengers in the form of incubi( devil’s men who ‘contaminated’ women) and succubi( devil’s women who ‘contaminated’ men). They said that the girls contorted their bodies whenever their incubus touched them. These girls were termed ‘witches’. They came to be known as the agents of the devil used by him to spread evil in the world. Lawsuits were filed against the accused ‘witches’ mostly by their own family members and the fact cannot be neglected that these lawsuits followed the event of family tension between the accused and the accusers. The court didn’t much follow the procedures of deep inquiry into the case. The accused only had two choices: either to accept the allegations and get liberty at a huge cost. If they denied the allegations then they would’ve to risk a public hanging and heinous torture. Many of the accused accepted false allegations in the hope of freedom and those who didn’t underwent gruesome torture and at last death. Soon the practice reached outside of Salem. Mostly the accused were women and the allegations however naive or stupid were accepted and tended to by the societal law and order. One of the darkest periods of human history was thus once again a consequence of religious gullibility and misogyny.

A similar type of mania was widespread in the west from the 1960’s and till today we hear such cases. The difference was that the trauma of the victims this time was mostly mental and they didn’t undergo gruesome methods of torture. With progressing technology and the success of space missions from across the world, people were becoming more and more fascinated with science, or more precisely: science fiction. And the fascination was mostly concentrated around alien life. People began to report incidents of UFO sightings or so-called ‘Flying Saucers’. People claimed to have seen aliens amidst themselves, sometimes sneaking into their houses, driving UFOs across the sky or sometimes they were there with them: people reported cases of alien abductions. What is exactly an alien abduction? During this alien mania, people claimed to have woken up from sleep and believed to have lost certain fragments of their memories, imagined to be wiped out by aliens after they were abducted. A general outline of what the stories were like is as follows: People were sneaked out of their houses by those four-eyed and eight-armed aliens we are familiar with. They were taken into laboratories which were equipped with advanced technological instruments. Their bodies would be pierced with those instruments and after that their memories seemed blank. Now how were we to know who lied and who spoke the truth? Can we entertain the possibility of these accounts to be real? What was the cause of these mass hallucinations? These questions irritated the scientists and psychiatrists studying these cases. And as expected the media and general public didn’t prove to be any help; instead the situation worsened. People labelled scientists as insensitive and inhuman on labelling the instances as mere hallucinations even though the victims after therapy sessions came to this conclusion themselves. Needless to say, many victims were not convinced. But what was the reason behind this?

I gained my information on alien abductions through Carl Sagan’s book ‘Demon-Haunted World:Science as a Candle in the Dark’. Sagan there presents some statistics which helps us to deduce the reasons for this mass hallucination (it is not to assert here that any victim was lying, everyone understands the trauma of the victims but we need to be practical in understanding what causes them to believe that they were abducted by aliens). A study shows that a large population of children in the States undergo some sort of abuse in their childhood. The saddest part was that such abuse was often inflicted by a close family member like a parent. These remain as scars in the hearts of children and don’t vanish even in adulthood. In such a situation it becomes a necessity to forget such events. But what if they can’t forget these memories? It happens so that people find it more comforting to believe that some outsider had inflicted these wounds upon them and what a better outsider than an alien who is totally fit to perform such inhuman crimes. Maybe the forgotten memories take the form of such fragmented pieces of our imagination solely to give solace to our heart and mind. Nevertheless we cannot deny the fact that not all victims held true accounts. Some want attention and some want to be a part of the crowd. Here we come across another factor that gullibility denies people the access to having a stable mental health. Not all abduction victims received sympathy. People believed in the return of the devil, bewitched victims spreading evil as agents of the devil. The people who accepted faults in the mental health of the victims were scarce. Denial was widespread and the mental trauma of the victims like those of the witch mania was overlooked. Furthermore turmoil about alien life led many people aspiring for popularity to invent things that added to the alien excitement. One such hoax was crop circle. Crop circles were intricate geometric patterns made in fields which people for a long time thought to be alien work and that the patterns were some kind of coded message to humanity. It was only when the pranksters reported themselves people began to accept the reality, with rather annoyance of yet another demotion of the alien mania.

Witch mania and alien abductions can be taken as correlated events. The difference is only about what interested people in the two different eras. In the middle ages, the devil’s return must have been really fascinating for people, similarly in the modern ages, alien life was more fascinating. So gullibility has been the same throughout the ages but it has been expressed in various ways.

It is an obvious thing that gullibility and development cannot co-exist. There have been many instances in the history of humankind that show how gullibility of people has prevented scientific development. Most of them surrendered and those who dared to stick to their opinions were banished and sometimes killed.

Pythagoras of Samos was an ancient Ionian Greek philosopher and the eponymous founder of Pythagoreanism. He is credited with a lot of mathematical advancement including the famous Pythagoras theorem that states that the square longest side (hypotenuse) of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides(base and altitude). The pythagoreans were also the first people to find irrational numbers ( √2). Pythagoreans for mystical reasons believed that there cannot be irrationality amongst numbers, numbers were sacred. So the discovery of √2 was kept a secret from the outside world. Later it was Hippacus of Croton who disclosed this mystery and was later executed by the Pythagoreans for this ‘treachery’.

The most controversial space controversy over the centuries is without debate the fight between geocentric and heliocentric theory. For a very long time, almost the entire west lived in their fantasized ‘geocentric universe’. The theory was proposed by Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy who asserted that the Earth was at the centre of the universe with the Sun, Moon, the five wandering planets and the realm of fixed stars around it. Outside the realm of fixed stars, heaven and hell were believed to exist. The Church accepted this model as they thought it was in accordance with the Bible. Ptolemy actually discovered certain flaws in the orbits of the Moon but he never spoke up directly. During this time, Aristarchus asserted the later accepted Heliocentric theory which placed Sun at the centre ripping us off our made up significance. But he was overlooked much like his ideas. For a very long time, geocentric theory was the general perspective of thinking about our universe. Heliocentrists existed simultaneously but their efforts for heliocentrism were in vain. It was not until Copernicus (who was ironically under the Church) proposed his famous heliocentric theory but still we cannot call him the inventor of the idea. He died soon enough after that. But his efforts were not to go in vain. It was the revolutionary geniuses of two famous scientists, Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler that brought about change in the mindsets of people and it came with heavy costs. Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter today known as the Galilean Moons ( Callisto, Io, Europa and Ganymede) using his telescope and he propagated the heliocentric theory with a lot of hard work. Later on, he was accused by the Church for spreading false notions and was given a lifetime house arrest. It is rumoured that Galileo once before dying muttered under his breath ‘But it still moves’ which he must have said in the context of the Earth. He died on 8 January, 1642. Johannes Kepler is credited for his laws of planetary motion (which included Earth as a planet) and for his discovery that planets orbit the Sun in ellipses. He too was met with people’s gullibility as his mother was accused of witchcraft. Nevertheless the heliocentric view slowly indeed became generally accepted. But factually neither geocentric or heliocentric theory is correct. The heliocentric theory can only apply to our Solar System, not the entire universe. Infact, our Solar System is located on the periphery of one among a hundred billion galaxies, the Milky Way. So we are actually not significant at all. And also there is no centre to our universe. The universe is expanding at an accelerated rate and it is thus the same everywhere, no matter where you are, the Cosmos is an endless ocean.

Galileo Galilei

Gullibility among people through the ages mostly for religion has remained a vital issue. A person needs to know the scientific truths not only if they envision being a scientist but if they want to distinguish between facts and fiction. Moreover, it is in the hands of the present and future scientists to interact with the public and educate them. It is not merely for the sake of scientific awareness but it will put an end to a lot of baseless practices in the long run. Change is the only constant. We cannot always live with old traditions and cannot just keep looking at our past. With time we all have to adopt the new ideas, the reality and participate in advancements in every field. Be skeptical: reason; but not so much as to not accept anything. Be imaginative: but not so much as to invite the false notions into our brains. If we are able to change ourselves, the world will slowly but surely be a better place.

~ Puja Krishnatraya

“Absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence” — Carl Sagan