Friday, January 2, 2015

Why I Believe Crazy Things

My latest obsessions are geology and fossils, so the other day I stopped in a rock shop and picked up this gorgeous little ammonite. While I was shopping, I overheard a couple looking at crystals. They were discussing the healing properties and energy fields supposedly associated with different ones. I rolled my eyes and wondered how anybody could believe something that crazy.

But then, after a little reflection, I realized I believe some crazy things too. I can't deny it--I go in for some pretty wacky ideas. For example, I believe that all the countless galaxies across the known universe were once all smashed together into one single tiny point. I believe that point exploded into a scorching sea of subatomic particles that would eventually evolve into the universe we see today. I believe there are dead stars in space, called pulsars, that weigh more than the sun but are no bigger than cities. They're out there right now, spinning hundreds of times per second and spewing electromagnetic radiation across the universe. I believe the earth is so old that if you tried to count its age in years you would die long before you finished. I believe rhinoceroses, camels, and elephant-sized sloths once roamed North America. I believe a wall of ice a mile high once scoured the places where New York and Chicago now sit, and that Long Island and Cape Cod mark the places where the ice began to recede. I believe we're living in a short warm interval in a long ice age, and the ice sheets will probably return one day. I believe that incredibly complex things like snowflakes, Siberian tigers, and the Great Barrier Reef--which look for all the world like they were created by an intelligence beyond our imagining--can actually be made by blind natural processes.* I believe a single particle of light can go through two holes at the same time, but will stop if you try to catch it in the act.

I could go on and on listing the crazy things I believe, but I think you get the point. On the face of it, these beliefs sound just as crazy as the idea that crystals produce mystical, healing energy fields, or that your astrological sign can influence your personality. So why do I believe them? And why do I think I'm right to believe them, and that people who believe in astrology, or auras, or young earth creationism, or crystal healing are (almost certainly) wrong?

It comes down to one word: evidence. Every crazy idea I just said I believe is well-supported by scientific and mathematical evidence. If you ask a scientist why she believes in something as crazy as the big bang theory, she can tell you why. She'll point to the way galaxies are flying away from each other, to the leftover radiation that fills they universe today, to the equations of general relativity, and so on. Ask a geologist why he believes ice sheets once covered the northeastern United States, and he can show you the scratch marks, the boulders, and the terminal moraines (like Long Island) that they left behind. Ask a paleontologist why she thinks rhinoceroses used to live in Nebraska, and she will tell you to go there and look at their bones still half-buried in the ground.

Evidence. That's the difference between scientific theories, like the Big Bang and evolution, and pseudoscientific imaginings like crystal healing or the literal existence of Noah's Ark. The scientific theories aren't any less far-fetched--they're actually pretty outlandish, if you think about it--but they're backed up by evidence. It's true that it would be amazing if crystals produced healing energy fields or if stars light-years away altered our personalities, but the evidence just isn't there. It would also be amazing if the universe began in a great burst of energy that sent everything flying apart, or if woolly mammoths once roamed near the great ice sheets of Illinois. Especially if it's true.

And it is!

That's why I'm mystified when I go into a rock shop and find something like the ammonite pictured above, and see people walk right past it to the crystals (fascinating for their own reasons) and start telling make-believe stories about them. It's like seeing someone walk past a Van Gogh, stop in front of a Picasso, and start talking about how it was painted by space aliens with magic wands. That little fossil they ignored was once a creature that lived so long ago that mountains have risen and eroded away since it died. It's a creature whose gorgeous spiral shell--which reflects deep mathematical principles that show up across nature--was literally turned to stone like some mythical beast. And it's a creature with a story to tell--you can dig ammonites out of rocks on a mountaintop in the desert, and be certain there was once a sea where you now stand. That little fossil is absolutely packed with wonders, if you know the science behind it. Not only that, but those wonders are real, and backed up by hard evidence. So why do people ignore them in favor of make-believe tales of healing crystals and horoscopes? If you want to believe in crazy ideas, why not believe in the ones that have the advantage of being true?

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* Which is not the same as saying I believe such an intelligence doesn't exist (I don't have enough evidence to decide that one way or another). Maybe some super-intelligence designed a universe with the right characteristics to produce complexity without her ongoing intervention, but the evidence suggests such intervention is no longer required.