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Wednesday, June 30, 2004

This post is distressingly lacking in butt jokes...

Before we begin, I'd just like to thank Brayden King for his welcome to the world of blogging. Then again, I guess it's only fair since he's the one that talked me into this.

Today I want to spend a little time talking about an article in the May issue of the Skeptical Inquirer. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the Skeptical Inquirer is the official journal of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. If you haven't heard of CSICOP before, it's worth taking a glance around their site. In addition to a lot of good web resources for scientists and consumers, they also provide support for individuals who like to take a skeptical view on things. Plus, as a bonus, they have some really spiffy stickers you can order for free.

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I have two myself!

In any case, in the May issue of SI there was an article by Karla Mclaren, a former mover and shaker within the New Age community, on the failure of the Skeptical community and the New Age community to communicate with each other. As she tells it, the skeptical community finds itself unable to contest new age "learning" like ESP and aroma therapy because it insists on denigrating the people who adhere to such approaches. Ms. Mclaren has a good point, and one that we should all try to remember. After all, while science is a confrontational system that thrives on conflict (What else is the peer review process for, after all?) people outside science who don't understand our rules may find it a bit off-putting. If we want to reach out to non-scientists, we would do well to reign in the insults, while preserving the critical thought that makes science so powerful.

Mclaren also makes a valuable argument that the new age is a culture, or a micro-culture, of its own. It comes complete with a set of understandings about the world, causal arguments for why things happen, and moral judgements about the rightness or wrongness of actions and beliefs. That this cultural content is, in Mclaren's words, a "...screamingly inconsistent sacred canon," does not differentiate it from the culture the rest of us live in on a day-to-day basis. If we want to talk about screamingly inconsistent, let's talk about a society that on the one hand vilifies pedophiles, and on the other converts a young woman into a sexualized product. This isn't to say that I approve of pedophiles, or pardon them for their actions, but the point stands. Cultures aren't internally consistent in every way, so we can perhaps forgive new age folk for their acceptance of multiple, contradictory, viewpoints. The important issue for Mclaren's argument is that if science is to have a dialogue with the new age community, we must recognize that the words we use may have very different meanings to their ears. A failure to be aware of that just makes us in fact as arrogant as many new agers believe us to be.

At the same time, however, I think Mclaren inadvertently strikes the real crux of the conflict between science and pseudoscience. She argues that:

One of the biggest falsehoods I've encountered is that skeptics can't tolerate mystery, while New Age people can. This is completely wrong, because it is actually the people in my culture who can't handle mystery - not even a tiny bit of it. Everything in my New Age culture comes complete with an answer, a reason, and a source. Every action, emotion, health symptom, dream, accident, birth, death, or idea here has a direct link to the influence of the stars, chi, past lives, ancestors, energy fields, interdimensional beings, enneagrams, devas, fairies, spirit guides, angels, aliens, karma, God, or the Goddess.

We love to say that we embrace mystery in the New Age culture, but that's a cultural conceit and it's utterly wrong. In actual fact, we have no tolerance whatsoever for mystery. Everything from the smallest individual action to the largest movements in the evolution of the planet has a specific metaphysical or mystical cause. In my opinion, this incapacity to tolerate mystery is a direct result of my culture's disavowal of the intellect. One of the most frightening things about attaining the capacity to think skeptically and critically is that so many things don't have clear answers. Critical thinkers and skeptics don't create answers just to manage their anxiety.

Indeed! This is something I've long suspected myself, but have never phrased so eloqently. Skeptics, and scientists, are in my experience frequently those sorts of people who would prefer an unpleasant truth, to a comforting falsehood. Achieving certainty in science is, at best, excruciatingly difficult and, at worst, impossible. Therefore scientists must learn to be comfortable with NOT knowing a great deal about the world. Perhaps this is because participating in science makes us so aware of the limitations of human knowledge. Perhaps Jorge Cham over at Ph.D. has the answer as well.

We shouldn't feel too superior as scientists, however. It isn't that we're necessarily comfortable with not knowing, but that we understand and accept the limitations of science as a system for knowing the world. Science is great at discovering facts about the physical universe, and even about social life (Hey, I'm a sociologist, what do you think I'm gonna say?), but it isn't so good at providing meaning. Think about it: science tells us how things are, and why they work that way, but it doesn't tell us whether or not things SHOULD be that way. Science can't make value judgements.

Most scientists understand this on some level. Some of us are religious, and find meaning in God. Others are not religious, but we also find meaning in our lives beyond the system of science, often without realizing it. It is this limitation of science that has, I believe, led to the criticism of science levelled by post-modernists. The PoMo folk, as tragically misguided as they often are, are correct in arguing that science does not tell us how things should be, and in warning that science can be a tool of oppression and evil. Such messages are worth hearing.

Yet, where we have failed is in communicating this point to the general public. There is, for example, a perception that science and religion are inevitably antagonistic. This just isn't so. Certainly, religion and science have had their skirmishes in the past, geocentrism and evolution being two of the most significant points of contention. No doubt there will be skirmishes in the future (particularly in the case of evolution, which is a battle that continues to be fought. More on that some other time), yet science and religion are no longer systems of thought with the same purpose. Science attempts to tell us how the world is, without making value judgements about those conditions. Religion tells us how the world should be, and about the sort of people we should aspire to be. There is nothing in these two methods of understanding that forces them into inevitable confrontation- they are simply answers to different questions.

So how does this all connect back to the new age and pseudoscience? As long as science and religion seem to be at odds, people will be forced to choose between two uncomfortable extremes. On one hand they can choose religion, but in doing so must close the door to a wealth of knowledge accumulated over centuries. On the other hand, they can choose science, and find themselves awash in facts, and yet lost in a desert baren of meaning. In sociology we refer to this state as "anomie" or a condition wherein a person is left without guidelines for behavior. The new age movement is so appealing because it attempts to provide both knowledge AND meaning, much as a religion does, while side-stepping the taint of superstition and ignorance that lingers faintly about many of the established faiths. A similar argument might be made for the rise of Scientology, which claims in its very name, as well as its documents, to be a scientific system for achieving enlightenment. That scientology has numerous critics and that its tenets have not been empirically validated in the few occasions when they have received scientific scrutiny makes no difference. So long as it appears that people can have their cake and eat it too, scientology, new age, and a host of other pseudoscientific ideologies will continue to flourish.

As skeptics and as scientists it is our reponsibility to contribute to scientific literacy by delineating between what science CAN and CANNOT do. We must be clear that science is not a panacea for all the ills of mankind, and that it cannot make us better people. At most science enables us to make more informed, and therefore better, decisions. Movements like the New Age and Scientology WILL always exist, or more accurately should always exist if we live in a free society, but let's at least understand what drives their general popularity.


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