Magical thinking. Sounds like such a wonderful thing, doesn’t it? I mean, thinking is always good and magic is, well, magical. The name implies that with a mere thought you could be carried off to a fairy-tale land where Cary Elwes joins forces with Mandy Patinkin and André the Giant to save the Princess and defeat evil! What a great thing, right?
There are a number of ways you could define “magical thinking” but at the core is the idea that one can affect the physical world with purely mental processes. In three words, “mind over matter.” Or, as it relates to your daily life and, specifically, as it relates to science: “I believe this will work and so it will work.”
Clearly there’s a slippery slope here into a debate about religion and I’m not going to take the bait on it. Let’s get away from the Giant Man in the Sky and back down to Earth, specifically, how most folks are guilty of magical thinking on a daily basis. Little, small things. Willing lights to turn green, printers to not jam, or parking spaces to reveal themselves. That we might convince ourselves that these things happened at least in part because we willed them to happen tends to not have too much of an impact on our lives as a whole. After all, few of us believe that, much like Luke Skywalker, we could summon the Force to raise aloft a heavy object using only our minds. So it’s harmless, right?
But there’s something insidious here. For some unfortunate folks it can egg on dangerous lapses in judgement in doing tremendously ill-advised things resulting in fatal consequences on the belief that said tremendously ill-advised things couldn’t possibly hurt them. Or, as they’re commonly known, the Darwin Awards. But that’s just some people who didn’t quite exercise proper risk assessment. Where I see the most danger is for any scientific researcher to engage in it. Once again, it doesn’t seem like too big of a deal until it gets out of control. At the risk of falling into the good ol’ politicians’-choice boiling frog fallacy (not to be confused with the boiled dog fallacy), it goes like so: it starts with something relatively reasonable to think, albeit not true. For example: “if I flip a coin 10 times, if I think ‘heads’ the whole time, it will come up as heads more often.”
Not such a big deal, right? Patently false on principle, but in practice any number of muscular twitches might skew the results that way anyway. From there it might move to the lab and “if I want this assay to work, it will work.” Still just a hopeful crossing of fingers but no harm yet. Unfortunately, from there it’s a short trip to “if I want these results to come back positive, they will come back positive.”
The key linker between all those is the problem that small, often subconscious steps might be taken to load the results one way or another: to introduce bias into the system. Just as the coin flipper might start snatching the coin out of the air at times to prefer heads even if he’s unaware he’s doing so, the researcher might, say, load more DNA from one sample onto a plate than for another sample. It seems unlikely but when dealing with microliter amounts it’s certainly possible if one’s not vigilant of one’s own actions. And emotional attachment to a result is the best and quickest way to lose vigilance. Yes, even more than working while drunk, because at least that way one screws up everything in the same fashion, as any grad student can attest.
The problem is that this becomes not a means of getting favorable results in a vacuum but rather of attempting to change the laws of nature: the alter the physical world not just in the case of what’s right in front of you (or inside you, as we’ll later explore) but on a Universal scale. Drug X is effective at curing Disease Y even if it shouldn’t be. Drug Z does not have potentially fatal side-effects.
Ah! There it is. The magically-thinking scientist – or scientist’s bosses, as the case often is – becomes convinced that these problems are an abberation and can be explained away. Instead of properly exploring these potentially disasterous issues, the prevailing thought is to ignore them and the Universe will be changed in such a manner that they no longer exist. Mind over matter in the form of child-like solipsism. The immutable facts of the Universe are to become maleable after all.
But, of course, they’re not. Drug X tanks in the clinic and loses the company millions of dollars in dead-end research. Drug Z does end up having horrible side-effects and costs the company even more millions – or billions – of dollars in legal settlements and stock devaluation. All because someone believed that the toughts that were banging around inside his skull could somehow have wide-reaching effects in twisting the laws of physics and chemistry to a custom-fit. And it didn’t work because someone who was impartial to the coin-flipping process didn’t see the same results with “heads” coming up more often than not.
You can probably see where this is headed, and that’s to the placebo effect by way of “the power of positive thinking.” Heck, “stay positive” is the first thing out of the mouths of so many people who have just heard from a friend or relative that they have been diagnosed with cancer that you’d think actually being upset over, you know, having cancer is worse than the disease itself. Of course the distinction there is that patients who are clinically depressed are probably less-likely to stick to therapy regiments so there is some merit a couple of steps down the line. But the problem with magical thinking in medicine is that this link with the placebo effect does get made and it can cause a lot of confusion because, unlike magical thinking, the placebo effect is real.
Yep, it’s true. Skeptic Dr. Steven Novella wrote a primer of clinical study pre-requisites and included placebo controls because they are absolutely necessary. Placebo effect varies from disease to disease – from having very little effect in some types of cancer to having a profound (albeit transient) effect in Parkinson’s disease. The latter is believed to be caused by the rather direct effect placebos can have on neurotransmitter regulation.
So it’s easy for one to think that, because placebos can have an effect on diseases (though, I should point out, most often this effect is in relieving symptoms, not in curing the underlying disease, hence the often-transient nature), it should be possible to simply think away a disease. This is one of the major tenets of the medical – let’s say “philosophy” – of Deepak Chopra. Aside from touting some stuff that plain makes sense like “don’t eat too much” and “live a clean life,” Dr. Chopra goes on to explain how being happy is more or less a life-or-death choice when it comes to tackling even life’s most mundane diseases. How does he rationalize this? Steven Novella again reports that it’s something about quantum entanglement and… uh… Eastern philosophies and… uh… can you make sense of any of that? Neither can I. Point is, it won him an Ig Nobel Prize – the Darwin Awards of the world of science and research – way back in 1998. And he’s still going strong.
So magical thinking is best kept in tiny, magical boxes relegated to attempting to control traffic light patterns or will field goal attempts to be good (the latter being even sillier since “live” TV is on a 7-second delay, but then, if Chopra’s right, willing things to happen in the past shouldn’t be an issue, either). What you’ve got left is this neat thing called “rational thinking” or “critical thinking.” It may sound like a terrible buzzkill, but give it a whirl. And don’t take my word for it, listen to the UK’s YouTube user QualiaSoup to explain how it’s done:
You see that? He even drew lots of pretty pictures for you. What a great guy. Seriously, though, the rest of his videos are just as masterful so you should go watch all of them now.
The problem at the end, I think, is that “critical thinking” just doesn’t have a good ring to it. Not like “magical thinking” which, as I opened, sounds fantastic. “Critical thinking” makes one think that you’re just going to constantly be getting notes that say “see me after class” in red pen on everything you do. And no one wants that. So I propose to re-name critical thinkng as “awesome thinking” because that is no less apt a name and it sounds way better.
So get to it. Awesome thinking. Spread the word.('’) delicious