Phlogiston

In 1703 a scientist called Stahl put forward a theory that combustion involved a substance called phlogiston.  Wood, for example, was  a combination of ash and phlogiston. When it burnt the phlogiston was released and the ash left behind. Metals could be made by taking a metal compound and adding phlogiston. Soot, or carbon, was almost pure phlogiston, which explains why heating it with a metal oxide yields the pure metal.

Phlogiston remained the dominant theory of combustion until the 1780s when Lavoisier demonstrated the existence of oxygen.

Why am I telling you this?

Well, phlogiston is a stupid theory when viewed from a position of ‘superior’ knowledge. Yet it was accepted as scientific truth for decades. What I’m wondering is how many of the things that scientists hold dear today are equally insane. Most of them, probably.

Yet, almost every idea is met with the rebuttal that it hasn’t been scientifically proven. Like phlogiston.

Get my drift?

I’m currently researching the life and work of Richard Feynman, an intellect on a par with the likes of Einstein, for my SF novel, Voyager. Feynman makes the point that science can only ever demonstrate what is wrong and can never be relied on if it decides that something is right. Even if observations and experimentation confirm a theory (or a guess, as he prefers) future refinement may easily demonstrate that it’s wrong. Like Phlogiston.

So, when they tell you that Homeopathy or energetic healing or Tai Chi or Yoga or healthy eating haven’t been scientifically proved to be beneficial then breath a sigh of relief. Make your own personal observations. Make up your own mind. Remind yourself of science’s limitations and track record.

photo credit: 282_1130.jpg via photopin (license)

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