I’ve lived in Boulder, Colorado for ten years. There are many things to love about this town, most of which are the direct result of how open-minded the people are. They’re typically very caring, liberal, and free-spirited.
They also believe a lot of bullshit.
It seems as if the average person has crystals that “channel energy”, non-FDA approved “medicine” for issues that Tylenol could fix, and a perfect knowledge of their astrological star chart. They, like many other people scattered across the world, invest endless time, energy, and money into pursuing mysticism – none of which actually exists. Yet talk of chakras and ghosts and other types of pseudoscience abounds.
In my view, the most astounding part of all of this is that Boulderites are far from stupid. In fact, they’re often college-educated and hold degrees in complex fields of study. They teach themselves about what’s going on in the world. They listen to NPR and have all the correct ideas about social justice and politics.
Why, then, are so many of those people clueless about science? As it turns out, they don’t suffer from a lack of knowledge. They suffer from a lack of understanding what isn’t knowledge.
In other words, no one taught them how to think empirically.
Empiricism is the tried-and-true scientific theory (in the same sense that gravity is a theory) that everything we know can be observed through the five senses. Empiricism is an incredibly helpful tool because it prevents us from thinking we know something that can’t be sensed. That’s how research scientists operate: in order to avoid mixing their personal biases with their data, they stay empirical, only knowing what they observe, not what they want to observe.
Empiricism is a big reason why science is different from religion, faith, and spirituality. In the poetic words of brilliant Australian musician Tim Minchin: “Science adjusts its views based on what’s observed. Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.” Faith is not empirical. It is both the rejection of real evidence and the acceptance of a lack of evidence. For example, when someone prays for rain on a sunny day and thanks their deity(s) when thunderstorms roll in, they are rejecting the empirical evidence supplied by wind and air pressure systems that the rain was going to come anyway. They are also accepting that their god(s) heard their prayers, which cannot be accounted for empirically.
I’m not arguing that a higher power doesn’t exist. I’m simply stating the unavoidable scientific fact that a higher power has never been proven to exist empirically, and many belief systems are organized so that that power can’t be proven.
Yet many people choose to have faith in non-empirical beliefs. At a glance, those beliefs may seem harmless, so long as they’re not hurting anyone. However, there is another, passive way in which all established faith severely harms countless people. Its consequences are indirect and unintentional, but tragic all the same: Faith distracts us from making actual scientific progress.
When brilliant minds spend their time asking again and again whether the events in the Bible are true, or they spend money investigating psychics and palm readers and alternative medicine, they’re not spending that time and money on real science that hasn’t been explored yet and can actually help people.
There are endless historical examples of this phenomenon. Look at the history of mental health: When Freudianism began its meteoric rise among the ranks of American psychiatrists a hundred years ago, empirical psychiatry fell by the wayside. Freud’s largely incorrect ideas became the national focus in part because they just felt right. Freudians argued that of course a patient has a hard time bonding with women romantically because they harbor repressed feelings for their mother. Of course dreams are the meaningful manifestations of a person’s many troubles, and they can be interpreted by professionals in order to untangle the workings of the unconscious mind. These techniques sound like they should work, so any good psychiatrist should perform them, right?
Absolutely not. Just because a hypothesis sounds good doesn’t mean it’s right.
By the time Freud’s ideas reached the U.S. in the early 1900s, they were no longer empirical, and that was his legacy’s fatal flaw. As a blind believer in his own psychoanalytic methods, he popularized ineffectual techniques that distracted intelligent researchers and clinicians from pursuing real medicine. He advocated his hypotheses instead of testing them, which is the polar opposite of effective scientific inquiry.
Imagine how many lives could have been improved or even saved if modern psychiatric tools had been developed decades earlier by scientists who focused on real solutions to mental health problems instead of adhering religiously to Freud’s ideas. His conclusions may have made sense at a glance, but Zoloft actually works. That’s the difference between “sounds good” and “does good”: it’s our ability to observe the effects of our experiments and accept the data they generate instead of altering the data to make our hypotheses sound correct.
There is so much out there in this mysterious, beautiful Universe that humans have yet to understand, but instead of turning our gazes upward, so many of us turn them inward toward mysticism that has been shown over and over and over again by empirical science not to have any legitimacy. In the countless generations of people who have believed in astrology, no one has ever proven beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt that the stars have anything to say about our lives. In all the clinical trials that have been run on homeopathy, it has never worked better than a placebo. In the history of humanity, no hallucination has ever been accurately attributed to a spiritual source.
Yet humans are so quick to imbue meaning in the mystical instead of exploring the uncharted. To phrase it with Minchin’s unsurpassable eloquence: “Isn’t this enough? Just this world? Just this beautiful, complex, wonderfully unfathomable world? How does it so fail to hold our attention that we have to diminish it with the invention of cheap, man-made myths and monsters?”