Monday, May 10, 2021

Memes that Kill: Witch Burning and Other Extraordinary Popular Delusions

A modern interpretation of Anna Göldi, executed in 1782 for witchcraft in Glarus, Switzerland. She is said to have been the last witch killed in Europe, at least as the result of a formal trial. The story of the great witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries remains a mystery in many respects. What caused this folly to take hold of the minds of the Europeans? And what caused that folly to abate? It turns out that evil has a natural cycle of growth and decline. It is possible to accelerate the decline of a killer meme if good people get together in rejecting it.

In 1841, Charles MacKay published his "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of the Crowds." It was a milestone: the first study in the field that today we call memetics, a term coined by Richard Dawkins for how ideas ("memes") spread in the collective human consciousness. MacKay was perhaps the first to state publicly that the great witch hunts of the late 16th and early 17th centuries were a form of collective madness. Not even Voltaire (1694-1778) had touched on that subject, despite his criticism of all kinds of religious superstitions

As exterminations go, the war on witches was not the worst on record. In Europe, it caused about 50 thousand victims over a little more than a century. But it was so shockingly cruel in targeting mostly helpless women that it is remembered to this day as a form of collective madness. With us, the expression "witch hunt" is even proverbial. 

The extermination of the European witches generated plenty of studies in modern times, mostly concentrated on the causes of the phenomenon. Explanations are many but, in general, it is agreed that it was related to the stress generated by the Reformation and the associated wars. Apparently, torturing and killing women was a form of stress release. The human mind must have plenty of serious problems, evidently, but this much we know not just because of witch hunting.

In any case, it happened, and we should be happy that it didn't last more than it did. But this generates another question: what made the hunt cease? It is a fundamental point: if we could understand what makes people stop believing in killer memes, we might stop them earlier. 

But few of the studies examining the war on witches make a specific effort to understand why the hunting ceased. The general idea seems to be that when the conditions that caused the hunt disappeared, things returned to their normal state. Sometimes, it is also proposed that the enlightenment movement put an end to the killings. Lesson and Ross (1) proposed in 2018 that:

"The seventeenth century, however, was the time of the scientific revolution, whose effects may have eventually eroded popular belief in witchcraft, eroding popular demand for witchcraft prosecutions along with it until witch trials could finally be easily abandoned by religious producers. "

Not to disparage a study that's excellent in many respects, but this interpretation seems to me completely wrong. The death penalty for people found guilty of poisoning or harming others had the aspect of a rational response of society to a threat that, at the time, looked real and documented. During the 16th and 17th centuries, science had little to say about whether or not it was possible to poison people using herbal concoctions or other methods.

As Chuck Pezeshky says, "truth is the reliable and valid representation of information that allows shared coordination of action inside a social network." In some cases, this social representation coincides with the scientific views of the matter, but that is not the rule and it is not even common. 

Finding witches and killing them was not just a job for inquisitors. The book by Trevor-Roper "The European Witch-Craze" (1991) tells us how widespread was the belief, and how intensely it was believed that killing witches was a social duty for everyone, to be done for the good of everyone else. A leader who didn't engage in witch hunting was seen as a bad leader. In some regions, expressing doubts on the idea that killing witches was a good thing could be dangerous. 

If truth is a social concept, then we need to understand witch hunting in a social context, in the form of the entities that we call memes. What makes memes live and die? Charles MacKay gives us an interesting hint when he says, “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” As I said, MacKay was a great innovator and this sentence, in itself, is a correct statement of how memes propagate. They behave exactly like physical pathogens in an epidemic: you are infected by others but you recover by yourself. 

Indeed memetic infections can be described by the same equations used in epidemiology, as we showed in a 2018 paper together with my colleagues Perissi and Falsini. Epidemics are the result of internal feedbacks that, in turn, are the result of the networked structure of the system. This internal structure generates typical "bell shaped" cycles. Witchcraft trials are probably the first historical case of a memetic cycle for which we have quantitative data (from Leeson and Ross, 2018 (1)).

The model tells us that the diffusion of the memetic epidemic is a collective phenomenon due to people being infected by others. Conversely, the epidemic declines because people become "immune" to the meme. The concept of "herd immunity" holds not just for physical epidemics, but also for virtual ones. It is what makes society eventually resistant to these killer memes. So, the first step to fight one of these memes is to reject them individually.

There is an even more fundamental point about the decline of killer memes here, well expressed by Trevor-Roper:

Third rank intellectuals and officials started saying that the craze was unjust and irrational. And what they said was taken for granted. Then came the intelligentsia, showing that what it said for two centuries was wrong because of some minor detail in the interpretation of the scriptures. And that was the end of the process.

This statement marks a difference between physical and memetic epidemics. A physical epidemic doesn't care too much about human hierarchies: a king may die of the plague just like any commoner. But, in a social network, the propagation of memes is affected by the hierarchical structure: people tend to trust authorities more than other sources of information. Trevor-Roper hit a profound truth with his statement: witch hunting declined because ordinary people ("third rank intellectuals and officials") started realizing that the meme was evil and that they (or their wives, sisters, or mothers) risked being burned at the stake. And they stopped believing in the official truth as spoken by the leaders.

So, it seems that if we want to stop evil memes, we have to do that starting from the bottom. We can't put too much hope in laws, tribunals, treaties, and lofty principles: they are all under the elites' control and can be bent, transmogrified, or ignored. The leaders, typically, have an interest in maintaining alive memes that are profitable for them. But the memetic war is fought at all levels of the social network. People may be dazed for a while by the "Shock and Awe" treatment they receive from above, but in the long run, they understand. We cannot expect to be able to stop evil all of a sudden but an evil meme cannot last for long when good people get together to fight it. If history is a guide, evil is surprisingly fragile.

An meiner Wand hängt ein japanisches Holzwerk
Maske eines bösen Dämons, bemalt mit Goldlack.
Mitfühlend sehe ich
Die geschwollenen Stirnadern, andeutend
Wie anstrengend es ist, böse zu sein.

On my wall hangs a Japanese carving,
The mask of an evil demon, decorated with gold lacquer.
Sympathetically I observe
The swollen veins of the forehead, indicating
What a strain it is to be evil.

 Bertolt Brecht 


1. Peter T. Leeson, Jacob W. Russ The Economic Journal, Volume 128, Issue 613, 1 August 2018, Pages 2066–2105,


  1. The basic goodness of an individual (male and especially female) ends when they die. The inherent goodness is lost to the universe, evil though, in the form of a meme, endures even without a psychic repository.

  2. I read an interesting book many years ago that put forth that an organization had mapped all the locations of demonic possession, that had resulted in someone being judge a witch, had all taken place within walking distances of monasteries everywhere in Europe. The mystery is solved if one admits that everyone was supposed to tithe to the parasitic church. After the passing of the menfolk, the women were to then 'enjoy' the solicitude and charity of the church as part of the social arrangement. The holy church saw things differently. These widows were a burden. Better burned at the stake and their property seized for the church. Look around you now. Nothing has changed. Russians are hot wiring my car as I type....sure.

    1. In these things there is often a thread that has to do with money. Not the only one, but eliminating the "parasites of society" is a tradition that we saw surfacing many times in recent history.

  3. Nice. I was thinking of Girard while reading this (as much as I've been able to get my head around his theory) and thinking that the overlords require a scapegoat to pay for the sins of their previous murderous acts so creating new murderous acts perform the role of irrationally easing their consciences but also perpetuating their power status quo while stopping any need for self-reflection by projecting all their shit outwards. And then the people, made dumb by 10,000 constant years of overlords, join in believing it to be true, to gain some kind of acceptance while missing the understanding that it's some other class's projection and take it as gospel. I guess this is maybe the reason for the OT God's "I told you you don't need a king. Don't follow this road." But the people had grown flaccid, they wanted to be told by "experts" bought by Big Pharma what to do to avoid death from a virus with a very high survival rate. And so yea, they doth taketh the jab, saying to those idiots on Twitter, "Yea, you are not questioners who are asking legit qs about improperly tested gene therapies. You, sir, are an antivaxxer and I, bathing in your reflection, am a Very Good Boy. Trust the science."

    I do wonder if we are ready as a species to grow up and throw off the shackles. But my hope remains flimsy, despite the terrible quality of the morons who are our current overlords. They have very good quality smoke and mirrors, after all, and we have all lost our centres.

    1. Girard is fascinating, complex, nuanced, learned, and rich in meaning. Not directly comparable with our situation: the societies he describes didn't have modern propaganda techniques. These techniques have unbalanced the struggle in favor of the elites. Now, it may be more difficult to get rid of evil memes than it was in the 17th century

  4. Yes, that happened in Europe, even in English America, among the ones we Spanish amusingly call "the Beings of Light".
    But it was stopped short in Spain when it began, precisely by the Spanish Inquisition.
    After a few unfortunate women were burn in the famous case of the Cave of Zugarramurdi, a witches coven in the imagination, the Inquisitor Salazar "The Friend of the Witches" very angry at that, wrote to the Inquisition in Madrid and they ordered him to carry out a, we could say, a scientific and cultural study of this unfortunate matter -"we don't know what to think of this", they wrote back.
    Alonso de Salazar Frías carried out his investigation, wrote his conclusions, and the Spanish Inquisition FORBID the trial of witches, (1614) while The Beings of Light to the North of the Pyrenees kept on their evil ways.

    1. Thanks, Armando, I didn't know this story -- very interesting. Not everyone fell victim of the general madness. Occasionally, even the authorities tried to stop the craze, but they were rarely successful. You may be interested in reading a document about the craze that took hold of the people of Milano in 1630, at the time of an outburst of the plague, written by Alessandro Manzoni ("Storia della Colonna Infame"). At that time, the victims of the popular delusion were not termed "witches" (burning witches was not common in catholic countries, Spain and Italy). But a new, equivalent category was invented: "the anointers" -- evil people who would spread the plague out of pure evil. The story is interesting in many respects, one is how the authorities feebly tried to maintain at least a veneer of legality, but eventually they were swept away by the popular madness. You can't reason with people who are deeply afraid.

  5. Here in the USA in the 1990s, there was a rash of infamous trials of men and women who ran daycare centers mostly in the south where they were accused of performing satanic rituals often involving sex with little children. When these cases actually went to trial and reached the larger audience it became clear that the accusations were a form of mass delusion and for the most part wee dropped. Unfortunately for the accused, the damage had already been done.

    1. We had similar cases in Italy. Lots of noise, nothing real.

  6. One of the privileges of living in industrial society is that you can see old wise man that are dead for a long time at the touch of button. Carefully observe his comments that "we are much older than we think" and "that the only real danger is the man himself". Indeed, this video clip is precious:

  7. I would be curious to learn if communication technology was involved in the spread of the witch hunt phenomenon at the time. I just checked and yes- there was a key book written and spread (The Malleus Malefaricum) that was key to the collective madness. In some ways the bible itself could be seen as the seed of an especially successful form of mass delusion.
    The physical forms of communication are often key to social phenomenon since they provide coordinating mechanisms for behavior. The Russian and French revolutions were possible due to the drop in the cost of printing pamphlets. Nazi Germany relied heavily on radio. How the dynamics of a new technology play out depend on the balance of control and distribution. Early radio was easily kept under centralised control, while printing presses rapidly slipped out of control of the elites. The internet started as a difficult to control system of communication but is rapidly falling back into elite control.

  8. Actually, witch hunt never stopped since Anna Göldi: Ask in Iraq today - When oil depletes - and you'll hear a thousand machine guns charged. Ask - Hasn't oil and natural gas depleted in the US, yet - and you are done

    By 1782, James Watt's improved steam engine has been well commercialised in Britain.

    If Switzerland was exploiting coal mines like Britain and Watt's engine was running mining them there, Anna Göldi wouldn't have been seen a threat and executed in 1782 for witchcraft in Glarus.

    Whatever Anna Göldi could do with her witchcraft remains nothing to the power of the steam engine and the useful work it can churn.

    Coal and the steam engine didn't stop classic forms of witchcraft-burning only, it started the abolishment of classic forms of slavery, too.

    However, since Göldi, fossil fuels have made Control never feeling secure unless vastly disproportionate levels of Energy are kept governing the execution of the social contract;

    A ground level Energy for the constituents vs an unconstrained Energy level for the platform that controls the constituents.

    Nobody asked how much fossil fuels burned in the Manhattan Project, in Nuclear Fusion project or when an unsubscribed-to survey note pops up asking about your experience after visiting a supermarket - indirectly telling - you were tracked by satellites, for example.

    If Göldi has been using a mobile phone, riding an SUV and using the Internet, while Control having no more than James Watt's steam engine, Göldi would have been definitely executed, still, no doubt.

    In contrast, the Maharaja who built Taj Mahal didn't need B-52 bombers, the Internet controlling the slaves who built the structure, or controlling people as far as America to complete Taj Mahal.

    Both, the Maharaja and his slaves were living almost at same Energy Level, sensibly in-disparity, just enough to get things done.

    Beyond that, everyone goes home in peace - once the project has been delivered, the Maharaja doesn't go after the salves punishing them for being still alive, and the slaves don't go after the Maharaja being now living in his nice Taj Mahal.

    That's why we see today both Taj Mahal still standing, the descendants of the slaves who built it - are alive.

    Our Western Civilisation, in comparison, has trapped and confused itself on - how much fossil fuels should be burned enabling the constituents to submit, comply and serve.

    And, how much colossally more fossil fuel energy should be burned to keep both Energy Levels of the social contract vastly disproportionate and in-tact.

    Nowadays, our Western Civilisation cannot let anyone go home in peace, after people have finished building our beautiful Western Civilisation - but no more and more fossil fuels running it are found (watch the news on the car Chip shortage saga).

    With this pandemic, fossil fuels have made our Civilisation seeing all people today another witchcraft Anna Göldi.

    The pandemic is a sign of an escalating competition between Control and the constituents over severely vanishing fossil fuels Energy resources.

    The more our Civilisation might see people as 'pets', the more fossil fuels needed to be burned for controlling, positioning and keeping the pets at bay in this pandemic as pets.

    Life will outlast fossil fuels and any Civilisation built with them, anyway.

    However, we wish our Civilisation doesn't repeat what it did in Mosul and Raqqa destructing them to ground, but rather leaves standing, at least, all Taj Mahals worldwide - unharmed.

    I am not a trained eye, but I felt some of the buildings coming to the ground in the ongoing conflict in Palestine - appear on TV again as if they are a controlled-demolition exercise.