Most of us in the science fiction and fantasy community are familiar with Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Here’s an interesting factoid: many languages – especially pre-modern languages – don’t really have words to differentiate between the twin concepts of magic and science. Many languages – especially eastern languages – have only recently added words for the concept of “science.”
And yet in the modern, western world we understand a very clear difference between these ideas. Even in our literature, even in our games, we distinctly separate out that magic is magic and science is science and they aren’t the same. In fact, we break them apart so well that we clearly notice it when some tale or game that we read constructs a magical system that smacks too heavily of actually being a “science.”
So what, exactly is the difference? Here’s the way that I break it apart, and I think that almost all of us will find that these definitions work very well to explain the way that magic and science are viewed by the vast majority of the populace.
Magic involves bending the universe to your will. Whatever system a story has in place explaining how their magic works, at the end of the day it either works or doesn’t work because the practitioner has sufficient will to make it work. The steps to cast a spell don’t work if you’re a muggle, or if you’re weak minded, or if your midichlorian count is too low. Or maybe you’re not focused enough. Or maybe the steps for magic to succeed are different for each practitioner, because the steps aren’t really what causes the effect – they just focus the practitioner’s will.
Science involves finding out the rules of the universe as they are and following a series of steps that gives a particular set of results because it follows those rules. The steps are mechanical, and the result follows from a chain of cause and effect. The chain may be long and complex, but it will work every time, no matter who does it, and now matter how strong your will is.
In a word, magic lacks replicability. Science has it in spades.
Or does it?
Let’s consider, for a moment, antibiotic resistant bacteria. We know that the bacteria in the world are becoming more and more resistant over time to our tools for killing them. The miracle of modern antibiotics is slowly failing. A student of history, I’m aware of many of the ancient remedies that are laughed at by the modern world. “They used to do that as a treatment? Hahahahaha!”
Imagine a world a thousand years from now where the learned men of the day are laughing hysterically at our culture. “They used to eat pills made from ground up mold to treat their infections? Hahahahaha!”
And yet clearly these treatments work exceptionally well today, on a wide variety of ailments. Penicillin has truly brought on an age of medical miracles. But to these learned men of the future, the treatments we use with such great success now won’t work.
On the flip side… what if the treatments of our ancestors, the remedies that we laugh at today, used to work? What if they used to be highly effective, but the world changed in some way that we’re not aware of? Clearly they don’t work now. The “science” is no longer replicable.
OK, that’s a hypothetical (if an interesting one). And it’s easy to at least make the claim that these ancient remedies were never really science and are much better categorized as magic – and ineffective, at that. Maybe they never really did work at all.
So let’s take a more concrete example. In the last few years there have been some shocking papers coming out of the scientific community showing that many landmark studies can’t be replicated. I’ve linked to a sample of these reports. There have been more.
The common interpretation is that they never were replicable. Somebody found an outlier result, published it, and now we’re just discovering that these results were the outliers. The other common interpretation is that the researchers were corrupt or blinded by bias, and they found the results they wanted to find. To be perfectly fair, these interpretations are far and away the most likely.
But what if these interpretations are both wrong? What if something is changing in the world, and our science lacks the replicability that we’ve always believed underpinned it?
At certain extrema, we already know this to be true. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle tells us that we can’t measure sufficiently small subatomic particles without fundamentally changing them. And Einstein’s theory of General Relativity tells us that certain measurements change depending upon our frame of reference, especially at very high speeds. However, the conventional understanding holds that the Uncertainty Principle doesn’t apply at macroscopic levels and that Relativity’s effect is trivial at low percentages of the speed of light.
But what if something else is going on, something that’s fundamentally changing the world around us and mucking with our concepts of replicability?