Sunday, March 23, 2008

Blog Plug: Why We Can't Solve "The Mysteries"

Overcoming Bias is rapidly becoming one of my favorite blogs. In particular, I'd like to point to a relatively new post:

If you demand magic, magic won't help.

One of the occasional complaints against a rationalist/materialist worldview is that choosing to use empiricism as a standard for beliefs destroys some notion of "wonder" or "imagination." Eliezer Yudkowsky argues that the people who are most drawn to the "wonder" of magic would not, in fact, pursue magic if we lived in a fantasy world like those commonly depicted in literature. If magic were real--more importantly, if magic were commonplace--the people chastising scientists for being too preoccupied with testable reality would be just as disappointed with magic in that hypothetical world simply because of its common nature.

In fact, the people who would study magic and become its most skilled practitioners are likely the people who in this world are scientists; those driven to explore the world through observation and experiment and willing to spend years of their lives studying, especially if magic required any significant amount of work to master.

This, in some sense, can be generalized to medicine, but not in the sense of the end-user. The victims of this "love of fantasy" are the practitioners of faith-based medicine systems.

Let's face it. Medicine is hard. It takes years of rigorous study to become a professional at any level of the trade--nurse practitioner, pharmacist, physician, whatever. By comparison, chiropractic is easy. At the most basic level, a chiropractor only needs to know how to do one thing--crack spines. Being a homeopath is easy because there's no reason to believe that you can make mistakes; the worst thing that will happen is your patients aren't satisfied. No one can accidentally overdose their child on homeopathic teething tablets. Sure, people can die during alternative medicine treatments. Yes, there are risks. But the draw, both for practitioners and for patients, is that alternative medicine is easy. "All diseases can be traced to a nutritional deficiency."

The draw to fantasy, like the draw to alternative medicine, is the fact that it is a shortcut around lots of effort.

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