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Why Are Americans Susceptible to Magical Thinking?
In his latest book, Fantasyland, Kurt Andersen covers the first five hundreds years of American magical thinking.
In a discussion with Larry King, Oprah Winfrey tells his audience that the book, The Secret, offers an essential teaching she'd known since starring in the 1985 movie, The Color Purple: You are responsible for your own life. She explains this by retelling an incident in which she was praying to be picked for the movie at the exact moment Steven Spielberg called.
Winfrey is no newcomer to magical thinking. She's long promoted it on her show, in her magazine, and with her television network. Besides being a Rhonda Byrnes acolyte, Winfrey gave a platform for Jenny McCarthy to run with disproven vaccination-autism claims and fully endorsed Dr Oz as he spread pseudoscience on her shows.
Winfrey has certainly been a strong female personality for decades, yet balancing entertainment and reality has long been challenging. Now, after an inspiring monologue at the Golden Globes, she is both being asked to and considering a presidential run in 2020.
That the cult of celebrity has overtaken the American consciousness is not surprising. The last two presidential outcomes produced considerable awe and consternation from the other side: Mitt Romney's visible shock when conceding to Obama in 2012 and, well, you know the other. Yet a basic understanding of history could have predicted the forces behind both of these elections.
Maybe it's the problem of manifest destiny: Americans believing we're endowed with a sacred duty to excel like no other nation in history has fostered all sorts of delusions. Perhaps it's the disconnect from the reality of war and authoritarianism we have long enjoyed. Our relative comfort has allowed our imaginations to run wild, so run they do. Unchecked fantasies are known to arrive with unforeseen consequences.
There is precedent to our current moment because there's always been precedent, argues Kurt Andersen in his latest book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. The bestselling author and host of Studio 360 has written an encyclopedic entry into the mayhem of modern America, informing readers that along every step of the way it's been mayhem, beginning with the very first immigrants.
No, not the pilgrims; the Jamestown colony. The first English settlement was not in Plymouth, as popular lore goes. That distinction goes to a series of gold-seeking groups that unsuccessfully tried to settle in Virginia. Eventually abandoning their dreams of gold—the term “fool's gold" is derived from their miscalculations—the colonies did eventually thrive with a crop that plagues us to this day: tobacco.
Plymouth isn't the only myth Andersen dispels in Fantasyland. He spends chapters focused on the nineteen-sixties, an era loathed by fifties-loving conservatives and adored by progressives. Problem is, that era initiated a confluence of forces that allowed magical thinking to dominate in medicine, health, politics, and just about every other field.
This, Andersen told me, is just a continuum that began with an extreme Protestantism that America was founded on, which continues today through a “de-privileging of reason and science over magic and magical thinking and fabulism of every kind." He continues:
What I call this big bang that happened in the sixties—my argument is that it’s no coincidence that that belief in homeopathy or crystals or Carlos Castenada taking peyote to become a brujo in those best selling series of books, all of the bohemian magic and alternative health practices and so forth, which got going in nineteen-sixties, just as this incredible revival of the most magical and supernaturalist forms of Protestant Christianity came raging back.
It's not as if the sixties didn't produce positive benefits, including civil rights, feminism, and environmentalism. Yet the underlying strains of essentialism and dualism required for magical thinking reached new heights in both popular religion and on the fringes. From the looks of 2018, we're continuing to soar.
Andersen didn't set out to write Fantasyland because of Trump's victory. He never suspected it possible, even when the reality show star became the Republican nominee around the time he was finalizing edits of the book. Yet when the election was over Andersen realized he had laid out the perfect blueprint for the manifestation of the idea that a billionaire elitist could win as a populist champion of the working class.
Not that Andersen exclusively blames religion. He's more aligned with Sam Harris's evidence-backed spirituality than Richard Dawkins's hawkish atheism. During our discussion Andersen is clear to point out that freedom of religion, both as a belief system and a topic of debate, is an essential American quality. It's the extreme quality to it that's disconcerting.
In individualist-focused America the notion of many truths dominates. It was heard in the beginning of Oprah's speech: “What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have." When everyone has a truth they tend to take their truth as fact. Andersen quotes four-term US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan to me: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." Day by day that line is blurrier.
Unlike many books required by publishers today, Fantasyland does not end with a four-steps-to-overcoming-magical-thinking guide. It is a descriptive gem, not a prescriptive trope. Andersen explicitly rules out the possibility of his recommendations becoming reality. We're in too deep for a sudden reversal, he told me, using the example of the “pathological individualism" gun rights advocates have employed over the last few decades. They've gotten so drunk on self-anointed mythical heroism that comprehending data proves impossible.
Once we go down these various paths of creating reality television or whatever it is, of turning pieces of our cities into little Disney Worlds, we can't turn it back except in our individual lives. In terms of the American life being what I call the fantasy-industrial complex, I'm not without hope, but once this set of boxes is open it's hard to imagine a future where we return to the previous version of normalcy.
In her book, The Human Advantage, Brazilian neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel reminds readers that “evolution is not progress, but simply change over time." America has experienced a variety of changes, yet as Andersen shows the country has long been rooted in mindsets separate from the facts of reality.
Oprah's Golden Globes moment is a long overdue and beautiful expression of the #metoo movement, uncomfortable and provocative at a time when her industry needs such provoking. It provides a wonderful template for using media to promote a social agenda, which is political in its own right. But that does not make a celebrity qualified to be a politician. As Andersen writes on the last page of Fantasyland,
Remember when viral was a bad thing, referring only to the spread of disease? The same goes for what you read and watch and believe.
Fantasyland won't instruct you on what to watch and believe. What it does is educate on how we've arrived here. Where we evolve next is anybody's guess, yet without an understanding of where we've been one thing is certain: we're going to repeat our mistakes. Then we'll be doomed to buy into the fantasyland-industrial complex once again.
Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU2NzY4My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTUwMzg0NX0.BTK3zVeXxoduyvXfsvp4QH40_9POsrgca_W5CQpjVtw/img.png?width=980" id="b6fb0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2739ec50d9f9a3bd0058f937b6d447ac" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1512" data-height="2224" />
What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="7XqcvwWp" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="8506fcd195866131efb93525ae42dec4"> <div id="botr_7XqcvwWp_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7XqcvwWp-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/7XqcvwWp-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7XqcvwWp-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.</p><p>Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:</p><p>"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region." </p><p>The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its <a href="https://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/research/sjades2018/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" style="">head</a>. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cthulhu" target="_blank" rel="dofollow">Great Old Ones</a>. <em></em></p>
We look back at a year ravaged by a global pandemic, economic downturn, political turmoil and the ever-worsening climate crisis.
Billions are at risk of missing out on the digital leap forward, as growing disparities challenge the social fabric.
Image: Global Risks Report 2021<h3>Widespread effects</h3><p>"The immediate human and economic costs of COVID-19 are severe," the report says. "They threaten to scale back years of progress on reducing global poverty and inequality and further damage social cohesion and global cooperation."</p><p>For those reasons, the pandemic demonstrates why infectious diseases hits the top of the impact list. Not only has COVID-19 led to widespread loss of life, it is holding back economic development in some of the poorest parts of the world, while amplifying wealth inequalities across the globe.</p><p>At the same time, there are concerns the fight against the pandemic is taking resources away from other critical health challenges - including a <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/09/charts-covid19-malnutrition-educaion-mental-health-children-world/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">disruption to measles vaccination programmes</a>.</p>
A new study explains how a chaotic region just outside a black hole's event horizon might provide a virtually endless supply of energy.
- In 1969, the physicist Roger Penrose first proposed a way in which it might be possible to extract energy from a black hole.
- A new study builds upon similar ideas to describe how chaotic magnetic activity in the ergosphere of a black hole may produce vast amounts of energy, which could potentially be harvested.
- The findings suggest that, in the very distant future, it may be possible for a civilization to survive by harnessing the energy of a black hole rather than a star.
The ergosphere<p>The ergosphere is a region just outside a black hole's event horizon, the boundary of a black hole beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape. But light and matter just outside the event horizon, in the ergosphere, would also be affected by the immense gravity of the black hole. Objects in this zone would spin in the same direction as the black hole at incredibly fast speeds, similar to objects floating around the center of a whirlpool.</p><p>The Penrose process states, in simple terms, that an object could enter the ergosphere and break into two pieces. One piece would head toward the event horizon, swallowed by the black hole. But if the other piece managed to escape the ergosphere, it could emerge with more energy than it entered with.</p><p>The movie "Interstellar" provides an example of the Penrose process. Facing a fuel shortage on a deep-space mission, the crew makes a last-ditch effort to return home by entering the ergosphere of a blackhole, ditching part of their spacecraft, and "slingshotting" away from the black hole with vast amounts of energy.</p><p>In a recent study published in the American Physical Society's <a href="https://journals.aps.org/prd/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevD.103.023014" target="_blank" style="">Physical Review D</a><em>, </em>physicists Luca Comisso and Felipe A. Asenjo used similar ideas to describe another way energy could be extracted from a black hole. The idea centers on the magnetic fields of black holes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Black holes are commonly surrounded by a hot 'soup' of plasma particles that carry a magnetic field," Comisso, a research scientist at Columbia University and lead study author, told <a href="https://news.columbia.edu/energy-particles-magnetic-fields-black-holes" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Columbia News</a>.</p>
Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration<p>While there might not be immediate applications for the theory, it could help scientists better understand and observe black holes. On an abstract level, the findings may expand the limits of what scientists imagine is possible in deep space.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Thousands or millions of years from now, humanity might be able to survive around a black hole without harnessing energy from stars," Comisso said. "It is essentially a technological problem. If we look at the physics, there is nothing that prevents it."</p>
A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.