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.
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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