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The Harry Potter books are fine, of course – my kids grew up with them – but they’ve always bugged me for one reason: They are a perfect embodiment of “magical thinking”, which is not a good thing in reality.

Here’s the problem: Hogwarts is one of the the premiere institutions for magical education in the the entire world yet nobody actually researches magic! They learn it by rote and copy what has always been done, and that’s it. Nobody tries to find out how magic works, or takes apart spells to understand them better, or tries to make new and better spells. They just do the same things over and over.

This is classic magical thinking: When presented with a phenomenon you say “it’s magic” and that’s the end of it. You blindly accept what is presented with no desire to understand where it comes from or how it works or how it can be improved. Almost all paranormal activity and many of the goofier natural-health processes take this route, which is one reason why they fail.

If Hogwarts was a real place, there’d be theoretical magicians probing into the deep source of magic, mathematical magicians quantifying effects to find patterns, practical magicians trying to break spells into “atoms” or individual components to see how they interact with non-magical forces (a basic question: does magic obey the inverse-square law?), standards committees establishing benchmarks and metrics for spells, and lots more. It would be, in other words, scientific. And wouldn’t that be a more interesting book!

I mention this because it came up yesterday when I talked with a dozen undergrad and grad students in the Environmental Outreach and Communication  course at Plymouth State University. We were talking about why people don’t appreciate the scientific method more and I suddenly found myself ranting about Harry Potter. You never know what’s going to happen when you walk into a college classroom.



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