No Oracles

No Oracles August 14, 2006

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.

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