I was listening to "This American Life" today, and what I heard has been on my mind all day.
"This American Life," in case you are not aware of it, is a radio program on NPR. I've become a fan in recent years. They do long-form documentary-type stories, usually two to three in an hour. They vary from funny to heartbreaking to frankly disturbing, sometimes within the same story, but always with some central quality of which comedy and tragedy are simply alternate expressions...heart, I think I'd call it.
Anyway, this one episode today I'd classify as merely interesting except for the train of thought it triggered in me that has been with me, as I said, all day.
I was doing the dishes and not really listening when someone said something about being interested in "secret knowledge." My ears perked up and I turned off the water to listen, because secret knowledge is, in some sense, the heart of magic. We used to talk about this a lot at school, what magic is and why one thing is called magic and another isn't. I won't go into the details now, except to say that this is one of those questions that is productive, if you are interested in such things. I later went online to get the podcast so I could listen to the whole show from the beginning. Here is the link for the podcast, in case you want to listen to it yourself;
Here is the synopsis--spoiler alert, I'm going to have to give away the ending.
A professor of music read about a man who claimed to have cured cancer using some sort of device. The man had long ago been discredited as a quack, but the music professor thought the device might have actually worked, so he built one and found that it did kill certain kinds of cells. He teamed up with a friend of his, a cancer researcher, to test the device on cancer cells and captured impressive pictures and video of leukemia cells and pancreatic cancer cells dying--this was all in petri dishes or something, not in an actual patient. The machine plus chemotherapy drugs killed a lot more cancer than the drugs alone. But the results were not consistent and there were some problems about test design and eventually the two men argued and stopped working together.
The thing that struck me at first was the music professor saying he was attracted to "secret knowledge, things people don't know, or maybe people used to know and have forgotten." This attraction to what nobody else knows is the attraction of conspiracy theories, but it is also the attraction of the occult. Much of occult literature these days is actually mostly secrecy (or, rather, secrecy on display, as it is published) with very little secret inside it; the romance and glamor of magic is the hidden meaning, the secret sigil, the arcane languages and powerful practices that only the initiates know. That is what attracted this music teacher to the work of a supposed quack, the thought that here was a special something that not everybody had access to--a powerful secret that could change the world. As some of you may know, cancer is very difficult to treat, and the two most powerful treatments for inoperable cancers, radiation and chemotherapy, both cause almost as much illness as the cancer does. In fact, both can cause cancer. The idea behind aggressive cancer treatment today is still mostly that you poison the patient and hope his cancer dies before the rest of him does. A machine that kills cancer cells--only cancer cells--would be a miracle. It would be magic.
But whether the anti-cancer machine really works or not, the secret language understandable only by initiates really does exist, and the music professor isn't an initiate of this secret society. It's called science. I am an initiate; I have a master's degree in conservation biology. So I heard this researcher on the radio explaining why he couldn't accept the anti-cancer machine as proven...and I heard him correctly, as he meant to be heard. Let me see if I can explain this briefly.
Strange things happen all the time, and they happen for all sorts of reasons. Cells are born, they change, and they die, and often no one knows why. There may be no reason. But we humans like reason and we see it even where it isn't there. Once, when I was nine years old a buddy of mine and I were riding our bikes past my house. I thought it was weird to be riding past my own house and not stop, though I'd done it hundreds of times before. But just as I thought that this orange cat ran out into the street in front of me and startled me. I fell right off my bike and hurt myself badly and it's completely illogical, but from that day to this I have avoided passing my own house without stopping if I possibly can. I'll go around the block, if I have to. On some level, I believe that passing my house caused the accident. And we're all like that. We see patterns that aren't there. What science is--science is a way of telling the difference between patterns that are there and patterns that are not there. It isn't enough to watch the cancer cells dying, just like it isn't enough that I felt myself fall off my bike. Both incontrovertibly happened. But so what? Stuff happens. And without the scientific process, you can't tell the difference between stuff just happening and the evidence of a new and real pattern. You can't tell the difference between signal and noise.
And that's what the researcher meant; he was excited about the possibility of curing cancer, but to him, the videos of dying cancer weren't proof. Since the experiments had not been done properly, there was no way to know if he was looking at the equivalent of my nine-year-old's superstition, an emotionally powerful illusion, or the next big breakthrough. But the music professor, being an initiate of something else entirely, didn't hear it that way. To him, the effectiveness of the machine was the obvious thing, and his friend's insistence on more study was only a demand for more proof with which to convince the skeptical. He was discouraged by what felt like an unreasonable demand for more of what he already had. Science isn't secret in the sense that nobody is allowed to tell; scientists spend their whole lives trying to tell. But in becoming a scientist you gain the ability to see things a different way--and you often lose the ability to see things in the old way. Initiates of different societies, the two men failed to understand each other and they fought and their partnership died.
But I can see it both ways, because before I trained as a scientist I trained as a...shaman might be the best term. Charlie had no word for what he was, and he gave no word to me. And science was for me a part of that larger thing, that greater initiation offered to me by Kit, the music professor and miracle-maker;Allen, the psychologist and master of illusion; Joy, the healer, Greg, the Buddhist alchemist; Karen, who taught me that every time you fall down you learn more and get stronger...and Charlie. We didn't all agree or even necessarily all like each other, but that was precisely the point. And we made something together. They made something and gave it to the world. And these two guys, the ones on the radio show, didn't have that thing and so they fought and their partnership died.
And they never said on the radio show when these events happened. It might have been many years ago now. That means that, were it not for that argument, there might be a cure for pancreatic cancer today. I'm sorry, I don't usually use this language, but I'm in no mood today for perspective.