Matt Ridley began a recent lecture to the national academy of sciences in Scotland by suggesting it was easy to distinguish science from pseudoscience. He explained that:
Astronomy is science; astrology is pseudoscience.
Molecular biology is science; homeopathy is pseudoscience.
Chemistry is science; alchemy is pseudoscience.
But Ridley also reminded us that Sir Isaac Newton, the famous seventeenth-century mathematician and scientist, was passionate about alchemy.
Indeed I understand from various sources, not the Ridley lecture, that Newton wrote lots and lots on the subject of alchemy and spent much time in his laboratory attempting to turn lead into gold. This is the same Isaac Newton who described universal gravitation and the three laws of motion. The same Isaac Newton who wrote The Principia one of the most important scientific books ever written.
In his lecture to the academy, Ridley suggests pseudoscience, including Isaac Newton’s belief in alchemy, is sustained by confirmation bias and that we are all capable of it: that we all look for evidence that fits our pet theory and ignore evidence that contradicts it.
Read the lecture here: http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=12844
Scientific Heresy by Matt Ridley, posted at On Line Opinion on Friday November 4, 2011