The Tacit Magical Thinking in Popular Science

Since the emergence of the modern popular science industry in the nineteenth century, one central message has been promulgated consistently: Magical thinking is the exact opposite of the scientific spirit and a foolproof litmus test to identify intrinsically unscientific and dangerously regressive attitudes. The problem with this pillar of popular science, however, is that on closer inspection it quickly boils down to assumptions which are themselves based on little more than variants of magical thinking.

An essential feature of magical thinking is the belief that effects are inherent in intention: in magic, immaterial ideas unfold and teleologically realise themselves – we know not how – to manipulate physical reality. The cardinal error of magic, popular science tells us, lies in bad post hoc reasoning, i.e. in unchecked, wishful conjectures regarding the causal relationship between intent and supposed effect. Did not the birth of science occur when man (at last!) started to think critically and uncover natural causes for supposedly supernatural phenomena? And has history not shown that knowledge has steadily progressed in a linear and accumulative fashion, on a heroic march from superstition to science?

Systematic historical explorations of preconditions and wider contexts of scientific practice have fundamentally challenged such traditional accounts, particularly since historical scholarship has ceased to be dominated by exercises in promoting and justifying scientific and medical professionalism. In fact, popular science magazines and pamphlets co-emerged, and often overlapped content-wise, with a modern standard historiography of science, which retroactively transformed past events and actors to fit dominant nineteenth- and twentieth-century sensibilities. A major problem with present-day popular science is that it continues outdated history of science narratives to make the past compatible with contemporary academic mainstream culture. It insists to be naturalistic, and yet it adheres to breathtakingly simplistic and ultimately teleological nineteenth-century science myths and rhetorical patterns, for the only organising principles of scientific and medical practice that appear to exist for popular science are ‘reason’ and ‘truth’.

Ironically, images of reason and truth in popular science seem to share certain key properties with transcendental entities and supernatural principles: Like a secular Holy Ghost, Reason is supposed to seize those receptive to its influence and inspire intellectual core virtues without which science would quickly lose its appeal as an intrinsically progressive enterprise (such as humility in the face of evidence contradicting previous beliefs, and courage in defending new discoveries even at personal risk). As if by magic, scientific research questions – which according to popular science are guided by nothing but sacred desire for Truth – turn into empirical data, transfigure (along with unambiguously correct interpretations) into journal articles, and via the reader’s retina finally materialise as rational conviction in the human brain. Scientific Truth has pre-existed human cognition and is merely channelled, bit by bit, through oracles, i.e. extraordinary people called the ‘Great Scientists’. Destined to eventually unfold to the benefit of all humankind by breaking down (we know not how) social and cultural divides, the expected arrival of absolute scientific Truth is at worst temporarily delayed by human imperfections – of which, incidentally, ‘superstition’ is the most stubborn and dangerous.

Obviously, I’m being deliberately provocative. But can it be doubted that many standard claims promulgated by popular science entirely hinge on naïve glorifications of scientific practice as something that is organised by transcendental superhuman principles, and ultimately rest on tacit but unambiguously teleological historical assumptions? What, for example, is the often-heard assurance of science’s inbuilt self-correcting capacity but a manifestation of that stereotypical basic vice of magical thinking – i.e. faith in a wishful inductive inference based on neglect to check for refuting instances? But when historians and historically informed philosophers of science challenge grand myths by critically analysing conditions and processes by which theories and ideas prevailed over others, science popularisers sometimes respond by crying ‘anti-science!’ or, much more often, simply ignore the evidence.

By consistently passing over relevant history of science and medicine scholarship, modern popular science often reveals that – like its nineteenth-century predecessor – its professed core mission is not so much the public cultivation of critical thinking, but rather the supposed liberation of the public from ‘dangerous ideas’ and ‘superstition’. Like religious fundamentalism, which popular science routinely targets to get its message of the intellectual vulgarity of magical thinking across, it relies on appeals to abstract authority transcending human nature and experience. Challenge a religious fundamentalist’s blind faith in Holy Scripture by presenting evidence for the human element involved in its productions, and he will charge you with blasphemy or act as if the evidence did not exist. Question tacitly teleological claims promulgated by certain science popularisers by identifying the human factor in the genesis of scientific knowledge, and their response will be remarkably similar.

© 2013 Andreas Sommer

11 thoughts on “The Tacit Magical Thinking in Popular Science

  1. Science, the one true god as promoted by its present day prophet – Dawkins, may All-ah protect his sacred name! Well enough of that! He’s so afraid of being challenged he won’t pick up anyone’s gauntlet but the sanitized few, who have been properly vetted. Perhaps science should be investigating this phenomena itself (know thyself)?

    • Happy to oblige and be more specific, just let me know which of my claims you find problematic specifically, and what kinds of evidence you would accept to take my points seriously. – Just so I can cut right to the chase if at all possible.

      • I find all of the claims that lack evidence problematic. The character of said evidence is pretty straightforward: Who? What? Where? Claims should be substantiated with specifics.

        When you write “popular science tells us” or “many standard claims promulgated by popular science” there’s a gap as to who is speaking and what is actually being said. For example, is it Tyson, Sagan, Dawkins, or someone else; would another reader agree that their sentiments rest on “assumptions which are themselves based on little more than variants of magical thinking” (as you define it) or is this merely your inference?

        The clearest example in terms of a claim needing to be unpacked and substantiated is: “A major problem with present-day popular science is that it continues outdated history of science narratives to make the past compatible with contemporary academic mainstream culture.” There’s three parts to this claim: 1) present-day popular science continues an outdated history of science; 2) this can be characterized as a “major problem” for it; and 3) the intention of repeating outdated history is to “make the past compatible with contemporary academic mainstream culture”. So you’d need evidence of 1, 2, and 3 (as well as something establishing what constitutes ‘contemporary academic mainstream culture’).

        Here are some others:

        “[popular science] adheres to breathtakingly simplistic and ultimately teleological nineteenth-century science myths and rhetorical patterns, for the only organising principles of scientific and medical practice that appear to exist for popular science are ‘reason’ and ‘truth’.” Evidence (again, for multiple points)?

        “when historians and historically informed philosophers of science challenge grand myths by critically analysing conditions and processes by which theories and ideas prevailed over others, science popularisers sometimes respond by crying ‘anti-science!’ or, much more often, simply ignore the evidence.” Evidence (of any or all of this occurring)?

        “Question tacitly teleological claims promulgated by certain science popularisers by identifying the human factor in the genesis of scientific knowledge, and their response will be remarkably similar [to that of religious fundamentalists].” Evidence (of the ‘tacitly teleological’, popularisers denying or failing to ‘identify’ the human factor, and the expected response)?

        I’ll stop there for brevity’s sake.

  2. Fair enough! I agree that claims should be based on evidence particularly if they are controversial, but am surprised that you actually find mine controversial (also, I hope you realize there are different standards for academic texts and blog posts, and remember I did warn readers that this piece is supposed to provoke).

    In a nutshell, I really don’t think it’s controversial to claim that much of current popular science continues to be guided by the implication in the subtitle of Sagan’s classic “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”, i.e. the assumption of an inherent incompatibility of ‘magic’ and science. Folks like Tyson, Dawkins, Brian Cox, Steven Pinker, Michael Shermer (an ex-historian of science who really should know better!) and others, who seem to be on a mission to preach their faith that scientific naturalism is an obligatory worldview rather than a methodological maxim, are not in the least interested in professional history of science scholarship that shows the matter is way more complicated, and that naturalism has never been a static concept.

    If you think I’m doing someone an injustice, please show me where you have ever seen any of these folks refer to historians like Lorraine Daston, Roy Porter, Steve Shapin, Katherine Parker, Simon Schaffer, Anne Harrington, Richard Noakes and others who have demonstrated – not by making unchecked grand claims, but through years of meticulous research – that the boundaries between science and ‘magic’ have never been fixed.

    As to knee-jerk responses, I was referring to the kind of behaviour I encounter on a regular basis when speaking to fans of said science popularisers.

    • Just to sum up your current stance: you’ve got no evidence and feel no need to provide any evidence. If I’m mistaken then feel free to provide the evidence you were formerly ‘happy’ to give.

      What difference in standards do you think exists such that academic writing is based on evidence and blog posts are not? Also, a strong divide between academic/blog cannot really be drawn here given you identify yourself very clearly as an academic.

      I fully understood when reading that the ‘this is provocative’ disclaimer was meant to preempt certain criticism. Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel a distinct unease at the suggestion one can set aside the need for evidence or some kind of factual basis when trying to provoke.

      Whether a claim is ‘controversial’ or not (a digression at best), if you say something along the lines of ‘popularisers say/do X’ then you should have evidence of it. Indeed, one would suspect that a non-controversial claim in particular would be supported by a wealth of evidence for one to draw upon. To continue your own analogy, you sound rather like a proverbial fundamentalist who, when asked for evidence of God, responds by saying ‘where’s your evidence that he doesn’t exist?’

      There’s only one quote you actually attempt to substantiate but in doing so you need to ignore what was written. Remember, what you said was “Question tacitly teleological claims promulgated by certain science popularisers … and their [i.e. the popularisers] response …”. So why are we even talking about “fans” when it’s the popularisers themselves to whom you attribute the response? It looks very much to me like when someone scratches the surface of your claims they cease to what they were. In other words, what I might call your own “unchecked grand claims” don’t stand up.

      I would suggest you follow the lead of Daston, Porter, Shapin et al and do some meticulous research prior to espousing what is, and is not, the case with contemporary popular science.

  3. Rather rough on poor me! Just a few random examples:

    Carl Sagan on astrology: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZB88HnlLgZ8 (you can jump right to 2:00). As you probably know, Kepler actually believed in astrology, as did Copernicus and Galileo (G. cast horoscopes for his daughters and himself).

    Here my colleague Rebekah Higgitt comments on Brian Cox’s sweeping dismissal of astrology on TV: https://teleskopos.wordpress.com/2011/01/23/astrology-is-rubbish-but/

    Tyson, who in an attack on belief in magic/religion made Giordano Bruno a martyr for science, also on TV: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/03/23/how-cosmos-bungles-the-history-of-religion-and-science.html

    Then said ex-historian of science Michael Shermer, who upholds against his own knowledge the science vs. magic myth, and also that Darwin single-handedly refuted religious belief and other ‘superstitions’: http://www.michaelshermer.com/2007/01/science-and-the-decline-of-magic/

    You could have found the stuff yourself with a simple internet search. Does the claim that science popularizers like Sagan, Cox, Tyson, Shermer and others regularly pit science against ‘magic’ (the latter routinely lumped together with ‘religion’) by making wrong historical claims really require specific evidence? And do you really see any indication that they care one bit about criticisms of their evidence-free historical claims? When I said I was happy to provide evidence I wasn’t expecting your enquiry to be based on a disregard of the self-evident – you may as well ask for evidence that Donald Trump doesn’t like Mexicans. In such a case, it would be way more efficient to demand evidence that this portrayal of Trump is misleading and unfair.

    Lastly, the difference between academic texts and blogs which try to distill the state of the art of a certain academic field is that detailed documentation is often omitted in blog posts, since it has already been provided in the academic literature they seek to distill. It is therefore strange that you appear to accept the findings and arguments by Daston et al., who make the same points much more politely and implicitly in their academic writings than I did in my admittedly polemical remarks on certain popular science claims.

    I hope this answers your questions in general (off to an archival research trip in the US now, so it might be a while before I can respond).

    • Random indeed. Four sites, two of which are written by commentators not popularisers, do not lend credibility to even the modest claim that “much current popular science continues [etc.]”. Using evidence that postdates your original post (re Tyson) tells me everything I need to know: a simple internet search was applied after the fact to gather a rather rudimentary list in hope of saving face.

      Is it the norm for you to expect readers to prove your claims? (No, I’m not expecting an answer to that because we are all clear on the fact that the onus rests with the speaker making the argument.)

      In answer to your question: yes, your claims really do require specific evidence (assuming the claims are really valid that is). The only claims that don’t require evidence are self-evident claims and there is nothing self-evident about the long string of claims to which I directed your attention earlier. I might also remind you that the evidence required was of a range of claims expressed in your article not a general ‘sometimes pop science contrasts magic and science’ claim. To address only the latter could be read as having nothing to substantiate all the other assertions.

      On the Trump-tangent: if someone asked for evidence of his views then one would immediately turn to what Trump says. His own words would either prove or disprove the claim. I find it hard to believe that claims you regard as being so obvious, self-evident, and uncontroversial are so difficult for you to substantiate. If your opinion does not map onto the evidence then just say so.

      Assuming your blog post merely distills the academic literature then quote or cite said literature. Better yet, quote or cite the evidence that is used by said literature. The fact that you could not do that is telling. I never made any judgement (implicitly or explicitly) about the findings of Datson et al. All I said was you should follow their lead and do some research before making serious claims.

      The situation was very simple: you made claims, I asked you to provide the evidence that justifies those claims. I am sorry if that was too much to ask but I didn’t expect a Cambridge historian would fall short.

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