In a recent piece on her excellent Guardian Science blog, The H Word, my #histsci soul sister Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt asked, “Is there a rising tide of irrationality?” summarising her opinion with the following subtitle:
Despite claims that pseudoscientific views are on the rise, history shows that belief in things like astrology or the paranormal have always been with us and are likely to remain
Being my usual provocative self I thought I would take the time to point out that not only has the belief in things like astrology and the paranormal always been with us but that this belief has over the centuries made a not insubstantial contribution to the evolution of the so-called legitimate sciences. What follows is not intended to be an exhaustive survey of the subject but an indicator that humanity’s interest in the apparently non-rational has not necessarily been so disastrous as the members of the so-called Skeptical Community would have us believe.
As Ms Higgitt specifically mentions astrology I thought it would make for a convenient starting point. Some form of astrology or more generally a belief in celestial influence was the main driving force behind the development of astronomy from its beginnings in the prehistoric mists of time up to the beginning of the eighteenth century CE. Most if not all astronomers in antiquity were also astrologers a fact best illustrated by the fact that the author, Ptolemaeus, of the definitive account of technical astronomy in antiquity, his Syntaxis Mathematiké, was also the author of the definitive technical account of astrology, his Tetrabiblos.
We find this connection flowering in the Early Modern Period where the principle founders of the new astronomy – Gmunden, Peuerbach, Regiomontanus, Apian, Rheticus, Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo et al. – were all practicing astrologers. (The first person in the comments, who claims they only did it for the money gets to clean my bike for the next twelve months) In fact we know that the principle motivation for the majority of them in improving astronomy was to provide a more accurate apparatus for delivering the raw data for astrology. It is first the generation of astronomers active in the latter part of the seventeenth century – Cassini, Newton, Flamsteed, Halley et al. – who abandoned astrology for astronomy qua astronomy, although both Cassini and Newton were motivated to take up the subject by an early interest in astrology.
During the Humanist Renaissance the strong interest in astro-medicine or, as it was know, iatro-mathematics led to the establishment, for the first time, of dedicated chairs for the study of the mathematical sciences at the mediaeval universities.
During the Early Modern Period attempts to establish astrology as an empirical science led to the emergence of the science of meteorology and also made major contributions to a modern fact based approach to history. All in all not a bad record for the most ridiculed of pseudo-sciences.
Sticking with the “A”s we move on to alchemy. Often ridiculed as complete nonsense in reality alchemy made some major contribution, along side astrology, to the evolution of the sciences in the Early Modern Period.
Most difficult to determine is alchemy’s contribution to the development of its first cousin chemistry as the two disciplines were entwined in a close embrace well into the eighteenth century. What is certain is that most of the equipment and the methodology that became standard fare in the chemistry laboratory were developed over the centuries by alchemists.
Paracelsus has been called the father of pharmacy, a term, that regular readers of this blog will know, I detest. However it is a historical fact that the science of pharmacy as we know it has its origins in the activities of the Paracelsian iatro-chemists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries whose activities were based on a modified alchemy developed by their guru Theophrastus.
Alchemy also played a surprising role in the history of physics in the work of the seventeenth century’s most infamous alchemist, Isaac Newton. To quote I. Bernard Cohen probably the greatest of all Newtonian scholars:
Thus Newton’s acceptance of forces [and also action at a distance] as fundamental entities was conditioned to a significant degree by his studies of alchemy.
In fact Newton’s rejection of the then dominant mechanical philosophy for an alchemy inspired physics of invisible forces acting at a distance led to the Principia being rejected by both the Cartesian and the Leibnizian physicists as occult (read pseudo) science.
Staying with old Isaac for a brief moment, as I have blogged in the past, he and other Bible chronologists, millennialists to the core (and you can’t get more pseudo than that!), in their endeavours to establish the date of the apocalypse made significant contributions to the development of modern historical methodology.
Should anybody jump to the conclusion that with the successful completion of the so-called scientific revolution this unholy alliance between the one pure doctrine of science and its distinctly unsavoury sister the occult had finally come to an end they would be mightily mistaken.
For example in the nineteenth century Vitalism, Naturphilosphie and Mesmerism, all three of which would be decried as pseudo-scientific today, all played important and significant roles in the scientific debates of the period pushing forward the development of various scientific disciplines.
Even the twentieth century was far from immune from the influence of highly dubious subjects within the evolution of the sciences. When he died the scientist, science communicator and novelist, Arthur Koestler left money in his will for the establishment of a chair for the investigation of the paranormal, an act that caused a major outcry within the scientific community. However throughout the twentieth century investigations of supposed paranormal phenomena such as telepathy, telekinesis, out of body experiences etc. have contributed to experiment design and evaluation, the development of statistical evaluation of experiments and made general contributions to the development of the cognitive sciences.
Should anyone believe that twentieth century physics is immune from woo they should read up on the history of the heuristics employed by those who developed the standard model, rational is something else.
Of course I’m not advocating the pursuit of pseudo-science or in anyway supporting those who try to sneak pseudo-science into the school curriculum but as a historian of science I do have problems with the often almost hysterical attitude of the Skeptical Community towards what they see as the demonic forces of woo. On one occasion when discussing the role that astrology played in the evolution of modern astronomy I was told by a leading German Skeptic, who was at that time a physics post doc at my local university and is still deeply involved in science communication, that I should not say such things in public because I would give people a false impression of science. As a historian of science I can only say that it is the supporters of Dawkins, Mayer et al who with their gospel of scientism who give people a false impression of science. Science has evolved over the centuries along a strange and convoluted path and will almost certainly continue to do despite the best efforts of the Hordes of Pharyngula and their ilk to place it in a straightjacket.
 Isaac Newton The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, A new translation by I. Bernard Cohen and Anne Whitman assisted by Julia Badenz Preceded by A Guide to Newton’s Principia by I. Bernard Cohen pp. 57 – 58