Do You Believe in Magic (or Science?)

The estimable musical force of nature known as John Sebastian wrote a song that has become an institution in popular culture. Since it was recorded and released by The Lovin’ Spoonful in 1965, “Do You Believe in Magic” has become one of the most recognizable songs in American pop music history. The reason is simple: It’s a wicked awesome song. (And one of the few hit songs to feature an autoharp.) It has been covered by many artists and has been featured in movies and on TV. It’s likely to live on as long as people have ears and want to move to music.

Recently, I’ve been thinking of that great song in conjunction with an insightful quote by the late science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke (he of “2001: A Space Odyssey” fame):

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

This statement is surely accurate. I experience its truth all the time. My phone, computer, TV, and much of my car seem to have been created as much by Merlin (or at least Penn and Teller) as by engineers. I have no idea how they work but I trust that they do… most of the time. (When they don’t I curse them up and down while banging my head against the wall.)

This leads to a most relevant question for these trying times: Do you believe in science, even when it’s more like magic? The fact is that most people, even those who deny the veracity of certain scientific claims such as climate change, do believe in science. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be trusting the internet, a world-altering scientific (and administrative) bit of sorcery if ever there was one, to push their anti-intellectual drivel. (An aside to my conservative friends: Please note that the internet was developed and funded by the federal government.)

A friend once told me he thought people who deny clear, obvious, and well-accepted scientific truths shouldn’t be allowed to own a TV. He has a point. If you reject science, maybe you shouldn’t be allowed to benefit from it. I’d add to his list phones, antibiotics, Netflix, eyeglasses, X-rays, airplanes, and most everything else that makes modern life, um, modern.

The truth of the matter is that we believe in the science we want to believe in and reject that which undermines our preconceived worldview. Thus, if what you care about is oil company stock value, you will deny climate change. If you don’t want government to tell you to wear a mask, you deny Covid, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

My liberal friends can be guilty of the same pick-and-choose attitude toward science. In spite of being told by the same scientific experts they formerly trusted that the Covid vaccine is effective, many are still hiding in their homes and wearing masks.

On the other hand, to quote a friend of mine who happens to be a physics genius, “Medicine is not science.” As a person with a chronic illness about which there is no certain “scientific” knowledge, I’ve experienced this truth first hand… and leg and brain. In medicine, it seems as if very little is fixed and certain. Imagine if physics were like that. What if gravity worked 95% of the time or if E equaled MC2 usually but it equaled MC3 for some people, especially on really humid days?

Thank God (I mean that literally) it doesn’t work that way. So, barring occasional (but inevitable) manufacturing, material, or software flaws or human stupidity or evil, your phone just works. Antibiotics cure you. The plane almost takes off and lands safely where you want it to.

I guess the point of all these ramblings is that there are many subtle sides to this “belief in science” thing. As long as humans are involved, with all their mixed motives and imperfections, science as it is communicated to us, will always feel a bit tenuous. At one point, “science” endorsed things like leeches to cure disease, eugenics to purify the human race, and, not that long ago, homosexuality as a mental disorder. Who’s ready to go back there?

Now, perhaps we’ve reached the point where we actually know everything there is to know for our science to be pure and exact. Not likely. That’s what they thought when scientists said bad smells caused disease. And when people with multiple sclerosis were told not to exercise. See this older post on my other blog for a litany of badly mistaken medical advice from the past.

Maybe we need to be more thoughtful about our beliefs. The question is…

Do you believe in magic?

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