Heroic Individuals and Magical Thinking

Two interesting article from today’s Science section of The New York Times.

From science writer Dennis Overbye: The Leaky Science of Hollywood. The subject is the upcoming film The Theory of Everything, a biopic of Stephen Hawking, which is getting good advance buzz for its performance by Eddie Redmayne [whom I admired in the film version of Les Miserables, a couple years ago, in my Facebook review of the film]. It opens November 7th. Overbye remarks:

Instead of showing how he undermined traditional notions of space and time, it panders to religious sensibilities about what his work does or does not say about the existence of God, which in fact is very little.

And more to his point:

…And in telling the story this way, the producers have cheated themselves out of what was arguably the most dramatic moment in his scientific career. …

None of this, alas, is in the movie. That is more than bad history. The equations on the blackboard appear to be authentic — the movies are always great at getting the design details right — but as usual it misses the big picture, the zigzaggy path of collaboration, competition and even combat by which science actually progresses. By leaving out people like Dr. Bekenstein and Dr. Starobinsky, the movie reinforces the stereotype of the lone genius already ingrained by the media and the Nobel Prizes.

There is a tendency in Hollywood movies, and in certain types of literary science fiction and fantasy (especially, I daresay, YA fiction), to over-simplify real life and attribute dramatic changes to single heroic individuals. In fact, scientific discovery, especially in the past century or so, is almost never the result of a single individual’s insight and work. It is the result of dozens or hundreds of collaborators, often across many countries but all within the collaborative scientific community, all working to generate experimental results that prove or disprove some thesis — a thesis that might be the idea of a single person, but an idea that that one person could never substantiate on his or her own.


Next, an essay on magical thinking by C. Nathan DeWall: Magic May Lurk Inside Us All.

This is yet another essay about the human mind’s tendency toward magical thinking — with an example about throwing darts at pictures of babies. An overly familiar subject in recent years, perhaps, though one that bears repeating, since it seems not to have filtered down to the general population — or maybe it has, given evidence of the rise in recent polls of the non-religiously affiliated “nones” (e.g. see this post by Jerry Coyne).

We may have evolved to be this way — and that is not always a bad thing. We enter the world with innate knowledge that helped our evolutionary ancestors survive and reproduce. Babies know mother from stranger, scalding heat from soothing warmth. When we grow up, our minds cling to that knowledge and, without our awareness, use it to try to make sense of the world.

Again and again. One of themes of this blog is to explore the ways these biases affect our thinking, and by being *aware of them*, try to perceive a more fundamental truth, a greater reality.

We can’t overcome magical thinking. It is part of our evolved psychology. Our minds may fool us into thinking we are immune to magical thoughts. But we are only fooling ourselves. That’s the neatest trick of all.

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