Secular Right | Reality & Reason



Magical thinking watch: Housing crisis chapter

Religious goods stores have been doing a record business in St. Joseph statues.  Buried in the garden of a home for sale, the doll allegedly helps the house to find a buyer.  (We are not told where you put the icon if you live on the 30th floor of an apartment building–perhaps hidden in the dirty laundry hamper.)

Satisfied buyers testify to the statue’s efficacy:

Joe Becwar, an observant Catholic, said he sold his house in Southampton, N.Y., soon after his mother suggested the statue and his real estate agent told him to plant it head down, facing the house, by the “for sale” sign. His brother in Chicago had the same experience, he added.

And Cheryl Katz, who is Jewish . . . , said the statue helped her sell two houses as a real estate agent. Now that her own house is on the market, she’s using it for herself.

The only miracle here is that humanity somehow managed to claw its way up towards the scientific method, given the ubiquity of such arrested thinking.  The religious and superstitious are hardly the only ones oblivious to any elementary concept of a control group, of course.  How many times have you heard such confident assertions of causality as: “I fed my dog organic carob Power Bars, as his acupuncturist recommended, and the tumor on his leg shrunk.  The bars really work!”  I sometimes wonder whether any of us deserve the benefits of science, given how little we appreciate or seek to emulate its basic thought processes.  I recently heard of the following remedy for muscle pain recommended by a relative’s personal trainer: Put a bar of soap under your mattress at night.  Are we living in 15th century Russia?

The suckers who fall for mountebank health scams, such as fill the shelves of every health food store, presumably have some inchoate sense that their favored cure should in theory be explainable biologically.  But I’m not sure that this makes their knowledge or reasoning skills superior to someone who is satisfied with the black box of supernaturalism.  Better almost to believe in a miracle that leapfrogs over all biological pathways than to accept that Kinoki Detox Foot Pads, say, can cure insomnia.  Such gullibility stems as an initial matter from an unconscionable ignorance of human physiology.  But our epistemological problems, it seems to me, stem as well from the  fact that we are incessant conjurors of causality, seeing it everywhere, and from our child-like faith in the association between language and truth.  A wrinkle crème needs merely to assert on its label that it can reduce sagging jowls, without offering any plausible theory for how it can do so, and thousands of women will shell out $50 for 2 ounces.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church is deciding whether to create another miracle-producing saint to join Joseph.  Vatican officials are investigating whether Father Junipero Serra (d. 1784) is preserving the life of a woman who has had 14 brain surgeries for tumors and who has lost much of her skull because of the operations.

Here’s one of the many things that I don’t follow in this miracle-certification process: Let’s say that the Vatican can definitively rule out “natural” (i.e., medical) causes for the survival of Sheila Lichacz, the brain surgery patient.  And let’s say that it has also established that dead people can keep living people alive.  How does the Church go on to determine that it is Serra, not Mary, Christopher, Joseph, or some other Christian divinity, who is responsible for Sheila Lichacz’ survival?  Even if Lichacz has never asked any other celestial presence besides Serra for assistance, which seems unlikely, how does the Vatican know that saints or even God himself never intervene unbidden on someone’s behalf?  And if such holy agents do intervene sua sponte, how does the Church rule out their involvement as actual causes here?

I ask because I am as usual puzzled by how my conservative contemporaries, beneficiaries of the best education in the world and enjoying the lavish technological fruits of a rigorous approach to causality, instantaneously suspend the skepticism with which they would greet the claim, say, that we should spend $100 million on federal job training because “it works,” or $34 billion on welfare payments to single mothers because welfare “fights poverty,” or $300 million on gang intervention workers because such social service programs “reduce violence,” when confronted with a similarly ungrounded religious claim.

Not that I don’t understand the desire for a supernatural trump card.  This summer, my mother was facing the loss of her driver’s license for a routine license renewal if she couldn’t pass the written driver’s exam.   The prospects looked grim.  In my despair at whether she could absorb enough of the irrelevant, arbitrary DMV book to pass, I would have loved to have had some patron saint of memory-challenged but otherwise safe drivers to appeal to.  It would be great if there were in fact some supernatural agent who can get us out of a fix and provide us some extra advantage in overcoming our troubles—sacrificing a goat would be a small price to pay.  As it turned out, on her second effort at the exam, a sympathetic DMV clerk allowed her to answer an additional question to improve her score and she passed.  If God was involved in this happy outcome, I am certainly grateful, but I suspect that my mother’s heroic studying efforts and a considerable amount of luck were more responsible for her success.

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  • Andrew Stevens · September 20, 2009 at 7:23 am

    and from our child-like faith in the association between language and truth

    What does this even mean?

  • RickRussellTX · September 20, 2009 at 9:26 am

    I sometimes wonder whether any of us deserve the benefits of science, given how little we appreciate or seek to emulate its basic thought processes.

    That’s a quotable quote.

    and from our child-like faith in the association between language and truth

    It’s clear enough — humans are easily persuaded by a honeyed tongue. We take the words of authorities at face value. I mean, how many times have you been surprised that you forked over money for a product that failed to live up to the claims on the package? How many times has a friend or relative expressed a claim that was utterly without basis, and backed it up to the point of anger with a statement like, “well, that’s why my blankety blank said”, where blankety blank is a perceived authority figure?

    The rational mind would adopt David Hume’s maxim (the actual David Hume) and realize that the seller’s desire and willingness to deceive far outweigh the likelihood of the claims on the label. Indeed, religious bookstores and botanicas and vitamin stores prey on our inability to look someone right in the face and talk truth to stupid.

  • Ethan · September 20, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    @Andrew Stevens
    It means that truth and language, though intrinsically independent, are not perceived that way. Like a Kremlinologist trying to read the truth out of statistics published by the USSR, even people who manage the trick of distinguishing assertion from proof still look for some truth in statements they know are essentially false. Haven’t you ever had a discussion founder on someone’s inability to understand that a statement can be false in every sense and implication? “No smoke without fire”: a mere statement creates an invincible conviction there’s something in it, somehow.

  • hanmeng · September 20, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    “The only miracle here is that humanity somehow managed to claw its way up towards the scientific method, given the ubiquity of such arrested thinking.”


  • Author comment by David Hume · September 20, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    The only miracle here is that humanity somehow managed to claw its way up towards the scientific method

    all that is needed is a tiny minority of scientists generate innovation to increase productivity. the reality of curse is that only a tiny minority of scientists themselves generate anything productive.

  • Anonymous Coward · September 20, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    Your mother is too senile to drive and yet you’re proud of finding a corrupt bureaucrat to allow her back on the road to endanger innocent people? And you’re complaining about OTHER people and their irrational beliefs and behavior?

    Pot. Kettle. Black.

  • Donna B. · September 20, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    Dear Anonymous Coward… how appropriate is your name. Have you not recently taken a written driving test? The last one I took required me to know the weight of a baby required to be in a car sear. Now, since I’m way beyond child-bearing years, I had no idea. I took a guess and guessed way too high. I would have erred on the side of safety, but that didn’t give me any points on the test, rather it subtracted them.

    My father recently took a CDL driver’s license test. This is a man who chose not to renew his CDL when he retired five years previously. Had he simply renewed, he’d have never needed to take the test.

    He flunked the written test because his knowledge was actually greater than that expected. For example, when asked what one should do if one’s brake lights were not working, my Dad chose “pull to the side of the road and fix them” whereas the correct answer was to continue to a certified repair shop. The difference is that younger driver’s are not expected to know how to fix a relatively simple problem.

    Actual driving tests are skewed toward average drivers in average sized vehicles. The last time, I took a driving test, I failed it. It required that I be able to see the 2′ orange traffic cones. My mistake was taking the test in a large pickup truck with a cover over the bed. Obviously my range of vision was restricted, which resulted in different driving behavior in this truck.

    The next day, I took the test in a small car and passed with “flying” colors and compliments from the tester.

    There are obviously people who are too senile to drive, but being unable to remember arbitrary rules which change from year to year does not test that.

  • Louis Andrews · September 21, 2009 at 7:02 am

    It is pretty pathetic when even a Jew thinks using a Christian idol will help her sell real estate.

  • Susan · September 21, 2009 at 10:12 am

    I thought he was the patron saint of baby aspirin, not real estate.

  • brian · September 21, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    Hi guys,
    I am a biologist. I have a firm belief that religions are what we should overcome as soon as possible. Though it may be irrelevant comment, our more urgent problem is how to overcome African American charlatan in the White House than Christianity: Socialist Barrak Hussein Obama is really screwing up America.

    Obama does not know what Christianity, Islam, economy, security, diplomacy, socialism, and capitalism are. That is why I call him charlatan. He is a false Christian. He is a liar. He and his men are radical socialist/communist revolutionists. I think socialism is more detrimental to America than modern Christianity.

    If any fellow in this site still does not know that Obama is more dangerous guy than bin Laden, please visit Michelle
    and read Michelle’s latest warning entitled “Who’s behind ‘Islam on Capitol Hill?’” by Michelle Malkin (September 21, 2009 02:49 PM).

    I wonder why secular right is so laidback not minding the charlatan in the Washington. I think the right order is to overcome Obama first than Christianity. I think we have to make the most of the fact that Obama is the common enemy of both Christianity and secular right.

  • outeast · September 23, 2009 at 1:25 am

    While I agree with most of the sentiments expressed, it’s a bit of an oversimplification to suggest that ‘A wrinkle crème needs merely to assert on its label that it can reduce sagging jowls, without offering any plausible theory for how it can do so.’ The market is saturated with cosmetics, and marketers need to be more savvy than that – and consumers in general are actually ‘sceptical’ (though ignorant).

    A fundamental part of any product concept is the ‘RTB’, or ‘reason to believe’: of course people want to believe that the cream will reduce their wrinkles (and indeed they’re likely to see some results – especially if they pay enough) but in reality consumers do demand some kind of plausible mechanism of action. The trouble is that the ‘plausibility’ bar is set low, combined with the problem of ready access to bad information.



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