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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