The Unfunny Joke
How our disposition towards magical thinking always makes us the butt of the story
On the rare occasions anyone is compelled to read a school textbook on the topic of History, and in particular on the subject of past beliefs, it’s often the case that reactions vary from amusement to incredulity. How could people back then believe in the nonsense that was delivered earnestly by priests and physicians alike? How could entire countries succumb to mass hysteria over witches and stone, hang, burn, and drown thousands of harmless women as a result? How could anyone imagine that bleeding would cure disease, or that herbs would be an efficacious prophylactic?
It’s easy to laugh at people long since dead. Distanced from their time, we feel no compulsion to believe in demonic possession, exorcisms, or the value of throwing salt over our left shoulder. Unless of course we still believe those things, as hundreds of millions of people alive today actually do.
For the most part, however, we have different nonsense we earnestly believe in.
Most people in the world today still profess belief in invisible creatures that are credited with all manner of impressive accomplishments, yet for which not even the slightest shred of evidence has ever existed. In China, educated middle-class people are responsible for the extinction of countless species around the world as they imagine that rhino horn and tiger penis are aphrodisiacs and that pangolin skin has curative properties. Lest we feel tempted to imagine ourselves in the West superior, let’s remember how many of us believe in homeopathic remedies, the healing power of crystals and copper bracelets, and detox footbaths. Meanwhile, corporations have embraced such nonsense as Myers-Briggs, graphology, and (in Japan) blood tests to determine which sort of jobs are most suitable for their candidates.
Women around the world spend a literal fortune on products that are not only worthless but also very often rather toxic. Creams that supposedly “repair” skin and tissues, shampoos that supposedly “nourish” hair (which is keratin, and hence dead, and hence far beyond any possibility of absorbing nourishment of any kind), and a thousand other absurdities are eagerly bought by women who earnestly believe the most spurious marketing claims. And in several Western nations, men are not far behind.
Despite all empirical evidence showing clearly that Freudian psychotherapy does no good and often does a great deal of harm, there are still thousands of Freudian therapists making good livings from “treating” their patients. Doctors still induce labor despite all available evidence showing this is a catastrophically stupid thing to do under all circumstances. And people are still building and buying homes on flood planes and next to tinder-dry forests.
When we begin to look at the vast panoply of human folly that spreads out before us and extends far past any horizon imaginable, it’s impossible not to cry or, alternatively, laugh.
Although the specifics of our near-infinite variety of follies vary according to time and location, there is one fundamental similarity that runs through all of our sad history. Our brains are evolved to deal with the simple environments of the African savannah and the primordial forests of Eurasia. We avoid attempting to think whenever possible because thinking consumes huge amounts of blood glucose, and for most of our evolutionary history that glucose was more often needed to power muscles than to support cogitation. In consequence, our brains have an extremely strong preference for simplicity and an extremely strong reluctance to attempt to grapple with complex multi-faceted reality.
It is therefore inevitable that the common thread binding all our multitudinous follies together is this: we eagerly embrace simplistic notions and we shun complicated ideas. This ensures we spend most of our lives embracing, in one form or another, magical thinking.
Unfortunately for us, reality is complicated and simple ideas are invariably not only wrong but usually harmful as well. When we think gods exist and we have to propitiate them, we used to sacrifice beings and today we waste billions on organized religion. When we believe in sympathetic magic, we exterminate charismatic megafauna in the belief we’ll inherit their potency. When we cleave to simple-minded slogans we elect blustering incompetents. And when we’re faced with the relentless sensationalism of the mass media, we lose our bearings entirely and magical thinking entirely dominates our behaviors.
For the last year we’ve seen what happens when the mass media latches onto a story that enables our fear and confusion to be amply monetized. Entire societies panic and hapless politicians flail wildly in search of voter-pleasing policies regardless of their practical utility and regardless of the harms they may cause. Politicians know better than most how ordinary people can only focus on one thing at a time; thus appeasing frightened voters is Job One and it’s highly unlikely more than a handful of eccentrics will take note of the disproportionate harms caused thereby. Practically no one will be able to see the bigger picture because they’ll simply accept whatever the media tells them.
Few people are immune to magical thinking. I remember some years ago talking to a Western-educated doctor from Tanzania. He came from a remote rural village where people still pray to various local gods and during times of drought earnestly perform ritualistic rain dances. When I asked him what he thought of it, he smiled ruefully and said, “Well, of course we can argue that rain dances can’t really make the rains come, but they can’t do any harm and maybe they do help a little bit.”
It’s that final part of the sentence: “and maybe they do help a little bit” that gives the game away. Few of us are immune to the combination of magical thinking and wishful thinking. It’s what powers the cosmetics industry and the religion industry and, increasingly, the politics industry.
Today we see magical thinking embraced across society, from supposed “experts” through politicians to the person in the street. Once magical thinking has established itself, no one questions the precepts, just as no one questions the efficacy of the rain dance in a remote Tanzanian village.
It’s not surprising that when entire societies are stampeded into panic by irresponsible reportage, magical thinking should dominate. Nor is it surprising that, once established as the only socially acceptable mode of operating, magical thinking should be strongly resistant to real-world data. After all, who among the general population ever makes the slightest effort to look at data and reason from it? Far easier to accept the blaring newspaper headline, the earnest TV anchor reading from a teleprompter, and the government expert earnestly pimping his/her pet theory. Surely all these people must know what they are talking about?
Of course they do. Just like the Witchfinders knew what they were talking about. Just like doctors always know what they are talking about. Just like politicians always know what they are talking about. It’s easy to know what’s true: just see what everyone else believes.
There is a tiny drawback to this approach, but we humans don’t mind adverse consequences so long as we don’t think about them until it’s too late. That way, we can believe it’s not our fault, even when we’ve brought the roof down on our own heads though our own purposeful actions.
Yet the evidence for a reality-based approach to life is usually available. Although the placebo effect is often powerful, and although confirmation bias is endemic in our species, we can look at the data to see patterns our simplicity-seeking brains can’t easily detect otherwise. If we study rainfall data we can see that the rains generally follow the weather in a predictable manner; the frequency and fervor of rain dances has zero impact on outcomes. If we look at physiological responses to tiger penis or rhino horn in double-blind placebo-controlled studies we see there are no benefits from consuming these substances.
And if we look at policies intended to mitigate SARS-COV-2 fatalities, we can likewise let the data tell us what works and what does not work. We can even use basic reasoning at times, so glaring is the gap between rationality and magical thinking. Unfortunately, we are stuck in the mode of “and maybe it does help a little bit.” It is likely we will remain trapped in our magical thinking over covid-19 and never see what the data has been telling us all this time. Which is a great shame, because one and a half billion people have been made to suffer for our folly, and doubtless there will be much more unnecessary suffering in the long months ahead. But hey, “maybe it does help a little bit.”
So that’s all right, then, even though as always the joke is on us.