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No special snowflakes

Dr. X commented recently on just world bias, as displayed by Oprah while interviewing Lance Armstrong:

Just one slightly weird blip in an otherwise good job. She asked Armstrong more than once if he expected his day of reckoning to come. Fine enough question, but with an almost cult-like, true believer, fast-clip delivery, she explained the basis for her question, and I paraphrase: 

Did you expect that this day would come, because the Second Law of Movement says you will get what you put out? 

I’m watching and I’m like, what the hell, Oprah? I assume she was referring to Newton’s Second Law of Motion, which is about physics, not mental life or cosmic justice. I found it a bit annoying that she not only misused the concept but, in particular, she used it to assert the Just World Hypothesis which isn’t a law of nature; it’s a known psychological bias — a pernicious distortion of reality. Oprah isn’t just wrong; she came off as having zombie-like belief in a falsehood that does a lot of harm to people. Applied to Armstrong’s situation, it may not sound like a bad thing. But the unexamined flip side is, for example, if you were raped, it was because of something you did that was wrong. So the rape was a natural outcome of your own bad actions. It’s cosmic law. Excuse me, but that’s fucked.

Fucked, maybe, but certainly common, if not commonly described as the “Second Law of Movement.” I would dare say, even, that just world bias is the unfortunate glue that binds traditional religions and more New Agey beliefs together. If you believe in God, then God is supposedly the reason that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished. If you believe in The Secret (or karma), then you are the reason. Either way, you have a situation in which the universe itself not only cares about the moral significance of your behavior but actually responds to it, positively or negatively.

And Dr. X succinctly points out the problem with and the very unscientific nature of that position– science never appeals to a cosmic will to explain reality. Not because such a thing is utterly impossible, as because such a thing hasn’t been demonstrated to exist, and therefore appealing to it has no explanatory power. Good thing, considering how often very bad things happen to people who are very good, or just minding their own business!

If anything, the truth is that science keeps uncovering more and more ways in which the universe doesn’t give a damn, and religion becomes less and less powerful in its ability to punish the scientists who reveal this.

And we– ordinary, evitable, happenstance beings that we are– we go on.

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