the magicians of science

“I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise science to such an extent that what is, in effect, a belief in [demons] (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to the belief in [God]. The ‘Life Force’, the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis, may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work—the Materialist Magician, the man, not using but veritably worshiping what he vaguely calls ‘Forces’ while denying the existence of ‘spirits’—then the end of the war will be in sight.”

—”The Screwtape Letters” by C. S. Lewis

I have a deep and powerful respect for science and scientific thinking. On the other hand, because I am a scientist, I have a deep and powerful understanding of the limitations of scientific knowledge, and the gaps in some of our existing scientific theories. Having respect for “scientific thinking” does not automatically translate into “belief in scientific theories.”

For me, “scientific thinking” is something that goes beyond the profession or activity of “science” per se.  Scientific thinking happens in everyday life. Any time your friend acts strangely, and you come up with ideas about what might be causing it, and then you say something or do something to get a response that might tell you if your idea is correct… you are using scientific thinking.

magicianOn the flip side of the coin, there is “magical thinking.”  Magical thinking does not come up with alternate explanations, and does not probe and prod the world to see if the explanation is right. Magical thinking is a different kind of belief about the world.  Magical thinking says “If I spit on the dice three times, they will be more likely to give me the results that I want in the craps game.” Magical thinking says, “Sure, I just got fired, but it’s because a higher purpose wants me to make changes in my life.”  Magical thinking is belief in a connection between A and B without having any justification beyond the fact of the belief itself.

Of course, one example of magical thinking is religious faith.  Miracles, life-after-death, and the Biblical explanation of the origins of life on earth: these are all examples of magical thinking.

But just as you can engage in scientific thinking even when you are not thinking about science, you can engage in magical thinking even if you don’t believe in magic.  You don’t need to believe in spirits or the supernatural or even God to engage in magical thinking.

In fact, I know plenty of people who are atheists, who think magically about science.

For example, I once met a man who believed that the theory of evolution explains the origin of life. (It does not.) When I asked this person how the  theory of evolution explains the origins of life, he muttered and mumbled and eventually admitted that he didn’t really know the details… but he was absolutely sure that evolution did explain it.

That’s faith. That’s magical thinking. And the fact that it’s “faith in science”—the fact that the magic has a “scientific name”—does not make it any less magical.

This is common. I know a lot of atheist magicians. They do not know that they are magicians. They do not call themselves magicians; but that’s what they are. They are magicians because they will passionately and vehemently argue in support of explanations that they do not really understand. What is more, it doesn’t bother them that they do not understand.  That is why it is a form of faith: they don’t need to understand… all they need is to know that it is “science.”

Recently, there was a big hubbub in the news because some scientists measured some neutrinos that appeared to move faster than light. Every lay-person in the press was claiming that, if this was true, it would break one of the fundamental assumptions of the theory of relativity.

Although I am not an expert in relativity theory, this claim seemed somehow wrong to me. I vaguely remembered (or thought I remembered) learning that relativity does not prohibit traveling faster than light, but accelerating faster than light. Because of the way that the mathematical formulas worked out, to accelerate from below the speed of light to above the speed of light would require infinite energy, and would cause the object to have infinite mass.  But once you are “past the boundary”, the problems are different: theoretically, a tachyon that has always been traveling faster than light could exist. As long as it didn’t “cross the border” from under to over.

But every news outlet and every blogger was out there saying that a neutrino traveling faster than light “broke” the theory of relativity.  So I began to ask around.

“Hey, Mister Person Who Is Sharing This News Story On Facebook, this article says that particles can’t travel faster than light. Do you know why that’s the case?”

“Relativity says so,” was always the gist of the response from Mister Person.

“Yes, but what is the explanation that the theory of relativity provides? What’s the reason?”

“I don’t know,” Mister Person would admit.

So I would ask someone else, and the response would be the same.

Person after person shared this article around on the web. Every single one of them gleefully announced “OMG revolution in physics!” and “Everything we think we know is wrong!”

Not one of them, when asked, could explain why the theory of relativity concludes that things can’t travel faster than light.

To them, the relativistic speed limit was not science. It was magic. It had a sciencey name, and it wasn’t based on a belief in spirits or gods. But it was magic, none-the-less.

Now, don’t get me wrong: magical thinking isn’t always bad. It isn’t inherently evil, and one could make the argument that sometimes it is helpful or even necessary.

But I think it’s important to point out the magic in people’s thinking, especially when it is cloaked in the names and trappings of science.  Especially when the people who do it are the often same people who haughtily criticize “those foolish religious people” for their faith.

When you are nothing more than a Magician of the Science, you should not (as the saying goes) be casting stones.



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  2. Josiah Jennings says:

    Oh, certainly. I’d say we’re in full agreement on what consists of magical thinking. I was mostly elaborating on how I would handle your previous question.

    With regard to the Hawking quote, I think Hawking is referring to the method of science vis-à-vis the method of religion wherein science has room for advancement, but religion does not. Religion (like so many other concepts) begins with a belief system that must be accepted or rejected and can possibly fail based on a single observation. Science progresses with time. This may be tangential to your original point on distinguishing the subtleties of magical thinking that are taken for granted about or within science, but I think what is key to minimizing this blind worship of science is understanding what science is, how it works, and what the goals of science are. And on that note, I think Carl Sagan said it best:

    “Science is more than a body of knowledge—it’s a way of thinking—a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions to interrogate those who tell us that something is true—to be skeptical of those in authority—then we’re up for grabs.”

    That “authority,” of course, being religious, scientific, political, or otherwise…

  3. Josiah Jennings says:

    Although I try to steer clear of using religion as an example (it is, to me, almost a dead horse in philosophy), my dad and I had this exact conversation some years ago when he confronted me about why I seem to place my “faith” in science as opposed to a religious text. His question to me was more or less the question you have asked. It is a very good question, one that the theist and atheist should both ask themselves before resting confident in anything they believe. It is also a question one can look quite foolish in attempting to answer if caught off guard.

    Not too many people realize how difficult it is to actually know something. It’s the moral of Plato’s Apology. It is also the cornerstone of distinguishing wisdom from bullshit. When claiming to know anything, I always ask myself “How do I know this to be true?” If my answer is “I don’t know,” I refuse to answer for fear of displaying my obvious ignorance on the matter. However, many of the conclusions that I claim to “know” often come from the reliance on scientific authority. We obviously can’t be experts in every field of science or mathematics, thus reasonably we all come to rely on some sort of authority, or take things on faith. The question then is what makes for a reliable authority. In our example, what makes the religious person less rational than the person of science, or vice-versa?

    First, there is a difference between scientific authority and religious authority. To quote Stephen Hawking, “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.” The rigor of the scientific method is the best means of either providing support for our hypotheses or debunking them. No single observation undeniably affirms a theory, only providing further support for it, but it only takes one observation to falsify a theory. All disciplines adhere to the scientific method as best possible (even those Feynman deemed the “cargo cult sciences”), and in academia there is the process of peer review, but even then our “knowledge” cannot be considered infallible. Science is nothing if not honest about this fact. Science is a practice that encourages harsh self-criticism, and as a result science revises itself nearly every day. Because of the rigors of science and the peer review process of academia, I argue that one can be more confident in scientific authority than in religious authority, but the key to this is intellectual honesty. It is our job as intellectuals to be overly critical, carry out the peer review process, and ask ourselves questions such as “How do I know this to be true?” and “Are there other factors or possibilities that I or they have not considered?” etc. Questions like these become even more difficult, though, when taken out of the context of our example and replaced with two authorities within the same area of expertise, say, contrasting theories in theoretical physics (e.g. string theory vs loop quantum gravity). If I am not a theoretical physicist, it would probably be impossible for me to argue in favor or against either of these two theories. Frankly, the jury is still out in situations that parallel these, and probably the best approach for someone not specialized in theoretical physics would be to admit ignorance, but it is always a healthy habit, I think, to want to remain aware of these issues, hence the reason I am quicker to condone those creating a stir on Facebook over news of faster-than-light neutrinos than I am to condemn them. They may not understand the mathematics behind the conclusions, but it’s a few steps ahead of the general populace to have an interest in such things. After all, would you prefer them debating Taylor Lautner’s sexuality instead? 😉 I bring light to this because we all have areas that lie outside our area of expertise, so it very well may be the case that we are all guilty of some magical thinking.

    In conclusion, though, if I can not truly say I know something to be true with some degree of certainty, I do not bother offering an opinion on the matter. It is better to ask questions. How difficult it truly is to know something has kept me humble with respect to what I think I know no matter how simple the matter may seem, and painfully skeptical of my own intelligence. There is often more wisdom shown by the answer “I don’t know” than there is by relying on intuition, magical or wishful thinking. Such is my two cents, anyhow.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      I think you get into a murky area when you start making generalizations like Hawking’s “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works”…. however, I believe you hit the nail on the head when you mention that a true scientist, a person who is using real scientific thinking, will never shy away from saying, “I just don’t know.”

      In many such cases, a person using scientific thinking would probably even say, “I’m not sure, although I would tend to trust Dr. Einstein’s opinion.” (or insert whatever name is appropriate.) That is not magical thinking. But I still suspect that when someone argues that they are absolutely certain that science has proved the hypothesis of speciation by adaptation, but they cannot explain even roughly what the evidence is that supports it, then that constitutes magical thinking. It doesn’t mean it’s terrible: as you said: there has to be some specialization of expertise in society and that’s fine. But it’s still magical “certaintly”. Not because he doesn’t know every detail about genotype-phenotype mappings or some such thing, but because he doesn’t even know roughly what the evidence is that supports the position that he thinks is “proved.”

      That’s why I think that Hawking’s blanket assertion is fuzzy, because when you talk about the actual psychology of how lay-people use science in their day-to-day reasoning, science can often be seen to play a role very very similar to the role of religion. It’s not based on saying “I don’t know” and it’s not based on saying “What is the evidence?”. As described in the Screwtape quote at the beginning of the article, when a person finds himself “not using but veritably worshiping what he vaguely calls ‘Forces’” then he is not using scientific thinking, and unfortunately I think that a lot of people take just this mindset with scientific theories.

  4. Josiah Jennings says:

    Like everything I have read so far on your site, Greg, this is a very good article. I am, however, curious as to how or if you would distinguish between what one should call magical thinking on the one hand, and on the other hand finding it rational that one should accept the generally held opinion of experts on fields which one may know almost nothing about. I vaguely recall one of your articles talking about the difference between the generalist and the specialist and how there is historically much owed to the generalist throughout history for many of the advances made in academia. For example, in the above article, you said the following:

    “Although I am not an expert in relativity theory, this claim seemed somehow wrong to me. I vaguely remembered (or thought I remembered) learning that relativity does not prohibit traveling faster than light, but accelerating faster than light. Because of the way that the mathematical formulas worked out…”

    But could you personally work out these mathematical formulas that yield such a result? (You may or may not be able to.) My point is that although one may not be able to explain evolution or relativity theory to the extent that experts in these fields can, is it not reasonable for non-experts to accept some conclusions of experts uncritically (namely, because they do not have the expertise to criticize said conclusions) without equating it to the same sort of magical thinking to which you refer that is so common among most people? Again, I point to the example of the generalist vs the specialist. To some extent, the cross-disciplinary generalist must accept on faith some of the conclusions of the specialist with which the generalist is less familiar and the specialist has more knowledge. Would you distinguish this type of thinking from the magical thinking you are criticizing, or would you nonetheless still consider it magical thinking?

    This could be one of the instances for which you claim demonstrates that magical thinking isn’t inherently “evil” and that I am pointing out one of those times when it is helpful and even necessary. Personally, my response would be that magical thinking is magical thinking (whatever the form), and this is still magical thinking ‘to some degree’, but that it is each rational, warranted, helpful, and necessary. Having said that, I retain the opinion it may be too harsh to criticize someone who is merely sharing the discovery of faster-than-light neutrinos on Facebook of not having been critical of the supposed implications of these news stories. This person may merely have had an interest and surface knowledge of theoretical physics, and I would first and foremost commend them on that before I would criticize their lack of knowledge in theoretical physics, a subject that very few of us outside of the field truly understand. But as I said, I am curious what your response to this is.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Hey Josiah! Thank you so much for your comment (and for sharing this article on facebook, I noticed, too!).

      I am totally unsurprised that you were immediately able to pick up on the nuanced “gray area” in this conversation. 😉 You are also right that this is partly why I left myself the “out” of saying that not all magical thinking is bad. I actually struggled with exactly this question, thinking about this issue. I’ve been told that cloning is an imperfect science because there is something that degrades the ends of DNA strands each time they replicate. I don’t remember the name of this phenomenon, and I don’t totally understand exactly how it works… does that mean that my belief in the statement “cloning is an imperfect science” is magical thinking?

      Perhaps it is. Reliance on “authority” is a tricky business, in the arena of Theory of Knowledge, as I’m sure you know. What do you think? Do you think there is a formal, rigorous, and objective way to differentiate between the person who believes X because a religious text said so and a person who believes Y because a really smart scientist dude said so?

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