Science vs magic

I grew up in the space age, when we thought science had the answer to everything. In spite of my parents’ efforts (they thought I should be interested in literature and foreign languages), what I really wanted to learn about was physics and chemistry, geography, geology, plants, horticulture and landscape design. Useful things.

We live in a physical world and it really, really helps to have a bit of a clue how it works. The time comes when a cistern needs to be fixed, or you need to explain to someone why an evaporative air conditioner only works if there is air flow.

My parents, born in the nineteen thirties, instead lived in a world of mysterious magic.

They had a hand-held vacuum cleaner that was battery charged. When I visited it was sitting on the floor on the laundry, turned on but not actually vacuuming anything. Very noisy, for hours and hours. Why? They had been told to run the battery down before recharging it. I explained that you didn’t have to do this every time you used it. The worst that would happen if you recharged it often without running it down very far was that the battery would lose its ability to recharge fully. They were quite surprised.

This is an example of magical thinking. They didn’t understand why they were doing this action. Instead they followed a ritual, applying a rote response to a situation because of a complete lack of understanding of the underlying science (how different kinds of batteries work).

Here’s another. My mother was forced to study domestic science at high school in the 1940s. This representation of the nutritional content of an egg was in her text book.


She told me that for at least 20 years she had believed this was a literal diagram of where those things were located inside an egg.

Her interpretation makes no sense at all. After all, she had cooked and eaten thousands of eggs, seen the yolk in the middle and the white and shell surrounding it, and it is obvious to anyone that the inside of an egg just doesn’t look like this diagram. But this chasm between the symbolic and perceived reality didn’t result in her asking questions to resolve the problem. She just didn’t have any scientific curiosity. And she hated domestic science on principle.

What about the next generation? I saw a suggestion recently that calcium from milk was inorganic and couldn’t be absorbed by the human body, while, in contrast, calcium from plants was organic and therefore could be. So many misconceptions here I don’t know where to begin.

I don’t want to be too critical; I have been known to approach computer problems by rote methods. But without science, how can we understand, let alone solve, complex environmental problems? Problems of water management, salinity, erosion, soil depletion, loss of habitat and diversity, the impact of climate change, the behaviour of wild fires; solutions to all these depend on scientific knowledge and method.

Often these are seen primarily as political or economic problems. Perhaps this isn’t sheer bloody-mindedness, but just ignorance? Maybe most Australians are living in a world of magic, just looking for the right spells and rituals to make things right. The world is full of intricate, wicked problems, and it seems we are too stupid to fix any of them, or even to realise that we must understand the science first. Just a baby boomer view.


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