I was fascinated by the amount of detail that was paid to these magical procedures, like at which time of the day and which moon phase herbs were supposed to be cut, and I liked to imagine what the world would be like if these spells actually worked. I didn't try any of them. My reasoning was if they would actually work, certainly nobody on this planet would still suffer from a broken heart or headache. Today I would probably give a different reason. The one offering a miracle cure is the one who should come up with a scientific documentation for the efficiency of their treatment. Needless to say, the spell book didn't bother with evidence that the rituals had any effect whatsoever.
I was thinking about the little book with the spells recently when I coincidentally came across a website selling spells. Sure, I know the internet is cluttered with nonsense, but for whatever reason this made me think. It's not only that the site offered "love spells, magic spells, reunion love spells, lover return spells, magical things, attraction love spells" and so on, they actually want money for it. "I have made magic spells, charms, genies, talismans and amulets available to you as a world renowned GURU and not as an amateur player in this field." Beware those capitals. The "lover return spells" seem to be particularly widespread. For what I am concerned, the sudden return of my past lovers would probably rapidly turn into a nightmare. So, maybe better, you might want to get a grip on a genie:
"The Conjuration or Invocation of genies are now possible bye following precisely the genie invocation spells and certian powerful invocation rituals prepared by me[...] A few examples of the things that these powerful genie spirits can do for you [...] If you desire to travel to another country, you don't need any documents or aircraft. You just order your genie and it will hold your hands and in a fraction of a minute, you will be in the land of your dreams."
Maybe he's just selling sleeping pills? But no, the genie can also "give you the correct winning numbers for LOTTO, POOLS, BINGO etc." Makes one wonder why the GURU hasn't won the lottery yet.
Okay, I admit, I didn't come across the website coincidentally. I read some forum where a woman insisted a spell she recently bought for only $200 had helped her (with a health problem). It was not an advert (no link, no name attached). I actually didn't know what she was talking about at first. After I figured she spent $200 on somebody sending her an email with some probably random generated "magical words" I could not but be stunned. It raised two questions for me: First, why do people waste money on entirely useless crap? Second, doesn't standard economical theory tells us that the value of a product reflects all the information about it? So why then doesn't the miracle of the free market accurately price useless spells at zero? (To be fair, they probably have some slight entertainment value and a psychological effect. But that's like saying you'd spend $200 on an iPod, and if it doesn't work the money was still well spent on making you feel better for helping the economy.)
Wikipedia offers the following definition for magical thinking:
"[T]he term magical thinking is used to describe causal reasoning that looks for correlation between acts or utterances and certain events."
However, just looking for correlations could as well be scientific thinking. It is more helpful if one adds that the anthropologist E. Tylor characterized such thinking as "pre-logical." Basically, pretty much by definition, magic is non-scientific. Magical thinking believes in causal relations or correlations where there are none. You believe in magic if you really think pressing a raw egg against your head sucks up the pain. But of course the boundary between magic and science becomes blurry when one reaches the front of research. A relation might after all exist, just that science hasn't yet looked at it. In fact, the smarter sellers of useless crap don't just insist on nonscientific products which amounts to declaring there's no known use of them. They add pseudoscientific explanations in the hope one or the other reader will be impressed.
An example of such unashamed pseudoscience are "Takionic products," that "with their aligned atomic polarities, enhance the body's natural ability to draw from the Tachyon Field for its energy needs." We can read for example on this website that
"Since existence of a Tachyon Universe cannot be proven by instrumentation currently available, Tachyon theory is constructed by examining observable effects and drawing conclusions. Since Tachyon theory blurs the distinction between metaphysics (which deals with non-physical realities) and physics (which deals with physical realities), it has not been well-received by some main-stream physicists [...] Though discredited by some physicists today, Tachyon theory persists, an artifact of theoretical physics that has yet to be replaced by a fully coherent and integrated alternative [...]
We experience the Tachyon Field with our senses, mind and spirit as a warm, pleasurable, energizing and healing sensation. Healers have learned to access the Tachyon Field's resources for its healing powers more successfully than the average person has. Belief in a "Higher Power" enables them to draw upon the Tachyon Field. The more they draw upon it, the more effective as healers they become."
It almost hurts my brain to read this (hand me the egg please). The statement that the "theory" has not been well received by "main-stream physicists" and is "discredited" should be an immediate warning for the reader. It means in plain text no credible scientist believes in this nonsense. Tachyons have been looked for and not been found. There's zero evidence they exist. And even if, they certainly would not do any energizing of your senses by means of a "takionic headband". Needless to say, the website doesn't offer any documentation of the alleged examination of observable effects.
In one of my first years at the Institute for theoretical Physics in Frankfurt, my office mate came across a very similar website selling tachyonic water. They had a service hotline, so he called them. We actually wanted to ask how they believe they can capture tachyons in water. A woman picked up and after a friendly opening, my officemate asked her what a tachyon is. She said she'd have to connect him to the technical service hotline, punched a button and then the line was dead. So much about the scientific details.
It is easy to dismiss people who fall for pseudoscience like spells, plain water with a fancy name, or genies as dumb. Yet I don't think that's a good explanation.
One of my relatives, when she reached her mid 80s, became quite suspicious of all modern technology. One instance that I recall particularly well is that she had heard or read somewhere that the suddenly omnipresent cellphones' signals are basically radiation that's around us all the time. She then went on to blame it on these electromagnetic waves if a towel dropped off the hook, or something rolled off the table, or she just wasn't able to find it anymore. A perfect example of making up a correlation. I made one or the other attempt to explain that no way the low power in the radiation used could move macroscopic objects, but I had to notice my explanation was pretty much pointless.
It was not that my relative was stupid. In fact, she was even in her high age far from stupid. The problem was that she had no clue how modern technology works and all the basics were missing. The gap had gotten too large. I would have had to start all the way back with Maxwell's equations over a transistor to electromagnetic waves and antennas, microwaves, maybe moving on to the laser that's now a standard ingredient to so many household products. And if you were 86, would you listen to a twenty-something telling you how the world works?
Arthur Clarke's Third Law
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
This quotation makes its point very well, though it's a little bit careless. I would want to add that technology can always be distinguished from magic, it's just that the technology might not be possible to understand with the knowledge or means at your disposal. But consider you came across an alien technology for cancer treatment. You might not be able to figure out how it works, but you'd be able to demonstrate that it works. I wouldn't call it magic if you can demonstrate, though maybe not explain, an effect. Indeed, the working of a lot of medications that are in common use today is not well understood. What we do is simply demonstrate that they work to the patients' benefits. Nothing magic about that.
Taken together, I've come to think there's two reasons people fall for magic (non-science) or pseudoscience (wrong science): One is that they have no idea how science works. Making up praises from satisfied customers on a website doesn't amount to evidence. ("Athletes have written letters which claim pain from sport injuries was lessened or eliminated, and rapid recovery obtained, from using Takionic products." Okay, fine. Double blind clinical trial? Just asking.) Second is that they don't have enough information, to be able to tell whether a product has any sensible reason to actually work at the present status of scientific knowledge. See, I have a lot of fantasy, and I can imagine that some thousand years into the future you can download a cure for migraine that consists of a software that lets some device in your computer emit targeted electromagnetic stimuli for affected brain regions that demonstrably alleviate the pain. Not so much different from buying a spell online. Except that that today's scientific knowledge isn't remotely close to making this possible. But to be able to tell, you need to have some rough idea of what the status of science is.
In the end, what it comes down to is lacking eduction. Education both about how science works, and what established scientific knowledge is.
I still haven't figured out though how the non-zero value of useless products fits into general equilibrium theory.
PS: If you get migraine after your breakfast egg, don't blame your wife ;-)