Monday, 9 September 2013

Clarke's Third Law

The scientist and science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke, proposed three "laws" of scientific prophecy:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Sadly, only the third of these ever made it into popular culture.  I say sadly because I think the entertainment possibilities of the first are quite possibly limitless, and because I think the second is a truly insightful comment on the value of speculative fiction to science.

Of course, having bemoaned the lack of emphasis placed on the first two of Clarke's laws, I'm about to contribute by talking about the third law.

As you may note in a previous post, I'm a bit mystified by some of the anti-science hoaxes that seem to be proliferating.  Fluoride in the water supposedly causes cancer, arthritis, and the downfall of western civilization.  Vaccines supposedly cause cancer, autism, and the downfall of western civilization.  Fire supposedly causes cancer, cream shortages, and the downfall of western civilization.

Ok, I made that last one up.  Although give it time, I'm sure there will be a 'movement' to ban it.

Now I've already pondered why the people who promulgate these hoaxes do so.  But what makes people so willing to believe them in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary?  

Faced with competing claims, I generally try to check out the evidence and arguments for each.  I then select the claim that is borne out by the majority of rigorous scientific study.  I certainly don't believe that scientists are always right.  But I do believe that the preponderance of properly conducted scientific experiment and study is the best source of truth I can find on an issue.

I'm not always emotionless in this search for truth.  I'm afraid I am prone to reject a claim that relies on invective rather than argument.  If a side dismisses every study that disagrees with it by impugning the authors (keywords like 'corporate shills' are a red flag), I tune out rather quickly.  Likewise, as soon as I see arguments about 'conspiracies' my patience grows thin.

Still, if there are opposing scientific studies I try to get a sense of their validity.  I confess I generally seek out Literature reviews (a meta-article that summarizes the work) rather than looking at the individual studies. Generally that will give me a good sense of which studies were published in reputable journals and which studies have been replicated.  With that knowledge I can make my decision.

Not everyone is like me (and for the most part, I thank God that it's so).  In fact there are some people who appear to actually prefer to believe the unfounded, or the outright wrong.  Scientific American had an article on Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories earlier this year.  They don't really come to any conclusions, but they do raise the link between belief in conspiracy theories and feelings of powerlessness.  Conspiracy theories help combat that by assigning meaning to events, even if that meaning has no basis.

I propose a slightly different take.  Knowing a number of people who blindly accept some of these theories, yet don't seem to evince these feelings of powerlessness, I'm going to go with Clarke's Third Law.  In many ways, scientific fields have progressed to the point that anyone not in the field is not advanced enough to distinguish it from magic.  The rejection of science is really a rejection of magic - a rejection of what we don't understand.  We prefer a theory that seems simpler to us, or at least a theory that we own.

Now I may actually be positing a distinction without a difference.  Perhaps powerlessness and lack of understanding are the same thing in different words.  I also recognize that there are many other possibilities. People are complex, and the reasons that person A is wearing a tinfoil hat may differ from the reasons why person B doesn't vaccinate their child.

But my theory helps me hold the magic at bay for a bit.

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