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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?