I once overheard a conversation between a couple of friends about how to know what medications to take. They were musing about how in an ideal world there would be a council of elders who would be the custodians of that sort of knowledge and if you were sick you’d go to them and they’d tell you. The assumption seemed to be that there was some innate wisdom required and somehow this council would know what to do – better than trained physicians ever could. They were imagining a golden age in the future but to my way of thinking it sounded a lot like the dim dark days before scientific medicine where the medicine man or old woman would simply know. I was a bit amazed to hear them talk about it as an improvement on what we have now, but there was no dissuading them.
I made the point that there are thousands of different so-called modalities to treat any ailment known to humankind. Wouldn’t it make sense to actually test them to see if they worked and then test the ones that seem promising to see which works the best? That was where I lost them. I saw the fog descend and felt them rolling their eyes thinking “oh oh, he’s one of them” or some such thing. I pressed on and said they all those medications and modalities can’t be equal. Wouldn’t there be some point to using a method, for the want of a better word we’ll call it science, to find out what works? That was when they both realised that they has urgent business elsewhere and withdrew from the conversation. I felt a bit bad about it. It was, after all, their conversation that I’d stumbled into and by suggesting that they might want sprinkle their musings with a lashing of reason I’d killed it for them.
I was in the car with another friend at a very different time. I was waxing lyrical about homeopathy. I was talking about it being a pre-scientific concept made up out of whole cloth by Samuel Hahnemann in 1796. I was pointing out that dilutions at the levels supposedly used by homeopaths are the equivalent of a single drop of the “active ingredient” dissolved in a body of water larger than the entire solar system. I pointed out that there is no evidence for or any reason to believe that “like cures like” has any basis in reality. I also pointed out that every large well designed study of homeopathy has concluded that it is no better than placebo for anything, and that makes sense because homeopathy is literally nothing and is therefore an almost perfect placebo. Homeopathy has no basis in reality and is basically a belief in magic water. And stuff like that.
My friend listened politely and then said she still uses homeopathy and thinks it works. “I guess I kind of believe in magic” she said. She was joking. Sort of.
All these friends are highly intelligent and well educated. To my way of thinking they are making a considered decision to reject science in favour of something else. I admit to not really understanding what that something else might be.
When someone says there is something more, something beyond what we know and perhaps beyond what we can know, I get it. I feel that way about a lot of things. The universe is big. Very, very big. And we’re small. We don’t know very much. But that does not mean that what we do know is wrong. Humans have been a curious lot for as long as there have been humans and that curiosity has lead us to try to figure out how this life and this universe function. There have been lots of different ways we’ve tried to answer the questions that face us – for most of our history it’s been revealed truth, power and religion that have been called to to do the heavy lifting. It’s been the “council of elders” who somehow just know and have the power to punish any who might doubt. It’s really only been the last two hundred years or so that we’ve found a new way to find out about this thing called reality. Science is still something novel in the world, but it is the first method of gathering knowledge that has truly been successful. Almost everything about our modern world is touched by and informed by science and the technology that it spawns. Science is restless and includes the idea that “there is something more, something beyond what we know and perhaps beyond what we can know”.
Science tells us that you can actually find out whether or not a medicine works, whether it’s homeopathy, blood letting, magic herbs or even, god forbid, pharmaceuticals. Science can look at homeopathic water and prove that there is nothing there, it’s just water. Science can’t tell us everything, but it can tell us a lot. As we learn more we may find out that a few things that we think we know are wrong, but mostly we’ll find out that what we know is simply incomplete.
I think my friends are uncomfortable with science because it’s not perfect and doesn’t have all the answers. I think they believe that not having all the answers is akin to not having any of them. They’ll pick and choose the science they like – they’ll accept climate change or reject it, they’ll accept vaccination or reject them, they’ll accept acupuncture or reject it – based on whether they like it and feel comfortable with it, not based on whether or not the evidence is compelling.
The question I tend to come back to is the one I’ve used as the title of this post, “How can you tell it from make believe?”. I got the phrase from a few articles published by the Australian Skeptics a long time ago. It’s a really good question. It goes to the heart of how do we get at, how do we dig deeper into this thing called reality and avoid simply making shit up. It’s not easy to do, but there are ways. It can be done more or less, and I think it’s worth trying. It sometimes feels that I’m in a fairly small minority of the population that would rather figure out reality than believe comforting nonsense. It looks to me like our world is mostly committed to fairy tales, that most of us humans would rather indulge in make believe.
I believe reality is much richer and more satisfying than any pretend knowledge. I think I’ll let science tell me what medications work and leave magic water to the Catholic Church and anyone else who prefers blind faith to curiosity and discovery.