Science and magic

potions classroom set from Harry Potter movies
Potions classroom set from the Harry Potter movies. Shutterstock image.

The British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke developed three laws, the most famous of which is, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Isaac Asimov expressed a similar idea as, “An uninformed public tends to confuse scholarship with magicians.” How can the average person distinguish between science and magic?

The question has become more pressing in recent years. In the early days of the pandemic, no one knew what caused COVID-19 or how to treat it. Ignorance and fear motivated people to take hydroxychloroquine, a malaria treatment, or ivermectin, a medication for horses. Some even drank bleach.

Part of the problem is that the average person knows very little about science. In the US, our concept of education doesn’t view math or science on a par with the liberal arts. That is, we consider someone educated even if they have no idea how science works. No one could—or should—get a bachelor’s degree in engineering without breadth courses in the liberal arts. Indeed, engineering curricula must include such courses for accreditation. But it’s pretty common to graduate in English or history or political science without taking a single math or natural science course.

In addition to ignorance, a few other factors were at play. Emotions were running high due to fear of the disease, the stresses of living in lockdown, and supply shortages. And with no place to go, people had a lot more time on their hands to explore the dark corners of the internet. Search algorithms favored the sensational over the factual. That is, there was a lot more “magic” than science to be found, and the magic was a lot more entertaining. It’s no wonder, then, that so many were vulnerable to myths, conspiracy theories, and outright lies.

Is it science or magic?

One thing I like to do when I hear about something new is to ask how it works. Whether it’s a diet or a concrete admixture or a medical treatment, it ought to have a solid basis in science. Science is all about figuring out how things work. Of course just because the person who’s telling me about it can’t explain it well doesn’t mean it’s bogus. But somewhere there should be a coherent explanation. And if it’s a product to use in concrete, I won’t buy it from anyone who can’t explain the relevant chemistry and physics in detail.

Something else I look for is whether they know what they don’t know. I trust my doctor not only because he’s knowledgeable, but because he readily admits when he doesn’t know. Then he’ll either find out or refer me to someone who knows more. He’s also open about where he’s getting his information. He doesn’t expect me to go along with it just because he says so.

Sometimes the limitations of science lead people to look elsewhere for answers. In the mid-1980s, when AIDS was rampant but there weren’t any treatments yet, people went to Mexico to buy laetrile, a compound derived from apricot pits. It forms cyanide in the body. Not surprisingly, the FDA has never approved it.

A dentist friend of mine had her office in San Francisco near Union Square at that time. On my way there, I noticed a shop selling healing crystals. I asked my friend what that was about. They had to be doing a good business to make a go of it in such a high-rent neighborhood. She said people with AIDS, let down by western medicine, were turning to crystals as a last resort. And someone was cashing in on their desperation.

Changing the message

Particularly during the first year or so of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists, public health officials, and doctors were learning at a great rate. As a result, the messages kept changing—disinfecting surfaces, wearing masks, what symptoms to look for. We’ve discussed in a previous blog why good scientists keep changing their minds. But many people were confused and frustrated. They found it hard to trust the experts. They wanted a consistent story, not one revision after another.

Certainly it’s easier to figure something out once and stick with it. But in a world where new technology is developing all the time, that’s essentially preferring magic over science. We need to keep up with changing technology and changing circumstances to remain aware of reality.

The FDA approved the first HIV drug, AZT, in 1987. More drugs followed in the ensuing years, and an HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. But amazingly, healing crystals are still around.

I remember an excellent article about crystals in a 1980s-era issue of Vogue, of all places. The author reported that each crystal could be “programmed” for one thing. So if you wanted both health and wealth, say, you needed a crystal for each. You “programmed” your crystal for a specific purpose, and it would try its hardest to do that for you. She resolved to buy diamonds to ward off poverty. Her gentle wit was well grounded in reality then. Yet if you Google “healing crystals” today, you can easily find someone to sell them to you. Why would anyone prefer such magic to science?

“Falsehood flies…”

Besides, as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late.—Jonathan Swift, 1710

There’s something about lies that hasn’t changed in 300 years. Long before the internet and social media, they spread much faster than truth. They also have a staying power that defies all attempts to debunk them.

Consider Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 paper in The Lancet linking the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine with autism. Although millions of children receive the MMR vaccine each year, his paper consisted of case reports of 12 children. That is, it was basically anecdotes, not data. Worse, though, was that he’d falsified every one of those 12 case reports in some way. In addition, at the time Wakefield was filing patents for single-disease vaccines. That is, he had a financial interest in promoting his own vaccines over the MMR vaccine.

For all of these reasons, The Lancet should never have accepted the paper for publication. Indeed, 10 of Wakefield’s coauthors retracted the paper in 2004. The Lancet itself retracted the paper in 2010. Wakefield’s license to practice medicine in the UK was revoked later that year. Numerous subsequent papers by other researchers have consistently debunked his work. However, Wakefield continues to campaign against the MMR vaccine. As a result, outbreaks of measles occur even now in communities with low vaccination rates.