Strange enthusiasms: a brief history of American pseudoscience

Robert MacDougall

The earth is not a globe, but a flat disk. The north pole is at the center, and there is no south pole, only a frozen polar rim that protects us from the edge of the world.

Colored light has miraculous curative powers. Light rays of the proper hue--yellow and magenta for diabetes, blue and blue-green for gonorrhea, and so on--can cure any ailment under the sun.

Our sins are the result of "malicious magnetism" from deep below the earth.

T here is a lively tradition of weird science in American history, from rainmaking and phrenology to crystal power and the hunt for UFOs. Odd ideas might have been expected 150 years ago, in a young republic with more enthusiasm for science than actual expertise. But how do such beliefs continue in a highly developed nation, in an ostensibly scientific age? We must examine the strange enthusiasms of the past in order to understand their persistence today.

The most common label for these kinds of practices and beliefs is "pseudoscience," though David Rothman, professor of history and of social medicine and director of Columbia's Center for the Study of Science and Medicine, warns against careless use of that term. "It's a retrospective judgement on the losers," he says. "It renders those who pass the verdict smug." Indeed, it's worth remembering that theories we might scoff at today were once embraced by Americans from all walks of life. Phrenology, the divining of personality by reading the contours of the cranium, "had very respectable followers," says Rothman. Such worthy skulls as Andrew Carnegie's, Thomas Edison's, and Walt Whitman's were phrenologically surveyed. (Whitman's flattering head-reading was central to his self-portrait in Leaves of Grass.)

Spiritualism--communication with the dead through a psychic medium--also captured the imagination of the educated and the unwashed alike. William Lloyd Garrison, Horace Greeley, and James Fenimore Cooper were among thousands of antebellum Americans who frequented seances to witness table rapping and oozing ectoplasm.1 Mesmerism, electric medicine, creationism, and the water cure all joined them in the stew of popular beliefs.

Why was nineteenth-century America so welcoming to these beliefs? A combination of historical circumstances provided both motivation and opportunity for pseudoscience to flourish. "In the eighteenth century, people were convinced that if you examined the book of nature it would lead you to God," says Philip Kitcher, professor of philosophy at Columbia, and author of Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982). Most believed science and the scriptures to be harmonious. The scientific developments that destroyed that harmony--the explosion of geological time, Darwin's Origin of Species--came as a terrible blow. The universe "no longer looked at all Providential," Kitcher says. "By the middle of the nineteenth century, you could only hold onto the literal truth of Genesis if you were prepared to engage in pseudoscientific maneuvering."

Many pseudoscientific disciplines were inspired by this desire to defend the harmony of science and religion. While creationists began a battle with Darwinian evolution that continues to this day, the "zetetic astronomers" of the late nineteenth century went even further. Inspired by a literal reading of the Bible, they insisted the earth was not a sphere but a flat disk, with heaven above and hell below. Dozens of Zetetic Societies sprang up in the 1880s and '90s, sponsoring "scientific" investigations designed to spread the flat earth gospel. Reverend Wilbur Voliva, a leading American flat earther, railed at "so-called fundamentalists" who would "strain out the gnat of evolution yet swallow the camel of modern astronomy." In his home town of Zion, Illinois, Voliva passed some of the strictest blue laws in the country, outlawing cigarettes, short pants, whistling on Sundays, and--naturally--globes.2

Even seemingly secular areas of study tried to collapse distinctions between the realms of science and religion. What was spiritualism if not a way to apprehend spiritual reality with material tools? Friendly relations with the next world would promote prosperity and rapid scientific advancement, promised Andrew Jackson Davis, "the Poughkeepsie Seer." A devotee of electric medicine named Frederick Augustus Baker proclaimed that giant electromagnets, properly placed, might eliminate the "malicious energies" from the center of the earth that caused all human sin.3 While not strictly biblical, these disciplines offered the same reassuring message: Advances in science need not destroy the providential universe of years gone by.

While religion provided a motive, the structure of American science created the opportunity for unorthodox beliefs to thrive. Antebellum science was egalitarian. It had to be--outside a small group of internationally respected men, science in America depended on a much larger circle of amateurs, dabblers, and mechanics. It was not difficult for phrenologists or mesmerists to claim legitimacy in this disorganized milieu. The "book of nature," they insisted, was open to all. If orthodox scientists called them quacks or cranks, they were quick to appeal to the democratic sensibilities of the republic. Let the people judge the truth, they said, not the elite few.

Both Rothman and Kitcher remind us that we cannot declare an idea to be inherently scientific or unscientific for all time. Knowledge advances, opinions change, and one era's respected beliefs become the pseudoscience of the next. "It's entirely possible," Rothman says, "that our fascination with the genetic bases of behavior will be looked upon with the same condescending humor with which we look back on the phrenologists." That's why Kitcher defines pseudoscientists not by the content of their theories, but by their motives and methods. "It's not the doctrine, it's how the doctrine is held," he says.

By this standard, the creation scientists and parapsychologists of this century look very similar to the flat earthers and spiritualists of the last. Today's pseudoscientists still appeal to anti-elitism, fulminating against the orthodox scientists they call "aristocrats" and "monopolists." The fact that today's advanced science leaves little room for amateur participation only makes their attacks more strident. And many still deny contradictions between scientific and religious truth. Whether fundamentalist Christians or new-age Aquarians, they fight to restore a universe governed by some form of providence and natural law.

"These things don't go away," Kitcher says, and he seems to be right. Religious, egalitarian, and optimistic, the table rappers and head-bump readers reflected certain cherished elements of their era's thought, and indeed of our own. Strange as they seem, the enthusiasms of pseudoscience strike deep chords in the national character. We should not expect their demise soon.

1. Ectoplasm was a mysterious substance said to emanate from the bodies of mediums during seances. Some skeptics noted suspicious similarities to wood pulp and egg white.

2. Voliva was eventually found to be embezzling money from the state of Illinois and the good people of Zion. His conviction dealt the flat earth movement a blow from which it was slow to recover.

3. In another work, Baker united phrenology and meteorology to predict the weather by reading bumps on people's heads.

Related links...

  • Museum of Questionable Medical Devices, Minneapolis

  • Renato Sabbatini, "Phrenology: the History of Brain Localization," Brain and Mind, March 1997

  • Phrenology and the Fine Arts (including interactive phrenologic chart)

  • Science Fiction in Pseudoscience, American Family Foundation's Cult Information Service

  • Skepticism and Pseudoscience, SciEd program, University of Washington Astronomy Dept.

  • ROBERT MacDOUGALL is a freelance writer and a doctoral candidate in history at Harvard whose dissertation work on pseudoscience in American history draws on MIT's Archives of Useless Research. His first scholarly publication on the topic will appear in Isis.

    Photo Credits:
    Portraits: Dover Books