Friday, April 20, 2012

On Fords and Magic

If there is one vehicle I regret having sold, it is my 1979 Ford F150, which I had bought new in 1979. About a decade ago I inherited a nearly new GMC Sierra; two pickups seemed one too many at the time. Oh well. I liked the Ford because it was simple, useful, and reliable. However, it did have a quirk common in that year’s models with automatic transmissions. The shift didn’t always slide easily into Park; so, it was easy to assume you were in Park when in fact the shift had stopped just shy of it. When perched precariously in that position, the shift could slip back into Reverse. (Ford mailed out gum-backed dashboard labels with a warning about this.) This caught me only once, though that was enough. I had exited the truck to open the garage door. Suddenly the F150 was off on its own backwards journey. I ran after it yelling, “Stop!” For some reason the truck didn’t listen to me. It kept going. The truck arced to the left, entered the woods, and smacked into a tree. Wisely, it had navigated past two big black birches, and had chosen a young cedar instead. The flexible cedar stopped the Ford without noticeably damaging the steel step-bumper. Nevertheless, I always double-checked the shift thereafter.

My point is not really about a favorite truck, but about shouting at it and attempting to alter its course through emphatic gestures. That’s both anthropomorphism and sympathetic magic. I endeavor to keep my world view a skeptical one. I disbelieve unlikely (but physically possible) assertions until proper evidence is presented, such as the claims of large animal crypto-biology (sasquatch, yeti, Champ, etc.). I don’t think earth’s swamps and power lines are being buzzed by the flying saucers of alien abductors. Most especially, I don’t believe in effects without mechanisms (magic); fanciful mechanisms without demonstrable basis – such as the microchlorians that mediate the Force in the Star Wars universe – don’t count. At least, I don’t believe in any of that intellectually. When acting on instinct I apparently give magic a shot.

So does everyone else. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a logical fallacy, but it is the way people are wired to learn. It is easy to see why. Early humans had little time (or information) to reason out what was causation and what was just coincidence. Perhaps a gust of wind and the flutter of frightened birds preceded a recent predator attack. Only one of those was caused by the presence of the predator, but it was safer to be alert the next time either recurred. Stopping to think about it was a good way to end up as dinner for a saber-tooth cat. If some big cat appeared but chose not to attack (it was full, perhaps) after one of our ancestors performed some meaningless action (say, a few dance steps or a short recitation), s/he was likely to perform that ritual again the next time the animal appeared because it seemed to have been successful at warding off the danger. Superstitions are thus born. Humans are not alone in making false connections this way: see Superstition in the Pigeon by B.F. Skinner. Pigeons develop meaningless rituals when fed on a random schedule; they repeat what they did (turn left, head-bob, or whatever) just before a previous feeding; then, simply because they do it more often, just by the odds the ritual is more likely to precede another feeding, which reinforces the behavior. A few pointless superstitions are a small price to pay for the ability to learn rituals that actually are useful, such as, for early humans, pointing a row of spears in the direction of the threat. (Cats are not cowards, but they are realists, and they don’t like to charge at pointy sticks.) Those dance steps won’t help at all, but on the other hand they won’t hurt.

Old joke:
“What do I do if the parachute doesn’t open?”
“Flap your arms.”
“Will that help?”
“It won’t hurt.”

Sympathetic magic requires more imagination than is found in a typical pigeon, but all humans indulge in it. Post hoc thinking also accounts for much of this. Bad things occur to people all the time, so, if you stick a pin in a voodoo doll, some ill fortune is bound to befall your intended victim eventually. The pin seems to have worked. Most of us don’t cast spells this directly, but simply offering our “best wishes” or saying “good luck,” as we all do, is just as much an attempt at magic. Who doesn’t try to influence rolling dice by thought and (sometimes) voice command? Also, studies show that people throw dice harder when they want higher numbers, as though this could help; harder effort gets a bigger result in some activities, so we apply the same strategy even though for dice it makes no sense.

So, it’s impossible to shake ourselves free of magical thinking entirely. It is part of being human. Still, it is worthwhile to engage in skeptical critical thinking now and then, if only for the practice. It, too, is a survival skill, at least when we have the time for reflection. We would not have evolved the capacity for it if it were not – in the modern world, it may be our most important skill. That won’t stop me from waving directions to runaway trucks, of course. And, if it makes you feel better to poke pins in dolls representing your enemies, well, what’s the harm?


  1. Magic is a lot like myth making. It comes from us wanting to appear like we have more control over the world around us than we really do. There has to be some kind of order... right? Myth explains why things are they way they are. Magic attempts to influence those forces in our favor.

    It is interesting to see how deeply ingrained both those elements are in our minds. I often find myself talking to inanimate objects begging them to reconsider their course of action. And then there is video gaming - in which you can get very vocal when your character falls off a cliff for the tenth time. :)

  2. After the tenth fall, that character needs to be told a thing or two, doesn't he?