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S1E5: Science and Pseudoscience: One Path with Two Destinations

Last updated on 2020-10-03

This post is also available in: Español

Espiritualidad y Ciencia
Espiritualidad y Ciencia
S1E5: Science and Pseudoscience: One Path with Two Destinations

Science is not an alien invention nor did it appear to us in divine revelation. It is a process developed independently by many civilizations that have existed throughout history. When talking about science, one tends to automatically think of the Eurocentric scientific systems of which what we call “western” science is heir. However, science was neither born in Europe nor developed by a single group of people once in the history of mankind.

The word science only began to be used in the 19th century and the scientific method is attributed to the time known as the scientific revolution between the 16th and 17th centuries; That’s what we talked about in the previous episode where I commented on Yuval Noah Harari’s opinion that it should actually be called the Skeptic Revolution instead. For before the 16th century, those who studied the different sciences called themselves “naturalistic philosophers” and their methods and theories were very close to what we know today as pseudoscience. Let us remember that the scientific method consists of observing, formulating hypotheses, conducting experiments or studies with mechanisms to rule out mental biases and finally, submitting the results to the judgment of other experts, as well as to the confirmation of the experiments by other teams.

Well, all that in itself is complex, tedious and expensive, and it was even more difficult 4 or 5 centuries ago. Nor were there the methods of observation and experimentation that we have today, nor did everyone have access to scientific publications as we do today. However, people had immediate needs: the sick had to be cared for, bridges had to be erected, roads had to be built, tools, fertilizer, etc. had to be made. Therefore, there was no possibility of just waiting for feasibility studies to be completed, or the hypotheses formulated and the king to approve the funds to develop a new medicine or a new building material. Then it was necessary to make use of what was already known clearly enough and try the new ideas that were taken with all the possible care.

One can easily imagine a 16th century farmer seeing his crop being spoiled by some pest, trying different mixtures of substances available to him to try to control the pest: What could he possibly have at his fingertips? Maybe urea from animal urine, lime from limestone, salt, tobacco smoke, etc. Well, some of those substances may have further complicated the problem and the farmer ended up ruining the crop.

It is possible that the farmer may have gotten lucky and one substance, let’s say that chili as an example, turned out to be a good way to control that particular pest. It cannot be said that the grower has done science, but what he did was part of the scientific process because the knowledge that he obtained did not stop there. The farmer learned that if little white spots appear on the potato stem, then he can sprinkle chili pepper and within a few days the spots fade and the plant gets healed.

It is also very likely that in conversations with other farmers our farmer had shared his findings and handed out the recipe. Other farmers would probably try the formula when they were presented with the same problem and thus little by little, a chain of experimentation would have been formed in which there could be hundreds of farmers trying the recipe at different altitudes, with different types of potatoes, different varieties of chili, against different species of fungi or parasites.

Many will have managed to reproduce the results of the first farmer but others may not, either because they used a different variety of chili pepper or because the pest they faced was not sensitive to the spice, etc. In any case, within months, the farmer’s knowledge would have already became vox popvli and thousands of growers across the region would be applying the technique, some of them being more successful than others. However, unlike urea, which contains an acid and, if handled correctly, can serve as a fungicide, but if used incorrectly, it kills the plant without contemplation, the chili pepper is much more venial and in most cases the worst that can happen is that it attracts more bugs instead of scaring them away.  

Therefore, it is very plausible that the tradition of using chili pepper as a pesticide has been much more successful than that of using urea with lime for example. As it happens urea is much more effective in certain cases, but surely many cultivators would have spoken pests of that technique when they saw how it ruined their crops, and this would have stifled the possibility that this practice would have spread.

The chili pepper technique, on the other hand, was much more prone to the placebo effect: In many cases it would have happened that after applying the ground chili, the plague of the plant had disappeared on its own, or has passed to an inner layer of the plant, giving the appearance that it was healing, or simply nothing had changed, but the farmer eager for the recipe to work, had given a good testimony, helping the chili pepper technique go viral.

Note that I am not saying that chili pepper does not work at all, because, in fact, it probably does. In Mexico and many parts of Latin America, natural pesticide based on chili is still marketed today. It is possible that for SOME pests, of CERTAIN varieties of CERTAIN plants, chili is the perfect solution, but it is also true that even if it does not help, it most likely does not hurt either, working in many cases nothing more than a placebo. However, this was the “science” we had in ancient times and it is the “social” way of doing science: Someone makes an observation and builds an hypothesis, experiments and shares the results with the community. The other experts try the experiment and confirm or reject the results.

From there we can infer that science is the natural product of the evolution of human knowledge. The knowledge-building techniques used by all ancient cultures sowed the seed, for what we now call science. What the scientific method actually does is to speed up the process dramatically and to try and avoid the mistakes introduced by our mental biases.

In spite of this, formal science has had many failures and ancestral science many successes. It is a fact that many ancient cultures that were methodical and disciplined such as the Mayans, the Toltecs, the Incas, the Muiscas and many peoples from Asia and the Middle East, developed important advances in astronomy, mathematics, biology, chemistry and many other fields.

But am also going to tell you some examples of scientific theories that back in the day were considered true, in some cases, as recently as in the last century, but today are totally debunked: Well, then let’s do it as a Top 5 to give it a YouTubesc air.

At number 5 we have a story that comes from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos Series and that I personally like a lot: The Mars Cannals.

In 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, reported the discovery of what he called “canalis” on Mars or cannals that would have rather be translated as “ducts”. At that time, photography did not exist, so astronomical observation was done by looking for hours through a telescope, waiting for a moment when the air was still, there were no clouds, and draw an image of what was observed. In addition, the telescope that Schiaparelli used had an aperture of 15 centimeters so what he actually saw was a reddish ball of a couple of centimeters in diameter with shadows and shapes that looked like oceans and continents. The reported canali did not actually refer to pipelines but lines that appeared straight and that Schiaparelli related to coastlines.

The fact is that other researchers of the time, intrigued by the canalis, made their own observations, with the same limitations and also saw the lines. One of them was the American astronomer Percival Lowell who was fascinated by the idea of ​​Martian pipelines and from his precarious observations, he concluded that they must be irrigation canals built by a Martian race to transport water extracted from the polar ice caps of Mars.

As Carl Sagan said: “Observation: barely anything can be seen, conclusion: there is an advanced extraterrestrial race on Mars.”

Of course, the evolution of optical technology made it possible to see more clearly the Schiaparelli formations and the canalis theory was left behind, although not the fascination with Martians that even today continues to accompany us.

In position No. 4 we have the Ether. This is a compound that has had several incarnations. In medieval science, it was also called quintessence and it was said to be the substance that filled space, above the celestial vault. At that time it was considered that any type of transmission of something, such as light, heat, or gravity, required a medium to propagate. Even Newton used the concept of Ether to fill in the gaps between his observations and the strict mathematical rules that he used.

Because of the “elevated” or subtle nature of ether, it was also surrounded by mystical connotations, such as that it could be produced by elixirs, with medicinal alchemy or with the philosopher’s stone.

Between 1881 and 1887, unsuccessful experiments were created to detect the ether and these results were confirmed with the special theory of relativity that confirmed that light does not require any medium to propagate.

At number 3 we have Phlogiston, which was postulated in 1667 by the German physicist Johann Becher. Phlogiston was believed to be an element contained in combustible bodies and to be released during combustion. With this element an attempt was made to explain the phenomena of combustion and corrosion, which we now know together as “oxidation”.

Let’s go to number 2: Phrenology. Probably some of you have heard of this discipline, which back in the 19th century became famous and which stated that the shape and characteristics of the human skull served to predict mental characteristics. If you look at the theories that we have seen so far, you will notice that they all stem from a genuine interest in finding the truth and that in some cases they came close to achieving it. Phrenology is yet another example, as it laid the foundations for the study of the brain. It proposed, for the first time, the idea that different areas in the brain were dedicated to different functions or areas of the mental process. The difference with current neuroscience is that instead of encephalograms and MRIs, phrenologists simply touched the patient’s head to find lumps or marks, took measurements and diagramed the shape of the patient’s skull.

Phrenologists’ theories led to the incorret identification of guidelines by which mental pathologies such as schizophrenia, hysteria in women, and even the propensity to commit crimes or intellectual capacity could be identified.

Today we understand that the genetic characteristics of the individuals of certain populations can make certain forms of the skull prevail in them. For this reason, it was common that characteristics associated with insanity, lack of intelligence, and a tendency to crime were frequently associated with morphological characteristics of black people, indigenous or mixed race individuals. Despite this, phrenology was a discipline accepted almost everywhere in the world by medical science and even as evidence in court.

And finally, at the top of the list, the number one now debunked scientific theory is The Miasma Theory. This theory indicated that many diseases such as cholera, chlamydia or plague were caused by a miasma, a word that comes from the Greek and means “pollution.” It was also known as “bad air.” In any case, epidemics were believed to originate from miasma emanating from decomposing organic matter.

Even today, many shamans and healers consider miasma to exist and it is associated with superstitious diseases like evil eye, “dead man’s ice,” and other popular culture evils. Later at some point I will do an episode about superstitious healing and shamanic medicine, which is a topic that I am passionate about and which I was very close to during my journey in ancestrality.

Today we know that the mentioned diseases come from different sources: viruses, bacteria, fungi, etc. But then again, it was the knowledge of the time and also a good start to understanding that decomposing matter could be unhealthy.

In the Middle Ages, many doctors and midwives went from handling corpses or cleaning toilets to attending deliveries. It was no surprise that in many communities there was a mortality rate of mothers in childbirth of up to 1 in 10. The miasma theory could have helped out to spread the culture of handwashing, which began to popularize in the mid-19th century.

In fact, in those years, asking a doctor to wash their hands was seen as an offense, this is because of the popular religious connotation of hand or foot washing: it was seen as an act of humility, which had to be done voluntarily. Doctors quite often saw themselves as some of the most important people in their community, so they greatly opposed against washing their hands. The discovery of germs after 1880, gave the final push to the necesity of hygiene in the medical practice and eradicated the miasma theory from science, not from popular culture, tough.

As we see some of the theories abandoned by science, still accompany us in the form of superstitions or “alternative” beliefs. I have not mentioned astrology or homeopathy in this episode because it seems to me that they merit a more extensive conversation, but it is evident that both disciplines have also been put in the catalog of pseudosciences, which we could also define as bodies of knowledge that have not passed the scientific method. Not necessarily that they are totally useless.

Technically, there may be certain conditions or diseases on which homeopathy is effective, and there may be some interaction between heavenly bodies and people, but it has not yet been proven. At least not in the way popular astronomy presents itself.

Now, the phenomenon of leaving behind certain beliefs is in itself counterintuitive and difficult for the human mind. We don’t wake up one day with the decision of thinkin different than what we thought the day before. Not even a scientist can do that! What science allows us is a method of escaping from the prison of our own mind. It gives us the possibility to move forward, since our mind tends to keep us tied to what we already know, what we are used to.

For people outside de scientific community, it is surely tempting to think that the theories of the canalis, phlogiston, miasma, ether or phrenology were abandoned by science just to give way to theories that supported the interests of some powerfil minorities. Maybe those who wanted the doctors to wash their hands held stocks of a soap factory, perhaps the government did not want us to know about the existence of the Martians and thus discredited Schiaparelli and Lowel’s cannalis, etc.

But is it not rather our fear of the unknown and clinging to what we already know that makes it difficult for us to abandon old beliefs and accept the evidence? I’ll give you a current example: A year ago it was debated whether we should stop producing so much carbon dioxide, perhaps working from home, limiting air traffic, stopping certain industries, etc.

What did our politicians tell us then? That this was not possible, that the economy would crash and there would be people out in the streets rioting (well, in the US there are, but not because of hurting the carbon industry). Some said that global warming was a conspiracy theory. And well, here we are, in the middle of a pandemic doing what seemed to be impossible: Yes, it is true that many people have lost their jobs, the economy is on the ground, but at the same time, thanks to millions of people working from home and using less transportation methods, the Earth is flourishing as it did not in a long time. The ozone layer has been restored and ecosystems are healing little by little.

In addition to that, we are learning to do things remotely, innovating with home services, creating tools for social distancing and collaboration. Because that’s what humans do: we adapt, create solutions, and use science to overcome obstacles that we encounter.

My friends, the tool to get out of the matrix is ​​the scientific method. The same used by the Mayans in their architecture and the Incas in their cultivation techniques or the Muiscas in their goldsmithing. The same science that we can use personally to become better beings and find our happiness.

That is the path of Spirituality and Science.

Have a good journey and a nice breeze,

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