Magic, science, & religion

Magic, science, & religion February 20, 2015

Charles Lane discusses the big dietary reversal on cholesterol, in the course of which he recounts a hilarious scene in Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper and cites anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski on the way people tend to confuse science with religion (they put their faith in it) and magic (it can do anything), making it really disorienting when science changes.  Go to the link for the joke, but I quote the anthropology part after the jump.

From Charles Lane, Science, with a side order of humility – The Washington Post:

Bronislaw Malinowski, the cultural anthropologist, famously explored overlaps among magic, science and religion, explaining that “[m]agic is to be expected and generally to be found whenever man comes to an unbridgeable gap, a hiatus in his knowledge, or in his powers of practical control, and yet has to continue in his pursuit.”

Written in 1931 regarding what was known, in the argot of the time, as “primitive man,” Malinowski’s words nevertheless describe the typical American. There’s a limit to how much science we can understand on our own; we take the rest on faith, either because we think it’s advantageous, or because we see no practical alternative, or because people often defer to authority.

Doctors and researchers, authors of “medical miracles,” are more like a priesthood, or a cadre of sorcerers, than we generally admit. Their legitimacy is based on something real, and time-tested — the scientific method — but it also comes from the mystique of their diplomas and white coats.

And, like priests, even scientists can be led into error — whether through good faith, self-interest or simple “scientific inertia,” a synonym for conventional wisdom, which was the culprit in the cholesterol case, according to a researcher cited by The Post.

We’re doomed to rely on science; imperfect as it is, it beats the alternatives. The trick is for scientists to produce their work with appropriate humility, and for citizens to consume it with appropriate skepticism. For all the money, time and energy we wasted on mistaken beliefs about cholesterol over the past few decades, at least the error got corrected through continued research, well before 2173.

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