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Culture is no cure for superstition

Magic is still big business in a country where one in five believes in clairvoyance

Her office is in a flat in Madrid's upscale Salamanca neighborhood. It's a discreet, sparsely decorated place, with just a few oriental details and a poster with constellations. On the table there are no black candles or crystal balls, but rather a laptop computer and two cellphones that receive text messages from clients to make an appointment to get their cards read, at 65 euros per session. "I hate the world clairvoyant; I give guidance. I haven't got any powers but a special sensitivity, an empathy that has been in my family since my great-great-grandmother," says the card reader, a young Dutch woman. She prefers to remain anonymous; she doesn't want any publicity. For the last 15 years, she has been in business thanks to word of mouth alone. Discretion is essential, because she sees politicians, celebrities, doctors, lawyers and "even men of the cloth." "People from all kinds of social and educational backgrounds come in here," she says.

A potential client walks into her office. He doesn't believe in "these things" but finds it "amusing." Friends of his have had her read their cards and have told him incredible things about the intuition of this woman "who doesn't go around acting like a witch." Her activities also command respect, because he's been told that it's "addictive." He's a sophisticated economist in his thirties, and an atheist. One would think he'd be a skeptic, but here he is. And he's not an oddball: one out of every five Spaniards believes in "these things."

The latest Metroscopia poll to measure the Social Pulse of Spain included the following question: "Currently, many people are interested in folk healing, astrology, tarot and clairvoyance. For some, these activities are nothing but quackery, unfounded rackets that don't deserve any credibility. Others, however, think that they might be alternative ways of exploring and explaining the world and that, in their own way, they are just as valid and respectable as science. Which of these two opinions do you tend to agree with more?" Seventy-six percent of all those surveyed said that they were fabrications, yet "20 percent take them into consideration." Even greater is the faith in amulets and talismans: 48 percent of Spaniards believe that they have "some kind of influence on the events that affect them."

Manuel Toharia, scientific director of Valencia's City of Arts and Sciences and a fierce skeptic, isn't impressed by these data. "I expected that much more than 20 percent would be believers," he says. "Although of course, people lie when asked such a question; they give a politically correct answer." And why are there so many believers? "We human beings have a rational part, the part that makes us stay on the right side of the road and read the fine print when we sign a mortgage; but there's also a part - which is still powerful - of that smart monkey that hid from storms and was afraid of everything he couldn't explain. We'd rather think of a probable yet fantastic solution than find a rational one. In the end, even many skeptics succumb to the notion that "there's no such thing as witches, but they do exist," says this physicist.

Apart from that percentage, the poll highlights another figure: "A higher level of education only moderates, but by no means eliminates, the tendency to give them credibility: such practices are forms of alternative science for 24 percent of Spaniards with a lower level of education, but also for 16 percent with a higher level of education."

"The need to find magical certainties is as old as humankind, and studying law doesn't explain how matter works," says the secular philosopher Fernando Savater. "Esoteric beliefs don't depend on having a college degree, because regulated information informs you, but it doesn't teach you how to think. Even the health minister wore the hologram wristband!" says Toharia, referring to Socialist Leire Pajín and her Power Balance band, denounced as a scam by the consumers' association FACUA.

The level of credulity varies according to the profile of those surveyed, but not much. Women believe somewhat more than men, and young people more than older people. Voters of the United Left party are more skeptical than the rest (but only by three percent). Practicing Catholics and non-believers are slightly more skeptical (only 17 percent believe in clairvoyants and astrologists) than Catholics who seldom practice (23 percent believe in them). "For a committed Catholic, such things are a sin and for an atheist who doesn't believe in anything, they're simply foolishness," says Toharia. "As for half-hearted Catholics, well, they're half-hearted about everything."

Croesus consulted the oracle before going to war against the Persians. The oracle told him: "A great kingdom will be destroyed if you do." Croesus thought that it meant the Persian empire, and went to battle. "But it was his empire that got destroyed. Either way, the prophecy would have been correct, thanks to the same ambiguity that horoscopes use today," says Jaime Nubiloa, a professor of philosophy from the University of Navarre. "Human beings have always wanted to know what's going to happen before making decisions; because we don't know how to make them, either out of fear, frivolousness, ignorance, childishness, a lack of assertiveness or because the future is essentially unpredictable."

But Croesus didn't live in a highly technological, rational, scientific society where there are more tools to help us understand the world and make decisions. To put its findings into context, Metroscopia cites Max Weber, the German philosopher and sociologist from the early 20th century. He pointed out that the process of rationalization typical of developed societies would mean a parallel process of "disenchantment" with the world. Science would become "the supreme and indisputable final arbiter." Yet there would be a "considerable side effect" - the feeling many people have, of being trapped in an "iron cage," a place where there are no answers for "the dimensions of life that are not strictly rational."

"As a result, even in very advanced societies, characterized by an undisputed predominance of rational and scientific methods, there is still a need for non-rational explanations for worldly phenomena," conclude the survey's authors.

In other words, technology doesn't wipe out magic. "Of course not: our society is very technical, but we don't know how the sophisticated instruments that we use work; we use them as savages would, and that doesn't give us true knowledge," says Savater. "We still do not know; that's why we believe, whether it be in amulets or iPhones. We haven't got the slightest idea how either one of them works... Now superstition is disguised; homeopaths pretend to be scientists, hologram bracelets aren't presented as miracles, but as technology."

"Charlatans know that they're lying. That's why they use scientific language and concepts; they pretend to do research, they wear lab coats and whenever they can, they throw in words like 'quantum,' just like quack doctors talk about anatomy," says the journalist Mauricio Schwartz, a member of the Skeptic Circle, an association for the dissemination of critical thought, and the author of the blog El retorno de los charlatanes (or, The return of the charlatans), dedicated to exposing paranormal frauds. "Techno-magic," the illusions used by parapsychologists with devices that supposedly read aura levels, irritates him more than the magic that blindly aims to work miracles. Schwartz also thinks that more than 20 percent of Spaniards believe in these things. "Otherwise, there wouldn't be so many people making money off it." From the fast food for the soul of psychic hotlines advertised on DTT to the glamour of Anne Germaine, the medium who talks (in English) to the dead relatives of celebrities on Telecinco; from bestsellers about the power of positive thinking to New Age workshops about ancestral alternative sciences: we believe because we always have, out of fear and out of ignorance... but also because there are people who sell it to us.

Of course, superstition comes in varying degrees of intensity, from those who get their cards read for fun to those who make major decisions depending on which arcana turns up. Some people even stop receiving medical treatment because the folk healer tells them to. "There are people who will put their life in danger, and others for whom it acts as a psychological crutch. But in any case, they renounce their own better judgment and become puppets," says Toharia.

Personal consequences aside, experts agree that superstition slows a society's progress. So how can it be avoided? "The only antidote is scientific culture," says Toharia. "This isn't the same thing as science, but knowledge accessible to anyone, and only as long as it interests them, not imposed by what you, 'the scientist' says."

"We must promote critical thought, teach people how to think and enforce laws against false advertising," says Schwartz. "Politicians are lazy; they don't think that it really matters." He also thinks it is necessary to put an end to that false notion that knowledge kills the imagination and leads to coldness: "Knowledge isn't the enemy of passion, but of ignorance." The iron cage doesn't have to be a prison; we can free ourselves from it without having to believe the unbelievable. "Of course, we need a dimension that's not strictly calculating, but that's what art and fiction are for," says Savater. "Looking for symbols doesn't free you from knowing how the world works. When you give your wife a rose you still know that they're a plant and a woman; poetry isn't incompatible with botany and obstetrics."

The card reader also believes in science. She insists that she doesn't have a "gift." "Surgeons - they're the ones who are gifted!" What she does have are rules: she doesn't see minors; she doesn't let her clients come in more than once a year ("because this can be addictive"); and she refuses to do readings over the phone or for anyone who "believes in it too much." If she thinks that someone is in "bad shape," she sends them to a psychologist. She herself goes to therapy "to deal with the terrible problems" that she hears about every day in her office.

It is Madrid, but not as we know it

Tourists, cars, residents in a rush, ubiquitous pizza-by-the-slice shops, pollution, cars, more pollution, people in trendy clothing... that could be the Madrid you see at first glance. But if you dig a little deeper, there is another city under that contemporary urban surface, full of stories that have almost been forgotten with time.

Uncovering this Madrid is the specialty of Peter and Marco Besas, a father-and-son team that has written two popular guides, Hidden Madrid 1 and Hidden Madrid 2, among other works.

"Hidden doesn't refer to occultism or esotericism, but certain things that go unnoticed in the city; places you pass by each day without knowing their stories. In the Plaza de Oriente, for example, there's a statue of Felipe IV: when you learn that it was built with the help of Galileo Galilei, you look at it in a different way; it becomes more interesting. We also write about certain mysteries, like the house of seven chimneys or the ghost of Linares Palace, but right away you'll realize that we're skeptical about that stuff," say the authors.

Madrid legends, the history of taverns and bandits, spies and cafés... there is room for all kinds of curious and surprising stories in their books, which are fun and full of pictures: "Perfect for the bathroom," jokes Marco Besas.

His father Peter, a New Yorker, moved to Madrid in 1965 for love and ended up staying. "I learned Spanish; I liked the city; there was a good quality of life, even though we were in the middle of the Franco dictatorship," he says. Now he's more of an expert on many spots in town than most lifelong Madrileños.

"Sometimes, it takes a foreigner to discover your city," says Marco. "Many New Yorkers have never visited the Statue of Liberty. The same thing happens here: ask someone from Madrid about the Prado Museum, and they'll say, 'Oh yeah, I went there once 20 years ago."

"Back in 1969, I wrote a book in English with stories about Madrid called Strange Vignettes of Old Madrid. I published it myself and distributed it at bookstores and hotels," says Peter, who was the editor-in-chief of the Spanish and Latin American edition of Variety magazine for 30 years.

With this and the material Marco had compiled for his slot about local trivia on the program Gran Vía, broadcast by the radio station SER, they put together the Hidden Madrid guidebooks. They also got a lot of material from their walks around town.

"We used to get a lot of visitors, and they always wanted to go to the same places. Eventually we got fed up with always seeing the same thing, so we started taking them to places we found more interesting: the home of Cervantes, the old city walls in the parking garage of Plaza de Oriente, more out-of-the-way places. We enjoyed it more, and so did they," says Marco.

The sinister origins of the name Calle de la Cabeza (Head street), the only existing statue of Ratoncito Pérez, the Spanish version of the Tooth Fairy; the giant from Extremadura on display at the Anthropology Museum, the history of Madrid's carrousels, the forgotten British cemetery, the utopia of Ciudad Lineal... their books contain a good mix of rarities and curiosities that the Besas have researched with care.

"My father is more interested in the historical stuff," says Marco. "I'm more into legends and ghosts."

They've chosen to pose in front of a replica of the statute of The Fallen Angel from Retiro Park, located in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando, also covered in their guides. Up close, you can see Lucifer's tormented expression and the seven serpent tails that surround him.

Apart from these two guides, Peter has written A History and Anecdotes of the Inns of Old Madrid, a kind of history of Madrid following the trail of what foreign visitors from centuries past told about the city and its fondas, or inns, back when they were luxury hotels. And Marco, in collaboration with José Antonio Pastor, has written De Madrid al infierno (From Madrid to Hell), a book full of illustrations about the most notorious crimes committed in the capital.

"With time," says Peter, "one realizes that there is a lack of documentation about old places," says Peter. "That's why we made it our mission to take pictures and research things that people don't notice. When I did the book about the fondas, I couldn't find a single photograph of the famous Fornos café [now it's a Starbucks, across from the Sevilla subway entrance]. It didn't occur to anyone to take a picture of it. This city changes faster than any other European capital; it's changed so much in the last 20 years that it's unrecognizable compared to the place I came to. The media cover exceptional things, but not more common things."

"We're working on a third part, about towns in the region. Madrid is a goldmine; there is always something to write about, like the monsters of Madrid. In the 1950s, for example, there was a proliferation of winged cats. That's right: there was a disease that made their skin very elastic, making it look like the cats had wings. Statues, museums, buildings... you could even write about the calamari sandwiches! The only limit is your imagination!"

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