The limits of reason?

Everyone educated at a European or American university in the past 50 years has emerged with the tenets of Western Scientific rationalism as the foundation of that education and their professional life.

The benefits of scientific rationalism are too many and great to list here, and they underlie the immense progress made by humans since the enlightenment. But as well as the countless advantages of scientific rationalism, there are also some disadvantages.

Chief among these is the tendency to categorise any ideas or reports of phenomena that cannot be rationally explained as superstitious nonsense that does not merit further investigation or debate.

If science were complete and we had a naturalistic explanation for everything from the cosmos itself to the smallest particle, and for every action occurring at every level – including human actions – then science could legitimately distinguish between fact and superstition in every case.

But because our scientific explanation of the world is incomplete, it remains possible to fall into the error of thinking that observations that do not fit the current state of our model must lie outside of science and hence are superstition.

Here’s an example, which I’ve selected because it shows just how careful you have to be. The periodic table of elements, the chemical characteristics of those elements and how they interact chemically are all questions settled in detail long ago. Students are taught that the results of specific chemical experiments are invariable.

Giorgio Piccardi, Director of the Institute for Physical Chemistry in Florence, became dissatisfied with conventional explanations of common chemical reactions taking place in water. He noticed that the rate at which reactions took placed seemed to vary, and sometimes they did not take place at all. (Question: why had no-one else noticed this?) His curiosity was further aroused by his discovery that if he enclosed his experiments in copper sheeting, they always worked as theoretically predicted.

Wishing to get to the bottom of this mystery, Piccardi and his colleagues in Florence conducted a heroically long series of chemical experiments simply to see how they fluctuated. They chose a very simple chemical reaction – the rate at which bismuth oxychloride forms a cloudy precipitate when poured in distilled water. Over a ten year period, Piccardi and his assistants conducted this simple reaction more than two hundred thousand times, recording the time of day and the time for the reaction to take place.

The results showed that variation in the rate at which the reaction took place was related to changes in the Earth’s magnetic field. Over the longer term, the reaction time varied regularly with the 11-year cycle of sunspot activity.

Piccardi’s experiments, indicating that water is susceptible to influence by electromagnetic fields, have been repeated and confirmed by a team of researchers at Brussels University. And further confirmation comes from research carried out by a U.S. team at the Atmospheric Research Centre in Colorado, who showed that it is the water, not the other chemicals involved in the reactions, that is sensitive to electromagnetic fields.

Now a scientific rationalist might say, “My dear Milton, allow me to explain why you are being simple-minded about this. If Dr Piccardi says chemical processes vary with the time of day, he is doing so with science on his side because he has done the work necessary to prove it. Whereas if Madam Zaza peers into her crystal ball and says chemical processes vary with time of day that is still nothing but superstition, because she hasn’t done the work, and she has no way of knowing whether it is true or not.”

But here’s the problem. We now know chemical processes vary with time of day because Dr Piccardi investigated it. But had he not done so, many people (myself included) would have scorned the idea of such variation because it appears to contradict what we already know about chemical reactions.

How many more of Madam Zaza’s crystal ball beliefs might also be correct but remain classed as superstitions because no-one is doing the work to find out?

How many phenomena are taboo subjects because to investigate them is to invite scorn and ridicule from other scientists who believe – quite sincerely – that science already knows the answer?

The problem highlighted by this example is not that reason is limited: it is that our perspective on what we don’t know can be distorted by what we do know.

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