Is It Blasphemous to Describe Science as “Magic”?

The Higgs boson announcement last week has reignited an age-old debate about science and the supernatural. Andrew Aghapour reports at Religion Dispatches:

In a thought-provoking post on RD just before the weekend, Yoni Pasternak highlighted some of the enchanted language that has been associated with CERN’s announcement of a Higgs boson-like particle discovery. The Higgs boson has been labeled the “God Particle,” and numerous scientists and journalists have described the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) as a “magical” device. If news about the Higgs boson has struck you as esoteric and confusing you are not alone, but the video embedded in Pasternak’s post offers a nice primer.

As Pasternak points out, even this explanatory video is full of magician’s hats and pink elephants. The fact that scientists themselves are using this vocabulary, he argues, “is a sign of the utility that these supernatural concepts still maintain” for describing our universe.

The use of supernatural concepts to describe the Higgs boson has been hotly debated ever since CERN’s announcement. Over at io9, Dave Goldberg makes all the best arguments against it. The “God Particle” was coined by Leon Lederman in a book detailing how essential the Higgs is for the Standard Model of Physics. The press subsequently took this idea and ran with it, Goldberg argues, in yet another example of savvy-science-promotion gone awry. For Goldberg and others, supernatural language is a tactic scientists use to communicate complicated ideas to laypersons, such as friends, journalists, and the politicians who control budgets.

This position hits a wall when it has to account for the excitement and wonder that you hear in CERN physicists’ voices…

[continues at Religion Dispatches]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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23 Comments on "Is It Blasphemous to Describe Science as “Magic”?"

  1. Back then magic was what our science is today. it gave reason to everything. We must find the middle between magic and science. 

    • MadHierophant | Jul 9, 2012 at 3:50 pm |

      I always thought of Science as “How” and Magic as “Why”, personally. 

    • The only thing to get is money | Jul 9, 2012 at 9:25 pm |

      The distinction between science and magic, is that magic is an esoteric principle that offers power to one or a few. Science is a technical principle that empowers even those who don’t understand it. Science is far superior to “magic.” There is no “middle ground”.

  2. unusually unusual | Jul 9, 2012 at 3:57 pm |

    It’s not blasphemy to refer to Science as magic, it’s just ignorant. Blasphemy isn’t even a concept here.

    • chinagreenelvis | Jul 9, 2012 at 6:04 pm |

      LOL. Good catch.

      Question: Does calling “science” “magic” make it religious? HURPADURRR

    • TapMeYouFascists | Jul 10, 2012 at 7:07 am |

      Magic is not in the cannon of science and therefore does not exist to those who subscribe to its philosophy. This is the inherent fatal flaw in exclusively thinking in scientific terms. Science can only explain the parts of the universe which are subject to the scientific process. Even then, the whole concept of objectivity is an impossibility in a world so interconnected. The observer ALWAYS affects the observed, even in ways unimagined.

  3. De Carabas | Jul 9, 2012 at 5:25 pm |

    Understanding how the magic works does not make it less magic. Understanding how the magic works makes you a fucking WIZARD!

  4. It’s a shame that the headline for this article is so distracting.

    The article itself actually deals with the usefulness of “magical” type terminology and concepts in describing scientific matters.

    I recall driving across Hwy 50, through desolate parts of Nevada, with a pagan friend of mine. The numerous dust devils we saw inspired a conversation about how literal our language needs to be when teaching scientific or “natural” concepts to children.

    He felt that it was entirely appropriate to introduce a child to the physical concepts involved in a dust devil by describing it as, for example, “Two demons wrestling (a hot one and a cold one)”. Then as the child’s intellectual capacity expands over time, to provide them with a more technical explanation.

    I felt that it was needlessly confusing to anthropomorphize a purely physical and fairly straightforward process, then have to backtrack and explain it again at a later time while overcoming previously instilled misconceptions. (Learning 3 or 4 different incorrect versions of atomic structure just to finally get to the current “incorrect” version of atomic structure has admittedly left me somewhat bitter on such matters.)

    I guess as a race, we’ve spent a lot more time dealing with the unknown in terms of the religious or magical as opposed to the scientific. That would give us a much more deeply ingrained set of “magical” concepts than it would “scientific” ones. In that case it seems reasonable that we default back to the “magical” so frequently.

    • Dimeadozen | Jul 10, 2012 at 2:09 pm |

       Science has its flaws as much as Magic does if you concider science is the act of material understanding and magic the act of non material understanding..

      both can only explain so much before it falls apart, but one is not more important then the other. We have to much ignorance in our face, and this message board shows a great example of that..

      one will never be complete without the other. When we realize this we will start to understand much more.

  5. eyeoftheaxis | Jul 9, 2012 at 10:36 pm |

    I’ve never had a problem with blasphemy, literal or metaphorical. When
    people don’t understand things, and I lack the patience to explain,
    especially when I have doubts if they ever will get it, it’s easier to say it’s
    magic. A long running joke is the magic wand tool not working. — When
    Photoshop confuses most of the customers, I can only imagine what explaining the
    Higgs boson would be like. Calling it the God particle is not helping, kinda
    funny, … but unless it’s with funding (after all TV preachers make tons of $)
    I would not want to encourage them to smack me with a bible and say I told you

  6. emperorreagan | Jul 10, 2012 at 12:01 am |

    I think that one could view science as an initiatory tradition in some respects, like any other throughout history.  You learn a different language, develop a particular set of tools, and ultimately you use that to come to an interpretation of reality.  

    Like a court magician, scientists need to capture the imagination of their patron(s).  Thus the language that they use is not coldly rational and explanatory, but seeks to imbue broader meaning to their discoveries.  For something like evidence of the Higgs Boson, which has next-to-no near term practical value, you get the “god particle” and a bunch of magical talk.  And perhaps it is partly sincere as this article suggests, akin to any experience that validates one’s particular interpretation of the world.

  7. Hadrian999 | Jul 10, 2012 at 1:59 am |

    blasphemy is a sacred duty and should be performed at least 17 times a day

  8. This is alchemy.

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