Retorts: Challenge of “magical thinking”

DID THIS ever really happen? Of course it did, but a lot of people employ “magical thinking” to dismiss the evidence of anything they don’t like. Above, Buzz Aldrin salutes the U.S. flag on the surface of the moon during the July 1969 moon landing (NASA photo).

If you don’t want to see it, it’s not there.

If you feel strongly against something, it doesn’t exist.

This is what’s now called “magical thinking,” a way of looking at the world – past, present and future – that tidies up “reality” so that it conforms to your comfortable beliefs.

Now, of course, just what comprises “magical” perceptions depends on your point of view, education or biases. No political party or perspective has a monopoly on that, and – as a moderate – I have seen plenty of willful applesauce come from both sides of the aisle.

What I’m talking about is the idea that you can disregard all evidence, authority and counsel about something that upsets you or challenges your perceptions.

A couple of weeks ago, I was speaking at the Garden Grove Main Library about the history of the community as part of the 50th anniversary of the opening of that facility on Stanford Avenue.

I was seeking to draw a parallel between the impact the Pacific Electric railway – which came to Garden Grove  in 1905 – had on the area with the under-construction OC Streetcar, which will join the Big Strawberry with Santa Ana.

A gentleman in the back of the room said, no, such a thing did not exist. I said, “Well, it’s been approved and funded and they’re building it now.”

No, he said, that can’t be true. “I’ve never heard of it,” he replied.

“It’s been reported in The Register, the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Tribune, the Orange County News ….”

He shook his head. “If it was real, I would have heard of it,” he said. Adding to that was – as he saw it – the fictional nature of the high-speed train that is proceeding at low speed in the Central Valley but vacuuming up state tax money at a lightning pace.

Magical thinking is nothing new. In the 1980s, it was widely believed that it was impossible for a heterosexual to contract AIDS. In the 1890s it was obvious that heavier-than-air craft – airplanes – were impossible.

There are still folks who believe that the Civil War was not at all about slavery, that the 1969 moon landing was faked, that there are captive aliens at Area 51 and there even was a recent news report suggesting that an increasing number of people believe that the Earth is flat.

It’s been argued that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is really a struggle against modernism. The persistent resistance to generally accepted scientific concepts – biological evolution, the age of the Universe, the changing climate – run parallel to this. It may be not just a fight against science, but a refusal to accept a reality that is neither comforting nor familiar.

Much is made about school test scores and academic achievement, perhaps to our collective benefit. But the more I am exposed to people who think they can wish the world away, the more I think we need to place at least as much emphasis in education on common sense reasoning as we are on Common Core mathematics.

Jim Tortolano’s Retorts is posted on alternate Wednesdays.



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