Why People Sometimes Believe In Magic
    By Hank Campbell | January 24th 2013 11:08 AM | 29 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0®.

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone ever had. Others may prefer Newton or Archimedes...

    View Hank's Profile
    Some people believe in magic. In Science Left Behind, in the process of debunking claims that one American political party is overwhelmingly pro-science and one is anti-science,  we put a handy chart on page 213 itemizing the various anti-science positions of registered voters.  Sure, evolution and climate change was higher on one side but the list of anti-science beliefs by the other side was as long as your arm - astrology, psychics, ghosts, UFOs, homeopathy, you name it and that global-warming-accepting party is more anti-science - they just have better public relations.  

    People have started to notice that it ain't just Republicans being science any more. Look at the Flu Shots Are Damn Dangerous headline at The Daily Beast by New York Times best-selling author  Deirdre Imus and founder of the  site devoted to environmental health - they have wisely changed it after the outcry but didn't change the URL,

    So that's bad, but various people have always held anti-science beliefs, especially when it comes to their politics.  The Great Lie of the last decade was journalists and activists convincing the bulk of scientists that one side was more anti-science than the other, a hypnosis that academics have begun to shake off.

    But magic, in the broad sense, has always been embraced by lots of people in a much greater way - whether it is miracles or Harry Potter, people want to believe in magic and mystery and great unseen forces that can explain anomalies long after the Age of Reason. Lots of people in numerous walks of life believe there is some magic. Even scientists.

    But people might believe it subconsciously, says psychologist Eugene Subbotsky of Lancaster University. He says that belief in magic begins in the consciousness of children (who explicitly accept it) and persists in the subconscious of adults (who explicitly deny it) and cites seven experiments to show it. 400 years after the Age of Science began there shouldn't be any belief in magic but, as I have noted in the past, there are reasons religion still exists among lots of scientists also

    Nicholas C. DiDonato writes something we all knew - sometimes the line between fantasy and reality can become blurred, like when children believe they have interacted with the Tooth Fairy, but then notes that Subbotsky found that a whole lot of older kids are willing to accept magic even after just denying it - like if a stamp self-incinerates inside an empty box that isn't 500 degrees hot. Adults will not even entertain the notion, even if they inspect the box and find no way for the incineration.  Adults are epistemologically a priori while kids are a posteriori in their justifications.

    In another example, DiDonato notes the difference in reaction among adults who are advising a third party about the offer of a witch to perform a magic spell, good or bad. When advising someone else, the students (naturally, this is still a psychology paper, undergraduates are required) advised to ignore both spells 50% of the time, but when the offer was made for them rather than a third party, 60% took the good spell and none took the bad.  

    Would you accept her offer of a spell that could help you? Credit: Shutterstock

    If they don't subconsciously believe in magic,  Subbotsky says, the results would not be so lopsided. I didn't know 'safe bets' were belief in magic, but I suppose they could be construed that way.  And it seems right.  If I take a chance on a positive spell, if nothing happens, I am break even. It I take a chance on a negative spell and nothing happens, I am still break even.

    So why not take a chance on both, since I know nothing is going to happen? Why didn't someone skeptical laugh and say, 'sure, go ahead and curse me, turn me into a frog' since they knew magic did not exist?

    Hey, if I am in a remote cabin in the mountains, and I go down into the basement and see a Book of The Dead, I am not reading it, even though I know Deadites do not exist.  Call me anti-science but I see no upside.

    What about you?  Would you take the positive spell because there is something to gain and nothing to lose? Would you have avoided the negative one too?


    Citation: Eugene Subbotsky, 'The Ghost in the Machine: Why and How the Belief in Magic Survives in the Rational Mind', Human Development 2011;54:126-143 DOI: 10.1159/000329129

    Do you believe in magic? Seriously. by Nicholas C. DiDonato, Science on Religion

    Seriously, click his link and read the article. It's good stuff!


    DiDonato is stretching his assumption of the why the result is lopsided.  Consider lottery tickets.  I know statistically that I will not win a lottery, but when I am at a gas station and I see the jackpot at $200 million, I will go buy a few tickets, even though I know I won't win.

    But what I do get for a few bucks is a nice daydream of what I could do if I did win.  I can plan for what it would be like to have $65 million cash (after taxes and upfront discount) in the bank.  The day dream is enjoyable and it is a little fun to plan out something out of the ordinary like that.

    If the lottery was same odds, but equal odds of winning or having my arm chopped off, I would never buy a lottery ticket again.  So a free daydream and perhaps even a little positive placebo effect for a good spell do not show a belief in magic, but an acceptance that thinking good things might happen to you is not the same as nothing to lose.  It is a small, but positive gain for no loss.

    If the spell cost even a few bucks then I would suggest that the number of people who took the good spell would be greatly reduced.  Unless the person casting the spell really did look like the picture you used and then I am sure some guys would pay a few bucks just for the chance to use a few pickup lines on the hopes of them working some magic.
    I never buy lottery tickets, precisely because I know what it means for my chance of winning to be once per ten-million plays (or whatever it happens to be any given day). Some time ago my one-time brother in-law explained to me about how buying a Powerball ticket at least gave him a chance to win and it only cost him a dollar, whereas not buying a ticket means zero chance of winning. I explained in kind that buying one ticket yields a chance to winning which is approximately equal to zero, leaving him guaranteed one dollar poorer.

    My wife and I occasionally enjoy spending a few days in Las Vegas, because it's one big, surreal party. When there the only gambling we do is to ritually blow $20 on a slot machine (chosen by how many tiki gods are featured). The idea of the ritual isn't that we expect to make a profit. It's only to do our bit in sustaining Vegas, a kick-ass town made possible mainly by massive amounts of gambling losses on the part of the guests. It's a case in which our loss is our gain, no magic required.

    So would both of you have been just as likely to accept the negative spell as the positive one? 
    Well, neither of us has been in a position to accept or decline. Just hypothetically I think we'd be inclined to encourage the "speller" to choose either a positive or a negative one with a coin-flip and cast it in our absence, to filter out as much observer bias as possible.

    Would you call the placebo effect magic? I think that for many people who have never studied science or scientific methods equate science with magic. And this is where many modern scientists gain their power over the masses, legitimately or illegitimately. The intellectually dishonest modern "scientist" can easily gain political clout and influence public policy and law.

    Because the general public normally has no ability to develop an informed or enlightened rational argument for many scientific claims the charlatans can more easily push forward their ideological, and often highly flawed, agendas.

    Have you ever heard the saying: "At least they had good intentions" ? This is the tell-tale sign of a flawed idealism gone wrong.

    The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

    Gerhard Adam
    Have you ever heard the saying: "At least they had good intentions" ? This is the tell-tale sign of a flawed idealism gone wrong.
    Thank you for the example of flawed logic.  This is the kind of philosophical arguments that make for good sound bites but lousy logic.  Would the idealism be better if they had "bad intentions"?  Perhaps if they had "no intentions"?  Hmmm .. it doesn't appear that there can be any saying that satisfies the criteria, so consequently you can make any claims you like because there's no basis for your conclusion.  I think I spot an agenda.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Additionally the way the charlatans maintain their illegitimate power is through censorship. Is there anything anywhere in science where you can truthfully say: "The debate is over."

    Gerhard Adam
    Is there anything anywhere in science where you can truthfully say: "The debate is over."
    This would suggest you're not particularly clear on what science is.
    Mundus vult decipi
    True, but it's used all the time in modern discussions of some scientific topics, by the scientists.
    Never is a long time.
    Yes, and the topic of this article links the undeniable fact that modern science is heavily steeped in politics, idealisms, and other magical slight of hand manipulations and cherry picking of data to suit their own needs than most, if not all, modern "scientists" are willing to admit.

    Gerhard Adam
    Sounds like your own views are rather heavily steeped in your own idealism.  Again, your statement is vague enough as to be useless.
    Mundus vult decipi
    "Sophistry, like poison, is at once detected, and nauseated, when presented to us in a concentrated form; but a fallacy which, when stated barely in a few sentences, would not deceive a child, may deceive half the world if diluted in a quarto volume."
(Richard Whately, Elements of Logic, 7th ed. 1831)

    "As creeping ivy clings to wood or stone,
    And hides the ruin that it feeds upon,
    So sophistry cleaves close to and protects
    Sin's rotten trunk, concealing its defects."
    (William Cowper, "The Progress of Error")

    Quoting other people's wisdom is a poor substitute for having your own.

    He who smelt it dealt it.

    I'm not quite sure that I can accept the broad statement: "Adults are epistemologically a priori while kids are a posteriori in their justifications."

    I agree, however, that kids will generally accept magic more easily than adults, for instance the belief in the magic of Santa Clause. If an adult were to show a belief in Santa Clause their mental stability would immediately come into question. On the other hand there is a wide swath of our adult population who choose to believe in a wide range of highly questionable idealisms and routinely reject realisms.

    I wonder if the reason is a longing to return to a time in their childhood where they can once again believe in the magic of that jolly old fat man. On the other hand what a great lesson to learn in life, that the people closest to you will lie to you -- and lie big, and for nothing but their own enjoyment, oops the realist in me just reared itself.

    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    I used to believe in magic until I spent too long hanging around this site, now I don't even know what my own consciousness and free will mean any more or how many worlds I might exist in. One remaining safety blanket though, is quantum entnglement and its 'spooky action at a distance' that exists even between entangled diamonds, so that still seems pretty magical to me :)
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at
    John Hasenkam
    That's a good  thing Helen. "Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined." Camus, The Myth. If we are not confused perhaps we are not learning! As Gilett Burgess wrote: 

    If you have changed a major opinion in the last five years, check your pulse, you might be dead.
    Oh damn I am relying on the wisdom of others. 

    Here on the Gold Coast Helen, at 3.10 am in this Monday morning, at least the rain has abated but the wind continues to howl. The TV is down dammit and I can't watch another episode of The Ascent of Man because it is too old(but hey hats of Bronowski for such a great series in its time). So now I shall return the old DOS game of military strategy: Harpoon, Commander's Edition. Look out Ruskies here I come .... 

    Trust you are spared this weather Helen, hopefully by the time it gets down your way it will be largely dissipated. 

    Do svidanja!  

    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Here on the Gold Coast Helen, at 3.10 am in this Monday morning, at least the rain has abated but the wind continues to howl. The TV is down dammit and I can't watch another episode of The Ascent of Man because it is too old(but hey hats of Bronowski for such a great series in its time)....Trust you are spared this weather Helen, hopefully by the time it gets down your way it will be largely dissipated. Zdravstvujtye
    Zdravstvujtye John, so you're only one hours drive north of me? Well no, we're not being spared from the tropical cyclone effects at all, the wind is still howling and the rain is still torrential and branches on the trees are contorting into shapes that are beyond belief.

    I've just woken up to find the pretty huge awning over our swimming pool deck hanging down broken and the very heavy, large BBQ has moved several feet across the deck. Fortunately the TV didn't go down until after the Australian Open final finished between Djokovic and Andy Murray. Murray lost but after seeing a photo of his skinless big toe, after the Federer 5 set match, its amazing he even managed to play as well as he did, poor wee Scottish lad.The Russian Victoria Azarenka also apparently had an injured or infected  big toe but that didn't stop her from winning.
    So now I shall return the old DOS game of military strategy: Harpoon, Commander's Edition. Look out Ruskies here I come ....
    Sounds fun. Did you ever play the old word version of Dungeons and Dragons John? Now that was magic!
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at
    John Hasenkam
    Quoting other people's wisdom is a poor substitute for having your own.
    A first step to wisdom is recognising wisdom in others. How else can you recognise it in yourself? I am quite happy and grateful that I can rely on the wisdom of others. I will stand on the shoulders of others for without the others I'd still be throwing rocks at the stars thinking I might down one or two. I spend time seeking the wise and smart to help me along. If you think Gerhard lacks wisdom you are being foolish in that opinion. 

    One step toward wisdom is taking care to know what you're talking about. I wasn't replying to Gerhard.

    Magic is a tricky business. For one -- I'm sorry, but a true scientist, upon *seeing* a stamp burn up in a(n apparently) sub-500-degree chamber, will not disbelieve it; instead, he'll want to run the experiment again and again, until he understands whatever the mechanism is. Rejecting it outright is rejecting the scientific method. For two, let us not forget the words of Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And it's true. All that is required is a complete lack of understanding of whatever the underlying principle is (e.g., radio waves), and suddenly the magic box in your hand that's allowing you to have a conversation with that chap over on the hill will -- for any reasonable definition of "magic" -- *be* magic.
    I guess what I'm trying to say is that believing in "magic" is really a semantic debate. The important thing is what your reaction to it is. If you see something that is truly inexplicable, do you take it on faith? Or do you see if it's repeatable, and, if so, attempt to understand what it is that makes it happen?

    Indeed - after all, what Harry Potter did was not magic. It was the result of centuries of trial and error, was eminently repeatable by multiple investigators, and followed rules that could be discovered and understood.

    After all, if you try to explain to an 8 year old child why the north pole of a magnet is attracted to the south pole of another and not the north pole, do you go into quantum field theory, the Maxwell Equations, and all of that mess, or do you simply say "Because!"

    Gerhard Adam
    I guess what I'm trying to say is that believing in "magic" is really a semantic debate.
    Actually it's not.  You've very carefully avoided the actual considerations of what constitutes magic, and consequently it sounds like it might be a reasonable basis for scientific investigation.  However, you've overlooked one of the main problems.  Most claims of magic violate virtually many known laws or theories of science, and consequently they don't really deserve investigation.

    One very simple test to assess such claims, is whether the phenomenon is dependent on an individual having a "power" that no one else has.  These are usually rife with unscientific claims.  There is a vast difference between something being inexplicable versus being magical.  There's no question that many scientific principles may be unknown, so observing a phenomenon dependent on such understanding may appear quite "magical".  However, they must be consistent with the existing state of scientific knowledge, or offer a rather convincing explanation as to why they constitute an exception.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Actually, I did not dodge anything at all. If it's repeatable, I don't care if it "violates" a law or theory -- because if it's repeatable, and you're ignoring it, you're doing exactly the same thing that physicists did when Einstein published. And if it's not repeatable under laboratory conditions, then -- and *only* then -- does it not warrant further investigation. "Magic" *is* a semantic issue -- because it can mean entirely different things to different people. I doubt you can (I know I can't) recite the exact definition, and, even then, I doubt that that's what we're talking about. When I think "magic," I think of something that happens where I don't understand how or why. Period. If it can be made to repeat under lab conditions, then lo! It's science, and we'd better understand what's going on. If it can't be made to do so, then it's not even magic -- it's sleight-of-hand of some sort or another.

    Gerhard Adam
    I think you're stretching the definitions here.  No one suspected Einstein of invoking magic.  There are many elements in science that are not directly repeatable, primarily because we may not understand the underlying laws or principles.  However, there is a consistency in science that is generally lacking in magical explanations.

    As an example, when we consider something like ghosts, we have to consider Newton's laws because there is no ability to interact with our world without a corresponding reaction being possible.  However, that negates the premise of being a ghost.

    Similarly, when someone advocates something like ESP, they're invoking a communication/signaling mechanism that must satisfy the action-at-a-distance requirements of known physics.

    The same applies to UFOs, or anything that is typically represented in this fashion, because there are clear violations of known theories, without any explanation. 

    The point being that, generally, the concept of magic or miracles, explicitly exists because it violates scientific laws.  This isn't some case of mistakes or misunderstanding science.  The purpose is specifically to violate science.  As stated in the article, there is no point in investigating a claim that someone can cast a spell to turn you into a frog.  We already know that such a transformation isn't possible, and we also know that no such power exists.  We also know that there is no means of communicating with the dead, since such an achievement negates the premise of death and also rounds counter to Newton's laws of physical interactions. 

    More importantly, the example in the article of a stamp self-incinerating creates two completely different views.  The magical is quite content to consider the action outside of science and effectively a miracle, whereas the scientific view considers that something else is occurring that is outside of our understanding or that we are missing some information.  There is a big difference between the two views. 

    In short, science continues to question and investigate, whereas magic closes the discussion.
    Mundus vult decipi
     No one suspected Einstein of invoking magic.
    Though he suspected it of others. Both compound interest and the Jitterbug completely mystified him.
    I'm not really disagreeing with you, but I think there's more color than black and white.
    I wonder what someone from 100 years ago would say as they walk up to the door of a store, and it automatically opens, while they might have an understanding of mechanical things, take someone from 1000 years ago, they might react very differently.

    I've considered a story line when the potion magic of the past might have been based on nano-tech weaponry. And the whole "eye of newt, and toe of frog, Wool of bat, and tongue of dog, Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting, Lizard's leg, and howlet's wing" is an assembly guide to prevent access to the weapon by just anyone, it could all be just part of "junk" dna that unlocks the tech.

    The point is, while there's no evidence that this ever existed, you could tie a story into those myths, that was very high tech. One of the modern versions of this is FTL drives, whether star trek, star wars or star gate, which ties back to UFO's. It's all pseudo-science because we see no way around the science of FTL travel. I remain hopeful we're wrong, well sort of, just like there's sharks in the oceans, I expect there's "sharks" in space too.
    Never is a long time.
    Good point, also:
    "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

    Howard Walowitz to Sheldon Cooper: "Believe in magic you Muggle."