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Why Do People Believe in Magic?

Perhaps my title is unnecessarily confrontational but the water supply to my house stopped this morning (frozen/burst pipes) and I had to come to work without having a shower so I’m grumpy. Very grumpy. I’m also somewhat fragrant, but best not to dwell.

Anyway back to the question. From time to time I run into people who believe in the efficacy of things like Homoeopathy or dowsing and when I talk to them about why they think this they respond with anecdotes. Sometimes they are personally involved in the anecdotes, sometimes these are something they heard from someone who heard it from someone… etc. interestingly they rarely question either their own perception or the stories they are told. They also rarely question how these things work.

I’ve thought about this for a while and it seems there is a certain personality type, and this may be the majority of people, that will more readily believe subjective stories than objective evidence. Not only do they not see subjectivity as a weakness they see it as a positive strength.

I remember 25+ years ago hearing people discuss the link between smoking and cancer, the tobacco companies were still claiming there was a scientific controversy (denialists never change). I recall several times hearing statements like – “my aunt Joan smoked 60 a day and lived to be 90” – always delivered with a self satisfied tone as if this supposed fact trumped every medical study on the connections between smoking and lung cancer. Recently I watched a video of a debate on Homoeopathy on Ben Goldacre’s site and the comments at the end were of exactly the same type.

My question for you all is why should this be so? Why when someone is told that water has memory or that there is an ethereal substance called Qi disturbances in which cause illness and the balance of which can be restored by sticking pins in you (or not), don’t they question? Were these people born bereft of BS detectors? Is it purely an educational issue?

A more practical question is what do you do when confronted with a True Believer? Is it best just to smile and back away slowly?


4 Responses

  1. People are more inept to believe what provides them with comfort. Anything that gives them an answer which they can live with. Personally, I don’t believe logical explanations can account for everything that occurs. Humans developed logic as an interpretation using all of their senses which were available to them.
    So let’s say, just as a bat cannot see, that there is a sense which is not obtainable by normal creatures such as humans. There is little need to slander anything which you don’t understand, but the question is if it works or does -not- work. Therefore, religion and science must co-exist in order to achieve full understanding of the universe.

  2. Science is a belief just as much as anything else.
    “God does not play dice”?
    I don’t understand why people seem to keep going on about rationalism. It’s as if society hasn’t caught up with science yet. While I deeply respect Einstein, he was wrong on that score. Everything IS probability – god does play dice. Look at string theory and the theory that there are multiple universes. Don’t know much about the latter, but it sounds magic!
    Don’t forget that science, while massively effective, is based on belief too. Look at how the scientific body rejected Cantor’s mathematics because it didn’t fit into there nice scheme. It is now the basis of set theory. Thereafter it took three pages in the Mathematica Informatica (the big wig maths book) three pages to prove that 1 plus 1 is 2.
    Let me know if I’m mistaken here, but as far as I’m aware, some of the core principles we still use today are based on “magic”. Principles such as Pythagoras’s theorem are based on the divine ratios.
    That’s been my problem so far with Richard Dawkins. He slants religions, which is fine by me, but he doesn’t say much about spirituality. Science has come from the same spiritual roots as religion. Trying to find out why.
    The only certainty is that nothing is certain.
    One more thing about logic…. I love logic, but it has it’s limits. Look at the way your marketed to. Your marketed via your feelings. Advertisers used to market by telling how functionally good something was but that was a long time ago. Now the sell you the magic. You can get the girl, be secure, etc.

  3. I read Michael Shermers book “Why people believe weird things” not so long ago and he sets out 25 reasons why thinking goes wrong. Don’t worry, while they all seem to apply hereI ‘m not going to list them all. But some are particularly relevant:
    – Anecdotes do not make science
    – Scientific Language does not make science
    – Failures are rationalised
    – After the fact reasoning
    – need for certainty, control, simplicity

    In many ways it goes back to the pervasive influence of religion. Credulity is the default position, otherwise people would have noticed the ineffectiveness of prayer long ago. The hits get counted and the misses go unnoticed. Another factor is that religion depends on personal/internal knowledge; “I know god exists because I can feel him in me” This allows people to say “I just know this works – I feel it” and not have to offer any evidence.

    As to how to deal with the true believer – you already know this – the same way you deal with religious believers. Indifference / ridicule / rational argument – the choice is yours.

    It can only be tackled properly when the heirs (and beneficiaries) of the Enlightnement, doctors, scientists and educated people generally step up to the mark and challenge these beliefs. Currently they get the same “free pass from criticism” as religion does.

  4. I think that a core problem appears to be a lack of understanding of the tools of critical thinking generally in society. It’s not taught in school, and instead kids from an early age are told fairy stories and lead to believe that they are the truth.

    The belief in strange things maybe a combination of poor education in the techniques of acquiring real knowledge as well as a misplaced disenchantment with those voices from the past that told us things with no basis whatsoever.

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