virus: Holy Fire

KMO prime (
Wed, 25 Sep 1996 16:40:04 EDT

I took the bus down to Seattle's University District last night to see
sci fi author and journalist Bruce Sterling talk about his new book, Holy
Fire. Sterling's talks seem to be pretty much
stream-of-consciousness-style affairs, and he didn't say much about his
book. At one point he started in on how scientists assume authority that
is beyond their means. He made several legitimate points, and as he did
so, I looked away from him and took in the impact his comments were
having on his audience. Most of them were nodding in agreement. This is
a crowd of sci fi fans and technologies, and they were very receptive to
this message. The general public is even more receptive to it. Science
is difficult to understand, and it's very reassuring to hear from an
intelligent and articulate source that scientists aren't as omnipotent
and objective as they seem to be. Knowing that it's "just another
religion" allows us to use the technology and material comforts science
provides without having to go to the trouble of training ourselves to
weigh our beliefs against the available evidence, consider alternatives
which are consistent with our experience, or discount our senses and
intuition as less reliable than "quantifiable data;" whatever that is.

A couple of weeks ago I told a friend that I was chagrinned to discover
that Douglas Rushkof, author of Media Virus!, had published a CyberTarot
program. " What's wrong the tarot?" my friend demanded. I categorized
the practice of using the tarot to predict the future, along with
divination by means of bones or entrails, as counter-productive to the
kind of rationality I would like to see advanced in the minds of people
at large. He countered with a defense of the practice which has been
echoed in recent Virus posts. It is a tool for introspection and for
focussing one's attention. "It's like the I Ching," he kept saying. Of
course, a response better than the one I actually gave occurred to me
after the conversation had moved on to other topics, and I didn't mention
that while the I Ching is used by creative and intelligent people in the
west as an aid to introspection, I've met and conversed with several
Chinese people who used the I Ching as an oracle for predicting the
future and for discerning romantic compatibility. In short, while the I
Ching can be used in a healthy and useful fashion, most of the people who
employ it do so in a fashion that, to my way of thinking, is antithetical
to the kind of rational decision making that will see us individually and
collectively through dangerous times.

My actual response in the conversation was to ask whether Psychic Hotline
workers were helping their clients to focus their thoughts or whether
they were praying on the gullibility and predilection towards
wishful-thinking in their clients. His response was to point out that
just because people used the tarot as an implement for fraud doesn't mean
that it doesn't have legitimate uses. True enough.

The point to which I am so circuitously making my way is this: Yes, there
are constructive uses for tarot decks, runes, used tea leaves, and maybe
even astrology. And yes, science does require that one accept certain
standards and axioms without independent corroboration. The current
scientific paradigm determines which questions are legitimate questions
for scientific inquiry, what counts as evidence, what cases are taken as
core examples (textbook cases). All of these will change, and they will
change not as evidence for the new paradigm begins to outweigh that for
the old, but as more (primarily young) scientists choose to operate
within the new paradigm. Historically the evidence which clearly favors
the new paradigm over the old was not collected until AFTER a large
number of researchers had adopted the new standards and worked within the
new paradigm for a time. Until sufficient numbers of scientists began
working in the new mode, the evidence usually favored the old paradigm.
Copernicus's model of heavenly movement was no closer to agreeing with
the data than was Ptolemy's model. Simplicity was the primary appeal of
the Copernican model, and it wasn't until long after Copernicus's death
that his model (or a descent of his model) found agreement with the
available data that was clearly superior to the old Ptolemaic model.
(The collection of better data helped here as well.)


People are so easily sold on the idea that science is just another
religion, and that the tools of the pop culture mystics and oracles are
legitimate tools, that it is very easy to oversell the idea. If I see
that Douglas Rushkof, an obviously smart guy, has spent his time and
effort on a tarot project, then in my mind he is advocating the use of
that tool. If he doesn't spell out exactly what he sees the legitimate
use of that tool to be, then I'll just assume that he intends for it to
be used in the 'normal' (most common) fashion, i.e. to predict the
future. (I did not buy CyberTarot, so I don't know if Rushkof makes any
introductory remarks on what he takes the usefulness of the tarot to be.)

Aristotle articulated the idea that right action is a mean between two
extremes. For example the virtue of courage is the mean between
foolhardiness and cowardice. Because there is a natural drift towards
doing what is easy, the way to achieve the mean is to strive for the more
difficult extreme. We always fall short of the mark, but you'll end up
closer to the mean if you aim for the more difficult extreme than you
will if you aim directly at the mean.

There is a mean for valuing science that lies somewhere between the
extremes of viewing science as the new religion officiated by priests in
white lab coats and seeing science as the only legitimate tool in the
cognitive toolbox. Carl Sagan, James Randi, and Paul Kurtz are visible
salesmen for the "science is it" extreme. The salesmen for the other
extreme are legion. The easier of the two products to sell is the
"science is just a religion" extreme. To find the mean and inculcate it
in the minds of the public we should, taking the natural drift towards
the easier extreme into account, do our best to sell the "science is it"
product. We may not fully believe it, as there are good reasons not to,
but the competing product sells itself and doesn't need any help from us.

Take care. -KMO