Magical Thinking

Saturday, September 17, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

How do you simultaneously cut taxes, increase spending, and balance the budget?   All it takes is a little magical thinking – our topic for this week.   Magical thinking happens when you have, say, firmly held beliefs base on scanty or even non-existent evidence or when you make plans in which ends and means are radically out of synch.   Think of the belief that doing a certain dance can cause it to rain or that wearing a baseball cap inside out can lead to a rally.  But, of course,  \magical thinking doesn’t show up just in outmoded superstitions or harmless rituals  at sporting events.   It is actually all around us.   And it’s all around us despite the fact that we live in the most scientific age in all of human history. Science is the very antithesis of magical thinking.  Indeed,  you might think it’s the antidote to magical thinking.   But for reasons not entirely obvious  science has not stopped the spread of magical thinking.  Magical thinking is everywhere.  It infects politics, religion, the media, even the economy.   And “infects” is, I think, the right word.  We suffer from an epidemic of magical thinking.  Just as opiate drugs ravage far too many families, so magical thinking ravages far too many minds.   Magical thinking makes us ripe fro the picking by scam artists and demagogues. Witness our fascination with Trump’s wall, or countless fad diets, or the latest bargain basement gizmo that will do some supposedly amazing thing for three low cost payments of 19.99!

The question immediately arises of how there could possibly be such an epidemic of magical thinking in such a scientific age as ours.  The easy answer is just that science is hard, while magical thinking is easy.  And one should never be optimistic about the prospect of human beings pursuing the hard path rather than the easy path.   Now you might think that pursuing the easy path is often a recipe for disaster.   And no doubt it often is.  But I suspect that our propensity for magical thinking may not be a matter of choice.  It may be a matter of design.   Our minds may have been designed by natural selection to engage in magical thinking.

Think about life back on the savannah, where our species first evolved.   Potential predators lurking everywhere, food not exactly plentiful.    Our forbears didn’t have time for science.  You hear something rustling in the grass … quick …  decide … rabbit or lion?   Now you might think that the main thing is to get it right.   If there’s a rabbit, you should believe that there is a rabbit.  If there is a lion, you should believe that there is a lion.   After all, if it’s a lion and you conclude that it’s a rabbit, you could be in a world of hurt.

But that is much too simple.  Believing the truth is generally a good thing – no doubt about it.   But it can take time and resources to figure out the truth.  And if it’s a matter of making sure you avoid being eaten, you may not have the time or the resources.   Moreover,  some ways of being wrong are clearly much worse for you than others.   If it’s a rabbit and you jump to the conclusion that it’s a lion, no big deal.   Sure, you don’t get to eat the rabbit, but at least you’re alive.   In other words, while it may be bad to believe falsely that it’s a lion when it’s really a rabbit – that’ll cost you a meal – it’s much worse to believe it’s a rabbit, when it’s really a lion.  That’ll cost your life.  Bottom line, it’s better to assume it’s lion unless and until proven otherwise.  Truth be damned!  Of course, you don’t want to starve to death.   But hopefully sometimes you see the rabbit up close and personal.  And then it’s alright to believe that it’s a rabbit.   Sure, you’ll have lots of false beliefs.  Sure, you’ll miss a few meals.  But you’re very unlikely to become a meal yourself.

Now it seems to me that this kind of cognitive tendency is the very essence of magical thinking.  Magical thinking isn’t about finding the truth.  It’s about forming useful and firmly held beliefs -- even on the basis of scanty evidence.  Science is about the opposite.  It makes you slow down.  It says consider all reasonable hypotheses and ferret out as much evidence as possible, before finally reaching a conclusion.   The slow and laborious process of science wouldn’t have been much use to our forbears on the savannah.    They faced the pressure of the moment.  They needed quick and dirty ways of deciding what to believe and what to do.  

And thus, I submit,  was our propensity for magical thinking first born!

Of course, while magical thinking may have been useful on the Savannah, we’re not on the Savannah anymore.  Away from the Savanah magical thinking can lead to disaster  -- especially in environments filled with shysters, hucksters and demagogues, out to exploit our cognitive foibles for their own gain.  Unfortunately, magical thinking is with us still.  It has definitely not been driven out by science.  Look no further than the media and our political debates.  Indeed,  our country’s leaders have themselves engaged in a quite a  lot of magical thinking of their own over the years.

But of course, you, kind listener, are perhaps not taken in by the lure of magical thinking.  So why not tune in this week and help us in our quest to combat its lure. 

Comments (8)


sageorge's picture

sageorge

Saturday, September 17, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Another evolutionary

Another evolutionary explanation for people?s magical thinking is the alleged benefit of self-deception.  In social species like ours, individuals sometimes use deception to gain advantage over others. However, people have also evolved ways to tell when others are lying.  Thus people who actually believe the lies they?re telling may be more successful deceivers than someone who is simply lying.  (Lots of room here to speculate about how this applies to the current presidential candidates, obviously!)  If the wealthy, and those funded by the wealthy such as some politicians and those in so-called think tanks, actually believe the magical thinking about lowest possible taxes for the wealthy leading to highest possible economic growth, they will be more successful in tricking the public to go along, thereby enriching themselves at the expense of everyone else. 
As I?m sure Ken Taylor knows, these evolutionary explanations are inherently speculative ? they have been justly stigmatized as ?evolutionary just-so stories,? like the Rudyard Kipling fables.  We can?t go back and see directly how any of this supposedly evolved.  However, if there is an inherited tendency for people to behave in these ways, there must evolutionary explanations for it, so why not go ahead and speculate! 
- Steve George

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, September 17, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Sorry to pop anyone's balloon

Sorry to pop anyone's balloon, but science is itself rife with 'magical' presumption and prejudice. The bias towards patterns inevitably leads to seeing them where they are not. Many abiding myths are sustained by this bias. Just try to explain to a gambling addict there is no such thing as a winning streak! But much of "science" is precisely seeing such patterns where there are none. But how then do we grasp the anomalous or random? Or even recognize them as such? Simply, by rigorously pursuing the "science" of the 'pattern' until there can be no doubt it does not exist. But what then? Have we learned anything? Absolutely! We have filled in the language of describing the otherwise indescribable. And language in this sense is more magical than science can ever explain or contribute to.

sageorge's picture

sageorge

Sunday, September 18, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

The above comment would be

The above comment would be more convincing if it specified some of the alleged presumptions and prejudices, which should be easy to do if science is rife with them.  Maybe one person?s prejudices are another person?s values: science is certainly based on assumptions and values such as parsimony and predictiveness, and these are openly acknowledged.  As to patterns, it?s an excellent point that people can think they?ve detected a pattern where none exists, and the recognition of this is at the core of the scientific method.  Courses for science students on methodology or statistics sometimes start out with students being given a page of numerical data and asked to find patterns.  The students aren?t initially told that the ?data? are actually a page of numbers from a random number table.   They quickly find patterns: ?Look, here are four 6?s in a row ? the probably of that happening by chance is only 1 in 10,000, so it?s obviously a significant pattern.?  When they?re told that these are random numbers, they understand the issue: in scanning the page of numbers we?re unconsciously, or barely consciously, testing for thousands of possible patterns, so it isn?t surprising to find one that happened by chance.  In science it?s fine to do an exploratory study to identify possible patterns, but then one needs to collect completely new data and specify in advance what is being  tested for, e.g. finding an unusual number of 6?s at that exact point in the data.  If that follow-up ?hypothesis testing? study finds it, then it?s likely a real pattern.
Of course science is done by people, and sometimes enthusiasm or ambition get in the way of best practice.  Science is pretty good at dealing with this, through peer review and the replication of studies by different labs.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, September 18, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

"Empirical" follies: Multiple

"Empirical" follies: Multiple universes, string theory.
"Formal" follies: The "law" of the excluded middle, the presumption of the "law" of contradiction that is formally valid only in reference to the quantifier. The use of the concept of infinity in the rationale for the calculus.
Photons get up to all sorts of bizarre antics. The description makes sense, but the explanation makes no damn sense at all. The behavior of a photon between air and glass, very weirdly, implies agency on its part, as if it were trying to stay within the law and break it too.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, September 18, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I'm not sure this is totally

I'm not sure this is totally on-point, but had to share it anyway. On Saturday, September 17, 2016, I read the following in my local news rag, The Columbus Dispatch:

" WASHINGTON- The Obama administration has agreed to pay nearly $3 million to the family of an Italian aid worker who was killed in a CIA drone strike in Pakistan last year,but has yet to reach a settlement with an American who was also killed in the attack,(U.S. officials said.)" (emphasis mine)
 Now, then: Just how long will it take to reach a settlement with the American who was killed?
(to give the Dispatch due respect, this story was authored by two reporters for The Washington Post.)
Magical thinking or simply wishful thinking?
Neuman.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, September 19, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

A negotiation is not,

A negotiation is not, strictly speaking, a judicial process. And justice in America is not so swift as promised, in keeping with its contrary promise of due process. Italian law may make it easier to dicker, or maybe the litigants were simply more agreeable. But if anyone can find any reliable pattern in negotiation the knowledge would be valuable, and probably kept proprietary. I suppose, if we get really magical in our thinking, we could refer to The Art of the Deal.
Another common fallacy: "Once we have eliminated the impossible, whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth." This is only valid where there is a comprehensive list of possibilities, each determinate in its characteristics and truth conditions. That is highly improbable!

sageorge's picture

sageorge

Monday, September 19, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Responding to the post about

Responding to the post about "follies" in science: It?s reasonable to be skeptical about quantum phenomena and explanations such as what photons do, and the idea of multiple universes, if it means the ?many worlds? interpretation of quantum mechanics. None of it is at all settled in science.  Same with string theory which is controversial even among theoretical physicists.  From what was posted, however, it?s not clear exactly what ?presumptions and prejudices? are supposedly at work.  What might be an unjustified presumption or prejudice is assuming that phenomena that are 20 orders of magnitude smaller in mass and size than what any human being can observe directly should necessarily be like the macroscopic objects we?re familiar with.  Quantum mechanics courses sometimes start out with the prof. saying to the class, ?Right now I?m the only one here who doesn?t understand quantum mechanics.  By the end of the course, everyone here won?t understand it.?   Hardly a situation where presumptions and prejudices are being imposed.
The rules of logic cited are in common use in everyday thinking and in other fields of human endeavor, although I realize more clarity is needed to specify under what conditions the rules should apply.  (Thanks, philosophers, for working on this!).  What ?the quantifier? means I?m not sure ? I know it can mean a part of speech in English grammar, but probably something different is intended here.
The complaint about ?the concept of infinity? in calculus seems very wide of the mark.  In this context infinity is used in a situation where something has no definite upper limit.  If we ask, ?is it bigger than X?? the answer is ?yes? no matter what definite number X is brought up.  Math in general, not just calculus, would be very impoverished without this concept, and I can?t tell what the perceived problem with it could possibly be.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, October 10, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Magic and superstition are

Magic and superstition are close relatives. And, yet, when people believe strongly in either or both, strange things happen---something like the placebo effect in medicine or the seeming miraculous accomplishments of eastern fakirs. There are so many things that rationality cannot explain---and never will.
Neuman

 
 
 

Blog Archive

2018

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2017

December

November

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2016

December

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2015

December

November

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2005

December

November

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March