Saturday, 10 July 2010

Science Is Magic That Works

The title of this entry comes from Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, and I think to the layperson this is a brilliant summation of science. It works, it evidentially works if you're reading this because you're not talking to a psychic[1], but because you're on a computer that has internet access.

So when someone utters the phrase:
The more you delve into science, the more it relies on faith.[2]
I really have to wonder what they are talking about. Yes, the current body of knowledge that we call science is very anti-intuitive and we as laypeople essentially rely on the expertise of those telling us.

This problem isn't only on the frontiers of knowledge, however, it applies for most of what we know. We are surrounded by devices which we don't have anything more than a superficial understanding of how it works. Take the television, it's a device that has been in homes for more than half a century now, yet as consumers we couldn't be more removed from how the technology works. We don't know how it works but we know that it does.

Take the WW2 cargo cults. They would build replicas of the technology they saw the Americans using including straw planes and wooden headphones[3]. It's as if having the form of those technology would make the technology work, like a child making a television out of a cardboard box. Yet we do have working televisions, as we do working planes and working headphones (I'm listening to music right now). Science really does appear like it is magic that works!

But magic in this sense is like a stage magician, the product is an illusion to the underlying explanation. No prayers, no incantations, no sacrificing livestock, just technology that harnesses the underlying nature of nature. Much in the same way that we don't need to rely on magic to see that objects fall downward. Harnessing the power of electricity is no more magic than harnessing the power of gravity.

It's unfortunate that we are shielded from how the devices we use work. Because underlying that technology is the scientific explanations that would otherwise seem mystical. Jon Stewart's example was anti-matter as something he is asked to accept of faith. Except that anti-matter is the science underlying PET scanners. It's not only something that can be created in high-energy particle colliders - it serves an everyday use! Yet it is another device that we have no idea about how it works, it is indistinguishable from magic.

The third of Arthur Clarke's three laws of prediction is as follows:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.[4]
This holds painfully true. iPods are really just magic song bricks and medicine is God pills[5]. We don't know how they work, they just do. It's no wonder that people fall for magic products like perpetual motion machines or homoeopathic remedies, a nod's as good as a wink to a blind bat[6].

Science as a process would not be able to operate if no-one understood it. In that way, it's the opposite of faith. Theories that are in principle unfalsifiable are unfavoured[7], and theories that don't adequately explain the data are modified or discarded.

It does seem like an exclusive discipline, far removed from anything we do on a daily basis. But in principle any person should be able to partake in the process. To get an education in the tools and processes, to read the studies and look at the empirical data, and see whether it checks out. Many people from many different backgrounds around the world do this already, science transcends culture because of its strive towards objectivity.

And even without doing that, there are plenty of books put out by those experts in order to explain it as clearly as possible to the layperson. In addition, there are radio programs, podcasts, public lectures, online information and a lot of public outreach. While it may be incomprehensible to many, there's at least the effort to share the knowledge. And if nothing else, we all benefit from these advances... that you're reading this right now attests to that.

[1] - Because psychics don't exist
[2] - Jon Stewart
[3] - Read about it here
[4] - Clarke's three laws of prediction
[5] - The Daily Show is not all bad.
[6] - Say no more! Say no more!
[7] - A theory that explains everything explains nothing. Psychoanalysis is a great example.


Wowbagger said...

Good post. Also, footnotes kick ass!

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