Since the emergence of the modern popular science industry in the nineteenth century, one central message has been promulgated consistently: Magical thinking is the exact opposite of the scientific spirit and a foolproof litmus test to identify intrinsically unscientific and dangerously regressive attitudes. The problem with this pillar of popular science, however, is that on closer inspection it quickly boils down to assumptions which are themselves based on little more than variants of magical thinking.
An essential feature of magical thinking is the belief that effects are inherent in intention: in magic, immaterial ideas unfold and teleologically realise themselves – we know not how – to manipulate physical reality. The cardinal error of magic, popular science tells us, lies in bad post hoc reasoning, i.e. in unchecked, wishful conjectures regarding the causal relationship between intent and supposed effect. Did not the birth of science occur when man (at last!) started to think critically and uncover natural causes for supposedly supernatural phenomena? And has history not shown that knowledge has steadily progressed in a linear and accumulative fashion, on a heroic march from superstition to science?
Systematic historical explorations of preconditions and wider contexts of scientific practice have fundamentally challenged such traditional accounts, particularly since historical scholarship has ceased to be dominated by exercises in promoting and justifying scientific and medical professionalism. In fact, popular science magazines and pamphlets co-emerged, and often overlapped content-wise, with a modern standard historiography of science, which retroactively transformed past events and actors to fit dominant nineteenth- and twentieth-century sensibilities. A major problem with present-day popular science is that it continues outdated history of science narratives to make the past compatible with contemporary academic mainstream culture. It insists to be naturalistic, and yet it adheres to breathtakingly simplistic and ultimately teleological nineteenth-century science myths and rhetorical patterns, for the only organising principles of scientific and medical practice that appear to exist for popular science are ‘reason’ and ‘truth’.
Ironically, images of reason and truth in popular science seem to share certain key properties with transcendental entities and supernatural principles: Like a secular Holy Ghost, Reason is supposed to seize those receptive to its influence and inspire intellectual core virtues without which science would quickly lose its appeal as an intrinsically progressive enterprise (such as humility in the face of evidence contradicting previous beliefs, and courage in defending new discoveries even at personal risk). As if by magic, scientific research questions – which according to popular science are guided by nothing but sacred desire for Truth – turn into empirical data, transfigure (along with unambiguously correct interpretations) into journal articles, and via the reader’s retina finally materialise as rational conviction in the human brain. Scientific Truth has pre-existed human cognition and is merely channelled, bit by bit, through oracles, i.e. extraordinary people called the ‘Great Scientists’. Destined to eventually unfold to the benefit of all humankind by breaking down (we know not how) social and cultural divides, the expected arrival of absolute scientific Truth is at worst temporarily delayed by human imperfections – of which, incidentally, ‘superstition’ is the most stubborn and dangerous.
Obviously, I’m being deliberately provocative. But can it be doubted that many standard claims promulgated by popular science entirely hinge on naïve glorifications of scientific practice as something that is organised by transcendental superhuman principles, and ultimately rest on tacit but unambiguously teleological historical assumptions? What, for example, is the often-heard assurance of science’s inbuilt self-correcting capacity but a manifestation of that stereotypical basic vice of magical thinking – i.e. faith in a wishful inductive inference based on neglect to check for refuting instances? But when historians and historically informed philosophers of science challenge grand myths by critically analysing conditions and processes by which theories and ideas prevailed over others, science popularisers sometimes respond by crying ‘anti-science!’ or, much more often, simply ignore the evidence.
By consistently passing over relevant history of science and medicine scholarship, modern popular science often reveals that – like its nineteenth-century predecessor – its professed core mission is not so much the public cultivation of critical thinking, but rather the supposed liberation of the public from ‘dangerous ideas’ and ‘superstition’. Like religious fundamentalism, which popular science routinely targets to get its message of the intellectual vulgarity of magical thinking across, it relies on appeals to abstract authority transcending human nature and experience. Challenge a religious fundamentalist’s blind faith in Holy Scripture by presenting evidence for the human element involved in its productions, and he will charge you with blasphemy or act as if the evidence did not exist. Question tacitly teleological claims promulgated by certain science popularisers by identifying the human factor in the genesis of scientific knowledge, and their response will be remarkably similar.
© 2013 Andreas Sommer