Ethan’s recent article on the best way for skeptics to dialogue with non-skeptics definitely hit home, and is something I’ve struggled with. Being confrontational is tempting — after all, who doesn’t love to prove how right they are? I am certainly sympathetic to the view presented in the comments by some readers that good manners is not of itself a moral imperative, and that even if it were, skeptics aren’t required qua skepticism to take up the battle for hearts and minds. If I care neither whether the ranks of skeptics swell, nor how I’m viewed by non-skeptics, then why should I be required to take an accommodating stance when engaging with non-skeptics?
I believe there is quite a good reason to do so, based on a very powerful idea found in cognitive psychology: that systematic errors in judgment are a natural side-effect of our native cognitive processes. If pseudo-scientific beliefs can be shown to be an example of such an error, and thus something innate to human thought, I would argue that there is a moral imperative to be accommodating and empathetic — something akin to the Golden Rule. After all, if someone’s only crime is to operate their cognitive machinery according to the manufacturer’s instructions, it’s hardly fair to vilify them for it. We skeptics all did the same thing once upon a time, before we found the sheet with all the cheat codes and Easter eggs.
A very large subset of pseudo-scientific belief falls under the heading of “sympathetic magic”, a system codified by the anthropologist Sir James Fraser around the turn of the last century in his opus, The Golden Bough. Fraser identifies two core principles of sympathetic magic. The first is the Law of Similarity, which says that “like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause”. The second is the Law of Contagion, which says the “things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed.”
This isn’t just about tribal shamans and voodoo dolls, though those certainly loom large in the anthropological literature. For example, it’s pretty easy to see how homeopathy fits the bill, with like curing like and water having a memory even after the physical contact (i.e. with molecules of the original proved substance) has been severed. Similarly, those “toxins” we keep hearing about are a contagion, and the “cleanses” we’re exhorted to undertake are a form of purification ritual to remove that contagion, as is our bias toward things “natural”. Divination (e.g. astrology) is another large subset. Sympathetic magic isn’t the only form of magical thinking, but it’s one of the broadest, and indeed, Fraser acknowledges that there’s something in us that that makes sympathetic magic appear to be a sort of “natural law”:
For the same principles which the magician applies in the practice of his art are implicitly believed by him to regulate the operations of inanimate nature; in other words, he tacitly assumes that the Laws of Similarity and Contact are of universal application and are not limited to human actions.
There is, in fact, a reason for this, which a century later we’re finally starting to really understand. It’s rooted in recent research showing that human thought is reliant on a dual process:
System 1 is generally automatic, affective and heuristic-based, which means that it relies on mental “shortcuts.” It quickly proposes intuitive answers to problems as they arise. System 2, which corresponds closely with controlled processes, is slow, effortful, conscious, rule-based and also can be employed to monitor the quality of the answer provided by System 1. If it’s convinced that our intuition is wrong, then it’s capable of correcting or overriding the automatic judgments.
Although humans flip effortlessly (and for the most part unconsciously) between the two systems, much of our decision making is reliant on System 1 for the simple reason that it’s quick and broadly effective. Also, evolution has honed our thought processes to avoid certain mortal perils, which means such behaviours will seem intuitively and “affectively” (emotionally) correct, and exert a strong pull on us. System 2 can intervene, but often it has its work cut out for it when it tries.
While humans wouldn’t have gotten where we are as a species without System 1, it certainly has its flaws. The dark side of heuristic thinking is that it exposes us to systematic biases that can, under certain circumstances, lead us to make very bad assessments. And these bad assessments will seem just as intuitively and emotionally correct as the good ones that System 1 engenders.
And that’s what the psychologists who study Heuristics and Biases believe is at play in sympathetic magic systems. The relevant research is rooted in a particularly fun sub-discipline — the psychology of disgust. In short, disgust is an evolved intuitive response to contact with everyday things that can cause us harm, such as feces, rot, dirt, other people, and their icky, icky fluids. Although the specific objects of disgust are learned, and vary from culture to culture, the response and its mechanisms are universal.
Paul Rozin is the leading light in the field, and his research has shown that those mechanisms include two heuristic processes that we rely on in making the assessments that lead to disgust. The Similarity Heuristic says that appearance equals reality. It’s an aspect of the more well-known representativeness heuristic that Rozin says is “related to the principle of generalization in learning, and is almost certainly part of our genetic endowment at birth.” He bears this out in a series of studies that show the heuristic’s power. In one, participants are asked to eat chocolate shaped like dog feces; in another, to drink perfectly safe juice from a jar marked “Poison”. The participant knows full well that the food is safe and tasty, yet still there is a strong disgust response.
The Contagion Heuristic holds that:
physical contact between a source and a target results in the transfer of some effect or quality, which we call essence, from source to target. The source and target may mutually influence each other (exchange essence). The qualities exchanged may be physical, mental, or moral in nature, and negative or positive in valence. The contact between source and target may be direct, or may be mediated by a third object, or vehicle, that makes simultaneous or successive contact with both the source and target.
The research here is just as fun. Would you eat food that had been touched by a cockroach? What if the food had been frozen for a year after contact? Or if the roach was sterilized first? Would you wear a sweater that was once owned by Hitler? Even if it had never been worn? What if it had been dry cleaned? Study after study shows a strong aversion that belies our pretense at rationality.
A La Peanut Butter Sandwiches
Like all heuristics, the mechanisms described above are extremely useful. Most things are as they seem, and in the absence of germ theory, a natural aversion to feces and other people’s fluids is a pretty good natural advantage. But they also allow us to intuit sympathetic magic, and to make the leap Fraser describes from the personal to the universal — in short, to see the laws of sympathetic magic as a natural law.
This bias in favour of magical thinking is very difficult to overcome. Rozin found that the Similarity and Contagion heuristics differ from other heuristics in two ways: (1) they’re associated with a significant emotional resonance, which makes them very strong, and (2) people are, in the studies at least, usually aware of the fact that their assessment is irrational. “They can overcome this aversion and ‘be rational’, but their preference is not to.” The contagion heuristic in particular has been associated with insensitivity to dose, time, and the route taken between source and target — in other words, resistant to common scientific arguments. It also shows a strong negativity dominance — we “catch” bad things more readily than good ones — which is why toxins resonate more than, say, probiotics.
Not all hope is lost of course. One of the central insights of the cognitive revolution is that we can learn to monitor our thought processes and challenge them prior to making judgments. But while such meta-cognitive abilities may be innate, not everyone is endowed with these skills to the same degree.
Yet everyone can develop and strengthen them, if someone has the patience and empathy to teach them. I believe it’s incumbent on skeptics to try. After all, we’re only human.