Once again, the otherwise smart and funny SF Gate/SF Chronicle columnist Mark Morford has written a column revealing a strange and unsettling brand of New Agey religious intolerance. This time, his target is the stupidity of science — in particular, scientific studies that confirm common sense and common knowledge, and scientific studies that attempt to understand mystical and religious experience.
So once again, I’ve taken it upon myself to smack him around. Here’s my latest letter to him. Enjoy! (And let me know if you think my “persecution of Galileo” analogy went too far…)
This is getting frustrating. I usually love your column, and usually feel that we’re on the same side. But this is now the second time that you’ve written something intolerant and insulting — not to mention flat-out factually inaccurate — about people who don’t share your spiritual views. You’re beginning to sound like a New-Age version of a fundamentalist Christian, and I’m pretty sure you don’t want to be doing that.
I’m referring to your August 4 column, “God Is In The Magic Mushrooms,” in which you refer to the Johns Hopkins study showing that taking psilocybin mushrooms can create profound and life-changing mystical experiences. To me, this study was a beautiful example of how science and spirituality can connect, can come together to provide new information and create insight. But instead, you chose to use it as another opportunity to be snarky and bitchy and disdainful about science, with comments like “studies that merely reinforce ageless common sense,” “the illuminating shortcomings of science itself,” “the Science of the No Duh,” “smacking us upside the scientific head,” “science peering over the edge of understanding and jumping back and saying, ‘Holy crap.'” And so on, and so on.
Your dismissive remarks about scientific studies that confirm obvious, self-evident, common-sense conclusions are a good example. See, one of the most important things scientists do is investigate the obvious — because the obvious isn’t always true. It used to be obvious that the sun went around the earth. It used to be obvious that black people were inherently less intelligent than white people. It used to be obvious that ulcers were caused by stress and best treated with antacids and a bland diet. These things were obvious — but they weren’t true. It’s important to actually test the things we think are true (the ones that are testable, anyway)… because they might not be. And that’s the value of the scientific method — it short-circuits pre-conceived notions. It tells you whether or not the thing you believe is true, regardless of how strongly you believe it. It doesn’t do this 100% perfectly — the history of science is full of bad experiments whose methodology and results were warped by unconscious bias — but on the whole and in the long run, it does it pretty damn well.
If your point is that science is limited, that it can’t completely explain every single facet of human experience — well, duh. But if your point is how stupid and blind scientists are for thinking that it can… that’s kind of a pointless point. The reductionist scientist who thinks science and logic can answer all questions and solve all problems — that’s a straw man, a cartoon character. I’ve never in my life known or read a scientist who thought that. I’ve never known or read a scientist who didn’t care about art and emotions and ethics and ecstasy and so on, or who believed science could answer all life’s mysteries. If you’re going to argue against science, then at least do so against science as it really is — not some made-up Professor Brainiac from a New Yorker cartoon.
What’s more, your “three choices” of ways to look at the experience of psychedelic drugs are not only pissily judgmental — they’re also seriously limited. I could think of half-a-dozen more just off the top of my head — and not one of your three comes close to describing my own life-altering experiences with hallucinogens. (For me, the mind-bending kicker was the revelation of just how profoundly my perception of reality could be altered simply by a minuscule amount of foreign chemicals in my brain — and the corresponding revelation of just how much of my perception of reality was my perception, and how little of it was reality.)
And since you seem to think this study somehow proves the objective reality of mystical experience, I feel compelled to point out that it does nothing of the kind. In fact, it could easily be argued that this study does the exact opposite — it demonstrates that mystical experience is a mental process, a function of the nervous system that can be induced by the consumption of a chemical compound. I’m not sure I would make that argument — but it’s not an unreasonable one.
I am particularly puzzled by the fact that you accept on its face the validity of the Johns Hopkins study — and yet at the same time you mock it for being redundant and pointless. Don’t you think that’s a little hypocritical? And do you really want to be making fun of people who are trying to understand how human consciousness works, in the most careful, most rigorous, most unbiased way they can? When scientists come up with a result that surprises them, and acknowledge their surprise with humility and awe, do you really want to respond by pointing and laughing at what ignoramuses they are? Do you really want to be one of the kids in the schoolyard making fun of the nerdy Poindexters and how they think they’re so smart? It seems to me that the researchers in the Johns Hopkins study were very respectful of the spiritual experiences of the study’s subjects — do you really want to be returning the favor with contempt?
More to the point, do you really want to be taking the position that dumb old scientists don’t know anything about the real world, the important world, the world of the metaphysical divine whose reality always trumps the mundane physical? Because when you do that, you ally yourself philosophically with creationists. You ally yourself with the Pope who made Galileo recant about the earth orbiting the sun. And I’m pretty sure you don’t want to be doing that. I’d bet dollars to donuts that if you read a fundamentalist Christian screed about science that had the same level of snide, pitying superiority towards non-believers that your piece did, you’d be foaming at the mouth.
But here’s what truly puzzles me about your piece.
You love technology. Passionately. You’ve written in glowing terms, and at great gushing length, about the coolness of iPods, and electric cars, and Macintosh computers, and hundred-dollar vibrators, and so on and so on.
So what I want to know is: Who do you think makes those things? They’re not conjured into existence by New Age gurus or neo-pagan covens. They’re created by scientists and engineers. They’re created by people who think it’s important to know if their observations about the world are accurate, and who take the time to make sure that their theories work. They’re created by people who think and work more carefully, more patiently, more rigorously, with more respect for reality and more willingness to be proven wrong, than I could ever imagine being capable of myself.
Have a little respect for them.