Medieval maps of the world showed what was where to the limits of what was known, and having a good deal of space left on the page filled it in with drawings of great beasts. “Here be dragons,” some of them said, implying that if you went there you would be eaten. From the dragons at the edge of the world to the monsters under the bed, magical thinking has always had a strong grip on humans desperate to understand what is happening in the world and predict what will happen next.
Spoiler alert: magical thinking doesn’t help.
You’d think that in the Age of Information and Smartphones, dragons would be extinct, but they seem to be proliferating, and fearing them as we do is about as helpful as being terrified by what isn’t under the bed.
For example: We’re scared to death of what the weather is doing to us, so we have populated it with dragons. There’s going to be a snowstorm in the East tomorrow, and for the Washington Post it’s not enough clickbait to call it a “monster storm,” it has to invoke new kinds of dragons. It’s going to be a “so-called ‘bomb cyclone,’” shouts the paper’s Capital Weather Gang, thus popularizing something known to meteorologists as explosive cyclogenesis, otherwise known as a really bad storm. It’s a lousy metaphor, not least because cyclones are areas of low pressure while a bomb creates destructive high pressure, thus a rapidly deepening low is doing exactly the opposite of what a bomb does, but what the hell, it’s a dragon.
For as long as there have been winters in the north, they have featured successive waves of freezing cold air (a.k.a. high pressure systems), lunging southward, sometimes as far as Florida. They do the same thing all summer, they’re just not as cold and don’t go as far. But now we have a new winter dragon, the dreaded Polar Vortex, an ugly new word for an air mass that has always been there, and has always done what it does.
Another magic dragon is the jet stream, as invoked in most weather writing as something that “brings” bad weather. That’s like saying that the hood ornament “brings” the car into the yard. The jet stream is one of the myriad effects of the complex collision of air masses oozing across a spinning planet, and is not by itself the cause of anything. Nor is El Nino — another seasonal effect of even more complex interactions between wind and ocean currents — the cause of harsh winters in Mongolia, except in the mystical sense that the butterfly’s wings are related to the stock market crash.
I don’t mean to belittle the fact that the greenhouse effect is intensifying all these weather cycles by trapping more and more heat in the atmosphere. What I want to belittle is the sloppiness of language and thinking that puts our attention on dragons instead of what we know about what’s happening and what we are doing to make it worse.
Weather is just one province of modern magical thinking. Artificial intelligence is a dragon lurking at the edge of our technological map, much feared by the likes of Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk. But as long as the thing plugs into the wall somewhere, I will fear no artificially intelligent dragon.
Magical thinking can also be Pollyannaish, as when it swoons over driverless cars, genetic “engineering,” robotics, endless growth and the stock market. Pet dragons, if you will, who will use their fiery breath only when we tell them to.
When we draw our map of our world and we come to the edge of what we know about it, we should have the courage to leave the page blank, to stand in awe of what we do not know and can never fully understand. Instead of fearing the many dragons and monsters-under-the-bed we can envision, we should celebrate the Great Mystery, and do our best to live in concert with it.