More “Magic Thinking”

“Magic Thinking” is the idea that belief can change the physical world.  Now, I’d be the first to admit that someone’s beliefs can motivate them to accomplish great things, but in the end it is the accomplishments that can change the world, not the beliefs.  Belief is the first step, and at least in my experience, often the easiest.

Yet today, all over the United States, we’ve had a resurgence of “magic thinking” totally divorced from reality.

How can a culture that promotes Viagra, movies and television with intense sexual content, that supplies its young people with private transportation and funds, and that now has the largest gap between the age of physical maturity and financial and social maturity honestly believe that abstinence is going to be practiced for ten years or more by a significant fraction of the young population?  It isn’t; and the facts show it, but legislators across the country continue to push abstinence as the solution and to reject any form of realistic sex education.

Here in Utah, as well as in other states, legislators are busy passing laws that are clearly unconstitutional, laws that their own legal counsels have advised them against.  The latest here is a proposal to “reclaim” all federal lands and declare them state lands.  And at a time when state finances are is short supply, they’ve even declared themselves willing to spend $3 million on a futile lawsuit – while “boasting” the worst-funded primary and secondary education system in the state.  They’re going to send a message to Washington – and to anyone who doesn’t believe as they do – and they believe such messages will change things, even as they reject the messages of others who don’t share their beliefs.

We even see magic thinking in sports, with the recent episodes of Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos [although Tebow is now a New York Jet], the feeling that belief will overcome a less than stellar passing capability – and for a time, given the impact of belief on performance, it did, but belief has a tendency to fall short over time when confronted with superior abilities and equal determination.

When manifested in international relations, magic thinking can be deadly.  Too many American politicians have shown this over the past fifty years by actions supporting their belief that all that’s needed in the Middle East and elsewhere is “democratic government.”  But they tend to ignore the practical fact that democracy doesn’t work well in cultures that have enshrined bribery and corruption as social necessities, or that continue to regard women as property, or the possibility that people in other cultures, even with more representative and honest governments, may still oppose U.S. policies and aims both politically and militarily.

In the end, there’s a simple fact that all too many “magic thinkers” don’t understand:  The strength of one’s beliefs does not make something so. All the denying in the world isn’t going to stop global warming.  All the religion in the world isn’t going to overturn the fact of evolution, and all the belief in abstinence isn’t going to stop hot-blooded young people from having sex.  Nor is all the belief in the supremacy of American “ideals” unsupported by a massive commitment of physical power going to ensure that American policies and beliefs spread and triumph, although it’s likely to get thousands more American soldiers killed.


12 thoughts on “More “Magic Thinking””

  1. Alan says:

    I don’t believe anyone can argue that people like to believe many false things. As some one once quoted to me- People know what they know. I work in the nuclear power industry and I am often amazed at how woefully under-educated people are on the most basic aspects of physics. People who have high school diplomas and college degrees even. And when I delve into various areas of their education, from geography to the political system, I find them woefully uneducated.

    That said, these same people continue to hold beliefs about nuclear power, something I am intimately familiar with, which are so much trash. They’ve no concept of the reality of the systems involved or the operations of a plant. Even at the most basic level.

    The reason I bring that up goes back to the statement People know what they know. If it’s politics, economics, nuclear power or the military. Education or geography, people tend to believe very firmly that what they know is the truth. And that they can make others believe that truth by spouting it off very loudly. Be it a sports star they think is great, or a politician. A political system or religion.

    Then you have those who believe everyone should use what they believe is best. As you pointed out, many American soldiers will be killed in the pursuit of supporting the nation’s dependency on oil, so that we can promote what we ‘know’ to be the best government in areas where democracy is sure to fail. Not only will it fail, but forcing it down the throats of those residing in these areas only alienates the American people further from the indigenous populations.

    As a father I try to discourage this tendency in my children. It’s a hard road to plow, with the school system encouraging the children in many ways to perpetuate this belief. Right along with this, the system builds a strong culture amongst the children that it is alright to do so many things that I can never recall being acceptable. Training for the test, vice learning the subject material. Learning, vice memorizing would be a fine step forward. The notion that there will always be some one to take care of you and give you everything. Establishing the sense of entitlement which takes away the drive to accomplish. To build a sense of imitative that inspires children to become adult leaders.

    To reference the sexual education reference, I don’t believe it to be the school system, or society’s job to educate my children. I feel, as a parent, it is my responsibility to do so. Which I have done with my two oldest, twelve and ten. A boy and girl. And soon my next, my nine year old son. With children sexually mature enough at age ten to be having babies or getting girls pregnant, it seemed prudent to discuss this with them early. To explain my beliefs to them, and the daggers. I don’t expect that my children will remain virginal till marriage. I expect my sons, especially (Being an ex-little boy myself!), to want to experiment with the first handy girl they can come across. They won’t think straight and will do bad things.

    Better that I should take preventative measures which are likely to succeed. To talk openly and honestly with them about the subject. Perhaps it will work, I can always hope. But in the end, the answer I have made a most blatant step with: a bowl of condoms in the cabinet by the front door. Feel free to use them boys, and be careful. I can’t stop you, I can’t effectively forbid you. So I’ll warn you and do my best to guide you.

    I am sure many would condemn this as an invitation for children to have sex. In its way, it is. But know I cannot stop a behavior, cannot prevent it any manner without draconian measures which are sure to bring the exact results I do not wish to have, is it not better to pick the path most likely to succeed in preventing the worst out come?

    Perhaps that is what might be better looked for in other avenues of life and the world? Finding a realistic approach that offers the best possible outcome. Not dreaming of a ‘magic-thinking’ solution.

  2. Frank says:

    You have said quite a bit in this entry, and I wish to comment on several parts:

    “Magic thinking,” especially if defined as (at least) including inspiration, if, or can be, a powerful tool that can do a lot of good. But, as my parents and grandparents would have reminded me, “the proper time and place for everything.” I agree that, applied to politics, especially international relations, it is an example of the wrong place and time. Reference Kennedy’s speech that kicked off the space program…if you accept that it was definitely inspirational, and, at least somewhat, “magic thinking,” I see this as a positive example.

    The issue of our governments’ ill-conceived venture into control of all sexual matters, I believe that this is an example of multiple problems: 1.) this is simply an area that the government needs to “butt out.” Education issues should be decided on facts, not moral systems. In every measureable way, it is appropriate that we arm our youth with the correct scientific information and, at least, facilitate choices that don’t assume the birth control is abstinence, which is obviously factually incorrect. 2.) Our culture is horrendously immature in its perspective about sex.

    I have two boys, now in their early 30’s. I taught them only a few concepts about sex: 1.) girls are people, and as such deserve the respect and deference that all people should be given. 2.) NEVER EVER force yourself on another person; this applies to all manners of force, but, at the younger ages I stressed physical force. Both of these concepts are basic and cross most religious and political boundaries. I believe that these are what kids need. Most of the rest is composed of opinions derived from complex legends and suspect theologies. Not saying that they don’t have a place or right to exist, but I don’t believe in forcing them on unsuspecting children.

    One of my sons is in the military. He is recently back from his third deployment to mid-eastern war zones. His job is more out saving lives than trying to take them, but I really don’t want to go into that further for security’s sake. What I want to say is that I TOTALLY agree about the danger of “magic thinking” with respect to international politics. Every single military person I’ve spoken to that has served in the mid-east is adamant that we are doing nothing morally good by being there. Contra wise, they all agree that the indigenous people don’t like us, like us less the longer we are there, and will invariably go back to whatever they were doing after we leave.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    Much simpler. Don’t buy a car, or insurance, or gas for them, and make it VERY clear that any indiscretion with long-term consequences WILL get them kicked out of the house the moment it’s legal to do so. Yes, do all the frank talks and all that stuff, and maybe even SET AN EXAMPLE. Oh, and limit not just their TV watching, but your own, to a very few hours a week of positive content, and nothing else. Set an example that exceeds anything you ask of them, and look like you’re enjoying it too, not like you’re giving up all the fun stuff to be good. Put a computer in a common area, supervise use, and use it responsibly yourself, etc.

    In one of those frank talks, AFTER they’ve had to work for something they wanted, clue them in on just how expensive they are (and any potential offspring they might have too). Show them the stats on how many arrangements made on shaky financial ground fall apart. Make it real clear that the only way they can have everything they want is to keep working for it until they’re up for serious responsibility. Prepare the ground for this line of discussion in appropriate stages from as soon as they learn to talk.

    A cell phone would be a great starting project. They get a cheap phone only, with tracking and calls limited to only parents and one alternative; no camera, no texting. They get a full explanation of how much more something less restrictive would cost. They want better, they get a job and pay the difference themselves. They don’t get a camera phone or MMS (text with attachments) until they’ve got a track record of good sense though.

    Ignorance isn’t the answer…but simply saying “if you’re not going to be good, here’s how to be careful” is NOT the answer either; it’s better than ignorance alone, but far lazier than a lifetime of consistent example and engagement.

    An alternative to the leftist line of caving on conduct need not be magic thinking…but only if it’s accompanied by a level of sustained effort that few seem willing to make. Perhaps a few that might be accused of magic thinking actually _are_ making that effort?

    1. Nate says:

      I admire your approach in many ways. I am myself a big believer in self control as the key to a well lived life. And I am sure that you are correct that some of the magic thinking that happens around abstinence-as-birth-control ideal is indeed backed up with action. But the birth rate statistics do not support the idea that very many children are positively affected by it.

      I saw a headline in the paper several years ago and was shocked to see that abstinence-only education had actually raised the average age at which teens were first having sex. I read deeper into the article only to realize that it raised the age by a meager six months. Hardly an impressive feat. What it also did was greatly increase the rate of teen pregnancy, because they had never learned to take precautions to prevent pregnancy.

  4. Carl says:

    Good points. But magic thinking isn’t a right-wing trait, it’s a human trait.

    All the racial and sexual egalitarian belief in the world isn’t going to overturn the fact of evolution either. No matter how much your magic thinking wishes it would.

    There’s no magic force in the world ensuring equality, just natural selection choosing different traits in different environments, and different traits for people with different reproductive needs. Such is the nature of evolution, and therefore of life.

    1. Nate says:

      You are correct that neither equality nor abstinence are in any way natural to the world in which we live. And just as some moral opinions attach value to abstinence, so do some attach value to equality. The magic thinking that Mr. Modesitt is speaking of is that belief without action means nothing. Belief in and of itself does nothing.

      But people with beliefs may try to change our world, and some succeed. Abstinence is a distinctly uphill battle, and while I personally very much see value in it, the research does not support abstinence-only education as a method of solving our problems.

      Equality is in much the same boat. Perfect equality is entirely unachievable. But just like you can mix abstinence in with education about birth control and STDs, equality is worthy of being part of the agenda.

      The point is less about what the political or religious ideal is, and much more about the fact that belief means nothing without action.

  5. Tim Twineham says:

    Regarding the imposition of American ideals on other societies, I will extend this to western ideals (being an Englishman). when I met a man from Pakistan In the gym and we discussed the issues with Afghanistan he stated simply : do not need democracy : we need strong benevolent warlords as that is our culture.

    1. Wine Guy says:

      It is EXACTLY what they want. I had almost identical conversations with my officer counterparts in Iraq, Pakistan, and even Kenya when I was deployed for the USN. The feudalism is something that – apparently – needs to be evolved past (if there is such a phrase) rather than rushed through.

      It is very difficult, though, on women and minorities. There are few days that go past that I am not grateful for being in the US where my daughters have at least the chance to be all they can be.

  6. Jason says:

    I am reminded of a quote from the 1980’s movie version of Dune when thinking of how people will not ever budge from religious beliefs. “One cannot go against the word of God.”

    Sadly, many people belivee this literally and use it to defend all their beliefs. This also tends to make them reverse engineer tragedies and come to the conclusion that any time something bad happens to people, they must have done somthing bad to deserve it. “A hundred thousand dead due to a huge Tsunami? That’s what they get for being heathens.” “New Orleans flooded? That was a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah.”

    The Bill Nye incident is another excellent example of how “belief” conquers even the obvious.

  7. A. says:

    Alan, YOU may a responsible parent and belive that it’s not up to schools or society to educate your children about sex, but there ARE irresponsible parents who don’t make the effort you do. Sex education in schools is for children of THOSE parents.

  8. Wayne Kernochan says:

    I can’t resist my own theory about Tim Tebow, even if it’s off topic. I saw him once during the season, and it seemed that he was (a) left-handed and (b) more than other quarterbacks, threw by using his arm like a spring (compress as you bring the ball back, use the decompression to propel the ball). I have experimented with this in baseball and tennis, and it is surprisingly effective in achieving distance with equal accuracy and less strain on the arm.

    However, because receivers have been trained since childhood to catch right-handed throwers with traditional throwing motions, a pro receiver will not have that extra alertness needed to make catches in traffic while seeing the ball for a short amount of time, until the fourth quarter. That’s why Tebow’s percentage went up in the fourth quarter. If receivers weren’t that way, Tebow’s way of throwing might actually be slightly superior (which is why I’ve kept experimenting).

    The real problem with Tebow, however, is that for him to do it quickly while running, he needs to carry the ball higher and more to the side, to get it behind his head quickly. This has become an instinct, and so if you can come up from behind him and bang his left arm towards his body, he will fumble — while a traditional passer, holding the ball with two hands in order to swing it out to the side, is only vulnerable to the swipe along the front — a much tougher thing to do.

    It was, I think, the Giants who first figured this out — they were the first to end the string of wins. If you look at some of the key sequences in that game, as I remember, they didn’t intercept or stop his running, they made him fumble as he was marching the team downfield in the fourth quarter. Same with the Patriots in the playoffs.

    Alas, Tim’s belief in magic did not prevent the Giants and Patriots from figuring this out and winning their games easily. Because Tebow runs too much (the point where he is most likely to fumble), I’m afraid he’ll never be a great quarterback. It’s a pity, because it was pretty creative of him to figure out that “spring” throw.

  9. Joe says:

    I often think Science is the most radical thing one can do. Unlike most other endeavors, one posits a hypothesis, creates an experiment to test it, and then analyses the results. One doesn’t get to discard results one doesn’t like and one doesn’t get to have an opinion. This is why although they’ll claim the opposite, most people hate Science. Corporations only want to publish the results that benefit them, Politicians try to stifle their own scientists by censoring or defunding them (Jim Hansen at Nasa, or Environment Canada under Harper).

    Instead people tell stories that cement their power. There are many stories about “omnipotent invisible people that only we can communicate with” which give priests and parents power. There are “we’re a special people, unlike all those other countries” stories which create nations and ease the procurement of young men and women to fight wars. There are stories about being able to succeed, so that people work hard, even if there’s a glass ceiling.

    And that’s the point, Science works in its domain: the study of reality. Magical thinking also works in its domain: the control of people. There is nothing more effective than convincing people that they are free when they are not because then they won’t even try to rebel. That’s the beauty of democracy: you get to choose between candidates chosen by others, on whom you do have an influence, but so small that they rarely act on your behalf. Yet because of that influence you don’t just revolt.

    Problems arise when people try to apply the wrong tool to the wrong job. Prayer does not prevent climate change or evolutionarily successful behavior. Science does not keep people in power. It is the mixture of the two that is dangerous. Any science sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic…

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