Saturday, March 5, 2011

Magic in the Gaps

 This post will also be found in Tehachapi's The Loop Newspaper

I recently saw a magic show. Some of the illusions and tricks were very good. (Congratulations Michael.) Now it is a quirk of our minds to find “magic” in things we don't understand. And we often grab on to whatever explanation comes first. Especially with lucky “charms”.

I've heard of sports teams that don't shave through the playoffs to bring them good luck. And I recall a TV show (WKRP in Cincinnati) where one of the characters had a band-aid on in every episode, supposedly since it happened in the first show and they felt it brought them luck. 

The association of unrelated events is something our brains do pretty well. And evolution hasn't done a thing to remove it. Back when our ancestors lived in the wild, the overly sensitive tended to survive. If you saw or heard things that weren't there you didn't have a big a problem as those who didn't see or hear the things that were there. Especially if those things were predators. So our brains evolved the tendency to accept bad explanations. 

And I may have just done the same. Evolutionary psychology has a tendency to make explanations for the behavior of people today and look for causes based on the evolutionary pressures of our ancestors. Which can often be rightly criticized as “just so stories.” But unlike so many other attempts at explaining the mysteries of how things work, they are at least falsifiable. 

And over the centuries we have developed ways of overcoming the problems with our brains. Face it our brains are pretty flawed (and much too fragile). But we can still achieve a lot using learned techniques of logic and critical thinking.
So we have pushed much of the magic, that motivated our ancestors, out into the fringes. Astrology has been pushed out and what stayed with us was astronomy. Alchemy was pushed aside and left us with chemistry. The magical portions are gone except for entertainment purposes. 

There remains quite a bit of magical thinking in medical issues. Perhaps this is due to medical science, as a science, still being rather new. The fringes might be bigger, but a lot of nonsense has already been pushed aside. For example, blood letting is now rare, but might have contributed to the Death of George Washington. (See this page for a bit of a frightening story of medical treatment from 200 years ago.) 

Science has done so much to push out magical thinking, those who still want to find magic in the world have to use scientific sounding words and phrases to explain their brand of magic. The word “quantum” should be a red flag to all. Which is not to say quantum mechanics isn't weird and bizarre. But if someone is trying to sell you some bottled water and the word quantum comes up. Move away slowly and shop elsewhere.

I sometimes find myself watching shows on TV about ancient astronauts, ghost hunters, or people trying to track down sasquatch. And these can be a lot of fun. Scientific sounding “experts”, cool technological toys, and a lot of false skeptics. Entertaining. 

Which is where we've pushed magic. Into diversions and shows. But that's OK. I think it's even better to see the world as it really is. It is still amazing.

1 comment:

  1. The magic show was fun. I liked watching the look on the childrens' faces as they were amazed at how Michael could do the tricks. It reminds me of believing in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Then my parents decided it was time for me to grow up and explained they weren't real. What a shock! My life experiences have taught me that nothing can bring "good luck". As you have mentioned in one of your Loop articles "it's a coincidence".
    It is wonderful to live in this world of advanced knowledge in science and medicine. All the technology available to help our "flawed" brains (I know mine is)learn more about the wonders of the human body, bugs, plants,and so much more amazing stuff in this universe. Rocks my world. Google is my BFF.