Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Its a kind of magic

A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic according to Arthur C. Clarke. This statement sums up the current situation with science. As a populace we consider science as magic, carried out by a select few who can understand the arcane secrets of this discipline.

Terry Pratchett along with Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart have also noticed this trend and satirises it in a series of science novels called “The Science of the Discworld”. Set on Pratchett’s Discworld, the novels feature the adventures of the wizards as they try and understand the Roundworld (our world) which they created in a magical accident along with some science lessons provided by Cohen and Stewart. The novels deliberately draw parallels with scientists and wizards as well as the university structure that many research scientists work within.

When considering this idea, it does not seem so far-fetched. A lot of scientific disciplines derive from studies that could be considered a form of magic in origins. For example, Astrology, with its magical abilities to predict the future produced the modern science of Astronomy. Alchemy paved the way for Chemistry and it was a theologically trained Natural Scientist (Charles Darwin) who overthrew the Church’s teachings of Creationism and wrote Origin of Species, producing the science of Evolution. It does seem apparent then that science and magic have common origins. Both try and influence our perceived reality.

However, as most students of science will probably be thinking now, science relies on something that separates it from magic. Science relies on observable reality and the concept of repeatability. A psychic radio presenter may have been able to entice a cat to her home (probably due to luck more than any powers she might have), however, it is unlikely that she would be able to perform this feat again, unless her neighbours regularly lose their cats. Magic, or anything that invokes a supernatural (i.e. unobservable) force is not subjected to the same rigour in any shape or form. 

Unfortunately, not everyone is aware of the rigour, or if they are, they assume that their particular brand of mysticism is subject to the same scrutiny as a scientific paper, running the gauntlet of peer review. This has led to a popular following amongst the Pseudo-sciences, creationism, homeopathy, psychics, etc, who refer to half-baked “scientific tests” that they have been subjected to and found to have “worked”. As there is a lack of criticism sometimes for these people, their followers can use their mystique to ape science, effectively blurring the line for the general populace between what is science and what is magic. 

The lack of knowledge in how science works has led to pseudosciences being considered on par with actual science. People are unable to distinguish our advanced technology from the magic of detox baths and ear candles which are touted as scientific. In essence, science has become too “hard” for the layman. All the explanations we learn at school are inadequate and seem unrelated to real life. This is why scientific theory and the scientific method are the most important aspects of science as it is a useful framework which produces far more benefits that memorising ligand colour changes as they react (an activity I was required to do for my A2 chemistry and has thankfully been dropped). Science is indeed a kinda of magic to people, especially with the effects you can get from some special experiments like Old Nassau (a fairly impressive colour change experiment). However, it is not magic, it is how the world works.

Interesting articles

1 comment:

  1. i do believe that science is magic.everything in the world can be explained by science (even magic can be ).the fact that we can't explain a particular phenomenon using any of the scientific principles does n't mean it is unscientific or science is incapable;it just underlines our own incapacitance.