Magical Thinking

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When something seems too good to be true, as the saying goes, it often is.

But we humans are given to wishful thinking and taking long shots. The odds for winning the lottery are so infinitesimal as to be statistically indistinguishable from zero chance of winning. There is as much scientific basis for thinking a rabbit’s foot will help you out as for believing that a four-leaf clover is lucky. This is magical thinking.

Belief is different. Belief involves faith: as scripture tells us, it is the evidence of things not seen. Belief allows us to see the presence of a God who answers prayer and provides guidance in everyday life.

However, when belief is willfully or naively mistaken for science, we rely on magical thinking without regard for empirical evidence and/or use of the scientific method, which requires that you know how a theory can be disproven in order to consider it viable. For example, if I want to assert that a purple pen helps me to write with fewer grammatical errors, I could perform a study that disguises pen color (a blind study) while writing a series of paragraphs. If pen color doesn’t matter in the blind study, then my notion of the power of purple pens is magical thinking—belief posing as science.

If I know that the pen is purple, however, it could well have an effect on my writing. In a study published in Scientific American, Piercaro Valdesolo notes that “‘Magical thinking’ … [is] the belief that an object, action or circumstance not logically related to a course of events can influence its outcome.” So superstitions that people think bring them good luck, like the kind of things you see worn by players or coaches or fans at football games, won’t work unless the wearer is aware of them and believes the supposed effects are true. Scientific fact has nothing to do with it.

The power of suggestion creates this bridge between belief and magical thinking, and while it’s relatively harmless to believe in a good luck tie, when applied to larger ideas and decisions, like how to respond to climate change or what medical decisions to make, magical thinking can be wildly harmful.

Magical thinking is often based upon a logical fallacy known as false causality, the idea that because event B happens after event A, B is caused by A. This is rarely true except in those situations where cause and effect are scientifically established.

This extends to the practice of medicine and its “alternatives.” Most modern medical practices rely on scientifically provable, objective results. Alternative medicine includes a host of practices, some of them sound—like certain kinds of vitamin therapy. Other alternatives are suspect or nonsensical because of their reliance on false causality and another fallacy: confirmation bias, wherein what is supposed to be true is believed to be true because someone wants it to be true.

One example of this is Oscillococcinum, a product marketed to relieve cold and flu symptoms. Its active ingredient is freeze-dried duck’s liver and heart that have been repeatedly diluted to a concentration of 1 part duck organs in 10400 parts water. There is a scientific limit to the dilution that can be made without losing the original substance altogether: roughly 1 in 1024. No hint of duck survives in 10 in 100400. Homeopathic medicine, upon which this is based, suggests that something like a spiritual essence or cosmic imprint of the original material survives, and thus, somehow, works: magical thinking.

At the very least, magical thinking can create ethical, interpersonal, financial, and medical problems.

At its worst, it can have mortal consequences.

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