“Magical Thinking:The Decline of Intellectualism in America”
Supper Club Presentation by Paul Rider, November 19, 2013
General definitions: of Magical Thinking
The identification of causal relationships between actions and events where scientific consensus says there is none.
The belief that one event happens as the result of another without a plausible link of causation between them.
Believing in things more strongly than either evidence or experience would justify.
Clinical definition: (from the field of Psychology)
A belief that merely thinking about an event in the external world can cause it to happen.
Thinking that can lead to delusional behavior when done by someone who continues to hold a belief that is clearly contrary to any evidence available.
All of us resort to thinking associated with the general category on a regular basis in our lives, and hope that we do not resort to what is described in the clinical category. It is probably accurate say that humans have relied on the general notions of magical thinking since our species evolved rudimentary intellect.
Although we were probably analytical in the early stages of human development, owing to the advantage this provided for our survival, we were not prone to develop what has become known as the kind of “critical thinking” associated with modern science and its reliance on the scientific method of inquiry that has resulted in the kind of culture in which we found ourselves today.
I have described in my previous talks how the phenomenon of critical thinking first emerged through the Ionian approach in ancient Greece and re-emerged in the Western World during and after the Renaissance and The Age of Enlightenment in the 18th Century.
This style of analysis and thinking relies on acceptance of an external reality from which an observant mind can extract information and evidence to form predictive models about how things occur in that reality. The Ionians were content to use observation to provide information while modern science has developed a rigorous and stringent set of rules that apply to not only observing but to actually tweaking the reality to make it behave in ways that can be studied, analyzed and ultimately described by theories and models that are predictive and useful.
So, when we contrast “magical thinking” with “critical thinking,” we begin to appreciate some of the controversies and conflicts that exist in our modern culture, especially as they relate to the major areas of human concern such as politics, economics, social responsibility and religious beliefs and practices.
While it is an oversimplification to suggest that people can be placed into one of these two ways of thinking in some categorical sense, for the sake of discussion I will suggest that each of us tends to rely more on one of these approaches than the other in regard to how we view our existence as it relates to our upbringing and life experiences.
The scientific approach and its reliance on critical thinking have had a strong appeal for me throughout most of my life. Thus, I analyze such things as the meaning of life, particularly my own, in terms of what we can learn about the Universe in which we live, and the planet on which we find ourselves. How they relate to one another is a crucial matter in unveiling the mystery of life in any meaningful way for people like me.
Someone prone to magical thinking may reach a level of satisfaction in accepting ideas about the meaning of life from how they were raised as well as from what they have seen and read in the religious and philosophical writings of others. This may be done without the willingness or need to subject such material to critical analysis. He or she has been conditioned to accept ideas, with little concern about how they me be at odds with scientific knowledge.
If there is a contention in one’s religious views that runs contrary to scientific fact, a decision about how to resolve this type of conflict becomes problematic. Not being a critical thinker may make it easier for such people to ignore such facts. In this way, they can be described as “ignorant.”
Biological evolution is an obvious example. President George W, Bush, when asked about his views, stated that the “jury is still out on the validity of the theory of biological evolution.” This level of ignorance for someone in such a position is quite disturbing. The evidence for genetic variation and change in species through time, driven by the prevailing natural environment in which those species exist (i.e. natural selection) is so well established as a scientific reality that it is disappointing to hear magical thinkers deny it. There isn’t any jury out there in the scientific community still wrestling with any questions of validity. Validity isn’t based on majority vote or acceptance, but on evidence.
Scientists have confidence (not faith in the religious sense) that the idea of evolution aptly describes what is going on, and has relevance in all areas of science, including cosmic evolution. If the model fell short, it would have been modified to account for its weaknesses, or even discarded. Science is self-correcting and relies on confidence derived from how well a model fits the observed behavior. This is “contingent faith”, not “religious faith.”
The earth-centered Universe is another example. It took two centuries to discard it, even after convincing evidence of its fallacy was provided by Galileo and others in the 17th Century. That was not merely an “inconvenient truth,” but was an “unspeakable truth,” owing to its potential to destabilize the society of the time. Magical thinking prevailed, as it often does
Currently, the inconvenient truth about global warming and climate change due to human activity is running into the magical thinking of those who simply don’t want it to believe that it is happening. This is one of those issues that requires a more serious approach because of the catastrophic consequences associated with it that are beginning to be felt (the typhoon in the Philippines and the tornados in Illinois this past week were unique events in the context of weather history record keeping). Recently, a magically thinking Texas legislator told a religious television host that global warming and climate change are the consequence of God punishing humankind for the aborting of human fetuses.
There is a significant number of magical thinkers who contend that the earth and Universe are 6000 years old. When challenged with the evidence to the contrary, their magical thoughts suggest to them that God has simply made things appear older. They, too, are ignorant.
Television commentator Bill O’Reilly recently interviewed Richard Dawkins, the physicist who wrote “The God Delusion.” Challenging Dawkins’ atheist mind set, O’Reilly asserted that there must be a divine influence in the natural world because we observe the tides to come in and go out, and there is no natural explanation for that phenomenon. Dawkins was so amazed that he hardly knew how to react. O’Reilly’s ignorance of what we have known for centuries is inexcusable for someone pretending to inform the public on important issues .
Other examples of magical thinking are superstitious behavior, belief in ghosts**, communicating with those who have “passed over,” healing by the laying of hands, and rain dancing. (** EXPAND REFERENCE WITH AN ASIDE)
One of my more memorable professional experiences occurred in the spring of 1988 when I was chosen to testify before the Space, Science and Technology Committee of the United States House of Representatives on the future of science and technical education in America, as well as the need to encourage bright young people to pursue careers in the hard sciences.
Six of us were selected to testify, including University of Iowa space scientists Dr. James Van Allen**, Dr. Donald Gurnett**, Dr. Louis Frank**, and Dr. Dwight Nicholson**. The other member was Dr. Gene Wubbels from Grinnell College who had mentored a Nobel Prize winning chemist (Tom Chech) as an undergraduate. (**EXPAND REFERENCES WITH ASIDES)
Our agenda was to seek government support and public money to train technical people and provide research funds to insure our future as the prime scientific and technological society in the world.
I had been a “Sputnik” scientist** and had had my advanced education paid for by fellowships from NSF, NASA, and The AEC. I worked with Manhattan Project scientists on rare and exotic metals research during the 1960s, holding a top secret Q clearance. This provided me with an awareness of how government support worked in enhancing specialty research that had the potential for significant breakthroughs (the neodymium alloy magnets in your cell phone is an example)
In my remarks, I urged these leaders to not only encourage programs that were aimed at educating bright young minds, but also to support programs that had the broader goal of developing critical thinking skills in all citizens. This would help us meet the challenges and opportunities in the 21st Century with a new generation of people who would combine creative and rational thinking to address the needs of a growing population, an increasing energy demand, adequate nutrition and clean water, and the other social pressures. That was 25 years ago, before the wide-spread internet and in the early stages of personal computer and cell phone usage. Things really have gotten complicated since then, without much happening to improve the situation.
What concerns me today is the apparent decline in efforts to develop critical thinking skills and the resurgence of magical thinking as a growing influence in our society. I associate the concept of “intellectualism” with rationality and critical thinking. I also recognize that some forms of magical thinking are not a threat to intellectualism. They may play a role in allowing discussion and learning to occur. When this kind of thinking trumps the political, social and economic processes that determines the directions we are taking as a society and as a global community, there is reason to be alarmed.
China, India and countries in Europe and South America are turning out many more scientific and technical students than we are. It is only a matter of time before we become a follower, and not a leader. We still win more than our share of Nobel Prizes, but that will not continue unless we are willing to enhance our support the development of critical thinkers.
We should not need a Manhattan Project, or the Apollo Moon landings to justify increased efforts. The recent discovery of Higgs boson at CERN in Switzerland is an indication of the consequences of our bailing out of the Super Conducting Super Collider Project in Texas 20 years ago. The future discoveries to be made at CERN that have the potential to revolution our technology and greatly enhance our understanding of the Universe could have been made in our universities in this country and the best minds that are attracted to such facilities.
We are still actively exploring Mars (a satellite was launched just yesterday) but that effort is often maligned and criticized by the magical thinkers who fail to make the correct correlations between our future and the success of such endeavors.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson gave a Bauxbaum Lecture three weeks ago tonight at Drake University, hitting on some of the same themes in my presentation tonight. I greatly appreciated hearing his assessment about our future role in science and technology, even if it was not too optimistic. Within a decade, we will be publishing a much smaller fraction of the scientific research papers compared with other countries that are developing a new generation of critical thinkers.
Can critical thinkers and magical thinkers co-exist without causing too much societal stress? This remains to be seen, since the conflicts have been around for centuries. Religious and spiritual issues have occupied human minds for eons, although the scientific elements of our culture have gained respect, if even if begrudgingly. Some scientists try to embrace both kinds of thinking and are successful at it from a personal standpoint. Others, such as me, don’t follow such a path, out of a commitment to consistency.
I will conclude by attempting to explain how a critical thinker can appreciate the meaning life simply by allowing it to remain in the category of being mysterious. To ponder the existence of a God figure, as described in religious doctrines requires an examination of the information upon which this figure’s existence is based. It all stems from magical thinking that serves a purpose of providing meaning to the lives of those who embrace an unprovable idea. One accepts the notion for personal reasons that relate to a meaningful state of mind.
In my in case, I am intrigued and excited about the mystery of my existence and feel a sense of spirituality that connects me to others. I do not jump to any conclusions that are beyond my ability to justify in a rational way. I have heard the notion that believing in God is a matter of faith and is not based upon reason. That statement clearly contrasts magical thinking with critical thinking. There is no basis to debate it any further.
As I observe the many religions and denominations in the world in which find myself, I prefer to embrace my confidence in our ability to expand our understanding of a 14 billion year old Universe that has only seen our presence for such a short time (as far as we know) .
On Friday, April 13, 2029, an asteroid named “Apophis” which recently passed through our orbital vicinity will eventually return and intersect with our orbital path. Given what we know and can know about its behavior, there is a one in 45,000 chance that it will collide with our planet. Those odds could significantly change in the next 16 years, given what we don’t know.
If this one doesn’t hit us, one eventually will and the future of our existence on this planet will be in doubt. But, life has no doubt evolved all over this huge system and such events are probably a common occurrence throughout the Universe. Dinosaurs and the rest of the 99% of species that have existed on this planet (as far as we can tell) had a long reign but eventually fell victim to the inevitable (random) asteroid collision. We are not even approaching the time span of those life forms.
Maybe, just maybe we can develop a population of creative, critical thinkers who will find ways to extend the human presence in the Universe, beyond the hostile environment on this planet, which is well known for its antagonistic characteristics toward life (earthquakes, volcanos, mega storms, droughts, etc.). Maybe we came from somewhere else in the past and will need to continue our journey through the cosmos by traveling elsewhere. Life is a mystery, indeed.