August 26, 2007
Eliezer Yudkowsky (not Robin Hanson) on Fake Causality
Over at Overcoming Bias:
Phlogiston was the 18 century's answer to the Elemental Fire of the Greek alchemists. Ignite wood, and let it burn. What is the orangey-bright "fire" stuff? Why does the wood transform into ash? To both questions, the 18th-century chemists answered, "phlogiston".
...and that was it, you see, that was their answer: "Phlogiston."
Phlogiston escaped from burning substances as visible fire. As the phlogiston escaped, the burning substances lost phlogiston and so became ash, the "true material". Flames in enclosed containers went out because the air became saturated with phlogiston, and so could not hold any more. Charcoal left little residue upon burning because it was nearly pure phlogiston.
Of course, one didn't use phlogiston theory to predict the outcome of a chemical transformation. You looked at the result first, then you used phlogiston theory to explain it. It's not that phlogiston theorists predicted a flame would extinguish in a closed container; rather they lit a flame in a container, watched it go out, and then said, "The air must have become saturated with phlogiston." You couldn't even use phlogiston theory to say what you ought not to see; it could explain everything.
This was an earlier age of science. For a long time, no one realized there was a problem. Fake explanations don't feel fake. That's what makes them dangerous.
Posted by Robin Varghese at 05:19 PM | Permalink