Truth: Magical Thinking is Bad

Jezebel has always been a really hit-or-miss site for me.  Sometimes they post brilliant, thoughtful, often-feminist critiques of society, etc.  Sometimes.  The rest of the content seems to be devoted to celebrity gossip, ridiculously hyperbolic taglines, and fluff journalism.  The article I came across today falls in to that third category.

*Side note: anyone else think that it’s insanely hypocritical for a site that posts lots of opinion articles about the sexist objectification of women to also post articles about Taylor Swift’s dating habits and Jennifer Lopez’s ass?

Back to business.  Here’s the Jezebel article that got me a little riled up today: “Truth: Everyone Believes in at Least One Crazy Thing”.

I know that most people don’t want to read a whole two articles worth of stuff, so don’t worry, I’ll quote the most relevant bits here.  Suffice it to say, you can probably guess what most of the content of the article is from the title.  After all, you can only expand so much on the oh-so-thoughtful generalization that everyone believes in something crazy.  But let’s unpack what the author is really arguing for, because by the time we get past the benign opening statement, she’s actually making an extremely dangerous point.

First, I’ll start with my only point of agreement: Los Angeles has a higher frequency of idiots/nutjobs/Scientologists than the rest of the country.  Having spent some quality time in the LA, I can confidently say that the author is absolutely right.  There are more supposed psychics, remote viewers, astrologists, prophets, LoA practitioners, cultists, Scientologists, and vegans** in LA than in almost any other area of the country.

*Additional side note: the article cites “Overheard in LA”, which is hilarious and 100% accurate.  You should read it.

Why does LA have more of these people than other places?  It’s anyone’s guess.  But as I said, this is where my agreement with Ms. Moore ends.

She moves on from amusing anecdotes about the insane shit people say to relative strangers in LA to the assertion that “everyone believes at least one crazy thing.”  Hey, there’s that article title again.  Nifty.  It’s like she practically didn’t have to write anything else.  Her examples from her friends are as follows:

Mine is probably the achingly sincere hope that I will get to time travel or win the lottery

Still want to believe in “wishes”

I definitely want to believe in metaphysics

I believe in the presence of the Yeti

So let’s first start by acknowledging that only one of these is a crazy belief: the last bit about believing in the Yeti (in spite of the overwhelming lack of scientific evidence to support its existence).  The other three aren’t beliefs.  They are desires.

Hoping that you’ll get to time travel, no matter how sincere your hope is, is not a belief in the current existence of a viable time machine.  Wanting to believe in wishes isn’t the same as believing that if you think about a red bike hard enough, you’ll get one (For more on that, read The Secret.  Actually, don’t.  It’s terrible.).  Definitely wanting to believe in metaphysics is not actually a fantastical belief, as metaphysics is a wide school of philosophy, but assuming that the speaker was talking about the bullshit-brand of metaphysics practiced by New Age “healers” across the nation, wanting to believe in it still isn’t the same as actually believing it.

And that’s a big distinction, because as much as I might want to believe that thinking really hard about piles of cash will make them manifest in my life, I know that the Law of Attraction is a lie, made up by opportunists who have figured out yet another way to separate gullible people from their money.  I don’t actually have a crazy belief in the Law of Attraction.  I just wish it were true while I continue to do a variety of interesting-yet-often-soul-sucking day jobs to pay the rent.

Now, ignoring the author’s big gap in logic there, let’s get to the worst assertion in the article: “Magical thinking is silly, childish, wishful and—most importantly—harmless.”  I would be remiss in not noting that she immediately clarifies this statement:

And of course there’s a difference between the belief that a room must be cleansed of bad energy versus, say, a belief that vaccinating your children will kill them. Don’t throw me in with the real crazies, dig?

Well, that’s a pretty tall order.  Even Ms. Moore notes that a strong delineation is nearly impossible, because how can you determine which magical beliefs will lead to harm?  After all, isn’t pretending to talk to someone’s dead mother (or honestly believing you can) clearly less harmful than not vaccinating your children?  Well, yes and no.

Obviously, in the above scenario, there’s an immediate, physical danger to the unvaccinated child (not to mention all the children surrounding that child).  On the other hand, there’s no immediate, physical danger to the grief-stricken person being offered false solace.  Sure, any psychologist worth their salt would tell you that it’s extremely detrimental to engage a grieving person in a way that prevents them from dealing with the reality of death.  Even so, it’s hard to compare that to a potential outbreak of measles/dead children.

So why do I still think that the author is wrong in her assertion that her kind of benign magical thinking isn’t dangerous?  Because it’s the exact same method of thought being applied in both cases.  Even ignoring people’s general tendency toward confirmation bias, if one starts engaging in magical thinking (a firm belief in something that has been disproven or that has absolutely no evidence to back it up) about one subject, they are training their brain to think that way about anything.

Mentally, what’s the difference between believing that you had a past life as Beatrix Potter and believing that vaccines cause autism?  Your brain is engaging in the same kind of irrational thought process in order to arrive at both beliefs.***

And Ms. Moore goes on to claim that, “There is a significant, and harmless, middle ground: reasonable, science-supporting people who believe in research and critical thinking and skepticism, but still give magic a bit of a chance.”  Those people already exist: they’re called skeptics.  Or scientists.  Or rational people.

Science doesn’t just leave room for “magic”, it explains it.  Ms. Moore, and others like her, seem to think that the act of explaining something renders it unexceptional and boring.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.  And any good scientist approaches an outlandish claim with a burning desire for it to be true.  Because how cool would it be to prove that there really are unicorns?  How amazing would it be to discover actual evidence of telepathy?  The only difference is that rational people accept that if it can’t be proven, then it isn’t currently true.

Notice the word “currently” in that last sentence.  Science is constantly evolving and changing because science is open to new possibilities.  Magical thinking isn’t.  Magical thinking is open to one possibility: that the world functions according to a set of principles that can never be proven and therefore have to be true.  It is the opposite of open-minded inquiry.

Magical thinking caused 9/11.  Magical thinking caused the Hollywood Hills murders.  Magical thinking caused someone to take a gun into a Wichita church and assassinate a doctor.  Magical thinking caused otherwise “ordinary” people to beat the life out of a gay teenager and leave him to die on a fence in Wyoming.  Magical thinking has already caused untold numbers of deaths throughout history, and it is continuing to cause them today.  Magical thinking, no matter how innocuous it may seem, is dangerous.

**Just kidding, vegans.  I love you.

***Anyone who has read Sam Harris’s exceptionally good book, The End of Faith, probably recognized this argument.  Please pretend that I’m not borrowing it.  And if you didn’t recognize the argument, do not, under any circumstances, read that book.  Continue believing that I came up with that on my own.