Demons and Germs

by Mike Sententia on January 25, 2013

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Imagine you’re transported back to 1600s Europe. You know that bacteria can be killed with mold from a certain type of bread, and that taking fluids from a milkmaid infected with cowpox can immunize people against smallpox.

But everyone else thinks disease is caused by demons.

You talk to doctors, saying, “Diseases are caused by germs, tiny living cells we can’t see, that attack the body.” You explain bacteria and viruses in layman’s terms as well as you can.

The medieval doctors think, “Demons are things we can’t see. Like angels dancing on the head of a pin, they can be tiny. And we know they attack the body. So this chap is just inventing new words, and germs = demons.”

Mapping their model onto yours lets you talk, at least a bit. You can discuss infection rates, how diseases spread, and so on. But every time you say “germs,” they hear “demons.” When you start talking about penicillin and vaccines, the discussion falls apart. And then you try to collaborate on research: You’re want to create an inactive virus to vaccinate people, and they start researching which prayers to which saints will knock a demon unconscious.

Then you realize that you weren’t ever thinking the same concepts, and you have to revisit every conversation you’ve had to see if you ever agreed about anything. And in the end, you’d be further along if you’d just done the work up front to create a new model in your listener’s minds, rather than letting them map their model onto yours.

I run into this a lot with magick. Not that I’m modern medicine and everyone else is demons — it’s just hard to find an analogy that readers from all backgrounds will recognize. But when I’m talking about ethereal software, and it’s similar to egregores, or I’m talking about seeing a connection, and it’s similar to visualizing a connection, it’s easy to give listeners the impression that I’m just using different words, rather than different concepts.

The challenge as the listener is to suppress your reflex to map new terms to old concepts. And the challenge as the speaker is to present new concepts as new, to explain them from first principles, instead of saying, “it’s like X except…”

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