Fri Nov 4th 2011

When do we question our own beliefs?

One of the most difficult things for us stubborn humans to achieve is the feat of changing or even challenging our own beliefs. Yet, the very act of challenging certain beliefs is essential to the process of innovation. Which is to say that when we are unwilling to let go of certain beliefs, we cannot be innovative.

One example of how debilitating a strongly held belief can become hails from the 17th century and German physician and alchemist Johan Joachim (JJ) Becher. A pre-chemistry scholar, JJ developed a theory that explained the oxidation process or why things burn or rust. He believed that combustible matter contained a special substance or “fire-like” element he called “terra pinguis” (fatty earth) that was released during combustion. The more combustible the matter, the more of this substance it was thought to contain. This fire-like substance would eventually become known as “phlogiston" (flah-jis-tuhn), the ancient Greek word for "burning up."

With the support of other pre-chemistry scholars, Becher’s theory became foundational to the scientific explanation of the physical universe. There was only one problem. The theory held that phlogiston was, quite literally, an elemental constituent of matter. When, in reality, phlogiston was nothing of the kind. Phlogiston was, at best, a principle of matter. More accurately, it was a phantom concept—a figment of the imagination. It was a red herring that kept the truth about combustion hidden from the scientific view for quite some time.

An entire century after Becher developed phlogiston theory, Joseph Priestly, a minister who dabbled in science, “…discovered a type of air (gas) five or six times as good as common air.” A clever investigator in his own right, Priestly often failed to see the importance of his discoveries. This particular discovery was no exception. He called this good air, which accounted for 20% of atmospheric air, “dephlogisticated” air—a clunky concept for a very simple, yet powerful, thing.

What Priestly had actually discovered was an essential element in the air we breathe, the water we drink and in the making of fire. Yet, his belief in phlogiston theory kept him from realizing the significance of his findings.

Priestly believed in phlogiston until the day he died. But before he went to the grave, he introduced “dephlogisticated” air to a man who would become recognized as the father of modern chemistry, Antoine Lavoisier, who would later, through repeated quantitative experiments, identify Priestly’s “dephlogisticated” air as pure oxygen.

The story about the discovery of oxygen is also a story about the death of a belief. It’s a cautionary tale about the importance of holding on loosely to the beliefs we call upon to make some of our most important decisions.

The moral of the story?

Just because you believe something, doesn’t make it true. And, by the same token, just because you don’t believe something doesn’t make it false.