The Magic of Reason: Pseudoscience and Critical Thinking by Rev. J. Variable X/0
Remember the good old days when everyone knew breaking a mirror meant seven years of bad luck? And your soul would escape if you didn’t cover your nose when you sneezed? And left-handed folks were touched by the devil? These sound like silly superstitions to us now, but there was a time when they were passed along as common knowledge and accepted without question by many people. Some folk tales had a kernel of truth to them, of course, but others are so outlandish that we have to wonder how anyone could have ever taken them seriously.
Then again, if some of the “information” being passed around on the Internet today is any indication, humans are just as irrational and gullible as ever.
Why are we so willing, even eager, to swallow unfounded rumors and junk science? With all the conflicting stories and articles out there on the web, how can you tell the difference between good reporting and plain old claptrap?
Faith, Magic, and Skepticism
To emphasize logic and scientific method in a book about magic and spirituality may seem incongruous, but the ability to recognize nonsense, and the willingness to call it out when we see it, is an important part of the magical life. As enthusiasts of the mystical world, we’re already surrounded by questionable claims, and we eagerly incorporate unscientific lore into our daily lives. We know our beliefs are true . . . or do we? How do we know? Can we prove it? Do we have to?
I’m not going to try to debunk any of our dearly held spiritual perspectives here. (That would be pointless, anyway, as you’ll see.) Belief and passion are good. Objectivity and healthy skepticism are also good. What’s not good is when we get these approaches confused. It’s a slippery slope from passion and belief to fanaticism and pseudoscience.
Consider the Source
Caitlin Dewey writes in The Washington Post, “Since early 2014, a series of Internet entrepreneurs have realized that not much drives traffic as effectively as stories that vindicate and/or inflame the biases of their readers.”
If a hyperbolic headline gets you riled up, frantically hopeful, or feeling smug, make sure your left brain is paying attention, too. The media is supposed to be fair and unbiased, but these days, too much of it is all about “clickbait”: getting viewers to click on the link and share the picture or the article. You know those headlines—“She Bought a Bag of Tomatoes, but Wait till You See What Else Was in There!” or “He Never Believed in Ghosts until He Saw This . . .” You just have to click through to find out.
Those types of sites aren’t out to impress anyone with their journalistic integrity. They rely on page views to collect payment for the ad space. Some “news” sources are really nothing more than vehicles to deliver advertisements. They don’t even care if you read the material they present. Every time someone clicks on their link, they get to charge their advertisers a few more pennies.
Such tactics aren’t limited to silly stories about puppies or dubious spiritual manifestations. As I write this, the United States is about one month away from the next presidential election, and I don’t care whose side you’re on—social media is rife with half truths, blind rage, and outright lies about the candidates and the issues. The big-name news services we used to trust are bad enough, but the past few years have brought a plague of small-time news blogs of every political persuasion trying to outdo one another with stories that are little more than carefully edited material designed to get a reaction rather than to inform. These stories get posted and reposted by people whom I know should know better.
Religion and paranormal topics also make effective clickbait. If you’re bored with politics, go check out the latest “evidence” for the existence of ghosts. Or government conspiracies. Or Bigfoot. When it comes to getting your attention, it’s all the same to the marketers. The more sensational the headline, the more readers will respond to it on an emotional level and share it with their friends.
Learn to recognize your own knee-jerk reactions. Start asking questions before you repost the article or meme. Out-of-context statistics, quotes, and snarky one-liners that wrap up the entire issue soundly in your favor are probably leaving something out.
Time for a little fact-checking.
Pick an issue—politics, rumors, spirituality, paranormal—and study the opinions and claims of its most fervent supporters and detractors. Doesn’t it seem as though both sides are so busy yelling at each other that the real truth of the matter, whatever it is, has been lost? You want to convince others your position makes good sense, however, sharing everything that supports your opinion can backfire. Research the opposing views. Double-check their sources as well as your own.
The downside to fact-checking is that you’re likely to discover some facts you don’t like. Finding out you’re wrong is discouraging but useful: it leads to a greater understanding of your subject. It’s so much more satisfying to know you’re right and be able to back up your position with sound research and objective evidence than it is to spread rumors and hope for the best.
Arguing 101: Recognize Logical Fallacies
An argument isn’t necessarily a yelling match. Ideally, arguing is a process: a rational discussion of a particular claim or problem, with the goal of reaching an agreement and finding solutions. The human mind isn’t always rational, though. Our passions and emotions can get in the way, twisting perspectives and preventing us from really understanding one another and working together. “Logical fallacies” are common patterns of faulty reasoning that you can learn to spot in your own and others’ arguments, whether the topic is supernatural phenomena or a problem in the material world.
First, think about the original claim itself, and consider these questions:
Is it falsifiable?
Albert Einstein is supposed to have said, “No amount of experimentation can prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” No matter how much the evidence supports a hypothesis, it only takes one time when it doesn’t for the whole thing to fall to pieces.
A common example in logical philosophy is the case of the black swan. If I say, “All swans are white,” it doesn’t matter how many white swans we see—my statement isn’t confirmed until we’ve taken a look at every swan in existence. Finding even one single black swan will disprove my statement.
Now, what if I say, “All humans were made in the image of a deity”? Well, we could look at every human, but there’s really no way to tell if I’m wrong, since we have no physical examples of deities with which to compare them. This statement may or may not be true.
By the same token, someone who says there are no deities at all is also offering a nonfalsifiable claim: one might, some day, appear to objective observers. In other words, atheists who insist there’s nothing outside of this mundane reality are relying on faith, not facts, much like the fanatical believers who want to argue with them about it. (No matter how strongly we believe one way or another, we all have to wait until death before we can know for sure!)
A falsifiable claim can be proven to be true or false. A nonfalsifiable claim might be true or false, but there’s no way to tell.
Is it reproducible?
A single experiment or personal experience is not proof. A claim has to be true all the time, for everyone, in order to be valid. Given the same environmental factors, any independent researcher should be able to get the same result. If the ghost of Great Uncle Felix haunts the bell tower at midnight, then anyone (including a team of objective investigators) should be able to see him. If he only appears to his favorite niece, that doesn’t automatically mean she’s just imagining things, but it also gives no one else a reason to believe in ghosts.
Next, examine the points being made and see if you can spot any of these classic logical fallacies:
Confirmation Bias: It’s a natural human tendency to pay more attention to facts and ideas that support our position while ignoring or rejecting those which might contradict us. We tend to give extra weight to material that confirms what we already think. We want magic and souls and the afterlife to be real. We want the annoying politician or celebrity to be taken down a few notches. But it’s important to understand and acknowledge all the facts, without cherry-picking only the ones we like, before we can make an intelligent conclusion.
Strawman: When someone counters a claim by bringing up a different problem, they divert attention from the original topic.
“Children in war-torn countries are suffering.”
“Yes, but how can we worry about that when so many children in our own country are homeless?”
Both problems merit concern, but the second point doesn’t really address the first.
Appeal to Emotion: This is what makes you accept a claim (or click on a link) out of pity, anger, fear, a sense of self-righteousness, or some other emotional reaction. We want to trust our intuitions so badly when something “just feels right,” but no matter how strong the feelings may be, someone else is always going to have equally strong opposing feelings. Feelings are not proof.
Appeal to Authority: It’s tempting to trust Dr. Smartypants, PhD, to do the thinking and the research for us (even if his or her chosen field has nothing to do with the issue in question), but everyone—including scientists, professors, and spiritual leaders—has an agenda, even if their intentions are honest. Sometimes they exaggerate to sound more impressive. Sometimes they want to win grant money or sell books. Educated professionals are subject to confirmation bias, too, and sometimes they’re just plain wrong.
Ad Hominem: This is Latin for “to the person.” An ad hominem attack is when one person tries to refute another’s claim on the basis of their character, rather than addressing the claim itself. “He’s a bad guy, so I know he’s lying!” Well, he might be the worst guy in the world, but he might also be right about some things.
Appeal to Popular Opinion: “A million people can’t be wrong!” Yes. Yes, they can.
False Cause: As magical practitioners, we’ve all had experiences that seem to indicate there’s more to the universe beyond mundane reality. If your spell works, especially more than once, there might be something to it. One event happening after another, though, doesn’t necessarily imply the first one caused the second. Is the effect consistently reproducible for any spellcaster? What else might have created the effect? The magical arts provide an excellent field for study and experimentation, and the laws of physics are probably far stranger than the naysayers realize. Take lots of notes! You just might discover something new.
False Compromise (or Middle Ground): “Well, the real truth is somewhere in between.” Often it is. Sometimes it isn’t. This fallacy is a good way to sidestep any further arguing and change the subject.
The Fallacy Fallacy: The most poorly crafted argument you’ve ever heard might still contain some truth. Just because someone commits a logical fallacy (or ten) doesn’t mean their idea is automatically wrong.
Critical thinking is not an outright denial of faith. It doesn’t invalidate your feelings. It’s simply an intelligent way to process information. You can be a skeptic, a believer, an activist, and a realist and practice your Craft all at the same time—they’re not mutually exclusive, as long as you don’t get your objective truths mixed up with your subjective ideas. Critical thinking does more than protect you from looking foolish. It can help you convince others to agree with your position and to take up your cause: a valuable tool in any magical arsenal!
Dewey, Caitlin. “What Was Fake on the Internet This Week: Why This Is the Final Column.” The Washington Post, December 18, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/12/18/what-was-fake-on-the-internet-this-week-why-this-is-the-final-column/.