a meditation on the dangers of magical thinking in a complicated world.
We live surrounded by what seem like magical items. We carry in our pockets palm-sized devices that can store and play thousands of hours of music. Our cell phones can capture and play video and sound and then connect us to an electronic ghost world where we can store and share those moments of our lives with virtually anyone anywhere in the world. We walk around in our waterproof cloaks and our shirts made of fibers which draw perspiration away from our skin, never thinking for a moment of the incredible wealth of knowledge that science has produced. Like magic, science seems to hide its secrets from most of its audience, performing its sleight of hand behind a curtain, revealing only the amazing feat in the center ring with a bright flash and a puff of smoke.
But science is not for the few, or at least it should not be. Science and scientific thinking are available to everyone who cares enough to learn the language of mathematics and apply the principles of reason and logic. Unlike the wisdom of religious or spiritual revelation which is open only to the few who hold the divine connection (or can correctly read the holy books), the insights and truths of science belong to the universe, as they are spilled out before us all; quantifiable, measurable, detectable in our mathematical equations even before our instruments can sometimes verify their existence.
Which is why it sometimes seems like magic to the uninitiated. But you don’t need to understand how radio waves work and you don’t even have to believe that radio waves exist in order to use your cell phone, GPS or a microwave oven. Invisible to our senses and undetected by the hordes of humanity that came before James Clerk Maxwell, radio waves became a useful part of reality for the rest of us thanks to the work not of spiritualists reading tea leaves or tarot cards. The revelation for how to best use this powerful instrument of the natural world did not come from the head of any religious institution or the mind of any medium such as Edgar Caycee or Sylvia Browne.
When it came to ideas for how to construct a tool for harnessing and using these waves, it was up to mathematicians and scientists like Tesla and Marconi; crunching numbers on pages, testing and retesting their ideas and assumptions about the invisible forces of the world. Once their work was done, it was not a matter of opinion or belief as to whether or not what they said was true, was true.
For millennia before Louis Pasteur, the sick and the vulnerable were at the mercy of misinformation which had been passed down for generations. Disease had been with humanity from the very beginning, lurking in the shadows of our ignorance and taking hold of our collective imaginations. In this misinformed world, epileptic seizures were thought to be demonic possessions and the medicinal affects of complex chemicals found in the natural world were attributed to mysterious, magical, mystical sources. Mixed in among the world’s elixirs there were concoctions which had accidentally gotten at some cures; but it was not until we understood germs and the true nature of disease that we were able to drag that monster out into the light and begin to really fight back.
In the last one hundred plus years science and the scientific method has nearly doubled the human life expectancy. As billions around the world spend hours in prayer for help against the microbial menaces that killed a quarter of Europe in the fourteenth century, scientists work to eradicate cholera, polio, chickenpox, tuberculosis and smallpox from much of the industrial world. While religious institutions and organizations contribute amazing charitable work, it is the products of science that are combating AIDS and HIV in Africa, repairing cleft palates around the world and delivering the knowledge and tools for survival. Unlike shamans, faith-healers and snake oil salesmen who rely on people’s blind faith and ignorance, science produces results that can be tested and confirmed (or rejected) in the real world.
Science produces tangible, useful insights into the true nature of the world so that we can collectively and continuously improve the standard of living by smiting the pestilence and scourges that sent our ancestors, dying, to their knees. Unlike prophetic revelations, which always come during moments of isolation so that verification and duplication of the event are impossible, the truths revealed by science live with us, within us and are magnified immensely by our technologies and lifestyle. Thus, while the angels may only speak to prophets to verify their existence and whisper god’s instructions, radio waves, antibiotics and numerous other scientific breakthroughs perform their wondrous magic for anyone.
Yet still, magical thinking and faith continue to lead so many away from the truth and wonders of science, the language of mathematics and the liberating power of logic and reason. Magical thinking is everywhere around us and in the post industrial world we live in, it can have the most disastrous, deleterious effects. Already we have squandered countless generations and irretrievable hours building mounds and temples to sun gods, sacrificing prize animals and even humans to appease volcanoes or flooding rivers, burning witches and heretics who denied or spoke out against the accepted views of the established dominant religion. While religion and magical thinking have been in retreat in many ways since the scientific revolution, their roots are deep and their psychological stranglehold is merciless.
Just as in the past, myths provided answers to questions that ancient people could not comprehend, modern religions have staked their final residence within the ever decreasing boundaries of what science openly admits it cannot yet understand. Magical thinking found a home in our psyche long ago and has, ironically, reinforced its place within us because of the human mind’s capacity for and love of, patterns and meaning.
But the religious and faithful do not confine themselves to these small, shadowy areas of scientific uncertainty or the spiritual dominion. Tragically, in places like Kansas there is still public debate as to the scientific merit of Darwin’s theory of evolution. And if anyone should think that this kind of confrontation between science and belief is merely an anomaly, consider that in the Spring of 2007 the “Creation Museum” opened in Cincinnati with displays that feature, “children playing with dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden”. Not only do such displays violate commonly accepted scientific facts, they also go against Judeo-Christian liturgy. Since Adam and Eve were presumably banished from the Garden prior to having Cain and Abel, children in Eden are as improbable as dinosaurs in Eden, which in turn, is as improbable as Eden itself.
Such pseudo-science wastes our valuable time and resources (the museum cost $25 million to erect) and serve to entrench terribly incorrect, scientifically inaccurate views of the true nature of the world by taking advantage of people’s faith and their propensity for magical thinking. Worse still is that criticizing such obviously religiously motivated conceptions of the world such as creation science, intelligent design and the displays at the creation museum lead to accusations of Christianity bashing and of trampling on people’s freedom of religion.
In fact, it is religious lobbyists and activists who bring this “confrontation” to the public arena in cases such as Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) and the Kansas Evolution hearings (2005). Organizations such as the Institute for Creation Research, the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, and the Biologic Institute have worked effortlessly to maintain the false dichotomy that places religion and science as co-equal branches of human inquiry and comparable contributors to the overall well-being of humanity. In doing so, many of these think tanks have hijacked scientific language to disguise their religious ideas and motivations, “discovering” such things as “irreducible complexity” and “specified complexity” to buttress their dogmatic, illogical, circular thinking.
The proponents of this kind of misinformation also co-opt the technology that science has created, and use the free time and good health that science has granted them, to spread their mental virus; which is exactly what magical thinking is. Magical thinking does not isolate itself to only the spiritual, religious aspects of our thoughts, but instead creeps out into every kind of mental activity. A quick scan of late night infomercials produces evidence of how magical thinking continues to take advantage of loopholes in our freedoms to sell useless products to people who misunderstand basic principles of science. For sale on this overnight market are footpads that drain out the toxins from your body as you sleep, colon cleansers that remove what your colon couldn’t, magnetic jewelry that relieves arthritis pain. One male enhancement pill even touts, “No gimmicks … just real science”.
What bothers me most is not that these products are available, but that they disguise themselves with a veneer of science and perpetuate myths that deteriorate our collective understanding by bolstering a distrust in real science, mathematics and the scientific method. The idea that everyone has a right to their own opinion is good and well, but there is also an external reality that exists, and it has been the human mind’s ability to penetrate the fantastical and false explanations, the incorrect opinions of the past, that have lighted the way for a standard of living that exceeds everything recorded in human history.
Given enough breathing space, magical thinking manifests itself in a stellar gallery of fabulous disguises. Because it asks that you not question incongruities, that you accept any evidence on face value rather than looking deeper and with a critical, skeptical mind. And it is this elevating of faith above facts that is a most serious and dangerous proposition in our times. The real trouble, as I see it, with magical thinking is that it leads to faulty reasoning and mental laziness in other areas that have nothing to do with the spiritual/ religious life. Magical thinking says that it is okay to look away from the evidence and just believe.
Magical thinking is what permitted, for example, serial liar and master thief Bernard Madoff to run his scam for so long. Instead of checking the numbers behind his claims about his hedge funds, investors were reassured by others, who also had not done any of the math and dared not question what seemed like magic. Madoff used his reputation, his connections and his position of power to swindle people out of their money by essentially creating an economic cult. Like all cults, this one was built around a false idea; that Bernard Madoff could turn the profits that he claimed.
When his ruse was finally discovered just last year, it was revealed that a Boston analyst had been blowing the whistle since 1999, that what Madoff was claiming was impossible. Instead of relying on anecdotal evidence, fraudulent documents and the belief in Madoff, one person from a distance, using only mathematics and logic was able to uncover a fraud that had entrapped hundreds, cost billions of dollars and had hidden in the long shadow cast by faith and magical thinking.
If Bernie Madoff was the high guru of the magical thinking movement on Wall Street, then on Main Street, the rest of us were the willing flock. Armed with our relatively weak math grades, we were lured into opening more credit cards than we ever needed with promises of 0% interest for three months. We were given “no-doc”, “ARM” and “subprime” mortgages with a few years of low payments and promises of a “balloon” at the end, never quite connecting that all these nice words disguised mathematical realities which were leading us to economic ruin, both personally and as a nation. Magical thinking leads too many of us to believe that we can manage money without having or even understanding a budget.
One of my favorite writers, Arthur C. Clarke, once postulated that any significantly advanced technology would seem like magic to a less sophisticated people. Sometimes I feel like so many aspects of our post industrial world (communications, economics, government, energy, agriculture, ecology) involve such complex processes and ideas that it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s worth knowing and understanding. It’s easy to understand why so many of us turn to some form of magical thinking at one time on another. It is reassuring to feel that some higher power is on our side, protecting us.
We live surrounded by what seem like magical items. We carry in our pockets cards that record our every transactions on magnetic strips. Our cars carry silent alarms that can help the police find you anytime they want. We log in at home and connect to an electronic ghost world where thousands of hours of sound and video are stored for a digital eternity. We walk around in our cities being recorded and monitored, never thinking for a moment of the incredible power that science grants to those who would care to be in control. Like magic, the powerful hide their secrets from most of the audience, performing their sleight of hand behind a curtain, revealing only the amazing feat in the center ring with a bright flash and a puff of smoke.
It is up to each of us to use science and math to help reveal the face of Oz.
Thank you for stopping by, and if you made it this far (wow).
Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2009. All rights reserved.
PS … I must give thanks and apologies to Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Bertrand Russell, Phillips Stevens, the Amazing Randi, Michael Shermer, and a host of other writers and scientists who have spoken out in defense of science and reason and from whom all of my arguments stem.