Dear Pagans: Please Stop Abusing Science

Okay. I’m putting on the Cranky Pagan Hat. You have been warned.

When I was a kid, I always wanted to be some sort of STEM major, whether it was veterinarian or biologist. Unfortunately, my terrible math skills barred me from anything but the humanities. Even my psychology degree is more geared towards counseling practice than scientific research; in grad school, my research methods and statistics classes were specifically for not-math people, just enough to be able to understand the latest studies in counseling-related psychology.

But it was enough. Many of us in the United States get a cursory look at the scientific method in public school, but most of us forget it after we’re done. This is a damned shame, because it’s one of the most important processes in our world today. It is meant to allow us as close to an objective look at phenomena as we can get, in spite of our human biases. Revisiting research methods in my early thirties reminded me that there are reasons we know the things we do, and it’s not just a matter of “feelings”.

It also helped me shake off the last vestiges of “woo” in my spirituality. I’m theologically an I-don’t-care-ist; I don’t especially care whether the spirits and such exist outside of my own psyche or not. What’s important to me is that my spiritual path is both personally fulfilling, AND encourages me to give back to the world that I am a part of through service and love. When I can find wonder in the process of photosynthesis, or the delicate trail of a doe through the tall grass, or the perfect spiral of a lancetooth’s empty shell, what need have I of anything beyond that? The stars are themselves fonts of the numinous, without having to be gods on top of it.

I also don’t especially care about the details of what others believe. You’re welcome to believe whatever you like; I have friends whose theological perspectives range from monotheist to polytheist to atheist, and I think they’re all awesome. One of the things I love about the pagan community is the diversity, and I think we need to keep encouraging that.

However, what I do strongly disagree with are the utterly wrong interpretations of science within paganism (and, by extension, the New Age and the like). I’ve collected countless examples over the years; the following are just a few of the most egregious.

Pagans and others claiming that quantum physics proves magic exists

Okay, look. I know physicists have been coming up with some really cool stuff as of late; particle physics leaped into the limelight a few years ago with the Large Hadron Collider’s role in confirming the existence of the Higgs boson particle. However, even physicists don’t always know exactly what the hell they’re working with, never mind the greater implications of their research. So when quantum physics is translated into laypeople’s terms for the media and popular books, there will be a lot of details left out. We’re getting the Cliff’s Notes version at best, which is okay because for the most part we non-physicists don’t need to know the implications of the Higgs boson on our understanding of the vacuum energy density of the universe.

But we need to stop trying to cherry-pick quantum physics for things we think explain magic and other supernatural occurrences. A great example is quantum entanglement, a phenomenon in which two or more particles that are nowhere near each other still affect each other. I have seen more than one pagan try to claim that magic works because if subatomic particles can be connected at a distance, that must be the mechanism by which burning a green candle makes money come into your life.

However, there is absolutely no evidence that that’s what’s happening. Observing one particle mirroring another far away does not equal a force that makes twenty dollar bills mysteriously appear where they weren’t a moment before. People are making these HUGE assumptions about the implications of a quantum phenomenon that even the experts barely understand. And that is not how science works, nor should we be trying to justify a belief in magic thereby.

Claims that piezoelectricity explains the healing power of crystals (and energy in a broader sense)

So I ran into this post over on Tumblr claiming piezoelectricity is the energy that emanates from crystals at all times and which supposedly has qualities like healing, protection, etc. I had never heard of piezoelectricity, but it took me about two minutes of Googling to get enough information from academic-level sources that showed the original post writer had a very incorrect understanding of the phenomenon. You can read my complete teardown of the “theory” at that link, but the short version is that piezoelectricity is the transfer of energy from a physical stimulus like pressure, to an electrical charge, or vice versa, and only certain natural and synthetic materials can do this. You can squeeze a quartz crystal and the pressure will cause the crystal to release a very small bit of electricity–nowhere near enough for us to detect with our own skins, and definitely not enough to have any actual effect on our bodies. A quartz watch works in the opposite direction: the battery in the watch releases electrical charges at one-second intervals; each charge causes the quartz to vibrate, and this makes the watch tick.

Note that this is NOT the same as “this piece of rose quartz is full of love and healing energy! Carry it for good vibes!” Piezoelectricity is not an ambient force that’s there all the time, and it does not come in flavors like “amethyst” and “malachite”. It is a very specific response to a particular stimulus. Electricity leads to vibration, and vice versa, but on such a small and limited scale that it’s certainly not going to have any effect on our health and well-being–beyond knowing what time it is, anyway.

This goes for all other sorts of energy, too, ranging from the heat we put off through metabolism to the radiation exuded by everything from living beings to bricks to quartz crystals. Familiarize yourself with how these energies work–but don’t then say “That must be how crystals work!” Scientists have a pretty good idea of what’s going on with various and sundry energies, and if the minute amount of radiation put off by granite* had undeniably been found to shrink tumors as effectively as chemotherapy, cancer patients would be carrying rocks in their pockets instead of being subjected to a remedy that’s often worse than the disease.

Groups of practitioners (usually a small number) who all do the same spell or ritual and then compare “results”

Picture a coven of thirteen witches sitting in a circle in the priestess’s living room. Last time they met they decided they were each going to do the same spell, at the same time, on the same night, using leaves from the same plant, etc. Now they’re discussing their results. Each person tells their experience in turn. Some of them sound remarkably like each other, especially as more stories come out. The consensus is that the spell was a success and they’ve proven magic works with their experiment.

A few years ago I wrote a detailed post on all the various problems with the design of this experiment (if it can be called that), ranging from confirmation bias to a sample size that is laughably small. Let’s say the spell in question was a money spell, and everyone got some amount of money after they did it, whether it was expected (a birthday card with a check) or unexpected (a ten dollar bill on the ground). There’s no control group to compare the coven to–and no, “everyone else in the world” is NOT how you create a control group. No one is factoring in confounds like “this person was more likely to get money because they overpaid their phone bill three months ago and the phone company finally noticed and sent a check”. No one is comparing the rate of “finding money on the ground” between people who did a spell beforehand, and people who didn’t.

And there’s our old friend confirmation bias, in which people look for the results they want, even if not consciously. If everyone in the group secretly wants the spell to work because they want money and to prove magic works, they’re more likely to look for any possible proof, no matter how slim. And as the coven members take turns reporting their results, there may be increasing pressure on the later reporters to make sure their results match with the group’s so they aren’t the lone naysayer. If a medical trial were set up with as shoddy a structure as this “experiment”, the researchers would be out of a career.

We can say one thing about all three examples…

NONE OF THESE ARE SCIENCE

Here is how science ideally works. Let’s say we have a hypothesis, which we will call A. We test A with a rigorously designed experiment (or in some cases multiple iterations of the same experiment), with a solid control group, dependent and independent variables, accounting for confounds, etc. In those experiments we get a consistent result, which we will call B. So we can go from point A to point B through a path which can be repeated again and again by different researchers.

What too many people are doing is saying “Okay, so A leads to B–that MUST mean that B leads to C, and therefore A proves C!” C is usually something like magic or energy or the irrefutable existence of ghosts, or some other thing that scientists have tested for but not gotten conclusive evidence of, not in the same way we know antibiotics kill bacteria or plants convert sunlight into sugars. I used to work in a microbiology lab plating specimens. If I put the urine of someone with a urinary tract infection onto a petri dish and kept it at about 98.6 degrees, within a few days there would be colonies of the offending bacteria on the plate, which proves that A (I bet there’s bacteria in this pee) leads to B (yep, just look at all them little suckers in the dish.) It does not then follow that C (I am the life-giving god of these bacteria who shall build tiny bacteria churches in my honor until they overpopulate and eat up all the agar and illustrate the end result of overpopulation of a species).

Yes, that last result is hyperbolic, but it illustrates the grand leaps in logic people try to make when attempting to use science to prove spiritual matters. Which begs the next question…

Why Is This So Darn Important?

Two words: scientific literacy. American culture in particular is woefully prone to pseudoscience and science denialism already, and our clinging to bad science doesn’t help. When we replace scientific literacy with non-scientific explanations for things in this world, we are making it easier for people to spread and utilize misinformation. We also make it harder to disprove their claims and to get people to stop supporting them. We increase the societal view that scientific literacy isn’t important for anyone except scientists. And that leads to some really bad things.

It’s relatively harmless to believe that seeing a hawk is good luck. But a lack of scientific literacy can also have more dangerous outcomes for those supposedly sacred animals. Poor scientific literacy also contributes to everything from faith healing deaths to support of subjecting QUILTBAG** people to so-called conversion therapy to people with albinism being murdered because their remains supposedly have magical powers. People are voting for elected officials who make big, important decisions to include on matters ranging from climate change to medical care. The widespread lack of scientific literacy leads to both voters and politicians not fully understanding the ramifications of their choices–and often voting with their religious and/or emotional biases, not their logic and reason. This then leads to choices detrimental both to us and the world we live in.

Science isn’t perfect, and I’ll be the first to state that. After all, it’s run by humans, who are full of mistakes and biases and sleep deprivation. But if there are mistakes that deviate from the scientific process of inquiry, the answer is not to even more deliberately deviate from it with wishful thinking and “this just feels right”. Pharmaceutical companies missing an important side effect of a medication and having to take it off the market does not mean that it is somehow okay to start ingesting essential oils to medicate yourself instead just because you think essential oils are “natural and good”. Two wrongs do not make a scientific breakthrough.

Am I a meanie who hates religion? Of course not. I have a deep spiritual path that gives me a structure for personal meaning and creating a place for myself in this world. But my work with totems does not overwrite my understanding of the physical animals, plants and other beings out there in the world. If anything, it is natural history that informs my deeper connection with the spirits I work with, because I know where they’re rooted.

Whether you’re a polytheist or a humanist or a duotheist or an animist, I encourage you to (re)familiarize yourself with the scientific method and with the basics of research design and statistics. I encourage you to look at the ways in which sloppy, bad science has affected everything from the environment to human rights, historically and now in the 21st century. I encourage you to look at ways in which good science can support our spirituality–how spirituality can lead to a healthier, more positive outlook on life, for example. And I encourage you to consider being both a spiritual person, and a scientist (even if you’re a citizen scientist like me, rather than a full-time professional scientist!) In doing these things, we can set a good example by being a spiritual community with a firm grasp on the differing bailiwicks of science and spirit.

*The soil in your yard emits more radiation than your granite countertop. Neither of these have been found to either cause, or cure, tumors.

**QUILTBAG – A delightful acronym that stands for Queer, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transgender/Transsexual, Bisexual, Asexual, Gay

Did you enjoy this post? Consider picking up my latest book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, a natural history-informed approach to pagan practice!

18 Comments.
  1. Taryn

    All I can say is I’m an environmental science and biology teacher. I wad never great at math either, but I plowed through it. Also, energy does exists and affects matter, we know this through thousands of tests of the Theory of Relativity. And theory means something totally different in science than colloquial speech. Regardlees, that’s my spirituality…energy and that affects things. I don’t see why it has to be demonized lije you make it feel.

    • Yes, energy affects matter–but in none of those tests have we been able to prove that, for example, holding a quartz crystal will positively affect immune function. That is an example of extrapolating things from scientific theory that haven’t actually been borne out in the research.

  2. Joshua

    As an advocate of the humanities and the sciences, and as a practitioner of theurgy, I’d like to thank you for articulating these very important observations!

  3. Oh Gods where to begin on this subject LOL! You’re so right that scientific literacy is important. This is something that is very close to my heart because I really can’t stand the unexamined “cos people did it in the olden days” justifications given by so many in the modern Pagan/Heathen communities for sometimes cruel and stupid practices which we now know don’t help anyone. Ever. And often lead to all sorts of horrible things rearing their ugly head again, like the amateur slaughter of hapless animals in people’s back gardens and the persecution of witches by morons who want to resurrect everything about their ancestors’ beliefs, including even the most toxic superstitions which were based on lack of knowledge in the past which we now have a scientific understanding of. I’m sure a lot of it is just authenticity -signalling where such is a means of gaining approval in certain groups, even if one is being authentically wrong (actually, some people seem to gain kudos the more obnoxious and depraved the particular ancestral belief or practice in question is, such as slavery or human sacrifice, which says a lot about the sort of people in those groups!) I was hoping that this sort of thing would fade away as people thrashed all this out and grew up a bit, but there are still significant quarters of the Heathen community at any rate who still seem stuck in this anachronistic paradigm. Going back to the persecution of witches thing, as a Heathen Witch, I’ve had other Heathens (the hurly burly “we’re picking up exactly where our ancestors left off!” crowd) tell me that the correct treatment of someone like me (whom they believe might blast the crops or cause sickness and death in humans and animals) is any one of the following:

    *A sealskin bag should be placed over my head and I should be thrown from a cliff.

    *I should be tied up and drowned and then my body burnt.

    *I should have my head hacked off and placed between my thighs.

    I could always ignore such lunacy, but then I remember that we live in a world where people actually do such things to others all the time based on their superstitious fears and desire to cleanse society of “people who cause discomfort and may be dangerous”. Many are accused of black magic still in India, Africa and the ME (which I’m guessing you’re likely well aware of judging by some of things you mention in your post), and many victims are brutally murdered by mobs in the most terrible of ways – it likely runs into thousands every year. Why wouldn’t western people fall back into such regressive madness as well (indeed people are still threatened with violence by religious fundamentalists here in the west, and it looks like we can add some, hopefully rare, Pagans/Heathens to that list of potential perps nowadays too!)

    As for taking the taking of quantum physics and running far too many miles with it, I do actually believe in some woo, and I have speculated on what quantum physics might mean, or what the explanation for the observer effect might be. For example, I made a post about a documentary I’d enjoyed about the history of quantum physics, and the role of the “hippy physicists” of the 1960’s in particular, and how I guessed I’m probably a bit of a one of those on a completely amateur level even though I’ve never believed that one can make oneself a millionaire just by believing in it (it was more of a sort of “hey maybe we’re all co-creators of reality on some superconscious level” type thing, rather than a “we can be immortal just by getting rid of bad thoughts!!” kind of unhelpful idea). In a following post though, after I’d watched another documentary of the same sort, I did mention that a physicist had postulated that the observer effect may simply be caused by the introduction of light during the act of looking, and so it might not be all that far-out after all. In short, I’m careful to say what is my own speculation, and what is generally accepted by people like Laurence Krauss (who would, I suspect, only believe anything if it was well supported by evidence.) As a Deist* I don’t “need” there to be a quantum explanation for my beliefs or my woo practices, I just do what works for me and let the experts do the rest – I’d never be like Deepak Chopra and have so much emotionally invested in my beliefs around quantum physics that I’d make a tit of myself by insulting physicists during debates, implying that those who don’t believe as I do are pseudo-scientists!

    (*It might be worthy mentioning that this philosophical position means that I do not have belief in spells and rituals very much beyond their having a psychological effect, or potentially attracting mental inspiration/guidance from spiritual beings. I do not believe in any direct divine/spiritual intervention in the physical world of the “altering the laws of physics on my account” type – for me it’s purely on the mental level, wether that is from within, or from an external being. I believe we’re here to evolve and do for ourselves, though “god” may still be available now and again in an advisory capacity or for lectures if you see what I mean. I’m aware I’m probably sounding a bit Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy now, so I’m going to shut up LOl!)

  4. arjil

    I Quite agree (and frankly had a similar “love of science until effing math”)
    Whatever magick is, it’s “off the edge of the map”, in my opinion.
    We cannot see, nor quantify the means by which it works. We have no notion of how to create a controlled environment to test it in, nor what to control For even if we could.
    We can borrow from the Concept of the scientific method in testing the “Tendencies over time” of various magickal pursuits, but it is ever more a matter of faith, art, and the unknown *mystery* than it can Ever be of science (and frankly, few people ever do enough magick to even call it “testing” but that’s an entirely different matter)
    anyway, well said.
    Science is the best at explaining the “Normal” world. Magick is definitively *Other*. If you’re doing it right anyway.
    (at some point we should discuss that “doesn’t matter if spirits are in your head or not”- I find that it most certainly Can matter, and many people, I find, make the mistake of coming at all this from a single perspective. It seems to me that different things are going on at different times, though the subjective experience or perception of them is nearly identical. Mistaking personal internal reality constructs for external ones that are there whether you’re choosing to believe in them or not, can cause certain problems- but that’s a discussion for another day and beside the point of your well written and poignant article 🙂 )

  5. Autumn

    Thank you! Now if I could only get pagans to understand the law and that statutes like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) aren’t actually “restoring” anything and are responsible for many of the clashes we see between “religious freedom” advocates and QUILTBAG rights to access public venues, buy wedding cakes, etc, I would be eternally happier.

  6. Thank you for writing this. I have been thinking the same thing for years, and you are articulated it brilliantly. The horrible scientific literacy in the Pagan community has made me want to have very little to do with it. What some Pagan’s don’t seem to understand is that their lack of scientific literacy and blindly believing in ‘woo’ makes them just as bad as the fundamentalist Christians they dislike. Historically, Christians have stood against the concept of a heliocentric universe, evolution, and many other scientific advances. Today, many Pagans are anti-vaccine, anti-GMO, and anti-medicine. All of these have led to incredible decreases in child mortality, increased life expectancy, and ways to feed a rapidly increasing global population that would otherwise have even more starvation issues than we currently have. What is sad is I am hesitant to even make this post because of the crap storm of comments and accusations that I know will probably be thrown my way. Our Pagan ancestors were at the forefront of ancient scientific knowledge, and I think many of them would be very sad to see how anti-science the world’s surviving Pagans are.

    • “Today, many Pagans are anti-vaccine, anti-GMO, and anti-medicine. All of these have led to incredible decreases in child mortality, increased life expectancy, and ways to feed a rapidly increasing global population that would otherwise have even more starvation issues than we currently have.”

      Lee You’re right – my uncle who’s a biochemist worked in biotech developing plants which would grow better in drought conditions and believed that he was doing a service to humanity. He is not a money-grubbing monster or ignorant “slave to the capitalist machine”. He was using his scientific knowledge to try and help people who didn’t have enough to eat! He cares deeply about nature and won’t even let anyone kill a fly in his presence. I’m therefor very sceptical now about a lot of this ideology-driven activism we see in the Pagan community against such things.

  7. This was such a well written article that brought up some excellent arguments. I couldn’t agree more!

  8. Nice job.
    As an engineer (electronics, embedded systems …) science is a huge part of my life. As a Pagan, I need to respect the fact that science neither confirms nor denies my religious practices.

    I get so upset when I hear people say “we need to raise our frequencies to a higher vibrational level” – as if that actually MEANS something!

    From now on, if someone makes the idiotic claim that “Quantum Mechanics proves magick”, I think I’ll begin by asking them to explain quantum mechanics. When they stumble, I’ll make it easy – “explain simply the word ‘quantum'”.

    Too many people have seen films like “What the bleep do we know” – which, while entertaining, explained nothing – and think it really offers some significant understanding of quantum effects on our every day life.

    The truth is that we do experience quantuum effects each and every day – and they are a bit like magic – our LCD and LED TVs, watches and calculators – all of this makes use of quantum effects. But I’ll guarantee that any new-ager who thinks they understand quantum mechanics – really doesn’t.

  9. Hey, folks! I’m falling behind on replying to comments as I’m getting ready for a trip to Heartland Pagan Festival in a few days, but I wanted to say I really appreciate everyone’s commentary so far! It’s great to see such a strong response from a variety of backgrounds and positions on the matter, both here and on social media. Thank you so much!

  10. thank you, thank you, thank you!!!
    Brilliant!!!!!
    As both a pagan – like you I am a ‘practising agnostic’ – and a science major this is potentially the best article I have read in decades!

  11. Well, I agree with the article pretty much completely.

    But then, this is easy for me to do since I’m about 80 – 95% skeptic and only the left over portion pagan.

    But I’d *like* to be more pagan, you know? But it’s difficult — partly due to how my brain works, and partly due to how almost everything that identifies one with paganism (e.g. rituals for spells or for praying to one or more gods) seem to kinda conflict with the skeptic thing.

    For me– the way I *personally* handle this contradiction is three-fold: in the first place I keep my non-science-y nonsensical practices *very* private and also I don’t have very many of them.

    In the second place: I am always aware of the actual truth: It isn’t actually the case that I’m divining my “true path” into the future — This is just something that I am making up to myself because I need the comfort and the sense of order that it provides.

    And I’m ok with that.

    In the third place: if I perform some sort of ritual with the intent of channelling some magick or whatever to achieve some result, I am aware that the only thing this “magick” can *really* affect is: Me. I can’t actually do a magick spell to just *make* money fall into my lap, but if I perform a ritual with that goal in mind, then for the next several days/week/whatever, *my* focus will be significantly shifted such that I’ll be more likely to act in a manner and to make certain decisions that increase the chances I’ll get what I wanted.

    (That is as long as I remember to be on the lookout for scammers that will take advantage of my “take action!” stance 😉 )

    So.. that’s how *I* do it. It is kind of damnably elaborate though. And it really, really would be nice to be able to meet up with more folks who are willing to take the challenging and damn near self-contradictory path of adhering to science-y rational thinking *and* paganism. 😀

    (The following silliness is my .sig “Conjure by it at your own risk.” I’m not a wizard. But I’m hopeful for the prospect of gaining eventual wizardry in VR.)


    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  12. Ostara

    As a longtime pagan and a middle school science teacher pretty much all I have to say is thank the Gods I’m not the only pagan out there that feels this way. The woo makes me uncomfortable and i certainly don’t like people trying to drag science in to try to justify it. They don’t need to. They want to believe they can believe just fine. Some of the woo, granola types we have these days can be somewhat hostile to those of us who aren’t on their bandwagon. Quite frankly the anti-vacc group of pagans are a scary bunch and rather hostile.

  13. May I recommend a long perusal of “Deviant Science” by James McClenon to see the scientific method in operation at the street level of paradigm, committees and funding? Or, you might want to go back almost a century and read the Flexner Report and see why midwifery, women and minority doctors were suppressed for nearly the whole of the 20th century. The other term for “Confirmation Bias” is “Continued Funding Of Your Proposal”.

  14. Very well written and refreshing. One of the downfalls in the pagan/witch communities is the assumption that logic, reasoning, and science is to be thrown to the wind and that every woohoo feeling and special snow flake syndrome is acceptable. Dangerous thinking, IMO.

  15. Fantastic piece. Thank you.

  16. THANK YOU. SO. MUCH!

    Like commenter ‘wyrdwyrd’ above, I want to be more active with paganism. I really do. But I find it so hard to reconcile my innate skepticism and my innate spirituality. I keep circling around the edges, because I identify with so many of the core values of paganism (connection to the natural world, living in harmony with nature, loving and respecting the earth, etc.), and despite myself, I simply want to believe! Yet there is always my logical side holding me back from getting too deep. I will have a desire to read my Tarot cards, or set up a little altar, or even to just try to meditate a little, only to start second-guessing myself and dismissing the idea… and of course, when I decide against it, there is some part of me that is disappointed and sad. It’s so refreshing to read that it’s possible to reconcile science and paganism! Lupa, you are my hero.

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