Another question has asked whether magic would be immune to science's scrutiny. I'd like to invert the question and ask...

Would science even exist in a world with magic?

Science evolves in an arena where the results of laboratory experiments can be consistently repeated. A theory gains acceptance as subsequent repetitions of a supporting experiment yield identical results. In the mundane world, it only takes a single experiment yielding a contrary result, to dispel all of a theory's credibility.

Repetition is the raw material which modern scientists use to incrementally span the chasm of our ignorance with every new discovery building up from the repeat-ability of all the experimental results upon which it stands.

Now for the sake of this question, lets imagine a pretty straight forward definition for magic: Magic is an invisible gas or energy (we don't know which). It cannot be proven to exist nor can it be detected by any known scientific method. Its singular affect is to temporarily change the nature of the universe from "Cause and Effect" to "Intent and Effect". In the presence of magic, the expectations of the most attuned mind override all other factors in determining the result. Magic ignores the need for causative forces, side-stepping the all known laws of conservation including energy, mass and sanity.

Magical results rely solely upon the presence of the magic whose only proof of presence is those same magical results. Independent and allusive, magic is impossible to build anything upon. By itself, it cannot span the chasm of our ignorance.

Mental attuning is the only theory we have so far, for uncovering the nature of magic and it is just a statistical shadow. It is believed that ... some people are present during magical effects more often than others and after the fact, those same people are more happy with results than a randomly selected sample of the other people present. We know that these people are magically favored over everyone else, but that is all we know about them.

So here is the question: In a world where this kind of magic existed, would science ever take root? What tools and techniques might magic-fearing scientists use to defend their experiments from magic?

Feel free to bend the definition of magic to suit your answer; after all, magic is malleable by definition.

-- EDIT 3/31/15 --

I failed to comment on how rare magic is in this world I am building. Several of the current answers have pointed out that if this magic was everywhere, then major aspects of everyday life (such as transportation systems) would never have been developed. Magic would relieve society of the need for such infrastructure.

I am trying for a subtler effect, where magic is rare, where an average person might only encounter an undeniably magical event once or twice in a year. A very attuned person may cause a small event or two in a good week, but not nearly often enough to depend upon.

Just enough magic to mix things up a bit.

-- Edit to address more recent comments --

@2012rcampion, the answer to your question depends upon whether there is any magic nearby and under the subconcious control of the scientist at the moment when the feather and cannonball are released. If no magic is nearby, the experiment runs as it does in our world. If magic is nearby, it runs like the scientist wants it to. The difference isn't significant when the magical effect is big and obvious, or when the test runs to its expected conclusion. The problem arises when the test goes contrary to those expectations. Was it magic or was it that single abberant result which invalidates the well-established theory.

@Hurkyl, Science is served not only by its ability to imagine how things might work, but also by its mandate to discard any theory which fails even once. If magic is a possible explanation to any event, regardless of how rare and unlikely that involvement might be, Science looses its ability to enforce that mandate.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm imagining myself living in a world of crawling with magical creatures and mysterious weather that rains candy and many more. If the inhabitant of that world doesn't feel bothered by all this weird phenomenon (take everything for granted, see no need to improve anything) then why should I let it bother me? $\endgroup$ – user6760 Mar 31 '15 at 2:57
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    $\begingroup$ Does your magic require spells to be cast or somesuch, or are all conscious minds doing magic constantly? For example, if I drop a cannonball and a feather in a vacuum, expecting that the cannonball will fall more quickly (but not consciously invoking magic) what will happen? Will the result be Aristotle or Galileo? $\endgroup$ – 2012rcampion Mar 31 '15 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think you necessarily discard a theory that fails just once. You consider other factors that may have caused the failure and repeat again a bunch of times. $\endgroup$ – Kristy Apr 2 '15 at 15:11
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    $\begingroup$ One theme of the Malazan Book Of The Fallen series is essentially that of a world where the existence of magic has held back progress over thousands of years. Worth a read for any fan of epic worldbuilding. $\endgroup$ – glenatron Apr 2 '15 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ Science does not "Discard any theory which fails even once". Especially if it works the rest of the time. Much of the day-to-day physics we do today does not use the theory of relativity, and is therefore wrong. Since it is wrong by such a small amount, it is a waste of time to try to be more accurate. $\endgroup$ – Steven Gregory May 6 '15 at 11:45

13 Answers 13


Magic would just be part of this world. It may not be understood, but unless some powerful tyrranical force is actively trying to stop people from understanding things, curious people will continue to observe the world, try to understand what is going on, and test their theories. The fact your world has already identified that some people have stronger intent and more magical influence shows there already is science, and people are already trying to understand what is going on.

I think that "scientists" would learn to expect a certain amount of randomness in their experiments, try to define and predict it perhaps, and then try to work around it.

Specific suggestions:

  • They could set up an experiment somewhere quite isolated and get someone else to run it - someone who has no idea what they are testing for, what their intended outcome is.
  • They could find people with really strong but predictable intent and keep them nearby when running their experiments. (eg. someone who particularly loves chocolate, but is only allowed it through magic). Then if chocolate appears, you could stop and try again later. (Kind of like a canary for miners).
  • They could strictly school their own intent so that it primarily is to run their experiments only when magic is not around. If magic is around, they want to go home.
  • They could repeat their experiments way more times and consider rejecting the statistical outliers (since magic is rarer than not).

Given that magic is still fairly rare in your world, technology will still develop too, as people won't be able to rely on magic and so will always continue to come up with new, innovative ways to improve their lives.

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    $\begingroup$ Spectacular!!!!! Four usable techniques for enhancing a scientific study of magic. I especially like the third one... using magic as a tool to detect its own presence and modify the "caster's" actions based on the result. I will not only use that, I will make it the eureka moment for my protagonist, giving him an advantage over all the other wacky followers of science. Thank you very much! $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor May 4 '15 at 4:40
  • $\begingroup$ Wow, my first accepted answer! A big milestone :) I'm glad I was able to help, thanks for the lovely feedback and the interesting question. $\endgroup$ – Kristy May 8 '15 at 12:42

Would science take root: absolutely yes.

Don't forget that we used to live in a world of "magic". We had no understanding about why the sun rose every day, why people got sick, why plants grew, etc. The western "magic" was gods and divine intervention.

Science wasn't born directly out of a desire to solve problems. Science was born as natural philosophy: a philosophical (read intellectual) study of why things are the way they are. Unless you eradicate curiosity from your universe, your universe will eventually give rise to science.

Because the physical laws of your universe look very different than the physical laws of our universe, science will look different. It will study different phenomenon, focus on different problems, and develop different disciplines.

For example, if you have magical, instantaneous transportation, then there will probably be a group of scientists (philosophers) investigating why it works, and how to harness it. You may never see the development of any transportation infrastructure, or the science behind it, because it's unnecessary in your world.

TL;DR: If people are curious about the way the world around them works, those people will eventually develop the process and practices we call "science".

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    $\begingroup$ There's Clarke's Three Laws (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarke%27s_three_laws), of which the most well know is: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. However, I think the reverse is also true: tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SufficientlyAnalyzedMagic $\endgroup$ – Donald.McLean Mar 31 '15 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for demonstrating that my original post fails to focus on the root of the question which involves undermining the scientific method. After reading my post, you are imagining a world where there is enough of magic to undermine the creation of transportation systems and other infrastructures. That wasn't my intent. I should have stated that magic is rather rare, just common enough to undermine scientific investigation. A daydreaming northern city dweller suddenly finds himself on a beach in Hawaii. Magic is undeniably present but not enough so to depend upon it. Thanks for the insights! $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Mar 31 '15 at 19:53
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    $\begingroup$ @HenryTaylor Even in that situation, science will still prevail. Look at paranormal activity. It is clearly non-existent, since no reliable evidence has ever been obtained outside of anecdote. In a world such as ours, if suddenly magic started happening, people would originally be called crazy for it. But once evidence starts to accumulate, no matter how scarce, it will become part of what is knows as the "scientific establishment". $\endgroup$ – Nick2253 Mar 31 '15 at 19:58

We see magic connected to science often when the question is: What is the limit of magic? How can a wizard become more powerful? Why is he more powerful? If there's no limit, can the magician simply delete the whole world at once? Because if there's a limit, people would seek it. How far can they go? How can they expand their limits? They would be creating science while they try to understand magic.

Science comes from asking questions and looking for logical, reproducible answers. The existance of magic would certainly make a large part of "our" science unecessary, but as long as our minds ask questions and try to understand what surrounds us, I think science would come up eventually.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for "as long as our minds ask questions..." A very good reminder that science is not just for solving problems but also serves to satisfy our curiousity. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Mar 31 '15 at 12:30

I think 'science' would exist still. However, it would have a very different look from what it does today. The main difference is 'magic' would be an area of study. If you are studying magic, at least some will want to know how to get consistent results from their magic. I don't want to pull a rabbit out of my hat one day and the next a chicken. This will likely lead to the need to understand the relationship 'between' magic and the physical world. Which would also force a study and understanding of the physical world with and without magic interference.

(on top of all that, science today speculates about 'dark matter' and 'dark energy' and at this point it mostly 'magic' because it's the best fit for the known holes in physics)

  • $\begingroup$ +1 : Good point on dark matter and dark energy. I'm wasn't certain how one would go about studying magic as I have defined it, but our current study of theoretical physics is probably the best real-world model available. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Mar 31 '15 at 14:03

The Diskworld universe created by Terry Pratchett defines magic as the absense of reality. This looks so much to me like Euclid's "A point is that which has no part."

The students at Unseen University study magic much in the same way that real students study particle physics. Just as in Harry Potter's world, if you wave your wand just right and say "Leviosa" just right. You will get a predictable outcome.

It's wrong to think of magic as the absence of science. If magic existed, then it too would have rules. Hence it would be amenable to the scientific method.

To say that magic is random is not enough. Particle physics has randomness in it and yet practical results can be computed by physicists.

To imply that magic is beyond our ken is, well, pompous and insulting in an odd sort of way. If it exists, then it can be studied.

The idea that it must be either magic or science is like saying an orchestra can only have wind instruments or string instruments in it.

  • $\begingroup$ I think the key to my magic's inscrutability is not a pompous belief in some limit to our analytical skills, but rather our inability to imperically preceive the presence of the magic-enabling essence in any given study. We can study gravity and learn its relationship to mass because we can preceive both the effects of gravity and the presence of mass. How do you study the relationship between 2 things when 1 of them is undetectable and may be present, but is probably absent, from any given opportunity for interaction. +1 for bringing Pratchett into the frey. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor May 4 '15 at 4:35
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    $\begingroup$ Then, apparantly again, I bring up Clark's third law, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Ultimately, I think that magic is just science that we don't understand yet. "Undetectable" only means "Undetectable now". If we poke and prod long enough, we will eventually learn where to look. At that point it stops being magic and becomes science. $\endgroup$ – Steven Gregory May 4 '15 at 16:32

this thing is that, ultimately, magic is a tool for making stories work. So if you have a world where magic does work then magic is identical to science.

the crucial point here is that 'science' is not one particular set of beliefs or laws is is a pragmatic method for working out determining how the universe works so if the universe works by magic then science would set out to identify the rule by which magic works.

Ultimately science only depends on the axiom that the universe is comprehensible if you really can make a flying potion by stewing frog skin in virgins tears in the light of a full moon and stirring it with a silver rod then that is science.

Basically the word for magic which works is science.

It doesn't even need to work 100% of the time as long as the method (really) works more often than you would expect from random chance it can be said to have some technological if not scientific basis.

Of course even when something works science demands that you ask why it works and that is very much the point, science always asks the next 'why' whereas technology is happy that it does work most of the time and engineering wonders why it keeps breaking down.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 @ChrisJohns, Thank you for your thoughts! I totally agree with everything you stated and I really like your repurposing the word "technology" to include potentially unexplainable but functional methods. If I was dealing with a world where magical methods had replaced our established physical methods, then I think you would be on the mark. But what if magic suppliments the physical laws? We understand what science we have mastered, because the universe is comparatively simple. Add Magical exceptions to every physical law and we might just give up trying to understand. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor May 11 '16 at 0:55

Science bounds the world to laws within an error bound. This statistical method of fitting data can apply to the world whether you are measuring what we call "natural laws" today, or if you are plumbing magic to try to identify laws. The error bounds may be higher in a world where magic exists, but the process is the same. I don't think it would be as prevalent as science is in today's Western world, but it'd definitely be there.

Consider: before science took off on its massive journey, the common folk did believe in magic. In fact, in many places, it was part of their daily life. In many places, it still is. Consider: science did emerge in this world.

  • $\begingroup$ Took me a bit to digest your idea of error bound in terms of statistical analysis. This actually does address my exact question concerning whether science could grow in the absence of its current "low error bound" replicability. +1 for teaching me a new idea. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Apr 1 '15 at 0:16

It depends. Is your magic, magic? Or, is it a force? Can the magic be repeated consistently and studied? Nick2253 wrote:

Because the physical laws of your universe look very different than the physical laws of our universe, science will look different.

In his universe, magic is just another aspect of physics, just another physical force like gravity or quantum mechanics. In a world like that would science arise? Absolutely. In effect, that is our world. I dare anyone to tell me quantum mechanics isn't magic that we've performed enough science on to understand. You'll probably eventually even be engineering magic. Building devices that cast fireball spells, rather than building flamethrowers.

On the other hand, if magic in your world is for some reason inscrutable, it is very hard to imagine that any form of science would arise. The assumption at the core of science, and all its precursors, is that if we study something we can figure it out.

Inscrutable magic would prove that assumption false. Not only does magic destroy the philosophical underpinnings of science, it also provides an explanation for any curiosity.

Nearly every scientific advance started with someone saying Huh. That's weird. Let me try to figure out how that works. If there is magic it would be Huh. That's weird. Oh, well, magic. I'm going to go do something else.

Magnets? Magic. Electricity? Magic. Odd planetary orbits? Magic. The world feels flat but ships go over some sort of horizon? The world is flat, the horizon is magic; don't fall off the edge.

Magic would do a number on curiosity because it explains everything. We see this today with creationists rejecting science because they already have a perfectly acceptable magical explanation. Can you imagine how much worse the problem would be if there wasn't any doubt as to whether the magic even exists in the first place?

  • $\begingroup$ +1 for identifying that the issue isn't the rarity/abundance of the magic but rather how inscrutable its effects are. At the shallow end of inscrutability, every time magic influenced an outcome, a genie might appear next to the person whose intent governed the magic and explain why everything worked the way it did. At the deep end of inscrutability, the magic would just happen, following the intent of a randomly chosen person within a hundred mile radius. How obvious the cause and effect of the magical intervention is, will dictate whether science evolves. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Apr 1 '15 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ You don't even have to step out of established scientific theories for your premise to rear its head. Fortunately, scientists didn't throw in the towel after the discovery of Newton's laws of gravitation which would allow any strange thing to be the coincidental effect of remote, otherwise unobservable objects exhibiting gravitational influence. $\endgroup$ – user2781 Apr 2 '15 at 2:31
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    $\begingroup$ It's also worth keeping in mind that one of the main reasons we have modern chemistry is because we had centuries of alchemical studies cataloging the properties of materials. $\endgroup$ – user2781 Apr 2 '15 at 2:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Hurkyl, Good points! I am probably defending my thesis a little to enthusiastically. But although the first contrary result doesn't require that we through out Newton's laws, it does require that we accept that Newton's laws are at best, a close estimation of truth, and that more still needs to be discovered concerning gravity. Magic's hijinx would probably be covered by that same acceptance. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Apr 2 '15 at 3:29

Given my response to the previous question:

Science would definitely emerge in such a world, although it would likely be much less popular.

However, you did mention that magic is rare in your world. Given this, most people would use scientific study most of the time, but ignore the scientific method whenever a magical event occurs.

This is how science works today. When an event is encountered that science can't understand yet, it is ignored. (It will be measured and recorded, but not understood.) Of course, magic would be completely inexplicable, science would probably never understand it.

  • $\begingroup$ You handled it the cross posting perfectly. Just add a link to your answer on the other question, then start applying the idea to the current question as if the text of your answer was embedded inline. Just make sure and check that your link works after you post your answer and edit it if it needs fixing. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Apr 2 '15 at 13:46
  • $\begingroup$ +1 because I can't give you another +1 on the linked page. That is a really cool magic system because it limits the applicability of magic without limiting the power of magic. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Apr 2 '15 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ @HenryTaylor If you're interested, I wrote a blog post on this topic in more detail on my blog (blog.kenth.me/2014/07/…). Though it's less readable, and has more personal opinion and bias. $\endgroup$ – Kent Apr 2 '15 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ good blog but your conclusion isn't logically valid. All we could prove is that the animals tested did not have or did not choose to express universe shaping abilities. Be very wary of any experimental result that includes the words 'always' or 'only'. They are almost always logically invalid. On the universe-shaping issue, let me recommend the book Illusions by Richard Bach. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Apr 2 '15 at 18:25
  • $\begingroup$ @HenryTaylor I was trying to explain the idea behind that experiment, more than to explain the actual procedure. It would require a lot more planning to actually attempt. :) I'm not sure that the results would be very useful, just interesting. $\endgroup$ – Kent Apr 2 '15 at 19:07

The thing about this premise is that if magic is established in society, it's unlikely anyone would fear it - people fear the new or unknown, not the familiar. How many people do you know who are afraid of electricity, versus being afraid of new technology like CCTV or social media?

However, there are cases where people - especially inquiring people like scientists - might fear the "old way": cases where they have discovered that the "old way" has hidden dangers or disadvantages. Examples in our world include scientists speaking out against fossil fuels, or the discovery that smoking causes disease. You could make a scenario like this in your world - maybe scientists' different perspective reveals that magic use is a bad idea in the long term. Maybe 'mana' is not a renewable resource, maybe magic is creating some kind of pollution.

Would science take root? Maybe. Science gained influence in our world because it solved problems. If yours is a 'high magic' world like Harry Potter's, where magic is able to solve all the problems we solve with science and technology, then no, science would likely remain a 'fringe discipline', similar to something like pure mathematics in our world, or maybe even a discredited 'belief' like some people view astrology. If magic is solving everyone's problems, I could only imagine science taking over if magic's hold on society was actively disrupted, e.g. a violent revolution against magic users, or some kind of magical apocalypse.

Finally, how would scientists protect their experiments against magic? Hard to say, depends on the magic. If we look to our world, scientists sometimes need to block outside influences to conduct sensitive experiments. If they need to block out various kinds of radiation, they use materials such as lead, or they build underground so the earth protects the facility. If they need to prevent bacteria getting in or out, they use airlocks and negative air pressure inside the facility. You could go with something very basic, like magic-proof material, or something more extreme like working in a remote location a long way from other magic users. Or, continuing with the ideas you have about magic and causality, and referencing other ideas from quantum mechanics, maybe a magic-capable person observing an event will affect the outcome of that event, so only magically-disabled people could do science?

  • $\begingroup$ So I've accidentally disproven the existence of muggles in Harry Potter! My grandchildren will not be pleased! +1 for "only magically-disabled people could do magic". Hadn't thought of that (and it saves HP). I also like "magic-proof material". Of course people would discover such a material if it existed, and that would open up lots of opportunities for science, $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Mar 31 '15 at 12:19
  • $\begingroup$ very late edit: I meant... +1 for "only magically-disable people could do science". Thanks again! $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Mar 31 '15 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ The extra bit you added where magical events/skilled users are relatively rare started off a new line of thinking - I feel there would be a class dimension to this issue in your society. The lucky few who benefited from magical help would have a significant advantage over those less blessed, and success is often a state of accelerating returns. And then, if a group of particularly skilled users colluded to pool their resources, they would have an incredible advantage over people with little or no magic backing them. $\endgroup$ – Toadfish Apr 1 '15 at 5:59
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    $\begingroup$ In my mind this could ultimately lead to an 'illuminati' or bilderberg type situation: People who have above-average magical ability would turn things to their favour, and prosper, and then attract the notice of those who had risen before them. Established powerful people would likely entice rising stars into their circle, offering them mundane advantages in return for the newcomer's power added to their arsenal. $\endgroup$ – Toadfish Apr 1 '15 at 6:03
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for bringing in the illuminati. I will definitely include a magical cartel in the story. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor May 4 '15 at 4:11

So in your purposed universe the question of the scientist is pretty clearly the question of the theologian primarily: what is the intent of the causer? and in useful terms how does one produce the optimum desired effect? The universe that the scientist lives in exists in that particular state; what is the "natural" state of any area of that universe? is there anything that is immutable? Is there any way to achieve stability? Can society even exist in such a world?

I think it is important to answer the question of how one has a functioning society prior to answering the question of how one develops science in such a setting with magic as described; and I don't know that I can go much further on either topic without getting into worldbuilding notes and/or sounding like an advert for an active setting.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 for your counter-question of whether society can exist in such a world! The e-zine you linked to looks cool. I will check out the active setting story soon. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Mar 31 '15 at 19:55
  • $\begingroup$ Having already edited my question once, I'm leery to change the nature of the question any more now that it is "in the wild". Your concern about anything being immutable is important though. Thanks for that! I will be working in several magic-resistant substances into my writing notes as this comes together. That will give the scientific-theologians some tools to work with. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Mar 31 '15 at 20:16

It could depend not only on the availability of magic to the population, but also what it is categorized as by society.

It could be like in the Harry Potter universe, where magic exists, it indeed is rare and exclusive to a certain type of people and the general population thinks of it as a thing of fantasy. In which leads to science developing pretty much like it did in our world.

Or you could go the "opposite" way, like in Final Fantasy 6, where magic existed on pretty much the same terms (rare and only available to a specific type of people), except it's existence was commonly known to society. This one lead to science (and engineering) developing to the point where they were able to fuel their machines with the souls of dead Espers I mean, magic stones and in that way the BBEGs army was capable of using magic for war.

The way I see it (also as mostly based on what the Final Fantasy series did) I think magic's use would be dependent on its elemental type, but it would mostly just be used as fuel and it would also have its use for wars.

But it is ultimately up to your own hand-waving what are the capabilities of your world's magic. Be it fuel, creation of objects (from making simple objects to buildings, ps: this would ruin most modern economic models) or whatever it is you'll have it do.


The general idea behind detecting invisible things using science is to check the things it affects. For example, we know dark matter exists because of its effects. If magic cannot be detected by science, then it is because magic has no effect on the world. If it does have an effect (and you say it does), then:

If magic stays in the same place, then such effects would probably be attributed to the location. If it moves, but is still rare, then people could monitor the position based off the unpredictable effects. If it is everywhere, then its effects would be still under the umbrella of what we call "science".

(Moved from a comment which accidentally answered the question)

  • $\begingroup$ Quick question to the downvoter: why? $\endgroup$ – rytan451 Oct 18 '18 at 10:24

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