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Those of us who have had personally strong and oft repeated
experiences with the spirit world, and of nature as animate, are
often sympathetic to people attacking mainstream science. For example, I
know several Pagans who have resisted having their kids vaccinated because of
supposed research that indicated a link between vaccines and autism. The
mainstream scientific opinion to the contrary was just “covering up.”
Now it turns out that the data supposedly linking autism with
bogus, so bogus that it could not have been the result of honest
error by even a semi-competent researcher. The British Journal of Medicine retracted the
article and Fiona Godlee, its editor-in-chief said:
“It’s one thing to have a bad study, a study full of
error, and for the authors then to admit that they made errors, . . . But in
this case, we have a very different picture of what seems to be a deliberate
attempt to create an impression that there was a link by falsifying the
There are two dimensions of this scandal I want to discuss.
The first is obvious and brief. People died because of
shoddy and dishonest science. Not suffered, died. Parents thinking they were doing what was best for their children made
decisions that led to their children’s deaths. These were decisions they would
not have made had those responsible for the ‘research’ they believed been men
of honesty and integrity.
Science and Self-Correction
My second point is more complex. Science makes assumptions
about the nature of the world, and bases its work on those assumptions.
In that way it is no different than any other way we try and understand
our world. Some of its assumptions reflect the rigid monotheistic culture
within which science emerged, and some of these are responsible for what I
consider its blind spots. But every mode of understanding has blind
Where science is unique among the ways we seek knowledge is in
being a collective endeavor of people willingly submitting themselves to
standards of evaluation they regard as fair, and these standards are capable of
over-turning any of its core assumptions. Not only can they, they have.
For example, nothing seemed more obvious than that space and time are two
Science once overwhelmingly, even universally, affirmed as true
1. Matter is inert
2. The past was very much like the present, with no big changes
3. Animals were like machines and
mechanism was the key to understanding them
4. Reason worked best when divorced from emotion
5. Human beings are
different from animals and humanity is different from nature
6. All scientific explanation is reductionist
Many of these beliefs have been universally abandoned by
scientists and others are no longer easily taken for granted, with many
scientists believing they are false. I believe only number 6 has many defenders
anymore, and they are on the defensive.
There is no equivalent capacity for learning and transforming
our basic ideas in other ways of knowing because there are no equivalent means
by which central tenets of a position can be subject to an examination both
supporters and opponents regard as fair.
When evidence is ambiguous we see the same survival of old
theories and attitudes in science as we see in any other area of human
life. Biology is more complex than physics and less
easily subject to experiment and prediction. It has more competing views because of this. The social sciences are even more
afflicted with this problem, not because they are not scientific, but because
there is more difficulty in demonstrating the inadequacy of a theoretical
People of good will get committed to their theories, and when
the evidence is ambiguous usually judge it in their theory’s favor. We still have Marxists around as well
as anarcho-capitalists despite what seem to me absolutely slam dunk evidence
that these views are seriously in error, and that their valid insights need to
be located within a better framework.
But when scientists can agree on tests and evaluations, it is
amazing what they can and have accomplished in freeing themselves from error. I
know of no other area of knowledge which compares favorably.
Science and Mystery
We often forget that science deals with the unknown. It
generates an ever larger sphere of reliable knowledge, and the edges of that
expanding sphere are where we encounter what we know we do not know. That
is where scientists work. What has been discovered in the past gives us
clues as to what remains to be discovered, but as new patterns and observations
emerge with the expanding sphere, old patterns are sometimes seen as partial,
or even illusory while new ones reveal themselves. In evaluating the unknown scientists need to rely on
what has worked in the past, at least until it obviously no longer works.
They have no choice.
For this reason their openness to the new is limited, and
sometimes explanations were quickly rejected that later were found to be
largely true, such as the theory of continental drift. Mistakes happen at
the edges of this sphere, and they happen in both directions. But at the
time we cannot tell whether they are mistakes.
This is why science needs the innovators who will push their
research in areas others have not explored. To do so it takes a certain amount of commitment to one’s
theories. This commitment is emotional, and predisposes the innovator to
weigh confirming information more heavily just as the same emotions connected
to a contrary attitude encourages the skeptic to more heavily weigh the
disconfirming. On balance, who has the better case comes out in the wash.
What enables this to work is that MOST scientists are committed
to a search for truth, and so play by the rules. This makes the actions
of the corrupt both rare and seriously disruptive, because science depends on a
high level of trust as well as of openness to examination. Science is a highly
ethical undertaking even when it pretends to be “objective.” The fraudulent vaccine research is the
kind of thing that is most destructive to science. But as we are seeing, again
it is self-correcting.
It is science’s capacity for self-correction that is most
impressive to me. No one likes to admit they are wrong, and careers have been
built on old authorities. Yet even its greatest authorities can be
replaced, as Newton’s model was replaced by Einstein’s. And physics accepted even
more unusual theories through quantum mechanics.
We have never come up with anything else to compare with science as a
means for discovering reliable knowledge no matter who we are or where we live.
But the price for this achievement is uncertainty on the margins.
The fallout of my argument means that the more strictly
scientific the issue, the more we should rely on scientists as a community, not
because they are always right, but because they are better able to find and
correct errors about the physical world than is any other community. Whether it
be vaccines, global warming, the disappearance of bees, or any other issue that
is open to scientific investigation, the strong presumption should be to go
with the community. Alternative communities have a far far worse record
on self-correction of their knowledge about the physical world. This does not guarantee the scientific
community will not later decide it was wrong. This has happened.
But it’s the best bet we have given that we ourselves know little about
BUT YOU”RE A WITCH!
Then someone might ask, why am I a polytheist who does shamanic
healing even though most scientists are skeptical to hostile on such matters?
Is there not a disconnection here?
My answer is pretty simple and on two levels. First. I’ve
had encounters where polytheism is the most reasonable explanation, and until
scientists can generate such experiences and show they are amenable to human
control, or that I have biological problems that also manifest in other ways
that impede living life, I see no reason anymore to spend much energy in doubt.
Further, the people I seek to help have a tendency to be helped, and in
most cases describe the experience in very similar terms. The same work by
another apparently helped me recover incredibly rapidly from a debilitating
stroke (slightly over two months from not being able to write my name and
walking and talking with difficulty to driving alone across the continent
Second, when I first encountered magick, and people who
demonstrated an ability to interact with the spirit world, spirits I could see,
I did a LOT of reading about science in hopes of seeing how such phenomena
might be scientifically shown to be plausible. I finally gave it up. Science depends on certain assumptions
that can not be met in these areas.
First, that what we study is what it is independently of our
attitudes or, if our attitudes could influence it, we can mask them from what
we study. If deities and certain
other spirits exist we can not guarantee their ignorance in this way.
Second, scientific methods all assume that nature is either
essentially passive, deterministic, or subject to our control. A galaxy is not subject to our control, but is passive in
relation to our observations. Quantum mechanics is not strictly deterministic, but its indeterminacy is able to be mathematically described and the results have great accuracy. So we
can predict things and measure things.
Anything we can experiment upon is subject to our control at least to
Third, by its very nature science is poorly equipped to evaluate
interiority, the kind of experience that beings have. Given that so many
of these experiences involve perceiving or experiencing meaning, the
significance of something, a careful scientist will take a skeptical position:
science has nothing at all to say about the validity or invalidity of such
So I have almost no patience with the atheists who proclaim
their faith as universally true – no more than with Evangelicals or Marxists
who proclaiming a different faith. But on matters that are well suited to
scientific investigation, and have been investigated, I’ll go with science
before I go with anything else. Always.
I would have had my kids vaccinated. And this year, like every
year, I got my flu shot.