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Logic and rhetoric
Magical thinking is a form of fallacious reasoning that assumes causative relationships from correlation alone. Science and the scientific method are designed to elucidate causal relationships through careful controlled experiments; magical thinking, given a correlation with an observed effect, pulls a causation out of thin air. An example of magical thinking is coming to believe that a particular piece of jewelry is lucky because a few good things happened when it was worn.
The lazy way
In the 1950s, Horace Mitchell Miner took the then-popular method of looking at a "primitive" people and dismissing their ways as magical thinking and turned it on the then-current United States. His darkly satirical paper "Body Ritual among the Nacirema" showed how with this mindset, even the most scientifically-based, technologically-advanced society could be portrayed as believers in magic:
- Chlorination of water to prevent disease is reduced to "the Water Temple of the community, where the priests conduct elaborate ceremonies to make the liquid ritually pure".
- The hospital with all its hard-learned scientific advances is reduced to a temple "that is where you go to die", with the nurses now "vestal maidens" and the doctors now "medicine men".
- Scientific medicine is reduced to "ceremonies" of "discomfort and torture" with "magic wands" (thermometers) and "magically treated needles" (antibiotics and medicines).
After this, Miner's fellow anthropologists got the hint and actually looked at magic: they discovered that the only real differences between the magical worldview and science was that magic didn't have a self-correcting mechanism nor a set procedure for determining which concept best fit what was being observed.[note 1]
Miner showed that slapping the "magic" label on something was the lazy way to do things.
Another common example of magical thinking emerges in alternative medicine. Many diseases have a natural progression and will go away on their own. If someone gets a headache and swallows some water provided by a homeopath, when the headache goes away, they may assign the cause to the water rather than natural progression. This form of magical thinking combined with the placebo effect and regression to the mean explains a large amount of supposedly positive anecdotal evidence.
B.F. Skinner's studies of how pigeons reacted to stimuli shows a similar phenomenon, in that the birds frequently repeated the same actions they had been making at times when food was released, as if seeing a pattern, when in fact the food was released at random intervals. This suggests that superstition and behaviours often characterised as "magical thinking" may be more closely connected with blind instinct than with sapient thought.
- Cargo cult
- Correlation does not imply causation
- Hasty generalization
- Improbable things happen
- Name it and claim it
- Post hoc, ergo propter hoc
- Wishful thinking and especially the "law" of attraction, which literally relies on thinking actually being magical.
Want to read this in another language?
- Magical Thinking: How to avoid an insidious thought error
- "4 'Superpowers' Everyone Thinks They Secretly Have" (from Cracked)
- Body Ritual among the Nacirema by Horace Miner, American Anthropologist, 1956, 58(3), 503-507.
- To put that another way, magic and science both look for cause and effect, but magic just sloppily throws a loosely-plausible explanation together and calls it a day, whereas science looks into things several times over, strives to control for unforeseen variables, and otherwise strives to make sure that it's arrived at the right answer rather than the right-sounding answer.