Musings of a Dinosaur

A Family Doctor in solo private practice; I may be going the way of the dinosaur, but I'm not dead yet.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Clarke's Law and the CAM Corollary

Back in the day I read as much science fiction as anyone else. Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke were the holy trinity. Now, in the wake of Sir Arthur's death, there are appreciations blooming like tulips, many of which reference "Clarke's Laws," the most famous of which is the third:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
The appalling rise of science illiteracy, though, actually renders more and more of our everyday technology "magical" in the eyes of the general public. How many among us can explain specifically and accurately how a telephone works? How about a cell phone? Copier? Computer? There's a lot of stuff that we accept as not magic, even as we don't personally understand how it works. This leaves us vulnerable to the following argument perpetrated by the proponents of non-scientific medicine (Reiki, homeopathy and their ilk):
Anything that looks like magic (ie, cannot be explained by contemporary science) must be too advanced for us to understand.*
"I'm not sure how it works, but I know it does," could be the response of either a non-techie trying to explain a cell phone to an African bushman or a Reiki practitioner discussing energy fields.

The difference, of course, is that in the case of technology there ought to be someone, somewhere, able to explain it adequately, even if the equivalent of years of science education has to be provided to clarify the answer. Although Reiki and Homeopathy have done their level best to field such explanations, they have consistently failed. Still, the ultimate retreat to fully magical thinking can be justified by appealing to this CAM corollary of Clarke's Law.

The difference is the existence of people who do understand the technology, rather than the wishful thinking of "someday, someone will figure it out" of non-science based phenomena.

Clarke's Law is not transitive.

*Although I believe I am the first to apply this specifically to CAM, it turns out many others have already dealt with this. From Wikipedia: Larry Niven, referring to fantasy: "Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology." Dean Coontz: "In an age when faith in science is ascendant, supernatural phenomena may be mistaken for advanced technology," among others.


At Sun Mar 23, 07:30:00 AM, Blogger CrankyProf said...

Does this mean I have to ask my new PCP to refrain from wearing a mask and shaking rattles over my ailments?

At Sun Mar 23, 01:15:00 PM, Blogger ccinnkeeper said...

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

My father has used this quotation since I was a child, but to the best of my knowledge he has never read anything by Mr. Clark. I'm glad to have an attribution, though, thanks!

At Mon Mar 24, 02:48:00 PM, Anonymous Pine Baroness said...

I especially like the "paranormal investigators" on TV who say they have recorded ghosts when actually it is just lens flare (the aberrations on film and video caused by light refracting within the lens of the camera).

Being a few months older than you Dino, I can also explain how cell phones, telephones, computer and copiers work. But don’t ask me to look at those gory medical diagrams in the doctor’s office. To paraphrase Star Trek’s “Bones” I’m an engineer not a doctor.

At Mon Mar 24, 11:48:00 PM, Blogger Joe said...

I think my favorite corollary to Clarke's law would be: "Any technology distinguishable from magic, is insufficiently advanced."

At Thu Mar 27, 11:33:00 AM, Anonymous albatross said...

Surely the critical difference between these two has to do with whether the technology actually works, right?

IMO, that's the only really important distinction between traditional medicine and Reiki or acupuncture or what-have-you. If the Reiki guys could actually tweak your energy fields in a way that repeatably cured cancer, say, then it would be worth trying to understand what was going on internally, and sensible to use the treatments they had even if you thought their explanations for it were nonsense.

There's this creepy tendency in our society (maybe all societies) to treat any field with lots of scholarship and learning involved as though it has access to some deep truth. But you can spend twenty years studying Marxian economics or Freudian psychology or Reiki backward and forward, and there's no reason to think you will have actually learned *anything* useful about how the world works.

At Fri Mar 28, 12:50:00 PM, Blogger Lynn Price said...

Risking flying knives here, but what about Clark's second law:

The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.


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