Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reality Testing

by Richard Crews
Many things we hear in life have to be "taken with a grain of salt" (a metaphor I will come back to). Particularly in our age of blogs and call-in talk shows, of TV's talking heads purporting to be pundits, and of loudly and colorfully proclaimed political and advertising distortions, the personal mental skill that psychiatrists call "reality testing" has never been so difficult or so important.

Example one: When I told my son, a hard-headed engineer (or I should say, an engineer who is a singularly hard-headed thinker) about the wonders I had just discovered of traveling wave nuclear reactors--one can use any old rotten nuclear fuel waste, fry it to generate energy without fear of explosion or meltdown, and wind up with barely noxious sludge--but, I had also learned, there were significant technical problems to be solved so that it might be ten years before commercial utilization--he readjusted my thinking; he said, "Ten years is a long time; it's the length of time scientists and engineers choose when they really don't have any idea how to accomplish something."

Example two: A friend once told me of a study he conducted in which he sent out letters to scores of companies complaining that he had found a bee in a bottle of their product. Some responded apologetically; some offered compensation; only one responded "correctly" that his contention was utterly ridiculous--there was no way a bee could get into a bottle (of Chivas Regal).

Example three: In the world of the very tiny, quantum mechanics rules, and some very strange things happen: a particle can be in more than one place at the same time; particles appear (are created) out of nothing and disappear into nothing; particles can be "entangled" so that even though they are millions of miles apart, if something affects one, it affects the other as well (at the same instant); events are only possibilities and probabilities until they are observed--they do not actually "happen" until someone takes a look at them. And more. Arthur C. Clarke, the famous author and science explanitor extraordinaire, said of the quantum world, "Not only is the universe stranger than you imagine, it's stranger than you can imagine."

Example four: The powerful healthful effects of homeopathy and acupuncture are indisputable to those who have experienced them. But they are preposterously in violation of all that modern science and medicine know about chemistry, physiology, and anatomy. The phrase "taken with a grain of salt" comes from the practice of dispensing a homeopathic remedy which amounted to some strange essence of a toxin diluted to less than molecular concentration (there was not a singly molecule of the original material in the remedy) along with "a grain of salt" so the recipient could taste the salt and would feel they had actually gotten something. (The therapeutic effects would be felt hours or days or weeks later.)

Each of us considers himself or herself to be a bit of an expert in the subtle and complex art of reality testing. Each of us has a lot--in the way of doubt and humility--to learn.