The second episode of BBC’s The Story of Science is about chemistry. It shows unusual sophistication by emphasizing that early chemists built on the alchemists. The alchemists invented techniques and equipment later used by “real” chemists such as Joseph Priestly — the ones who reached conclusions we still believe. Not everyone understands that some “pseudoscience”, such as alchemy, is valuable.
A few years after I became an assistant professor, I realized the key thing a scientist needs is an excuse. Not a prediction. Not a theory. Not a concept. Not a hunch. Not a method. Just an excuse — an excuse to do something, which in my case meant an excuse to do a rat experiment. If you do something, you are likely to learn something, even if your reason for action was silly. The alchemists wanted gold so they did something. Fine. Gold was their excuse. Their activities produced useful knowledge, even though those activities were motivated by beliefs we now think silly. I’d like to think none of my self-experimentation was based on silly ideas but, silly or not, it often paid off in unexpected ways. At one point I tested the idea that standing more would cause weight loss. Even as I was doing it I thought the premise highly unlikely. Yet this led me to discover that standing a lot improved my sleep.
Richard Feynman, in his famous “cargo-cult science” speech, failed to understand that “real” science can build on “pseudoscience”:
Another example is how to treat criminals. We obviously have made no progress–lots of theory, but no progress–in decreasing the amount of crime by the method that we use to handle criminals. Yet these things are said to be scientific. We study them. And I think ordinary people with commonsense ideas are intimidated by this pseudoscience.
Absence of obvious progress (such as no decrease in crime) doesn’t mean something is worthless. Bizarre ideas or unsupported ideas (“lots of theory but no progress”) doesn’t mean something is worthless. What’s worthless, in terms of science, is not paying attention to reality. Not caring about how the world actually is. The cargo cults Feynman mentioned weren’t worthless. They tested their beliefs. They found out the planes didn’t land. Fine. It wasn’t pseudoscience, it was just early science, where the reasons for doing stuff now appear ridiculous. Of course the alchemists had beliefs we now think ridiculous. How could they not have?
Science is fundamentally on the side of the weak, since it offers hope of improvement. The powerful not only can afford to ignore reality they would like to, because it might be inconvenient. So they do so as much as possible. When I’ve heard “the debate is over” (= it’s now time to ignore reality) it’s always turned out that the person saying this (e.g., Al Gore, mainstream journalists) was powerful or credulous.
It’s not bad that some people ignore reality. We need people like that. I think of the body: parts of it (e.g., sensory systems) are very sensitive to reality, parts of it (e.g., bones) are not. We need both. When leaders ignore reality is when trouble begins.