Here Be Dragons: Succumbing to Magical Thinking

A dragon used to be the worst thing we could imagine. It often still is.

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.


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8 Responses to Here Be Dragons: Succumbing to Magical Thinking

  1. Greg Knepp says:

    Conjuring up fearful monsters to inhabit the unknown probably serves an ancient instinctual survival function – perhaps an antidote to reckless curiosity. In any event, where spirits and demons abound, Carl Jung’s infamous id can’t be far behind!

  2. Apneaman says:

    Here’s some boring, non sensationalist, Canadians explaining it.

    Why has it been so cold? Here’s what science says


  3. BB_EE says:

    AI itself as a technology should be as all the rest, mostly harmless. What has us technocrats quite concerned is the potential for mischief combined with standard human laziness. Summed up in the law of unintended consequences.

    The unbounded potential for good is disproportionately much less than the potential for harm. As an electrical engineer in high voltage transmission and generation systems we deal with this daily. But here we have boundaries set by physical conditions. We know where the dragons are.

    Matter of fact, that’s what I tell the electrical lay people the system is. A dragon that can reach out and fry you in milliseconds. It is a lethal mystical beast because you can’t see it or hear it but you know it is there. If you are lucky you are only electrocuted and hope for death. More likely you are badly burned with parts blown off. This goes through my mind with every stroll through a substation.

    Where are the physical boundaries for AI? Is the beast caged appropriately? Our global opportunist capitalists are always leaving cage doors wide open. A current example is Fentanol. Powerful and relatively cheap. The technology in it’s benign state we can trust. It’s the other humans we don’t trust. How many are dying daily from this narrow scope painkiller? I can tell you in Vancouver it usually two per day.

    One would think the rational mind with be a handful of planet destroying nuclear weapons would stop there. Ten ought to do it don’t you think? That is what happens…, you’ve got thousands of these weapons (and a great big happy button on the desk).The leadership is either vacant or insane.

    If we could deploy AI with Asimov’s Robot three laws maybe we can corral the dragon. Until then, don’t leave it to unregulated anything goes and nobody cares market. Speaking of which, imagine what they would do in the financial markets! Where presently the propagation of light in glass (less than light speed BTW) and protocol processing is kept to a minimum slicing a microsecond off here and there for automated trading. No, as a society we are all Dr. Frankensteins.

  4. Tom says:

    Safety of Monsanto/Dow’s Newly Approved Frankenfood (RNAi Corn) Called Into

    Another study confirms what activists and scientists alike have been warning: the next generation of RNA interference GM foods may seriously compromise the genetic integrity of our species. [more]

    The “dragons” we should be fearing are comprised of (at least) the big three: greed, stupidity, and power.

    It seems that intelligence has been hi-jacked by these to the extent that corporate greed has gamed the governmental, and therefore, regulatory systems so that the environment is no longer conducive to life on the planet.

    Besides being subjected to chaotic, unpredictable weather (which impacts food production) due to our fossil fuel addiction, we’re also being summarily poisoned (and food is much less nutritious than it once was as a result of industrial farming practices which cause soil depletion), lied to, spied on, killed by our own “security” agencies, locked up in prisons, and even the so-called “health care” system is now unaffordable for most citizens.

    The greed of some of the mega-wealthy, like the Koch and Soros brothers, is driving much of the social and environmental degradation we’re experiencing world-wide. To them, and the corporate world, the planet is to be mined and used as a dump – including the air, land and oceans – which are all becoming toxic now. Examples are myriad.

    Perhaps our epitaph as a species could be that we killed ourselves by being too smart for our own good.

  5. Russ Day says:

    Tom – You are so right. My wife and I have been having this same conversation (as above) for years but not in such eloquent fashion. Seventy some years ago I roomed at college with a “friend” who later became one of the lead chemists at Monsanto. Unfortunately he is not still around to cross examine about his labors in the lab. Nice to see you are back at the helm of this website. Russ

  6. steve says:

    While humans do seem to have an innate fascination with calamity and “magical” phenomenon, instead of focussing on the important, the mundane but essential. We should also recognize that the press, the 4th estate, no longer holds the centers of power to account as it should and once did after a fashion. It is instead focused on profit, by creating this positive feedback loop of whipping up hysteria simply in order to attract eyeballs. This exacerbates an already problematic tendency.