Monday, May 14, 2012

Science As Magic

A comment Michael Meadon made on the podcast the other day has had me thinking. He was trying to annoy me by saying that the Star Trek universe has magic in it.

I dispute that assertion because in the Star Trek universe, there's (at least the intention of) a scientific basis for everything. Even the truly exotic stuff like Red Matter, weird radiation at the galactic barrier and omnipotent aliens are never meant to be magical or supernatural - they're only ever natural phenomena that haven't been properly described (either to the characters themselves, or to the audience).

Let's also not forget that Star Trek is fiction, written by fallible humans who themselves don't have complete knowledge of all science.

But it got me thinking because Michael's ignorance of the world of Star Trek mirrors the ignorance most people seem to have of our own universe. To them, science is magic.

I can understand why that's the case. The level of scientific advancement our society has made today makes it impossible for any one person to understand all of it.

To most people, even well-educated ones, a cellphone must seem like a magical thing: a little box that lets you communicate with your friends in many different ways, lets you access the sum of human knowledge via Google, and basically lets you live a life beyond the limits of your biological self. All it needs to be recharged with a ritual of connecting it to the Earth and paying it regular tithes.

But of course there's nothing magical about a cellphone. People who know things about physics, chemistry and computer science understand most, if not all, the processes that make a cellphone do the things it does. They can describe the radio transmissions it makes, the data it processes, the chemicals it uses to store energy and all sorts of other things that are beyond my knowledge of the world.

If I, a scientifically literate person who relies as heavily on my phone as I do can't understand it, what hope does someone without my skills or interests have in doing so? None. To them, it may as well be magic.

So, that being the case, is it any wonder that people are mystified by and even distrustful of technology? Why shouldn't they also embrace other forms of magic when presented to them?

If a cellphone can make invisible rays that give me cancer (it can't, but just for the sake of argument) why shouldn't a crystal pendant use some other invisible process to protect me from those rays?

If I can't explain how the pyramids were built, why shouldn't I accept that magical aliens built them? Surely alien magic is stronger than ours.

If I can't cure cancer with chemotherapy, why shouldn't I try Homeopathy and "natural" remedies instead?

It seems obvious that the solution to this would be education. That would certainly help the the next generation, but what about those of us on the planet now? What about the people thinking that our species is too stupid to invent its own civilisation, or even worse, the ones using crystals or herbs to protect them from cancer?

I don't have the solution, but that's one of the reasons I write this blog and produce the Consilience podcast - in the hope that I can reach someone, and convince them of the idea behind this quote:

"Throughout history, every mystery ever solved has turned out to be NOT magic." - Tim Minchin, Storm
And you thought it would be Arthur C. Clarke

While proper scientists are in their labs exploring the real universe, it's up to the sceptics and science communicators to try and get rid of all the other nonsense - the cargo-cult science and other magical-thinking-derived silliness.

And if you want to watch some Star Trek on the subject, I recommend the Next Generation episode Devil's Due. Excellent stuff.