Friday 7 September 2012

Skepticism – the pioneers

A blog post by Adrian Bailey

I’m not an expert on this subject but I’m putting pen to paper in response to a question about the history of Skepticism. In a sense, there isn’t that much to tell. Until the formation of CSICOP in 1976 there appears to have been very little of it about. In the 19th and 20th centuries there was plenty of paranormal research, but it was instigated by believers. And the power of cognitive dissonance was very strong. Famous figures like Charles Fort and Harry Price discovered many charlatans, but this seems to have only stengthened their resolve to find the real evidence. It was left to people on the fringes, like Walter Pitkin and Paul Tabori (Price’s biographer), to see clearly what the others could not: you can’t find any evidence because these phenomena do not exist. To be fair to Price, by the end of his life (he died in 1948) he had become a Skeptic.

Looking at the titles of three early Skeptic anthologies, Paul Tabori’s History of the Science of Stupidity (1959), Walter Pitkin’s Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity (1934) and Max Kemmerich’s From the History of Human Stupidity (1912), you can see they all leant heavily on the classic of the (surprisingly small) genre, Adelung’s History of Human Stupidity. This mammoth work was written over several years at the end of the 18th century, and fits in with other works of that enlightened age like Bayle’s Dictionary and Diderot’s Encyclopedia. Adelung exposed all sorts of mystics and charlatans, but did this from the perspective of a Christian for whom all of these pseudosciences were a form of heresy. There is a lesson for me here that although I consider religious people to be misguided, their faith ironically puts them in a good position to be critical of other misguided beliefs.

It interests me that, despite the danger of imprisonment or even death, religious heresy grew spectacularly from that period on, but scientific skepticism stalled. This didn’t matter too much, since the growth of science was sweeping various misbeliefs away, but it was clearly doing so despite the intransigence of many people who called themselves scientists. The story of Semmelweis’s failure to get doctors to wash their hands is a good example.

When I think of the practical Skepticism of Simon Perry, Andy Lewis and co, I’m reminded of the Carlills, who gave us the memorable case of the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company (1893). But, considering the tens of thousands of panaceas on the market then and afterwards, it had almost no effect on the mismarketing of placebos. Even today lawmakers are loath to stem the tide.

Magicians are perhaps better placed than most of us to spot what’s going on, and Harry Houdini was probably the leading Skeptic of his era, his Magician Among the Spirits (pdf) (1924) relating his encounters with Arthur Conan Doyle and the charlatans the latter patronised. When J B Rhine decided to rechristen psychical research as parapsychology in the 1930’s it sounded more scientific and looked more scientific, but Rhine wasn’t a Skeptic and simply falsified many of his results to avoid coming to the obvious conclusions.

Through the 19th and 20th centuries the freethought movement grew, through Unitarianism, the Quakers, Ethical Culture, through to the foundation of modern Humanism in the 1950’s. But it was only later, in the 1970’s and 80’s, that the first true Skeptical organisations were founded, namely CSICOP in the US and ASSAP in the UK. Two books which really gave impetus to this were Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1952) and Donald Menzel’s UFOs: Flying Saucers - Myth - Truth - History (1953). The publication of such books made rather more enemies than friends for their authors, and Skeptics still risk ostracism today.

Adrian organised the original Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub events and is currently the Chair of Birmingham Humanists.

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