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August 02, 2004

Scientific Animism

Scientific Animism is a term I coined about 16 years ago when I first started reading Ishmael Reed. It gave me a hedge against rationalists who said I was weirding out by accepting polytheism. Part of what I was trying to understand was the rationality of religion itself, which is a tough thing to do when one is surrounded by engineers of the skeptic variety. I noted that such engineers were, to a man (and I do mean man) always predisposed to have a fondness for Hobbits.

The term itself describes the willingness of people to believe the pseudoscientific, or even the scientific, without applying the scientific method. Animism is, of course, the belief that spirits inhabit animals and that animals should be respected or revered for their possession of these spirits which, properly interpreted, add value to human life and understanding. I think that most of us are, in fact, Scientific Animists. We trust that certain materials possess magical qualities depending on what those we deem scientifically authoritative tell us, but we don't test with our own senses. My classic example was that of cholesterol.

How many of us who 'watch our cholesterol' could actually identify a molecule of cholesterol under a microscope? When we eat a bowl of cereal for breakfast, we are told that it contains 20g of cholesterol. How can we be sure? When we run up the stairs and we reach the top panting, we think perhaps we have too much cholesterol in us. If I saw my doctor and he took my blood and sent it to a lab to have the amount of cholesterol checked, how is this materially different from having a witch doctor read our palms? To the extent that we trust, it is not. Scientists are high priests. They speak in terms incomprehensible to the average Joe and make pronouncements that are, in the words of the great writer, indistinguishable from magic.

Today's news is that scientists are themselves animist.

The dismal statistics presented on the science literacy level of scientists and science educators by Showers (1993) argued against a rapid increase in science literacy. Scientists and science educators (1) have high levels of paranormal and pseudoscientific belief, (2) do not use their scientific knowledge when voting, (3) use nonscientific approaches in personal and social decision-making, and (4) do not have high levels of science content knowledge outside of their specific disciplines. How can we expect nonscientists to think and act scientifically if scientists and science educators do not? If we decide to mount a concerted program to disabuse the public of paranormal and pseudoscientific beliefs, we must first ask if cultures can survive without paranormal beliefs.

I think the answer is no. We cannot survive without credulity. It is a fundamental part of our sociability. We need people to tell us things we don't know, and we need to believe them.

Posted by mbowen at August 2, 2004 07:27 AM

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