Skepticism plays a central role in any kind of scientific research. To paraphrase Feynman, you should try never to fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool! We chemists all want to believe in the high yield, or the perfect recrystallization that causes us to turn cartwheels…until we realize that we can’t repeat them. Some scientists still take shortcuts to fame – consider the hot water the Sezen saga landed everyone in just a few short years ago. So, how do you keep yourself honest? And how do you sift through wild claims and hyperbole?
Well, magicians are standing by to take our calls.
(Wait…did you just say “magicians?”)
“Any magician worth his salt will tell you that the smarter an audience is, the easier they are to fool. That’s a very counterintuitive idea, but…scientists aren’t trained to study something that’s deceptive.”
Good point. As chemists, we’re always looking out for the next great reaction to come logically shuffling through the door. We don’t often step back and critically question others’ motivations for deceit or trickery. But, of course, that’s how magicians make their careers. Randi invokes Clarke’s third law, which states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Maybe that’s part of the issue.
Think, for a moment, about all the “magical” events that occur during a normal day in lab. Stir bars rotate with the flip of a switch. Gas, that you can’t see or smell, keeps oxygen and water out of your reaction. Little towers of pumps, valves, and tubes (HPLCs) show you pictures of what’s going on inside the flask. Another box probably takes your crude brown oil, makes some noises, and turns it into a lovely white, crystalline solid. A tall, shiny refrigerator (NMR) uses the power of magnetism and radio waves (both invisible!) to show you even clearer pictures. Once everything’s wrapped up, you toss the data, on nonexistent paper, in another tiny box (hard drive), or beam the answers as pure packets of energy (emails) across the globe to collaborators.
But, if you went back in time and told an 1880’s dye chemist, he’d never believe you! How come? Because his hands were stained with product, and his arms tired from shaking vessels or moving paddles around reactors. He could tell you the boiling or melting points of all his unknown compounds, because he measured them directly. He knew all the recent literature, because he went to the library and opened the few copies of journals, trade manuals, or encyclopedias he had access to. To him, your ligands and catalysts might look like snake oils and cure-all elixirs.
So, I guess I understand the role a magician could play: a second opinion. An advisor, who could check motives or see a bigger picture, someone who, when you say “Really!” would say “Really?”
And hey, if it doesn’t work out, he could always just disappear. Or you could saw him in half. (I hear they love that!)