Witches and negative outcome clusters

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Pascal Boyer in Religion Explained argues that belief in witchraft, magic, etc. is not adequately explained by people's search for explanations for bad things that happen to them:
In the past, anthropologists sometimes suggested that this may be because people were not very good at understanding natural correlations or the work of random variables. In some groups, most cases of disease or death are ascribed to witchcraft. Surely, the argument goes, statistically aware people would notice that more or less everybody catches some disease at some point, that not all operations are always successful, and that in the long term we all will die. Failing to appreciate these contingencies, people resort to magical explanations for events that are in fact perfectly ordinary. This is what we generally mean by superstition." People see patterns and causes where there is just chance.

However, anthropologists know that people the world over are in fact rather good at detecting statistical regularities in their environment. Indeed, even the simplest techniques depend on such detection and this has been the case for as long as humans have been around. Early humans could not successfully maintain a rich food supply as foragers unless they could detect which fruit and tubers could be found where, with what frequency, in what season. People cannot hunt animals without without detecting which habits and behavior are true of a species as a whole and which apply only to particular exemplars, and so on. So it seems difficult to maintain that contingencies and random events are not generally understood.

I don't find this very convincing. It's absolutely true that people are extroardinarily sensitive to patterns. But like many evolution designed mechanisms, it's messy and heuristic. In particular, it tends to detect patterns that aren't there. This is well-known, as in for example the gambler's fallacy. It's absolutely true that if the detector didn't work at all, that would be a problem, but it's not clear that it needs to work perfectly. That said, it's possible that the particular set of built-in biases it seems to have aren't the optimal ones; that depends on the cost of seeing patterns that aren't there compared to the cost of missing patterns that are there.

It's also interesting to note that in the West, people make the same kind of attribution errors about bad outcomes, but they blame them on science and scientists instead of witches (cf. mercury/autism, fluoridation, EMF, cancer clusters, etc.) Of course, given the amount the average person knows about science, scientists might just as well be witches.


Come on -- the average person has enough statistical sense to know that scientists can't possibly be witches. I mean, who's ever heard of a woman scientist?

I think it's important to distinguish between belief in superstition and belief in witchcraft. The former is analogous to the science-related scares you mentioned, and fits the false pattern-finding model very well. Witchcraft, on the other hand, adds another dimension: intention. The tendency of people to attribute significant effects (including imagined patterns) to wilful agents rather than mere physical rules is an entirely separate form of human irrationality, interesting in its own right. (For example, one of its extreme manifestations is known as "paranoia".)

The gambling analogy is particularly relevant here. False pattern-finding can account for people believing all sorts of foolish things about the probability of winning a given gamble. But as I understand it, the real driving motivation of compulsive gamblers is the belief that they themselves somehow have the power to influence their own outcomes--that winning isn't just something that happens to them, but rather something that they achieve, using a faculty called "luck".

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