Click to follow
The Independent Culture
There are fashions in irrationality as in almost anything, and according to Catherine Bennett, introducing the first part of a rearguard action against a millennial surge in superstition in Strange Days (BBC2), this season's favoured idiocy is feng shui - the Chinese art of geomancy. This consists of paying someone a large sum of money to rearrange your furniture for you, the idea being that you will suffer a kind of spiritual constipation if the flow of energy, or chi, is interrupted by an ill-placed Ikea sofa. A cheerful paragon of gullibility appeared on screen to testify to the wondrous effects of calling in the feng shui man to his flat - things had improved enormously, he said, since he moved the fish tank and built a pond in the back garden. I was a bit startled to realise that this man is one of my neighbours - I can't say that I've noticed any signal improvement in the local energy field, but perhaps the effects are strictly localised to benefit the paying client alone. I hope that our local burglars weren't watching too, because their own chi might have been decidedly stimulated by this man's confession that he does not have a burglar alarm, having settled on a small cactus in the window as a subliminal alternative.

"Ancient wisdoms" is usually the term employed for such humbug, a reverential term which generally forgets that other "ancient wisdoms" include a flat earth and medicinal bloodletting. But devotees of such belief systems cannot be reasoned with, because no mutually agreed terms are available for the debate. They can only be punished for so abjectly surrendering the precious human capacity to doubt. The best way to roll back the advance of feng shui, then, would be to train crack teams of undercover sceptics to make mischief. This could be both profitable as well as fun - secret operatives would charge huge amounts of money to turn their dupes' houses upside down and, after a while, the inconvenience of having the fridge on the stairs ("the cooling influence exercises a benign effect") or being obliged to put goldfish in their lavatory bowl ("their vital influence will improve toxin elimination") might just bring them to their senses.

Bennett was deliciously scornful about such ideas, a self-conscious antidote to the tide of paranormal gormlessness which occupies so much airtime, and her contempt was also given visual shape by Janet Lee's direction - in one enjoyable walking shot, the camera pulled back to reveal the presenter advancing indifferently beneath a phalanx of ladders. What's more, she will have no truck with the "just a bit of harmless fun" defence, arguing that the creation of an increasingly credulous nation is the direct responsibility of the broadcasters and publishers who promote such material. "The proper name for this behaviour, by people who should know better, is deception," she said bluntly. A citizenry encouraged to believe in poltergeists, she suggests, is that much more likely to believe what Michael Portillo says, or unquestioningly accept other dubious authorities.

This puritanical zeal occasionally made her sound a little out of touch with reality herself - it's certainly pleasant to daydream about a world in which commercial publishers refuse to produce books they don't believe in (no Jeffrey Archer, for one thing), but, even if they allowed shame to direct their operations, there would be no shortage of sin-cere fools to make up the shortfall. The best we can hope for is that respectable publishers might occasionally issue the antidote alongside the poison. In this respect, BBC2 may be showing the way - after its recent broadcast of Secrets of the Paranormal, a six-part series in which the deluded and susceptible were permitted to contribute to the dumbing of the nation, it owed us an apology. Bennett's series, a little rock of resistance in a wash of intellectual capitulation, makes a good start.