Magical Thinking

One of the things I find most dismaying about the current political and cultural climate is the utter disdain for facts among some people. If a fact is inconvenient, just lie and say things are the way you want them to be.

Put more charitably, this is “magical thinking”. The fact of asserting something will make it so, or that if you can convince enough people, saying something is so will make it so. I find it maddening.

To be fair, there are times when magical thinking does in fact, work. It’s most effective when it’s directed at human efforts, because of the self-fulfilling prophecy effect. If people believe something is so, they will work to make it happen. Over and over again, when you read about how something was done, you read that “If we had known how difficult this would be, we would have never done it” Or you see the person who fails because they gave up on themselves.

Steve Jobs was a notable magical thinker. He was able to envision how things would be, and had a “reality distortion field” to make others believe along with him. The original Macintosh was built partly on magical thinking — for both good and bad.

On the plus side of the ledger, he was able to get his team working 80 hours a week to create the first semi-affordable graphical user interface. On the other side, the original Mac only had 128 KB of memory, a laughably small amount of space for the work the computer had to do, because Jobs insisted on it. Within 6 months Apple had to admit it wasn’t enough, and released a Mac with somewhat more memory.

More critically, the physical world doesn’t believe in our magic. Thinking something will become so when it isn’t, doesn’t help with things like viruses or cancers or the atmosphere. When Jobs first found out about his cancer, he insisted on trying diet based remedies, despite the urgent advice from his doctors that surgery was needed. By the time he agreed, the surgery was too late, and his cancer had spread.

Magical thinking won’t make climate change go away. There has been pretty good scientific consensus about what’s going on for a couple of decades. I remember Isaac Asimov writing about it over three decades ago. The world is getting warmer, on average, than it was. Fall lasts longer into winter, and springs — not every spring, but on average — have been coming earlier. What we’re seeing aligns well with predicted models, and we need to accept that the climate is changing, and that the seas are rising.

Mitigation work, on the other hand, probably would respond to magical thinking. It’s unclear what it would take to update infrastructure to take the rise in sea level into account; a “can-do” attitude would help.

Magical thinking won’t make the corona virus go away. The virus doesn’t know or care what people believe, it just wants a host to infect. It’s just as contagious whether you think it is or not, and the effects on any one person are a crapshoot. Some people, will feel crummy for a couple of days. Some people will be respiratory cripples for a long time. And some people it will kill.

With that in mind, I think it’s really foolish and stupid and selfish not to take the warnings about social distancing seriously. We know it’s crazy contagious, and we know it kills. To believe otherwise just because it’s what we want to believe is magical thinking, and magical thinking doesn’t work with the physical world, and not recognizing that is the peak and pinnacle of stupidity. It angers me immensely that this country has so many stupid fools.

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