Classic EssaysRevilo P. Oliver

Of Quacks and Quackery, part 3

spiritualismby Revilo P. Oliver

IN CERTAIN circumstances (which it should be the task of an honest sociology to catalogue and define), superstition is contagious, perhaps by a psychosomatic communication analogous to the contagion of hysteria, of which a clear instance in a British girls’ school was studied in the British Medical Journal early in 1967. If unchecked, the contagion can become an epidemic, as in such well-known instances as the Children’s Crusade and the dancing mania in northwestern Europe in the 14th Century.

In the spring of 1848, two little girls, aged eight and six and one-half, evading a maternal command that they rest in bed instead of playing as they wished, were inspired to attach a weight to a string they could conceal under the bedclothes and manipulate to produce thumpings on the floor and wall while pretending to be dutifully asleep. To their secret delight, their silly mamma, her head stuffed with vulgar superstitions, was scared out of what wits she had.

A mutton-headed neighbor, summoned to witness the mysterious phenomenon, saw at once the only possible explanation of it. Sometime in the past a man had been secretly and wrongfully murdered in that house, for, obviously, if he had not been foully done to death, he would not be thumping the wainscot. The little girls, naturally pleased that grown-ups were even more stupid than they had supposed, learned how to produce thumpings with their toes when their feet were not under observation by gawking adults, thus ensuring continued protests by the murdered man when they were not in bed.

Normally, this childish ingenuity would have resulted in nothing more than a local sensation for a year or two until the little girls became tired of their sport. At most a pamphlet might have been circulated by some journalistic hack eager to turn a few pennies at the expense of the credulous. It so happened, however, that the children had an intelligent half-sister, twenty-three years older than they, who realized that the men who were then rushing to gold fields in California had foolishly overlooked the richer and inexhaustible gold mines in the pockets of suckers. Her native ingenuity and what she could learn from available books and articles on magic enabled her to refine and greatly improve the little girls’ techniques. As soon as they were well trained, a mere germ or two of publicity sufficed to start the epidemic of “spiritualism” which raged for eighty years and provided handsome incomes for hundreds of clever operators, and fair incomes for hundreds of the less clever, who ministered to the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of believers in the improbable and the impossible.

Men who were not sufficiently dexterous to produce psychic manifestations were able to ordain themselves as ministers of specially organized Spiritualist Churches and profitably stage performances by “mediums” who had acquired some skill in magic. It may be noteworthy that the great majority of “mediums” were women. Many of the “mediums” were sincere and honest, that is to say, mildly insane, like Helene Smith, who became a stock example of “multiple personality” in treatises on mental aberration. Suffering from schizophrenia or the forms of chronic hysteria common among females, these women believed in the reality of the “disembodied spirits” that entered their consciousness through the cracks in their own brains.

There were also many cases of relatively sane women who put themselves in a trance by auto-hypnosis and were then impressed when witnesses told them that they had spoken of matters, or even in languages, of which they had no conscious recollection, thus producing a phenomenon that seems mysterious or even supernatural to persons who have no knowledge of the potentialities of the subliminal mind, which retains impressions of much that the conscious mind has completely forgotten.

Mme. Blavatsky
Mme. Blavatsky

All of the successful and famous “mediums,” however, were clever frauds who exploited the credulity of their victims, and in this business social conventions and female dress obviously gave women a great advantage in the Nineteenth Century and the first two decades of the Twentieth. The famous Mme. Blavatsky, for example, worked the “spiritualistic” racket before she went into the theosophical business. Her success in this profession was founded on the assumption that no gentlemen, however skeptical, could commit the gross impropriety of taking advantage of darkness in a room to lift the hem of a woman’s skirt and ascertain what she was doing with her little toes and the wires she manipulated with them.

A few of the “mediums” showed considerable ingenuity in devising tricks that were unknown to the professional magicians of the stage. Most of them, however, relied principally on their dupes’ credulity and obsessive yearning to believe the impossible, and so did not develop skills sufficient to earn an honest living in second- or third-rate vaudeville. I suspect that it was vaudeville, a great educational institution in its day, that finally ended the”spiritualist” craze by exhibiting to everyone capable of rationality professional magicians who were far more accomplished in their art than the best “spiritualistic” necromancers.

We owe to some of the cruder ghost-raisers, however, the one memorable and monitory aspect of the epidemic. Their performances, though technically deficient, impressed men who would never have put sprigs of vervain in their windows to ward off vampires or have carried amulets to scare away the devil — impressed them so strongly that they thought the newfangled spooks worthy of scientific investigation. Having founded societies for “psychical research,” they invented in 1890, if not earlier, the word “parapsychology” to dignify serious discussions of ghost stories. The scientific researchers, however, did accomplish something of value. The British Society, for example, by resorting to ungentlemanly conduct, exposed Mme. Blavatsky as a “medium” and convinced her that it would be safer, as well as easier, to vend theosophy to the simple-minded.

Hereward Carrington
Hereward Carrington

But, on the whole, the record of these Societies for Psychical Research is lamentable. Some of the researchers, such as Dr. Hereward Carrington, Ph.D. (to give his name in the form he preferred), simply became the accomplices of the “mediums,” and, no doubt, received a percentage of the take in addition to the royalties on many published volumes of boob-bait. Some men of scientific training who wasted their time on such research proved themselves hopelessly incompetent. They had not reflected that what they knew about the methods of chemistry or botany had not fitted them to deal a card from the bottom of the deck, to say nothing of performing tricks that require some considerable skill. More significant, as well as pathetic, is the record of such persons as Dr. Richard Hodgson and Professor William James, who, while evidently honest enough to refrain from fabricating evidence, had their minds so perturbed by lust for spiritual things that they certified the authenticity of “psychic phenomena” produced by only moderately clever females whose performances they refrained from subjecting to critical scrutiny. For many examples of this sorry phenomenon, see Joseph F. Rinn’s Sixty Years of Psychical Research (New York, 1950).

The great loss of life in the First World War naturally produced a great boom in the spook business as bereaved mothers, wives, and fathers hired “mediums” to communicate with the dead and rejoiced in proof that immortal souls survived “over there,” even though their loved ones, to judge by the tenor of their messages, had become happy morons in the spirit world. Among the many thousands of normally rational men and women who were infected in this climactic stage of the epidemic are some whose prominent or honored names one must mention, though with pity and regret, for the warning they so emphatically convey.

Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had been well trained in medicine and related subjects and attained some distinction as a physician before his great celebrity as a man of letters, sent away to cold storage the powers of observation with which he had endowed Sherlock Holmes, and, apparently not primarily for profit, gave innumerable lectures in English-speaking countries about the wonders that third-rate necromancers had shown him. He is noteworthy for the resolution with which he kept his credulity undefiled by refusing to watch Mr. Rinn duplicate any “psychical phenomena” he had witnessed and persisting in his refusal even when Mr. Rinn baited it with $5,000 if he should fail to do as well as the best ghost of Doyle’s acquaintance.

Oliver Lodge
Oliver Lodge

Sir Oliver Lodge, one of the most distinguished scientists of his day, is still remembered for the brilliant mathematical analysis that finally disposed of the ether theory of light. But he was so grieved when his son was killed in France, and so determined to believe that the universe could not be so cruel as to deprive him of a post mortem reunion with the beloved boy, that he was just a baby to any spiritualist who wanted to collect candy from his hands. He made himself an even more egregious ass than Doyle, went lecturing to disseminate his faith, and was as resolute as Doyle in protecting the virginal purity of his ignorance from defilement by the wicked Mr. Rinn and the diabolical temptation of $5,000.

William Crookes
William Crookes

Sir William Crookes, whose name is perpetuated by the Crookes tube, was an even more distinguished man, who invited the spintharoscope (thus first making it possible to observe one form of subatomic radiation), discovered one of the elements (thalium) and a compound (victorium) that elucidated the structure of the rare earths, first measured radioactive emissions, and has other scientific achievements to his credit. He, too, contracted the itch to believe in phantoms and was so entranced by their company that he did not even think of jabbing a pin into female spooks who imprinted tender kisses on his eager lips. He was a gallant gentleman, no doubt, but I cannot bring myself to apply the proper epithet to his talents for “psychical research.”

I have named three distinguished men, but the most painful thing of all is the crudity of methods by which “mediums” imposed on their “scientific” gullibility. For the sad details, I again refer you to Mr. Rinn.

The evil that dupes do lives after them. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was talking sweet nonsense to audiences in the early 1920s, one of his auditors was a man nearly thirty who had started out to purvey salvation from a pulpit, thought better of it, and taken a respectable degree in botany. He had not rid himself, however, of his thirst for eternal life and psychic mysteries, and was, according to his own statement, inspired by the “exhilarating thoughts” of “transcendental importance” in Sir Arthur’s weird tales. A few years later the exhilarated Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine got an opportunity to make big noises concerning “extrasensory perception” at Duke University and set agog with “psi power” and a new brand of “parapsychology” the many persons who need to be exhilarated with “ESP” now that the spirits of the dear departed have broken their habit of jabbering platitudes through the “mediums” they “control.” The botanist turned parapsychologist may be acquitted of conscious fraud on the strength of the dazzling naïveté with which he described his methodology in his first book. As the eminent D.H. Rawcliff says in his Psychology of the Occult (recently reprinted by Dover under the title Occult and Supernatural Phenomena), “That Dr. Rhine should have published the results of such experiments in the first instance as evidence of telepathy or clairvoyance is almost incredible. Nothing can dispel the impression of carelessness thus created.” Dr. Rhine’s “discovery” is indeed wonderful, but what is wonderful about it — even more wonderful than willingness to accept as “evidence” performances that could be duplicated by any amateur who entertains his guests with card tricks in the parlor — is the sheer désinvolture of a self-styled scientist who considers success at guessing cards a little more often than chance as proof of “extrasensory perception” and failure to guess them as often as chance as proof of “negative ESP”! For the details of the methods and results obtained in this pseudoscientific delusion I refer you to Dr. Rawcliff and to Dr. Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1957). I must regret, however, that I never had the opportunity to introduce Dr.Rhine’s prize example, a horse most abundantly gifted with “ESP,” to an amiable grey mare of my acquaintance, who is a Doctor of Divinity and a Minister of the Gospel, licensed to perform marriages in several Midwestern states, and has, framed above her stall, a diploma from an authentic Bible School and state certificates to prove it. I am sure the two spiritual equines would have had much in common, although the sex of Dr. Rhine’s marvel unfortunately precludes hope of a race of Ueberpferd on which the indolent could gallop to Paradise.

Joseph Banks Rhine
Joseph Banks Rhine

Perhaps I should not have ventured a smile, for the pseudoscientific “research” goes on and on in the “laboratories” at Duke and elsewhere and, when the results are not fabricated or “fudged,” produce relatively slight variations from chance that mightily impress persons who cannot get through their heads the distinction between physical probability and statistical probability, or forget that the latter, calculated by the familiar binomial formula that I shall not tax the ingenuity of our printer to reproduce, applies only to very large numbers. Everyone knows that if he tosses a penny the chances are one out of two that it will come down heads. Few, however, can keep it firmly fixed in their minds that if they have obtained heads on five successive tosses, the chances on the sixth toss are still one out of two. And if you toss a penny and obtain heads twenty-five times in succession, you will have witnessed a most unusual event, although not one without precedent, as they will tell you at Monte Carlo, where a phenomenal sequence of red on the roulette is still remembered. It will be unusual and even extraordinary, comparable to your experience of venturing into the concrete jungles of New Jerusalem on the Hudson and meeting on Broadway a Texan whom you knew in college, but let not the result you obtain from the binomial formula convince you that you are endowed with parapsychological powers.

Dr. Rhine’s reported experiments, when performed in conditions that preclude cheating by one of his assistants or subjects, have produced only slight departures from the chances calculated by the binomial formula. There is nothing that is comparable, for example, to obtaining heads on three successive tosses of a penny. The results are significant, but not in the way in which the enthusiasts of “ESP” suppose.

Precognition and telepathy, unlike ghosts, are theoretically possible. The human brain, as is well known, emits electrical waves that can be detected by an electroencephalograph which will, for example, invariably show that the alpha-rhythm supervenes in your own brain whenever you close your eyes firmly for more than an instant. It is conceivable, therefore, that the brain that emits such waves could also detect them when emitted by others. It is certain, moreover, that there are senses which we do not possess, except, perchance, in some very rudimentary form of which we are not conscious, and we do not even know to what stimuli those senses respond. We do not know what curlews, geese, terns, and other birds must perceive in their annual migrations halfway around the world, so that they can, for example, fly unerringly from a swamp in Africa to a tiny island in the North Sea and there find the precise spot on which they nested before. We do not know how salmon find their way across hundreds of miles of ocean and up rivers to the point on some small tributary that is the individual’s spawning ground. Nearer to us are the baboons, who have a social organization that deserves the attention of the few sociologists who are interested in studying society rather than changing it with propaganda. Reliable observers report that a baboon can identify a human friend at a distance at which the human eye sees only a black object on the horizon, and that if a baboon is transported in a closed vehicle over a route that is roughly triangular, from one extremity of the base to the apex and then to the other extremity of the base, he will, when released, return home by the direct route along the base of the triangle, perceiving the direction by some faculty that responds to stimuli that we cannot detect with our senses or any instruments we have devised.

Now what these unexplained phenomena make virtually certain is that if some human beings possess senses other than the ones we all employ, they can give demonstrations much more convincing than the slight deviations from the binomial formula in short sequences that are Dr. Rhine’s best results. Experiments have shown that if you capture albatross on Midway Island, transport them in closed containers 3120 miles to Puget Sound, and there release them, they will return home, across open ocean and in spite of storms, in ten to twelve days, and if you take them in another direction, they will do as well. And, so far as we know, they will do this, not 0.9% above chance, but 100%, provided, of course, they are not victims of birds of prey or shotguns en route.

Now if there are “psychically endowed” persons who, like the albatross, have faculties that we do not have, we may reasonably expect them to make almost as good use of those faculties. What Rhine has proved is that jf such improbable persons do exist, they have neglected to call on him.

If Dr. Rhine can be acquitted of conscious deception, the same cannot be said of his associates in research. When I last heard, the great laboratories at Duke, having grown tired of card-playing, were experimenting with something even more wonderful called psychokinesis, which is supposed to be the power by which high-powered minds can move material objects by just focusing their thoughts on them. I have made no effort to follow the progress of this rarefied science, but by an extraordinary chance (which, by Dr. Rhine’s methodology, entitles me to claim psychic powers) I happened to notice in 1974 that Dr. Walter J. Levy, Jr., one of the most highly reputed disciples of Dr. Rhine and an esteemed authority on parapsychology, was caught by a chance observer in the act of hocusing an experiment with psychically gifted rats and caught with his scientific pants so far down that he confessed to his fraud and resigned from the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man so that its venerable “image” might be preserved unimpaired to titillate the credulity of our species. I was not sufficiently interested, however, to take the trouble of watching the news to see whether other parapsychologists were as careless with their britches, so I am willing to suppose that the distinguished Dr. Levy was the last to be caught in flagrante delicto.

Uri Geller
Uri Geller

The excitement about “psychokinesis” in Durham, North Carolina, however, had the happy effect of stimulating the psychic powers of a thaumaturgical immigrant from Israel named Uri Geller, who is so dexterous that the massive scientific brains assembled in the Electronic and Bioengineering Laboratory of the Stanford Research Institute asseverated, and on their scientific honor guaranteed, that the wonder boy had the power to bend spoons by thinking about them. Now I am assured by good authority that the Stanford Research Instltute has no connection whatsoever with Stanford University, a once respected institution which recently became notorious when an administrator prevented Dr. Shockley from presenting facts that were not in conformity with the degrading superstitions about race that have been rammed into the minds of Americans by their implacable enemies — but I do not see that it matters. At all events, the “scientifically” verified eu-angellium from Stanford was spread throughout the nation by the eager press, and many God-fearing Americans doubtless reasoned that it was only proper and natural that Geller should have the special power to bend spoons by some magic force, and they probably assumed that he could make a pretzel out of a railroad rail if he really concentrated.

James "The Amazing" Randi
James “The Amazing” Randi

Such comforting thoughts as they may have derived from the victory of Geller’s mind over matter were blasted by a professional magician who writes under his theatrical name The Amazing Randi. Vindicating the claims of sanity in his book The Magic of Uri Geller (Ballantine, 1976), the professional gave detailed instructions for duplicating all of Geller’s wonder-working. It is done, of course, by thought — not brain waves focused on the object, but thought about how to hoax the observer. The Amazing Randi, who merely uses the powers of reason, can far surpass the wonder-boy from Israel in producing miracles, and many audiences have seen him perform feats that Geller would never attempt. I assume that the “bioengineers” at Stanford who had been Geller’s dupes blushed when they read the book by a real expert on the subject they had tried to investigate.

John Taylor
John Taylor

One man who probably cursed instead of blushing is John Taylor, a British professor who is said to have shown competence in theoretical physics, and who has demonstrated great competence in concocting hogwash to satisfy a morbid appetite for mystic marvels. He has published a very profitable wonder-book about the astronomical phenomena called “black holes,” which, according to the most generally accepted theory, are formed by an implosion of matter so drastic that the result is a body of such density that light cannot escape from its gravitational field. I do not pretend to judge this theory, but apparently the agile mind of Mr. Taylor discovered in the phenomena holes in our knowledge through which he could bring into the universe enough spooks to satisfy the ghosts of Sir Oliver Lodge and Sir William Crookes, if those worthies are, as they hoped, still floating around somewhere. Geller’s is not the only preternaturally powerful intellect known to Mr. Taylor, whose scientific research discovered a whole troop of eleven-year-olds who have equally formidable mental abilities, as he conclusively proved by giving them bits of metal to take away with them for a few hours or days, after which they returned the specimens to him and assured him that they had bent them just by thinking and without touching them. If we make the charitable but precarious assumption that the great theoretical physicist is in earnest about all this, we can predict that his conclusions will be modified when his infantile mind has reached the maturity of the eleven-year-old children’s quite normal minds.

Andrija Puharich
Andrija Puharich

Also cashing in on Geller’s performances and the gullibility of the ignorant is a bizarre individual who calls himself Andrija Puharich and claims, with Geller’s assent, to have trained the Wunderkind’s oversized brain. According to Puharich, Geller receives (on a tape recorder that erases itself) communications from master minds that live (of course) on an oversized “spacecraft” that is at present located precisely 53,069 “light ages” from the earth. To keep Geller informed of current events, these remarkable beings utilize “the skin (!) of the envelope (!) of cosmic rays.” Now the sage Puharich does not inform us how many years there are in one of his”ages,” and does not even tell us whether he means geological or historical ages, but surely an “age” cannot be less than a century, whence it follows that, unless the skin of cosmic rays travels faster than what it encloses, the astronautical sages must have started their directional broadcasts to Geller’s brain at least 5,306,870 years before the nativity of Jesus in Judæa — assuming that Geller had the foresight to be born in that place. And it is with profound melancholy, not unmixed with terror, that I inform you that at least 50,000 Americans paid $1.95 plus tax for Puharich’s book and did not demand their money back from the National General Company, the proprietors of Bantam Books, and said to be in turn a subsidiary of one of the big operators in the business of befuddling Americans while they squat in a trance before their boob-tubes.

Persons who find occult hoochinoo an acceptable substitute for lysergic acid diethylamide will rejoice to learn that the appeal to sanity so wickedly made by Randi has not impaired the prosperity of the supermind from Israel. He is currently engaged in peddling through the mails twenty-one volumes of arcane balderdash entitled The Supernatural. You have probably received several of Geller’s exciting communications, and if you checked your hand in its gesture toward your circular file, you learned that if you have enough “ESP” to discover a “mystery token” that is identified by a printed arrow and neatly perforated for your ease in removing it and affixing it to a “certificate” two inches to the right, you may receive the first volume of printed drivel “without obligation.” And if you are a mathematical genius, with a supermind that can perform multiplication with or without the aid of an electronic calculator, you will have discovered that you can enrich your mind with all twenty-one volumes for a mere $156.80. In return for this modest investment, you will learn how to ward off vampires, which will get you if you don’t watch out, raise spirits from the vasty deep, and admire a psychic female who composes music in collaboration with Beethoven, whose ghost, like all the spirits of the dear departed who used to communicate with mortals through the “mediums,” is apparently both immortal and moronic.

Persons whose prosperity and curiosity about garbage led them to squander $156.80 tell me that Geller and associated scavengers overlooked a wonderful proof of immortality, the once well-known Lizzie Doten, who, in collaboration with the ghosts of Edgar Allan Poe and other defunct poets, produced verse almost as good as that which any moderately literate freshman with some sense of versification could write without spiritual inspiration. Accordingly, for the contentment of those whose aspirations are not sated by the twenty-one volumes, I note that Lizzie’s Poems from the Inner Life were published by White in Boston, went through at least seven editions before 1869, and can doubtless be procured from any efficient dealer in old books. About twenty years ago, I saw an offer of a copy for only $15.00, but that was before the counterfeit currency used in place of money had been depreciated to its present value, so you may have to give ten times as many pieces of printed paper for a copy, but it will be cheap at the price. Lizzie will give you the assurance that when men of letters become impalpable souls, they become as witless as Uri Geller’s customers — and, knowing that, you can, like so many of your American contemporaries, happily take leave of your senses.

Where ignorance is bliss, ‘Tis folly to be wise.

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Source: Instauration magazine, October 1978

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1 Comment

  1. Arvin N. Prebost
    March 22, 2016 at 8:17 pm — Reply

    I don’t agree with Oliver.

    I used to. One of my hobbies used to be figuring out how magicians did their tricks. And, of course, there are a lot of charlatans and gullible people in the field of spiritualism.

    Then I read books about William James, Sir Oliver Lodge, Charles Richet and others.

    These men were not stupid. Something was going on. They, themselves, were not sure what, but they did controlled experiments, and had experiences that could not be explained by materialism.

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