Sat | Jan 19, 2019

Exorcise demons with science

Published:Monday | June 22, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Patrick White

As a nation, it is fair to say we are among the most superstitious on the planet, as Dr Michael Abrahams so eloquently and yet so amusingly pointed out in his June 8, 2015 online column, 'Charlie, Charlie and duppy bats'. But fun and games aside, it is hard to defend the Ministry of Education's (MOE) supernatural justification for banning the Charlie, Charlie Challenge.

The MOE's stated reason, "... students displayed demon-possessed or paranormal behaviour while playing the game", could have come from biblical times, the Inquisition, or even the 19th-century Salem witch trials, when several innocent women were executed for being 'witches'. What is certain is this bizarre justification could not have come from the education ministries in any of the world's leading democracies.

As expected, some church leaders backed the ban, disregarding the cliché  that people living in glass houses should never throw stones. Perhaps the calculation was that banning Charlie positions the Church as protectors against 'evil', even if that evil is imaginary. And a ban would crush a potential competitor, as it did before with obeah.

The point is, many superstitions are vestiges of more primitive times, when people, lacking technical knowledge, resorted to their imagination, or superstition, for answers. What is puzzling is that superstitions persist even when answers are readily available via the Internet.

One obvious reason is the remarkable effectiveness of the Church asserting 'truth' claims for the Bible, which validates demons, ghosts and magic (miracles). However, many biblical-truth claims are rejected by mainstream science and archaeology, which supports Richard Dawkins' derisive characterisation of biblical truthers as 'active non-thinkers'.

For most critical thinkers, the emergence of the scientific method, and especially Newton's Laws of motion, almost five centuries ago, marked the beginning of the end for demon and paranormal superstition. The first law, for example, requires inanimate objects, like the pencils in Charlie, to remain stationary, unless something we can observe/measure moves them. This simple fact has been validated in centuries of classical experimentation and implementation. It is part of what we cover in most introductory physics courses.

Where 'exceptions' to Newton (and principles developed later, e.g., conservation and thermodynamics) are reported, they are invariably educationally challenged in mostly scientifically illiterate communities, the ideal environments for superstition. They do not occur outside these areas, where the presence of demons can be objectively examined.

And even more telling, demonic and paranormal 'forces' are never known to affect objects that are either well planted or too heavy to be moved surreptitiously. Pencils are ideal objects; buildings and monuments, not so much.


Imagination gone wild


What this says is the Charlie 'demon' is most likely to be yet another example of childish imagination gone wild. The resulting hysteria, and the adult overreaction, did not need to have happened.

That said, Charlie created a teachable moment, which was unfortunately squandered when the MOE failed to capitalise. Instead of reflexively banning Charlie, they could have encouraged teachers to expose more students to science and critical thinking, key prerequisites for our economic development. W.E.B. Du Bois said it best: "We will only succeed to the extent that we teach our children how to think."

For example, by placing the Charlie game on a balanced table, isolated from the players, e.g., under a Plexiglas box, a glass jar, or behind clear plastic sheeting, students would see the pencils remaining stationary, in spite of pleadings to Charlie. Yet, when the isolation is removed, strategically directed breathing would be sufficient to move the pencils, without having to call Charlie!

A final thought. It is said that the burden of proof is on the claimant; and the more extraordinary a claim, the heavier the burden of proof that should be demanded. For example, if demons, or even deities, are believed to move objects in the natural world, overturning centuries of scientific discoveries, mere anecdotal 'evidence' should never be accepted as sufficient. If this standard were in place, we would have avoided this potential for embarrassment.

- Patrick White, PhD, is a member of the Advisory Council at the University of Pittsburgh, School of Information Sciences, and consultant on communications strategy for the CEO of Goodman Networks in Plano, Texas. Email feedback to and