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Does the social triumph of naturalist atheism always lead to magical beliefs?

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lifeline in an electrocardiogram with caduceus symbolOr just at the New York Times? From an op-ed by Steven Petrow at The New York Times:

Do You Believe in Magic? I Do

Talismans and amulets — objects believed to have magical powers — were once part of any self-respecting doctor’s medicine bag. More.

Petrow, a writer, is a cancer survivor who is sure that a magical stuffed rabbit played a role. He tells us,

And the use of medical talismans has persisted. Dr. William Bartholome, a pediatrician and bioethicist at Kansas University Medical Center, wrote prolifically about his struggle with metastatic esophageal cancer — and his collection of 40 frogs. “Bill’s frogs were totems or talismans that he believed brought him luck,” said Martha Montello, his friend and a lecturer at the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Montello pointed out that he lived “an amazing five years” after diagnosis, much longer than his doctors predicted. I believe in that kind of magic.

The mischief here is that Petrow seems to conflate the object a person is attached to with the mental operation of the placebo effect—the fact, well-established in science, that what we think is happening to us is a part of what is happening. Just as we might reasonably expect…

In that sense, the mind helps the body heal (or doesn’t). But the power does not lie in the object, rather in the associations the patient makes with it.

Dr. Ted Kaptchuk, a Harvard physician, told a New Yorker writer several years ago that he’s always “believed there is an important component of medicine that involves suggestion, ritual and belief.” He added: “All ideas that make scientists scream.”

Well then, the scientists who are screaming must be pretty dense. Of course, it would make a difference if the patient thinks, for example, that the treasured object is protecting him…

Petrow lists research publications that Kaptchuk has collected documenting the placebo effect, one of the most powerful known to medicine.

But how did such an off-base and unhelpful perspective on the placebo effect come to be featured in The New York Times? One reason may be that media that once formed mainstream opinions are no longer capable of fulfilling that role. It’s not just the scandals, the antics, and the meltdowns. It is lapses like this as well.

At American Council for Science and Health, Alex Berezow writes,

The biggest and most recent jaw-dropping assault on the integrity of journalism just occurred at the New York Times. One of their reporters — who covered national security, no less — was caught sleeping with a source. In any sane world, that would result in immediate termination and likely the end of a career. The institution would be embarrassed. But not today. Instead, the NYT reassigned her to another post, and her colleagues publicly praised and defended her on Twitter. What should have been a moment of shame and self-introspection was instead turned into a celebration — a giant middle finger to anyone with a basic sense of integrity.

That offense was simply the most egregious in recent days, but it was hardly the only one. Indeed, I could write an article every single day showcasing the lack of truth and integrity in science journalism alone. I choose not to because, thankfully, there are plenty of good things to write about. However, here are some examples from the last several days:

– The New York Times ran an op-ed about how a person with cancer believes a stuffed animal helped cure him. This one line summarizes the tone of the article: “I would not leave my fate in doctors’ hands alone. The fairy god bunny would be my amulet.” More.

Today, more than ever, one must learn to be a wise consumer of news.

Naturalism certainly plays a role in the rise of this nonsense because it turns out that any crackpot theory may be entertained with social impunity; only perspectives that have withstood the test of time are treated with hostility.

See also: As astrology goes mainstream, will Big Science start to accommodate it?

At CSICOP: Why millennials and liberals turn to astrology

and

Sceptic asks, why do people who abandon religion embrace superstition? Belief in God is declining and belief in ghosts and witches is rising

2 Replies to “Does the social triumph of naturalist atheism always lead to magical beliefs?

  1. 1
    timothya says:

    In the matter of the original post’s text.

    No.

  2. 2
    The creationist says:

    Time and chance have magical powers, why not fuzzy (post-Cambrian) rabbits?

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