Bumps on the Head

How can good science be distinguished from bad? Philosophers of science call this the “demarcation problem.” Like most problems about distinguishing parts of spectra, sharp definitions are impossible, but from hazy borders it doesn’t follow that distinctions between extremes are useless. Twilight doesn’t invalidate the contrast between day and night. The fact that top scientists disagree about many things doesn’t mean that terms like pseudoscience, crank, and charlatan have no place in the history of science.

Naturally it takes knowledge to make sound judgments. Nineteenth-century Americans were mostly poor and untutored, and even the few who made it to college learned almost nothing about science. It is hardly surprising that the age, like earlier ages, swarmed with scientific claims easily recognized now as absurd. Arthur Wrobel, who teaches American literature at the University of Kentucky, is to be cheered for this long overdue study of the period’s bogus science, an anthology whose nine contributors range in fascinating, sometimes frightening, detail over most of the outrageous theories that bamboozled millions of our ancestors.

One might imagine that fringe scientists would be indifferent to social and political trends, but a surprising thing about the nineteenth century is that the opposite was true. It was a time of great millennial hopes. For conservative Christians hope lay in the return of Jesus, but for more enlightened Christians the Second Coming had become a symbol of humanity’s march—onward Christian soldiers!—toward liberty and justice. When Unitarian Julia Ward Howe opened her great hymn with “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” she was not speaking of the literal return of Christ but of the widespread expectation that the Civil War would hasten fulfillment of the American Dream. Abolition of slavery was only part of a larger complex of causes that included women’s rights, temperance, health, better treatment of criminals and the insane, elimination of poverty, and more compassionate government. All these humanitarian ideals found their way into the rhetoric of the fringe sciences.

Influences went also in the other direction. Reformers were as eager to rebel against mainline science, especially medical science, as they were to challenge the government. Many political radicals embraced one or more pseudosciences. Robert Owen, the Welshman who founded the socialist community at New Harmony, Indiana, in the 1820s, and his son, like another socialist, Upton Sinclair, in this century, became ardent spiritualists. This intermixing of social forces with fringe science makes Wrobel’s book much more than just a compendium of strange beliefs. His book is of special interest to historians of the period whether their concern is with science, literature, religion, or politics.

Robert Collyer, a now-forgotten mesmerist and phrenologist, is the subject of a contribution to Wrobel’s book by Taylor Stoehr, a professor of English. Stoehr sees Collyer as a prototype of the mad scientists who figure so prominently in the fiction of Hawthorne and Poe. Indeed, so many writers of the period were influenced …

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More Bumps on the Head June 2, 1988