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.


  1. Red Matter was totally just magic. Star Trek XI, taken in isolation from real Star Trek, was as scientifically solid as Star Wars, i.e. not. It was space fantasy.

    The real pain is that people seem to get quite protective of their magic-based understanding, as if opening a thing up to see how it really works will permanently break it. It's very, very, very hard to tell a person, "No, your understanding is wrong, here is a more realistic version," without losing their attention or even triggering a hostile response. Which, I suppose, makes skepticism a more interesting and challenging game, but sometimes having the cheat codes would be very convenient too.

    1. Indeed.

      Red Matter wasn't magic though. It's just a placeholder name for "Material that has N properties and happens to be red in colour." That's a scientific description, not unlike that of Dark Matter or Dark Energy. In the Star Trek universe, Red Matter is a real, physical thing with known properties. Sure it's exotic and fictional, but that doesn't make it magic.

      ("Protomatter" in Star Trek 2 was fictional and exotic too - now it's known to science as Quark Gluon Plasma)

      As opposed to Magic or the Force, which can be invoked by adept people to do just about anything they (the adepts) want. Even midiclorians can't turn the Force into something other than magic.

    2. Bollocks. The One Ring couldn't do literally anything, it had finite properties, and yet you wouldn't argue that it worked by anything other than magic. Gandalf could barely do more than make pretty lights. The Force has not been demonstrated making things invisible or causing spontaneous combustion or producing matter out of thin air. These things have finite limits, and yet we'd still call them magic, so that's clearly not an identifying factor. The fact that Red Matter only does one trick is irrelevant.

      Granted, there's a fuzzy line between fictional-science-that's-yet-to-be-explained and magic, but I can say with confidence that Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci never stopped to think about how their magic black hole potion might work, how it might be justified. They just knew they wanted it and threw it in without considering any but the most superficial properties (and gave it an equally superficial name). That, to me, puts it neatly on the magic side of the fuzzy line.

  2. Consider this...

    Would one know what hot is, if one has never experienced cold?
    Would one know what daylight was, if one never experienced night?

    The key word here is "know".
    The "how", the "when", the "why" are degrees that separate us from the "know".

    Not knowing how the Pyramids were built, is not knowing of the technology used to build them.

    Posed with this problem man is put in a position of trying to find a clue, a common denominator, or something within his sphere of experience in order to lead him to knowing and he does this by considering the technology that would definitely not have been used, until all possibilities have been exhausted at which point he has to say, "I do not know", which would lead to the inevitable conclusion that in spite of the pyramids having been built, they were not built by us.

    Therefore the point here is not the "magic" that must have been used, but the very significant fact that it was not us who built them.

    Arriving at such a point totally overrides, overshadows and reduces to total insignificance anything said, or can be said the very next second or any time thereafter, after such an arrival.

    By not emphasizing the irrelevant, will result in having to deal with the facts.

    This is "proper" science.
    part 1 - 10