The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Our Next Lecture at Caltech

New Admission Policy and Prices

Please note there are important policy and pricing changes for this season of lectures at Caltech. Please review these changes now.

SINCE 1992, the Skeptics Society has sponsored the Skeptics Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech: a monthly lecture series at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA. Most lectures are available for purchase in audio & video formats. Watch several of our lectures for free online. Our next lecture is…

Dr. Christopher Boehm (photo by Jenny Cool)
Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame

Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 2 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall

If the human instinct to survive and reproduce is “selfish,” why do people engage in self-sacrifice, and even develop ideas like virtue and shame to justify that altruism? Many theories have been put forth, some emphasizing the role of nepotism, others emphasizing the advantages of reciprocation or group selection effects. Evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm offers an elegant new theory. Tracing the development of altruism and group social control over 6 million years, Boehm argues that our moral sense is a sophisticated defense mechanism that enables individuals to survive and thrive in groups. One of the biggest risks of group living is the possibility of being punished for our misdeeds by those around us. Bullies, thieves, free-riders, and especially psychopaths are the most likely to suffer this fate. Getting by requires getting along, and this social type of selection, Boehm shows, singles out altruists for survival. This selection pressure has been unique in shaping human nature, and it bred the first stirrings of conscience in the human species. Dr. Boehm offers profound insight into humanity’s moral past—and how it might shape our moral future.

Followed by…

    The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers
    Can Teach Us About Success

    Sunday, October 28, 2012 at 2 pm
    Baxter Lecture Hall

Read about the rest of
this season’s lectures


Why I’m Still Working on Ankylosaur Attack
a Year After Publication

Daniel Loxton describes a factual error in his children’s paleofiction book Ankylosaur Attack—and the unusual step he has taken to fix it a year after publication. Order a copy of the book from Shop Skeptic.



Attracting a Mix: Skeptics and Believers

Skeptrack Dragon logo

This week on Skepticality, Derek presents another recording from the 2012 Skeptrack Panel at Dragon*Con on the topic of “Attracting a Mix: Skeptics and Believers,” featuring Sharon Hill, Tim Farley, and Nicole Gugliucci. Panelists discuss how to tailor your message so it may attract people from the widest range of world views for the greatest potential good.


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About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Kevin J. McCaffree reviews Matthew Hutson’s new book The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy and Sane (Hudson Street Press, 2012, ISBN 978-1594630873).

Kevin McCaffree is a doctoral student at the University of California Riverside. He has thus far co-published an extensive interdisciplinary and cross-cultural review of the literature on alcohol and human experience, along with two articles, co-authored with Robert Nash Parker, which have appeared in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review. He has most recently published a book detailing the relationship between alcohol and human violence in a variety of contexts, co-authored with Robert Nash Parker and published by Rowman and Littlefield. He is currently working on a dissertation that provides a perception-based theory of the cultural evolution of morality across various technological and scientific stages of society.

Is Magical Thinking Good?

a book review by Kevin J. McCaffree

Matthew Hutson sets high goals for himself in his book, The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking. His mission, stated in the introduction, is to convince readers that even the most skeptical among us are, at base, subject to magical thinking and that this very process is both necessary and beneficial for navigating life. Such an argument would be difficult for any smart science writer to make, especially one not openly writing a work of apologetics—Hutson is an unabashedly committed naturalist. Though he sets for himself an upward climb, Hutson’s wit and incisive research is, for the most part, up to the difficult task.

Hutson defines “magical thinking” as the process of confusing objectivity and subjectivity, blurring properties of mind (intentions, desires) with properties of the material and physical world. He borrows late 19th and early 20th century anthropologist James George Frazer’s categorization of magical thought to organize his own examples. Frazer divided “magical” thought into two forms, contagion and similarity. Frazer’s “law of contagion” was meant to denote empirical regularities in how people view material objects. He noted that people often infuse such objects with characteristics or essences usually reserved for human beings, based on the proximity of those objects with certain people. To illustrate the law of contagion, Hutson describes the cross-country tour of John Lennon’s personal piano and the profound emotional experience fans describe after spending some time with it. Sure, it’s just a piano, but it is also the piano on which “Imagine” was composed. From a magical thinking perspective, Lennon’s spirit was so contagious that his own piano was a lucky beneficiary. For countless fans, a real part of who Lennon was now lives on in the form of a piano.

Hutson also makes use of Frazer’s “law of similarity,” which describes the human tendency to assume that like causes like. This helps, in large part, to explain why nations of people tend to get flustered at the thought of their flag being burned. Sure, it is just a flaming lump of nylon and polyester. Yet, flags are also symbolic of an entire country of human beings. It isn’t the burning of the flag that engenders hostility, it’s the implicit attempt to burn the people which the flag represents—like causes like. There is, as with all biases in psychology, a social dimension to this magical thinking as well. The same quirk that produces your hesitation in eating a French fry off the floor (dirty floors cause dirty French fries) also produces the most agonizing and asinine disregard for those who suffer most in society (dire, dirty living conditions cause impure, dirty people).

The book subsequently expands on the “laws” of contagion and similarity to explore other forms of magical thinking. Indeed, Hutson does not present seven “laws” as such; rather, he describes five subsequently overlapping forms or manifestations of the laws of contagion and similarity. Nowhere in the book are seven “laws” listed or summarized; most of the book after the first two chapters is a litany of examples of magical thinking, organized by type and categorized based on their kinship to the laws of similarity and contagion. Chapters thus cover superstitious thinking (which piggybacks on the law of similarity—whistling is said to encourage storms, probably because breath is equated with wind), mind/body dualism (the general tendency to view the material brain as an immaterial “mind”), immortality and reincarnation (viewing a material body as comprised of an immaterial essence), anthropomorphism (law of similarity) and karma (law of similarity—good brings good, bad brings bad).

Hutson does more than just discuss these various topics; an unusually good case is made for the general benefits of magical thinking. A particularly shining example is that of “metaphor therapy,” or therapy that uses symbolic ritual actions to aid people in major life transitions and decisions. Suppose you’ve just been the victim of a particularly bad breakup (or loss of a family member) and you’re finding it difficult to move on. Metaphor therapy might recommend taking a small token of your affection for that person, meditating over it and spending a day driving to your favorite beach (let’s say) and solemnly burying said memento in the sand. This ritualistic activity actually rides on the coattails of magical thinking and, Hutson suggests, can actually improve our lives. Burying that small token of affection in the sand might not have any logical purpose, but it speaks to our magical mind. Through the law of contagion, that memento still harbors the essences and intricacies of a now lost relationship. Ceremoniously burying the object might well signify, in a deeply emotional sense, the positive side of beginning a new life without that essence.

In general, the book is well-researched, up-to-date and highly accessible for those who are new to this subject matter. Unfortunately, his “seven laws” are more accurately characterized as a largely undifferentiated, yet colorful, lump of psychological biases. Nevertheless, in the hands of a writer as accessible as Hutson, it is easy to overlook these more general organizational and theoretical issues.

I submit, however, that writing a book about cognitive biases and showing that they increase self-esteem and confidence is still a long way from showing that magical thought is both necessary and beneficial. In my estimation, Hutson falls short for not taking more of an interest in the long-term consequences of believing falsities about reality. I have no doubt that believing falsities in the short term might well raise your sense of control over your environment. Yet, what will the consequences of that sense of control be? Will you write the great American novel with the help of your newfound ability to magnetize ideas to yourself? Or will you just end up confidently wasting your hard earned cash on New Age crystals and candles? At the end of the day, a simple boost in confidence won’t tell us—we must know something more about our life trajectory, goals and intentions. A self-confident Hitler is a qualitatively different case from a self-confident Nelson Mandela. It is not clear to me that Hutson has made a case that systematically believing false things is beneficial, on balance, in the modern world.

Perhaps most people, much of the time, think in a way that might be loosely categorized as “magical.” Yet key to Hutson’s argument is that all of us—atheist, skeptic and evangelical alike—possess magical beliefs. In an effort to show that everyone (yes, everyone) believes in magic, Hutson relays an anecdote about Richard Dawkins, wherein the famed atheist fawns over an early edition of Darwin’s classic work On the Origin of Species because, “this is the most precious book in my collection.” Because Dawkins is imbuing a bound collection of paper with some measure of sacredness, he is, in Hutson’s view, thinking magically. Yet, Dawkins knows that his copy of On the Origin of Species isn’t actually special or unique. The book is simply symbolic of something that is—the ideas behind evolution by natural selection. I seriously doubt that Dawkins would fail to see this distinction. Not everyone can see it or does see it, though. Indeed, perhaps most people in possession of a book they consider special, magical or sacred really believe the book is special, magic or sacred in some supernatural sense—consider the attitudes of millions towards their holy books.

The difference and the distinction to make here is whether or not people have a dispassionate, third order belief about the behavior in which they are engaging. Dawkins probably feels enchanted and awed in the presence of an early edition of Darwin’s book. He may even feel that he is in the presence of the sacred. Yet, he also is capable, as a function of his education and erudition, of seeing his actions as subjective and overdrawn, a simple consequence of our near-instinctual emotional lunging towards that which we value. Dawkins understands the mind and how it works, so when he indulges a bit of syrupy, foggy sacredness, he understands dispassionately, on a fundamental level, what he is doing. This level of understanding isn’t available to everyone and it therefore marks a deep conceptual difficulty with the simple argument that, “everyone thinks magically.” Some people think of magical thought as an open invitation to unrestrained supernatural indulgence while others think of magical thought as a subjectively enjoyable cognitive illusion with numerous undesirable side effects. This difference isn’t trivial and it isn’t addressed by Hutson.

All told, Matthew Hutson has produced a well-written, and well-researched book with an extremely difficult mission: to show the irrational to be beneficial and the beneficial to be, at least in some respects, irrational. Further, he wants to convince you that even the most skeptical among us is a magical thinker. While I appreciated the review of the literature he provides, and I enjoyed his voice as a writer, my mind remains unchanged. Hutson remarks towards the end of the book that his desire in writing it was to, “unite my allegiance to critical thinking with my celebration of enchantment.” Unfortunately, Hutson’s definition of “enchantment” is inappropriately broad enough to include both a beautiful sunset and the scientifically false assertions of New Age gurus. Because both sunsets and psychics can be loosely understood as “enchanting” or “magical,” they must both be valuable aspects of subjective human experience, right? Not as far as I can see.

Skeptical perspectives on magical thinking, self-deception, and the psychology of superstitious belief…
cover Believing In Magic:
The Psychology of Superstition

by Stuart A. Vyse

Examines current behavioral research which suggests that everyday superstitions are the natural result of well-understood psychological processes. Vyse entertainingly demonstrates how complex and paradoxical human behaviors can be understood through science. A significant contribution.

Order the book

cover The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life
by Robert Trivers

Deceit and self-deception carry the costs of being alienated from reality and can lead to disaster. So why does deception play such a prominent role in our everyday lives? Trivers unflinchingly argues that self-deception evolved in the service of deceit—the better to fool others. We do it for biological reasons—in order to help us survive and procreate. From viruses mimicking host behavior to humans misremembering (sometimes intentionally) the details of a quarrel, science has proven that the deceptive one can always outwit the masses. But, he warns, we undertake this deception at our own peril…

Order the lecture on DVD

cover Luck, ESP & Magic:
How Science Tests the Unusual

by Dr. Richard Wiseman

Dr. Wiseman has established an international reputation for research into the scientific examination of unusual areas within psychology. His lecture will cover these many interests, including: the Luck Project, lying and lie detection, the psychology of magic, eyewitness testimony, the psychology of the paranormal, and experimenter bias in ESP research…

Order the lecture on DVD

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