OVER A COFFEE : The power of beliefs — I — Dr Haider Shah
When someone is under the spell of greed-led beliefs, this simple fact is not comprehended that if lead could be turned so easily into gold then the gold would become cheaper than lead
I have been planning to write a piece on the power of beliefs for quite a while but was prevented by urgency of other events that keep happening in Pakistan. No, I am not going to discuss religious beliefs, even if the title might be suggesting so. On the contrary, I am discussing how scientific thinking can also be muddled by intoxicating power of beliefs. The history of scientific thought is replete with many examples of taken-for-granted beliefs. For illustration purpose I am choosing only a few from Graem Donald’s reader friendly book When the Earth was flat.
Alchemy, the precursor of Chemistry, is famous for its obsession with turning other metals into gold. It is a good case to begin our re-examination of scientific theories as it has many metaphorical parallels in our society even today. Aristotle, father of empirical science, thought that all matter was alike. As per his concept, a cabbage and a brick had the same inner substance and any difference in form was due to an inspirational spirit. So after controlling the spirit in matter, lead could be turned into gold. Early alchemists had divided all matter into four classical elements: earth, fire, water and air. They thought that the spirit of all of them was same. This search for finding a way to control the spirit was termed the Magnum Opus by alchemists. When someone is under the spell of greed led beliefs, this simple fact is not comprehended that if lead could be turned so easily into gold then the gold would become cheaper than lead. But in medieval Europe, charlatan alchemists took full advantage of gullible simpletons by ripping them off with the help of a few tricks presented as miracles.
Just as not all religious leaders use beliefs of followers in a deceitful way, and are rather inspired by believing genuinely in the truthfulness of the faith system, not all alchemists wanted to fleece the unwary victims. Some very bright minds of those times joined the quest for the key to all matter and, unwittingly, they also made some remarkable discoveries. For instance, the 16th century alchemist Paracelsus was the first to identify and name zinc. John Dee, consultant to Queen Elizabeth I, and Sir Isaac Newton, one of the science world’s most influential pioneers, were also devotees of alchemy. A 16th century celebrated alchemist, Dr Faustus, blew himself to smithereens while he experimented with glycerine and acids in his search for the ‘Water of Life’.
Along with these genuine explorers, charlatans also made brisk business. The Austrian alchemist Johann Richthausen, after duping Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III with a gold creation trick, made off with the proceeds he had collected. When Leopold I was also hoodwinked, Empress Maria Theresa banned all such practices throughout her realm. Those were the times of alchemy when science was driven by beliefs. Today, guided by robust knowledge of nuclear physics, a scientist named Seaborg successfully transformed several thousand atoms of lead and bismuth into gold by removing certain neutrons and protons from the sample. The cost of operations required to turn elements into gold is however many thousand times the gold extracted from mines.
Alchemy reigned supreme a few centuries ago. But beliefs in weird pseudoscience are rampant even in modern times. For instance, in the late 20th century, Serge Voronoff, a Russian born French surgeon, experimented with slowing down the ageing process. Starting with injections of extracts from ground-up dog and guinea pig testicles he published many papers, projecting his research as the way forward in the fight against everything from flagging desire to schizophrenia. Somehow, both media and the European and American medical profession did not question his claims, allowing him to popularise his name and methods. In the early 1920, Voronoff began transplanting the testes of executed criminals into the gullible rich. To cope with increasing demand he began grafting thin slices of the glands of monkey testicles into the scrotums of the rich and famous. Soon Voronoff earned fame in the medical profession, attracting many heads of state, including Kemal Ataturk. He also generated huge income from teaching other doctors and surgeons to expand the ludicrous medical practice across the rest of Europe and America. Such is the power of beliefs that in 1923 more than 700 high-status delegates of the International Congress of Surgeons hailed Voronoff as the father of rejuvenation. By 1930, Voronoff had packed monkey genitals into the scrotums of over 500 wealthy patients in France alone. Preying on the desperation of victims, Voronoff diversified into the female market, by transplanting monkey ovaries into women who feared the onset of age. Men and women both looked upon Voronoff as a saint who could do miraculous treatments. But in the world of science, deceit cannot live long, if evidences to the contrary begin appearing. The euphoria gradually began giving way to rising concerns. Not only that Voronoff’s female patients failed to experience any discernible change in their natural ageing, many of the men Voronoff had treated in the early 1920s began to die in large numbers. By early 1930s, more reliable testing methods exposed hollowness of Voronoff’s methods and he retired himself from the medical profession.
Next time I would discuss a few more follies of scientific beliefs of the past. Revisiting history with sincerity is always a rewarding experience.
(To be continued)
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org