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TREFIL AND SCIENCE

From Chris Wayan's journal 1994/1/26


"Reading the Mind of God" by James Trefil is a history of the basic assumptions of science. Trefil makes a strong argument for ignoring the ways people get their ideas, and just focusing on how and whether they test them empirically.

For societal brainwashing affects what questions get asked, but not which answers are disproved. He doesn't say this, but I suddenly see the result of this two-part filtering is that scientific absolutists and cultural relativists are each half right: the truths uncovered by scientific activity are indeed pretty reliable, relatively culture-free in that sense, but the rate at which knowledge expands in different directions is quite culture-bound. What gets investigated is indeed relative. Not just a question of funding--some questions are downright crackpot in one society or generation, and hot in the next. This does depend on culture--both fads and long-term biases exist.

Science is like a prairie fire, or a people exploring a new continent. What's inside the perimeter is pretty much known--subject to revision, but at least mapped out. And since people and fire are persistent, the perimeter will expand on all fronts, or at least not shrink much, regardless of wind and fashion. But the speed of advance on different fronts may be profoundly different, and does depend on the winds of fashion.

Those winds affect me personally.

My work with dreams and cosmology, especially my collecting samples of precognition and telepathy, is not mysticism, even though it looks nothing like the sanitized vision of modern science taught in American schools. By historical standards, I'm doing basic science: the Linnaean groundwork of data collection and basic classification. As I read of pioneers in physics, geology, and cosmology, they feel familiar: they usually made their own tools and collected their own data. That's how they got the intuitive sense to recognize when they had something unusual. Trefil calls it "magic hands" or "magic eye"--the talent for the materials in the field, not just for theory. And contrary to the way most science in the well-subsidized fields is done now, they mostly did it alone or in small partnerships. Seedling sciences look much like hobbies and obsessions. Unless you know the data yourself in such detail that you too have a magic eye, it's hard to know the difference.

So for my field, one that's out of fashion (indeed still stigmatized as crackpot), I'm doing just what I should. Seeking grants and support networks is fine for heavily mined regions of science, where you must dig very deep to reach fresh ore, and may require expensive equipment; but the field of dreams, especially parapsychological dreams, hasn't even got surface maps yet. Nuggets lying around!

That sneaking sense of uselessness and illegitimacy I get in my down times is just because I grew up in a period with a narrow view of what science was, and because (as Stephanie van Zandt Nelson keeps reminding me) both dreams and psychic phenomena are things Euro-American culture has historical blinders about. To exchange letters with other dreamworkers now and then, to keep minimal contact with the few networks of others interested in the field... and to keep up with "unrelated" fields, be broadly knowledgeable, these are the only social/professional contacts I NEED to do my work. There isn't a huge mass of swiftly changing info to absorb there. On the ground--in dreams themselves, in documenting psi and telepathic events, THERE is the huge mass of data needing someone with a feel for the materials! It's for the next generation of web-based researchers to try groups, to compare notes on a big enough scale to see if the seeming randomness of dreams is bleed-in from others' minds... and to implement all that, we'll need a change in the social attitude toward dreams: it has to be acceptable enough to enlist people with no ax to grind. Today, even I have trouble with fears of violation of privacy in shared and telepathic dreams, fears of predestination implied by precog dreams, a taught tendency to interpret dreams symbolically not literally, and in general strong FEELINGS around the various models for dreaming.

And I'm much calmer about these issues than most folks in the dreamgroups I've been in. The best dream group I was ever in broke up partly because the walls between our dreams started to erode... and dreamers started to panic. Dreams are nitroglycerine--not TNT, not just explosive, but UNSTABLE. By their nature they deal with what people care about most passionately, and often about their worst fears.

And those fears can distort your models, make you limit your hypotheses, make you deny... oh, nearly anything! The world is flat, and 6000 years old. God made us of clay, we never evolved from apes, those nasty things...

Do I exaggerate? Millions of people, decades after it was proven false, still deny they even dream.

For them, the world is flat.



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