No Oracles

One of the major purposes of religion is and has always been as a way for human beings to seek knowledge about the world they could not otherwise attain. The ancient Greek oracle of Delphi, for example, is said to have foreseen the answers to supplicants’ questions while in an ecstatic trance from breathing the vapors of her cave. Comets and other unusual astronomical events were believed to be portents from God presaging events of great earthly significance such as the downfall of kings. Creationists past and present view the genesis stories of their holy books as literal truth about the world’s origins, and end-times fanatics yesterday and today view the apocalyptic revelations of those same books as a step-by-step guide to the near future. Even today, people still seek guidance from Tarot cards, “psychics”, astrology, numerology, Ouija boards and other popular delusions. This oracular obsession is probably taken to an extreme by proponents of the so-called Bible codes, who comb the scriptures stringing together randomly chosen letters into words which they believe reveal hidden truths about events to come.

All of these methods have one thing in common: they do not work. Although all of them may produce occasional lucky hits, just as random guessing will produce occasional lucky hits, none of them produce knowledge reliably or dependably, or at a success rate greater than chance. When vagueness, confirmation bias and other fallacies are taken into account, it is exceedingly clear that appealing to supernaturalism as a source of knowledge is a tactic that is doomed to failure.

History bears this verdict out. Millennia of supernatural belief, prior to the scientific revolution, produced not a glimmer of real understanding into the way the world works, and humanity remained more or less at the mercy of natural forces it could neither predict nor control. When these methods failed in dramatic and obvious ways, such as during catastrophes like the Black Death, people importuned the gods with increasing desperation, hoping to make up for the failure of their methods by applying them with renewed fervor; but all the prayers and self-flagellation in the world did not keep the plague away, and all the frantic effort people put into their superstitions only made their failures all the more clear.

There is only one method of knowledge-gathering that cuts through the baying Babel of superstition, and that is science. Unlike the multitude of religious, superstitious, and pseudoscientific methods of learning that human beings have dreamed up, science works. One need only witness the vast improvements in understanding and in the human condition that just a few centuries of scientific progress have brought about, as compared to the millennia of stagnation before that.

But science, unlike superstition, is hard. Most other claimed methods of knowledge-gathering promise easy access to universal truth, revelation with little or no effort. Science, on the other hand, is a laborious, painstaking process. Gathering evidence, testing hypotheses, and repeating and confirming those tests takes much arduous work, and most importantly, not everyone is equally qualified to participate. Although the methods of science are usable by everyone, making a contribution to a well-established field always requires a great deal of study to learn the state of the art, and each new idea must run a gauntlet of criticism from other established experts.

This is in stark contrast to the pseudosciences, where there are rarely, if ever, any barriers to entry. In most cases, no credentials, no study, and no special knowledge are needed; any budding practitioner of pseudoscience can hang out their shingle, set up shop out of their home, and rightly claim to be just as qualified as anyone else. And rather than submit to the adjudication of peer review, pseudoscientists usually take pains not to criticize each other, even when they are making directly conflicting claims, so long as they are both in opposition to the hated establishment. But the reason pseudoscience and superstition are so easy is that they lack any checks that could possibly reveal their failure; they represent imagination unconstrained by fact.

Science, on the other hand, is very much a meritocracy, where reputation and esteem rest on one’s discoveries. Pseudoscience lacks any similar notion of merit. The closest equivalent it has is mere popularity, but again, since pseudoscience lacks the peer review and error-checking methods of science, this simply encourages practitioners to make the most extravagant claims possible. Promises to reveal all the answers to every important question, to discern the true will of God, and to distill all the complexity of the world into a few easy bullet points are the hallmarks of false oracles. Science promises no such easy insight, and in fact virtually guarantees that there will be much difficulty and confusion and many missteps along the way; but again, for all its plodding pace, it works, while oracles do not.

While pseudoscience continually churns on, producing a great and confusing agitation but never shedding even a single spark of light on the true workings of the universe, scientists will continue to do the hard work required: scouring the earth’s surface sifting through dirt and chipping away rock to peel back the layers of the past, painstakingly isolating and sequencing genes and then running experiment after experiment to figure out what each one does, slamming particles together in a vast explosion of subatomic debris to probe the underlying fabric of reality, spending their whole lives to add just one small piece to the vast jigsaw puzzle of human knowledge. Meanwhile, pseudoscience and superstition will continue to attract people who seek oracles, who crave instant answers without hard work, who think truth can be obtained in a bolt from the blue without the toil and sweat required to dig it from the earth. And while scientists making the real discoveries that add to human knowledge labor in obscurity, oracle claimants who offer nothing but error and failure will continue to be lionized by the credulous masses. This is one childish trait of the human species that it is past time to put away for good.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • lpetrich

    However, one can easily argue that there’s no fundamental difference between predictions made by mainstream science and predictions made by pseudoscientific or supernatural means. Both assert that something or other will happen in the future; one might even say that a prediction is a prediction is a prediction.

    Nevertheless, mainstream science has MUCH better systems of quality control than supernatural systems; in fact, such systems are an important part of it. Which is why some parts of it have been able to achieve rather extreme accuracies of prediction, like celestial mechanics. The ability to send spacecraft to distant parts of the Solar System has required prediction abilities that supernatural prediction systems like astrology have utterly failed to achieve.

  • Mikidu

    The ability to send spacecraft to distant parts of the Solar System has required prediction abilities that supernatural prediction systems like astrology have utterly failed to achieve.

    This is certainly true but the predictions of science and pseudoscience are not fundamentally the same. Science is based on facts that have been painstakingly derived from observation and testing, whereas pseudoscience is based on little more than wishful thinking. We cannot say the difference between the predicted trajectory of a space probe by science and a prediction of good fortune from a tarot reading is simply one of error checking. The philosophical foundations of both systems are totally different.

  • Archi Medez

    OT, but this link on various kinds of logical fallacies might be of interest to many readers here:
    http://www.fallacyfiles.org/

  • Joel

    Hi, I was recommended this blog by some people at http://www.vof.se (a swedish site working against pseudoscience), really good! I really like the way some of the things here are put. I wish I could answer a lot of people in this manner, face to face but I always seem to be in a defending position. Anyway, great stuff, will check the rest out to!

    Sincerely,

    Joel

  • Philip Thomas

    This is a good essay.

    I’m curious, where does history fit in here? The student of history has severe limitations on how scientific his methods can be. Many of the phenomena he studies cannot be reproduced in the laboratory, or outside it. General ‘laws of history’, if they exist at all, are elusive and very difficult to verify. So, is historical knowledge valueless because it lacks scientific rigour?

  • http://inthenuts.blogspot.com King Aardvark

    Re: history

    History can be scientific, if it relies on physical artifacts and science to verify the artifacts as genuine. Problem is, artifacts are either there or they’re not; you can’t run another experiment. There’s a lot more to it than that, and others have weighed in in a much more thorough manner than that, but I won’t, since I really should be working right now.

  • Philip Thomas

    The science tells you how old the artifact is. That’s antiquarianism, though. History is the interpretation of the evidence, artifact and otherwise. I’m not sure if you are excluding texts in your definition of artifacts. If so then you are excluding the vast bullk of history as a discipline…

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I don’t exclude history from science. It is, I grant, more difficult to test hypotheses about history than it is to test hypotheses in several other fields of science, since one obviously can’t rerun history and see what happens if some variable is changed. However, there are many other indisputably scientific areas of inquiry which are primarily historical in nature, such as evolutionary biology (what are the paths that macroevolution has taken?) or cosmology (what was the sequence of events in the lifetime of the universe?).

    One can test hypotheses in fields such as these not by running controlled experiments in labs, but by making predictions about what evidence should already exist if a certain hypothesis is true (or what evidence should not exist if it is false), and then going out into the world to search for that evidence. Sometimes the necessary evidence has been destroyed by time, and in that case some questions will remain unanswered. However, in all of these fields, enough evidence has thankfully survived that we can put together a very good general picture of what happened.

  • http://politecompany.blogspot.com/ Thursday

    I’ve always viewed history as a jigsaw puzzle, one we don’t know the size of. We can assemble pieces, then make a guess based on the image that’s presented and call that true; right until we find more peices. Then we’re still relying on those who can interpret the image, and those opinions can vary, too.

    Moral of the story: Never trust an art critic. They’re all lying bastards.

  • Tommykey

    Philip, I don’t know if one can say that there are laws in history. One can detect patterns that result in the rise and fall of civilizations, for example, defeats or huge debts incurred from wars against foreign powers, weakening from within as a result of civil war, which leads to the breakdown of infrastructure, destruction of crops and livestock that would feed the population, the spread of disease etc. causing or hastening the decline of a civilization, just as a line of capable rulers, geographic advantages, greater technology and so forth leads to the rise of a kingdom or civilization.

    We can use the past as a guide, but of course it does not mean we should rely solely on the past as a guide. It is commonplace to try and use past events as a template for judging the present. For instance, some people will look at Iraq today through the prism of the Vietnam War, or others will make parallels between modern day United States and the Roman Empire in the 4th century etc.

  • Tommykey

    The title of this topic thread reminded me of the story of the Lydian king Croesus (Lydia being a kingdom in the western part of Asia Minor in the 6th century B.C.) who was keen to wage war on the Persian king Cyrus the Great. Croesus consulted the oracle at Delphi and was told that if he marched on Persia, a mighty kingdom would be destroyed. Croesus interpreted the oracle’s message as meaning that if he attacked the Persians, he would destroy them. But in actuality, his attack on the Persians was a disaster and it was Cyrus who ended up conquering Lydia.

  • Philip Thomas

    Tommykey, neither do I, hence the “if they exist at all” clause. Comparisons between the present human situation and the historical facts are commonplace, but they rarely have scientific or even academic rigour behind them. Laymen use science in a similar way too- taking a particular theory and applying it to wildly different circumstances…