Things Skeptics Knew a Century Ago About How Thinking Goes Wrong

Dec 29, 2014

Image courtesy US National Library of Medicine, via Wikimedia Commons.

By Daniel Loxton

When better than the final days of the year to reflect on lessons of the past? Today, I’d like to share a small selection of quotes, each written over a century ago, which seem to me to bring the skepticism of our time and that of previous generations into a thought-provoking resonance. These passages employ concepts and jargon that are frequently used by skeptics today. This may strike us as prescient; however, I would argue that this apparent prescience is largely an illusory artifact of our own forgetfulness. In any event, these are a tiny sampling of conversations which were current in skepticism long before any of us were born.

I invite you to gaze into these passages, and reflect for a moment that in some ways the conceptual tools for skeptical examination of paranormal claims have changed little more in a century than the nature of imposture and superstition.

Pretend Medicine

Phineas Taylor Barnum was a wealthy entertainment producer with a reputation for outrageous marketing trickery. He was also, oddly enough, a skeptical activist, declaring, “I have devoted a portion of my life to the detection of humbugs.”1 He testified in court against mediumistic deception (see Part One of my two-part Junior Skeptic story on spirit photography, bound inside Skeptic Vol.19, No.2), offered James Randi-like cash challenges for proof of psychic ability, and in 1865 wrote a debunking book, Humbugs of the World.

Here is that book’s discussion of placebos in the context of “medical humbugs” (and also quackery, though here he’s poking more specifically at the opacity and paternalistic deception found at that time in mainstream medical practice):

One sort of regular-practice humbug is rendered necessary by the demands of the patients. This is giving good big doses of something with a horrid smell and taste. There are plenty of people who don’t believe the doctor does anything to earn his money, if he does not pour down some dirty brown or black stuff very nasty in flavor. … It is a milder form of this same method to give what the learned faculty term a placebo. This is a thing in the outward form of medicine, but quite harmless in itself. Such is a bread-pill, for instance; or a draught of colored water, with a little disagreeable taste in it. These will often keep the patient’s imagination headed in the right direction, while good old Dame Nature is quietly mending up the damages in “the soul’s dark cottage.”2


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3 comments on “Things Skeptics Knew a Century Ago About How Thinking Goes Wrong

  • “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana
    Most of us cannot remember the past because we did not experience (most of) it. Thus the importance of preserving and learning history.
    Skepticism is not a modern invention or discovery and the knowledge of the world that can be gained by using it is not limited by time, just the minds of those alive in any particular time and place. Given the obvious limitations involved (including short lifespans and poor recording and dissemination of information), it makes perfect sense to me that we should be “re-discovering” the same things (some of) our predecessors understood generations ago.



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  • @OP – Pretend Medicine

    I see there is finally some action on this evil quackery!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-30794831
    Tanzania has banned witch doctors in a move intended to stop attacks on people with albinism.

    Home Affairs Minister Mathias Chikawe said there would be a nationwide operation to “arrest them and take them to court” if they continued to work.

    Albino people, who lack pigment in their skin, have faced attacks for their body parts, which witch doctors believe bring good luck and wealth.

    The Tanzanian Albinism Society (TAS) has welcomed the ban.

    “If we and the government come together and show strength as one and speak as one, we can deal with the problem head-on,” the society’s chairman, Ernest Njamakimaya, said.

    *”I believe this way we can get rid of these incidents once and for all.”

    More than 33,000 people in Tanzania are believed to have albinism.*

    Seventy have been killed in the past three years but only 10 people have been convicted of murder.



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