ASSERTION: If science can’t prove it exists, that doesn’t mean it necessarily doesn’t exist. Lots of things existed before science “discovered” them. It’s “outside the realm of science.”
RESPONSE: This misstates the question. Science doesn’t discover, it seeks to explain. When it is said that something can’t be “proven”, it means that “thing” can’t be shown to have any effect on our world, so to speak. When something “can’t be shown in the lab” it means that no effects (changes) on anything in our reality have been demonstrated that are attributable to this thing, in the lab or anywhere else. Although dowsers will say that even though the “mechanics” of dowsing can’t be explained by science, it “still works” - that is, it works “in the field” looking for water. The reality is that scientists follow them out to the fields, and there’s no demonstrable effect there, either. The first challenge posed by science is to demonstrate that something – anything - is going on at all, to the exclusion of other explanations. Dowsing has never been shown to work under controlled conditions, despite repeated attempts. If anything could be shown to occur, then science could look for an explanation. If nothing occurs that can be perceived or measured in some fashion, then every aspect of our reality has remained unchanged. Only then can these things be said to be “outside the realm of science.” They can also be said not to exist, except in the imagination.
ASSERTION: So, even if it isn’t “real” – in the sense that no effect can be demonstrated in a “Western” scientific sense – what’s the harm?
RESPONSE: The harm is that people believe things that are not true. Water isn’t found because of sticks. Inserting needles into people won’t cure stress. Putting a razor under a pyramid won’t sharpen it. John Edwards can’t speak to the dead, nor can Sylvia Browne, the self-proclaimed “psychic” on the Montel show.
Beliefs like these open people to exploitation. Historically these types of ideas, those that rely on magical thinking, have been employed to manipulate people to their detriment. Suspending critical thinking and silencing that small inner voice of common sense leaves people susceptible to the most “extraordinary popular delusions.” If you believe in a world where the scientific community is trying to suppress the truth, it’s much easier to believe that the World Trade Center bombing was a vast conspiracy. If you believe in a world where Big Medicine is interested in suppressing the truth, it’s that much easier to believe that cancer can be cured by Laetrile, or peach pits, or "detoxification".
These are the beliefs that are presented as special, and suppressed or restricted by the Other. And access to this knowledge is what makes those who possess it powerful. Sociologically speaking, this group is an elite, claiming to bring us hidden knowledge, or claiming special abilities that they will employ to our benefit. But when these ideas begin to get accepted, they lose their scarcity, and hence their value as a commodity and their utility for maintaining power differentials. So new “occult” knowledge must be fabricated, and we see “New Age” ideas being contrived with ever more outlandish claims and conspiracies becoming more and more incredible and convoluted. When dowsing with sticks became commonplace, other materials appeared: copper rods, crystals, pendulums, etc. And dowsing was not for just for water anymore, but for almost anything: water, minerals, objects, unseen forces and even missing people. Dowsers no longer have to seek unseen forces in the field; a map will work these days. There used to be “Indigo Children”, children born special whose purpose is to usher in a new enlightened age. Now there are Crystal Children (better than Indigo Children), and they can be any age. Before Jane Roberts wrote Seth Speaks, channeling virtually known. Now channeling is a skill that anyone can develop, and anyone can be channeled. Except, apparently, anyone about whom much is known. And the common thread throughout is a concentration of resources and power with a religious elite – the shaman, the guru, the psychic, the priest, and the fortuneteller.
Today, the distribution of mystical knowledge has been democraticized; spiritual advisors, healers, mystics, prophets and shaman of every variety, and using every combination of ancient texts, beliefs, materials and props, participate in a bustling marketplace of peaceful coexistence, where they can all fleece the credulous. The variety of beliefs and their widespread nature encourages more and more people to invent beliefs and claim special abilities, resulting in a staggering array of New Age claims. A quick visit to www.crank.net will give you an idea of the scope, and for pseudo-medical claims, visit www.quackwatch.org.
It is always pointless and usually bad when people believe in something that doesn’t exist. This characteristic of humans has had an exceedingly malignant effect on history, and its persistence after the spread of Enlightenment ideas – those of rationalism, empiricism and logic - is difficult to explain.
On a basic level, rejection of the empirico-rational basis of scientific thought (under the appealing rubric of rejecting “Western” ideas in favor of more mysterious “Eastern” ideas), is a betrayal of the search for truth. That search has been an evolutionary process, and the value of belief in the supernatural – things which have not been shown to have any effect on reality – has been jettisoned as a useful method of describing reality. Other practical explanations have been substituted, and change (perhaps even progress) is made possible in human behavior as a result.
This idolization of “Eastern” ideas and rejection of rigid “Western” ideas is based on the same idealized romantic (and racist) idea of the “noble savage”, the notion that the Native Americans were possessed of special knowledge which has been lost to modern times. This thread runs all through New Age romanticism, most evidently in the Atlantis myth, and it shares a deep resonance with political conservatism: longing for a supposedly simpler past, suspicion of modernity, hierarchical power frameworks, and authoritarianism.
On a more general level, rejection of the values of empiricism and rationality – the so-called Enlightenment values – is part of a broad-based criticism of modernity. It’s a call for a return to a romanticized past, when things were simpler, and people were somehow wiser and happier. Aside from the fact that such a return would be impossible, the “past” we are told to emulate is mostly a nostalgic myth, and the further one looks back into the past searching for some idyllic civilization, the more the evidence becomes equivocal, unreliable, and scant. The achievements of ancient civilizations are truly remarkable, but not unsurpassed by, or even comparable to, the achievements of various later cultures (except perhaps on a relative scale).
The period before the Enlightenment (the Age of Reason) was called the Age of Faith. There is a reason that the change from the Dark Ages to the Enlightenment is regarded as progress; it has to do with the rejection of the magical thinking which caused so much of the misery of the preceding centuries. Now this magical thinking is presented in pseudo-scientific terms, striving to gain legitimacy using the language of the “Western science” believers so conspicuously reject. And using language of tolerance and egalitarianism stolen from the Enlightenment and the Civil Rights movement, they foster authoritarianism and superstition. These are the enemies, not the allies, of the human spirit.