Misled by Goodwill

“Knowledge is power”, quoting from Bacon. “Power corrupts”, quoting from Lord Acton. Adding together these two famous quotations, one might come to the conclusion that knowledge corrupts. Is it true? At least it is true in that there exists both the abuse of knowledge and corrupted knowledge. And it is true that there is pseudoscience, i.e., that which purports to be science to give legitimacy to a political, religious or medical agenda of one sort or another – an agenda that would not otherwise be able to claim ‘objectivity’. Here I will not go into the pseudoscience of today. On the contrary, this should be about the roots of pseudoscience, richly branched as they are in a distant past. Sometimes it is only possible in retrospect to distinguish pseudoscience from real science. Sometimes pseudoscience helps real science arise and develop. If you rewrite the history of pseudoscience it is easy to build an anachronistic, know-it-all perspective. But let us do just that. What image is it that emerges? The most venerable form of pseudoscience is perhaps astrology. The scientific character is undeniable insofar as it rests on observation (of heavenly bodies) and advanced mathematical calculations. It has the ability to satisfy the deepest human needs, whether individual people’s desire to know in advance their own destiny or princes’ and nations’ desire to know whether or not the constellations are favourable for a war or other enterprise. What form of applied science could be of more practical importance than the art of horoscopes? Many prominent astronomers could also moonlight in this industry. Tycho Brahe, first among Scandinavian astronomers, worked with both astrology and alchemy. Opponents of astrology often had reasons other than scientific ones for their opposition, such as theological. The Catholic Church, Luther and Calvin all fought against unchristian astrology. The Dean of Dublin, the evil Jonathan Swift, in 1707 published a diary in which he, on the basis of the stars, predicted the eminent astrologer John Partridge’s early demise. Partridge was not amused, but many others were.

Almost as venerable is alchemy. The name suggests an Arabic origin. But even if the Arabs during the Middle Ages pursued alchemy with particular success, its roots go back to Hellenistic Egypt and perhaps even ancient China. Its later history in the West is impressive. Besides Tycho Brahe, such heroes of science as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton practised alchemy. The distinction between chemistry and alchemy came later and highlights that it is often only retrospectively that we can distinguish ‘science’ from ‘pseudoscience’. That alchemist August Strindberg was too late, however, is something on which all agree. The art of making gold may well stand as a symbol for all pseudoscientific purposes. It is seldom driven by the disinterested search for truth, but more often by practical interest. That both astrology and alchemy are often associated with magic is no accident. The so-called ‘natural magic’ renounced all dealings with supernatural or demonic forces. The idea was to use secret or hidden forces, yes, but only those found in nature itself. Oswald Spengler declared, in his book The Destruction of the West, the modern Westerner to be a ”Faustian” man. The magician Dr. Faustus became the symbol of our desire to transcend all inhibitions and taboos in the search for knowledge and power. To thereby separate myth from reality in science’s nebula is not easy. Science historians such as Frances A. Yates have explored the magic- and hermetic traditions’ roles in the birth of modern science and in demonstrating how tightly entangled scientific traditions have been, such that we now see them as unscientific.

Could modern science, when it had arisen, master pseudo-science? Quite the contrary. The new scientific worldview gave rise to new types of pseudoscience. What could be more of the 1700s, one might ask, than physiognomy and phrenology (the former science being associated with Johann Caspar Lavater, and the latter with Franz Joseph Gall)? The project had its roots in antiquity, but also did extremely well within the new materialist scientific spirit. It was about understanding the human psyche based on physical characteristics, specifically to read character from skull shape. Gall explored the psychological functions’ location in the brain, visible in the skull. Lavater examined the character’s physical counterparts. Blue eyes suggest meekness, dark eyes power, a crooked nose genius, and a blunt frivolity. Lavater’s Swedish disciple, Ehrensvard, stated: ”The only Swedes who had taste have had crooked noses.” Even more immediately connected with modern science were the teachings of Franz Mesmer. Mesmerism and animal magnetism were pseudosciences at the forefront of research; magnetism was all the rage. Mesmer saw his research as an application of Newtonian principles. Magnetic clinics shot up like mushrooms as this new form of therapy gained ground. Magnetism and its stepchild, hypnosis, helped to heal both physical and mental ailments. All older medicines could, by a number of observers, be regarded as pseudoscience. Temperament theory, with its roots in Hippocrates, was based on the doctrine of the four humours (blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm), which when they were in the right mix led to health but the overabundance of one or another generated disease – and it also explained the four temperaments (the sanguine, the melancholic, the choleric, and phlegmatic). But this explanation was questioned when modern science broke through. Samuel Christian Friedrich Hahnemann – a homeopathy author – made one of many suggestions as to what should replace it at the end of the 1700s. His ideas would gain widespread recognition, so that even at the turn of the century around the world there were hundreds of university clinics, pharmacies, medical schools and scholarly journals devoted to homeopathic medicine. Like cures like was the linchpin. To cure a disease, said Hahnemann, we must find a drug that produces a similar disease in the human body. He also had the strange idea that medicine should be used in ”homeopathic doses”, i.e., in diluted doses, to achieve this kind of effect. Official medical science has long rejected homeopathy, which has become synonymous with quackery. But for the faithful, it has had the double attraction of being ‘scientific’ and at the same time opposed to conventional science, whose prejudice, conservatism and allegiance towards established interests always annoy the supporters of pseudoscience. Meanwhile, homeopathy had the natural ambition of establishing itself precisely as conventional science, with the right of domicile in the traditional university- and health care systems. The twentieth century’s most important contribution to the sciences’ pathology was undoubtedly the appearance of pseudoscience in the patronage of the totalitarian state; Nazi eugenics provides an example. But perhaps an even more pure example is so-called Lysenkoism, named after the Russian geneticist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko. Stalin’s Soviet Union provided the framework for Lysenko’s activities. It was through Stalin, later also through Khrushchev, that Lysenko became the leading figure in Soviet genetics. Meanwhile his chief rival, Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, died in prison after being accused of sabotaging Soviet biology. Lysenko’s great discovery was that acquired characteristics could be inherited. His experiments focused on plants and animals important to the poorly functioning Soviet agriculture: wheat, barley, tomatoes, potatoes, chickens and cows. Appropriate nutrition and environment could create new varieties with higher yields, resistance to frost, and other valuable properties. The existence of genes and the role of DNA, however, were denied by Lysenkoism. Lysenko was a successful, scientific empire builder who compared with, for example, Swedes, had the advantage of being able to send his defeated academic rivals to the gulag or the firing squad. The support he received from the political leadership has sometimes been explained by his idea that man is infinitely manipulable, and that it should be possible not only to create a new species, but also a new Soviet man. A more immediate motive was reasonable, however: that it hoped to improve agricultural productivity. The success was poor, but that was perhaps less due to the charlatanism of Lysenko’s methods than that of the Soviet agricultural policy as a whole (at least if the goal was improved yields).

 But it is of course not only in totalitarian political systems that there may be a need for pseudoscience. Even in democracies there exists momentum to give scientific legitimacy to favoured ideological ideas. Political and social revival movements of various kinds develop a scientific superstructure, something of which today’s Swedish universities and research world give manifold examples. The duality of rebellion against what one perceives to be established and conservative, and the desire to become established science makes itself felt even in these contexts. Not least, the social and human sciences are faced with demands for sometimes lucrative production of politically correct opinions. Is pseudoscience, then, always dangerous? One should beware of hasty answers to that question. Sometimes it’s real science that is more harmful. Only good science can lead to effective technology. And the more effective the technology is, the more damaging it becomes if it is used to harm. A historically controversial example from science is the German chemist Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate in Chemistry 1919, also regarded as the ”father of chemical warfare”. The more well deserved the Nobel Prize was from a purely scientific point of view, the more efficient the gas, you could say. And this is precisely why the prize was much debated. No one questioned the scientific importance of Haber’s discovery. But they questioned the morality of discoveries that, so soon after the war, could have such a terrible technological applications as the production of poison gas. Haber had, however, been a charlatan, and his gas functioned as badly as Lysenko’s seeds, and this would have been of benefit to humanity. All genuine science is, already Max Weber pointed out, instrumental, i.e., can be used for harmful as well as beneficial purposes. Science is one thing, values ??something else (to make a long story short). Pseudoscience is often characterised, however, as having high and noble goals embedded in the exercise. It often contains, in other words, a strong ideological element. It makes it ideologically usable but, so to speak, technically ineffective. It has its strength in the prescriptive but its weakness in the descriptive. Genuine science has a clinical gaze that opens it up to accusations of cynicism. Pseudoscience is often warm-hearted and warm-blooded. It is suitable for lofty proclamations. It is oftentimes politically viable. It is supported by its close relation to human wants and needs. It gives direct answers to our questions. Whether its effects are beneficial, harmless or harmful may vary. It may not be worthy of respect, but it is well worth interest and attention.

Svante Nordin

Professor emeritus i idé- och lärdomshistoria.

Mer från Svante Nordin

Läs vidare