Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | March 22, 2008

Clarke’s Law and the CAM Corollary

Back in the day I read as much science fiction as anyone else. Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke were the holy trinity. Now, in the wake of Sir Arthur’s death, there are appreciations blooming like tulips, many of which reference “Clarke’s Laws,” the most famous of which is the third:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The appalling rise of science illiteracy, though, actually renders more and more of our everyday technology “magical” in the eyes of the general public. How many among us can explain specifically and accurately how a telephone works? How about a cell phone? Copier? Computer? There’s a lot of stuff that we accept as not magic, even as we don’t personally understand how it works. This leaves us vulnerable to the following argument perpetrated by the proponents of non-scientific medicine (Reiki, homeopathy and their ilk):

Anything that looks like magic (ie, cannot be explained by contemporary science) must be too advanced for us to understand.*

“I’m not sure how it works, but I know it does,” could be the response of either a non-techie trying to explain a cell phone to an African bushman or a Reiki practitioner discussing energy fields.

The difference, of course, is that in the case of technology there ought to be someone, somewhere, able to explain it adequately, even if the equivalent of years of science education has to be provided to clarify the answer. Although Reiki and Homeopathy have done their level best to field such explanations, they have consistently failed. Still, the ultimate retreat to fully magical thinking can be justified by appealing to this CAM corollary of Clarke’s Law.

The difference is the existence of people who do understand the technology, rather than the wishful thinking of “someday, someone will figure it out” of non-science based phenomena.

Clarke’s Law is not transitive.

*Although I believe I am the first to apply this specifically to CAM, it turns out many others have already dealt with this. From Wikipedia: Larry Niven, referring to fantasy: “Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.” Dean Coontz: “In an age when faith in science is ascendant, supernatural phenomena may be mistaken for advanced technology,” among others.

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