The Unfunny Joke

How our disposition towards magical thinking always makes us the butt of the story

Allan Milne Lees

--

Image credit: United Nations

On the rare occasions anyone is compelled to read a school textbook on the topic of History, and in particular on the subject of past beliefs, it’s often the case that reactions vary from amusement to incredulity. How could people back then believe in the nonsense that was delivered earnestly by priests and physicians alike? How could entire countries succumb to mass hysteria over witches and stone, hang, burn, and drown thousands of harmless women as a result? How could anyone imagine that bleeding would cure disease, or that herbs would be an efficacious prophylactic?

It’s easy to laugh at people long since dead. Distanced from their time, we feel no compulsion to believe in demonic possession, exorcisms, or the value of throwing salt over our left shoulder. Unless of course we still believe those things, as hundreds of millions of people alive today actually do.

For the most part, however, we have different nonsense we earnestly believe in.

Most people in the world today still profess belief in invisible creatures that are credited with all manner of impressive accomplishments, yet for which not even the slightest shred of evidence has ever existed. In China, educated middle-class people are responsible for the extinction of countless species around the world as they imagine that rhino horn and tiger penis are aphrodisiacs and that pangolin skin has curative properties. Lest we feel tempted to imagine ourselves in the West superior, let’s remember how many of us believe in homeopathic remedies, the healing power of crystals and copper bracelets, and detox footbaths. Meanwhile, corporations have embraced such nonsense as Myers-Briggs, graphology, and (in Japan) blood tests to determine which sort of jobs are most suitable for their candidates.

Women around the world spend a literal fortune on products that are not only worthless but also very often rather toxic. Creams that supposedly “repair” skin and tissues, shampoos that supposedly “nourish” hair (which is keratin, and hence dead, and hence far beyond any possibility of absorbing nourishment of any kind), and a thousand other absurdities are eagerly bought by women who earnestly believe the most…

--

--

Allan Milne Lees

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.