Long Live Science and Reason

October 1999
By Sheila Gibson

The following is a response to an op-ed piece written by John Mack, the infamous Harvard psychiatrist who has championed the idea that large numbers of people are being abducted from their homes by space aliens. The original article was published in the Sunday Boston Globe Focus Section on October 24th, 1999.

John Mack thinks science and “our Western worldview” have conspired to snuff out wonder and our connection to the mysterious nature of the universe (“Long Live Magic and Wizardry,” Oct. 24 Focus column).

Dr. Mack is starving at the feast. The wonder and mystery he craves is all around him, waiting to welcome him and any other willing student to their beautiful, elegant riddles. He will find all the wonders and mysteries he could ever wish for in the science which drives him to despair.

Dr. Mack, please visit the Harvard-Smithsonian Observatory, and ask the good people there to show you the stars. Go to the Museum of Science and spend time wandering and asking questions. Go see the Blue Man Group downtown and watch technology and precision become art and humor.

If after doing all that, you are unmoved by the evidence for these 100-percent-fantasy-free-no-magic-required wonders and mysteries that permeate your life and the lives of your six billion brother and sister humans, then call a coroner. You must be dead.

Wonder and mystery are the things that make children want to grow up to be scientists. Wonder and mystery are the things that get scientists out of bed in the morning. Wonder and mystery are the twin midwives who brought objective truth into our world.

Science and its practitioners have good reason to disdain what Dr. Mack calls “magic.”

Science has taught us how to cure the sick and prevent diseases. It has made sterile people fertile and lets fertile people control their fertility. It has doubled our lifespans and given us comforts once reserved for nobles and kings.

Science has shown us how to walk on the moon. For real.

Crop circles, ESP, and such are downright shabby in comparison. Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens likened choosing “magic” over science to “throwing away the truffle and eating the wrapper.”

There is not “a virtual avalanche of data supporting the reality of these phenomena” that Dr. Mack mentions. I was very surprised to see that slip past the Globe editors.

Two of the phenomena he names are crop circles and ESP-type powers (telekinesis and psychokinesis). In these cases, the avalanches of data do not support, but rather smother Dr. Mack’s assertions.

Responsible investigators have studied crop circles and gathered convincing evidence that they are the work of midnight pranksters, not joyriding aliens with a penchant for cereal graffiti. As for ESP, it and its paranormal cousins have yet to stand up under objective scrutiny.

I challenge Dr. Mack to produce his evidence. I don’t require an avalanche of data—a good snowman-sized hunk is fine. The truth is, the information Dr. Mack describes simply isn’t there. All that exists in favor of supernatural phenomena is nothing more than a collection of flakes.

As for the other things he mentions—there’s a big difference between phenomena that we don’t understand today and phenomena “which, if not magical, seem not to be understandable by the methods as we have known them.”

Human beings have figured out electricity, heavier-than-air flight, the fine structure of matter, and heart transplants. Give us time! Those things would have been “magical” or “beyond the reach of science” 100 years ago. Today they are life-saving realities. Perhaps that track record isn’t enough for you, Dr. Mack, but I’m putting my money on the ingenuity of human beings and letting it ride.

I’m happy to share my scientific “truffles” with Dr. Mack or anyone else who wants to taste them. I love to share, and the truffles taste so much better than the wrappers.

I almost forgot–Dr. Mack was talking about a book-banning controversy. In a recent BBC radio report on the fracas, Harry Potter’s creator, J. K. Rowley, said, “the children understand [Harry Potter] for what it is—it’s a fantasy world.”

I wish Dr. Mack would credit those kids with the intelligence, dignity, and respect that the author of the Potter books freely grants them.

Might this be the reason kids are so passionate about the books? Perhaps Rowley is treating her readers not as children, but as human beings who can tell fantasy from reality and can be trusted to enjoy them both without mixing them up. That seems like a very good reason to get excited about reading, no matter how old you are.