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.