Science Has Better Magic

Science by Adam on 2006-06-03 01:04

Despite living in the Age of Reason, human fascination with mysticism remains as strong as ever. Mysticism comes in many forms: organized religion, new age spirituality, faith healing, tarot cards, magnet healing, hypnosis, astrology, alien abduction, telekinesis, ESP. What they all have in common is a lack of tangible effects, compensated for by strong emotional effects on their believers.

Without fail, all forms of mysticism promise some sort of magic. Tarot cards tell your future. Faith healers send your cancer into remission. The Christian god answers your prayers like some kind of cosmic Santa Claus. In every single case, the benefits promised are always vague and untestable. None of these things ever produce any result except making their believers feel spooky.

Why can’t a faith healer heal a broken leg or staunch the bleeding on a deep cut? Why is it always a hard-to-diagnose disease like cancer which goes in and out of remission on its own anyway?

Anything which promises to tell the future always produces such vague predictions that will, given enough time, always “come true.” You will have difficulty at work. Someone close to you will betray you. A man whose name starts with D will come into your life. Why do they never tell you something like “You’ll meet a woman named Kelly Smith at Starbuck’s next Tuesday. She will be wearing a black shirt. Ask her out, you two will make a great couple. Don’t take her to a seafood place, though, she’s allergic to shellfish.”

Then of course there’s prayer. If you get what you pray for (”Please god let me pass the algebra test!”) then you chalk one up to the glory of your chosen god, rather than your own skill or knowledge. If you don’t get what you pray for then you say something like “God works in mysterious ways” or “It’s part of god’s plan.” Riiiight.

As depressing as all of this is, I find comfort in the observation that, notwithstanding the continued popularity of mysticism, science commands a lot of respect in the modern world. Certainly more than any single type of mysticism, but probably also more than all of them combined. As pleased as I am about this, I have to ask - why? What would make the same people who stick magnets on their heads thinking it will protect them from brain tumors also respect science?

As much as I’d like to believe that their esteem is for science’s underlying principles of testable hypotheses, experimental data, and peer review, I don’t think that’s it. No, I think the real reason is: science has better magic.

The magic promised by every other belief system only works on believers. But the magic promised by science always works.

I’m guessing that if you grabbed a random person off the street and started explaining Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetic radiation, they’d think you were a nutcase. (”A particle and a wave? It can’t be both, that’s just crazy talk!”) But their cell phone keeps on working whether they believe it or not.

Ultimately I suppose that judging something based on its ends rather than its means isn’t a bad approach. But you’ve got to love the irony of ESP believers who talk to their friends about it on the phone.

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