Sunday, June 8, 2008

Superstition Kills

There are many ways that irrational beliefs can kill. Every year people die from using alternative medicine rather than evidence-based, scientific medicine. Such people even if misguided or misinformed are generally only harming themselves. However, superstition can kill other people as well even those who are not involved. I'm not talking today about herd immunity and how not vaccinating endangers people who have been vaccinating. I'm talking about a far more horrific example, brutal murder to obtain talismans.

In Tanzania, as in a variety of other countries, there are beliefs that the body parts of albinos have magical properties and are good luck charms. Thus, people have taken to killing albinos and mutilating their bodies to obtain the wanted parts. Those albinos were in fact lucky; the unlucky albinos have had their legs and arms hacked off and been left to bleed to death.

Cectic made a graphic point about other species being driven to extinction due to human superstition. But we should realize that it doesn't just happen to other species, it happens to other humans. These murders are not that different from genocide; people of a specific type are being killed simply because of who they are. Let's not forget what happens when irrationally is allowed to run rampant: people die .


KLP said...

Perhaps flooding the albino body part market with fake albino body parts would drive superstitious consumers to move on to less harmful talismans, like Furbys. I think I heard that this tactic was employed to mitigate the harm to rhinoceroses associated with the rhino horn trade. I have no idea what the results were.

On a slightly more serious note, are you talking about irrationality or ignorance here? I raise the question because, unless my definitions are wrong, if the people committing these acts and buying these talismans don't know any better, then they are ignorant. If they have an education and should no better, then they are irrational. In either case the perpetrators could also be desperate and without access to effective means to help themselves. In other words, perhaps they are so desperate as to try anything.

To be clear, I don't thing that there are any proper excuses for this sort of behavior. I suppose that the issue I'm bringing up is really just semantic, not to mention the fact that I've been bored out of my mind lately.

Joshua said...

Kurt, you bring up a good point. I disagree with your description of the matter as "just semantic". If people are going to take steps to deal with the problem it is useful to know whether there is a lack of knowledge or irrational thinking. Ignorance can be more easily solved by education; irrationality less so. Education does seem to play a role. According to the police quoted in the New York Times article "Police officials said the albino killings were worst in rural areas, where people tend to be less educated and more superstitious."

As to the idea of selling fake body parts, that is an interesting idea I had not previously heard of. I'd see possible ethical issues in selling fakes to people and telling them they were real, but given that we're talking about saving lives it becomes more reasonable.

One problem connected to all of this is that the Tanzanian government seems to be unwilling to actually come out and say loudly to the general populace "hey, this is a superstition with no basis in fact." It is similar to the recent witch killings in Kenya where the government said that people shouldn't take the law into their own hands but didn't try to say "and witches don't exist." In this case it is a bit better than the Kenya situation in that they are at least willing to say it to the press from other countries where in Kenya there wasn't even that.