Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Magic and reality

Apparently Norm goes mad in his attic at regular intervals. It is all down to magical thinking.
The capacity to hold rational thoughts alongside irrational intuitions is part of the mind's design. Even if we deny belief in the supernatural - in ghosts, say, or astrology - we are all inclined towards magical thinking and superstition. It's a frame of mind that one direction opens out to a dream world of myth and imagination and the other leads to practical creativity in the arts and sciences. The dark side is mental illness.
So what is this example? Peter Singer writes,

Throughout his tenure as South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki rejected the scientific consensus that Aids is caused by a virus, HIV, and that anti-retroviral drugs can save the lives of people who test positive for it. Instead, he embraced the views of a small group of dissident scientists who suggested other causes for Aids.

Mbeki stubbornly continued to embrace this position even as the evidence against it became overwhelming.
This delusion is now estimated to have resulted in 365,000 premature deaths.

And there are so many more. Here's Charlie Brooker from a while back.

It's hard enough to successfully operate a video shop with a staff of three, for Christ's sake, let alone slaughter thousands and convince the world someone else was to blame.

That's just one broad objection to all the bullshit theories. But try suggesting it to someone in the midst of a 9/11 fairytale reverie, and they'll pull a face and say, "Yeah, but ... " and start banging on about some easily misinterpreted detail that "makes you think" (when it doesn't) or "contradicts the official story" (when you misinterpret it). Like nutbag creationists, they fixate on thinly spread, cherry-picked nuggets of "evidence" and ignore the thundering mass of data pointing the other way.

Then there was George Monbiot only last week.
In his fascinating book Carbon Detox, George Marshall argues that people are not persuaded by information. Our views are formed by the views of the people with whom we mix. Of the narratives that might penetrate these circles, we are more likely to listen to those that offer us some reward. A story that tells us that the world is cooking and that we'll have to make sacrifices for the sake of future generations is less likely to be accepted than the more rewarding idea that climate change is a conspiracy hatched by scheming governments and venal scientists, and that strong, independent-minded people should unite to defend their freedoms.
Anthony Cox joins in the debunking too.
Ian Hislop was interviewed by Radio 5 Live’s Simon Mayo on Friday. In a discussion about the Eye’s campaigning journalism Mayo brought up the Eye’s coverage of MMR vaccine. The Eye published a special edition about MMR in May of 2002 subtitled “The story so far: a comprehensive review of the MMR vaccination/autism controversy”. It was an appalling piece of scare-mongering journalism ... Here are the views of David Elliman and Helen Bedford ...

...Understandably, much space is given to the harrowing accounts of parents who believe that the triple vaccine caused their child’s autism. However, the overwhelming evidence suggesting no link between the vaccine and autism and bowel problems is either not mentioned or dismissed out of hand, while the suggestion of a link is given uncritical prominence.
Some of these notions simply produce hot air and hours of harmless fun for obsessive bloggers, some, like Mbeki's, do real damage to real people. And we are all prone to it, however rational we may think ourselves to be.

Here's Singer again, talking much sense:
The lessons of this story are applicable wherever science is ignored in the formulation of public policy. This does not mean that a majority of scientists is always right. The history of science clearly shows the contrary. Scientists are human and can be mistaken. They, like other humans, can be influenced by a herd mentality, and a fear of being marginalised. The culpable failure, especially when lives are at stake, is not to disagree with scientists, but to reject science as a method of inquiry.
Now I must get one of these games of patience out otherwise tomorrow will go badly. If I move that red eight ...

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