Pseudoscience and the supernatural: from phrenology and eugenics to ghosts, deceptions and mistakes, UFOs and conspiracy theories (Part 2)

Posted on August 9, 2023 | in Volunteers | by

Ash Mowat is one of our volunteers in the Civic Engagement Team. Ash has been looking into the relationship between pseudoscience and unexplained phenomena. In Part 1 of this blog post, Ash explores the science of pseudoscience and the papers of the Eugenics Society held in the University of Edinburgh Archives. In Part Two (of three), he looks at a letter in the University Archives from Arthur Conan Doyle, describing ‘psychic disturbances’. 

Part Two: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: A letter describing “psychic disturbances”

I paid a visit to the University of Edinburgh archives to view a letter from the creator of Sherlock Holmes Arthur Conan Doyle. [1]

A black and white portrait photograph of Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1876 to 1881. He had an interest in paranormal events and by 1887 had made public that he was a spiritualist. [2]

The letter is in response to an unnamed individual and is undated, and discusses reports of “psychic incidents”. He acknowledges that the events described to him by the letter’s recipient as being “consistent with those that break out so often in what are called poltergeist hauntings”.

He refers to “most famous case” in what is now known as the Epworth phenomenon of 1716, incidents of knockings and other disturbances lasting several months, with implied validity given the family status (Reverend Samuel Wesley, and son John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church). [3]

He then makes reference to the “most important still” events at Hydesville New York state in 1948, the episodes affecting the Fox sisters from 1848. [4] Once again, the chief reports were of mysterious knocking and others sounds, allegedly being generated by a spirit that could answer yes and no questions with a tapping sound.

It would be very interesting to know the date of this letter of Doyle’s, as by 1888 the Fox sisters had admitted that they had faked the entire events.

In the letter Doyle remarks, without further explanation, “it is when the female child is approaching the age of puberty that this phase of psychic phenomenon is most violent, although occasionally a lad is at the centre of this strange source. “This is a puzzling statement to say the least and not exactly scientific.

Intriguingly he mentions an incident when he was personally able to intervene to stop such a psychic disturbance. “Last month where a home was almost uninhabitable, I was able to offer some advice and the nuisance was brought to an end. “ It would be interesting had he been able to give details on what his solution entailed.

He concedes that there are some reports in the field that are either faked or otherwise invalid, such as when the child “is either through the force of suggestion or out of pure mischief begins to stimulate the phenomena….an unprejudiced judgement is needed in such circumstances. “

It is notable that he says that an unprejudiced judgement, rather than scientific proof, is required. Looking at the history now, it seems strange that such an educated man as Doyle would have embraced spiritualism. Indeed, even at the time there was scepticism and reported faked incidences. However, whatever our academic achievements, we are all open to adopt beliefs that may not live up to scientific rigour. His famous creation Sherlock Holmes famously said “If you eliminate the impossible, then whatever remains, however implausible, must be the truth”. In the absence of any firm evidence to support such psychic events, it appears in this case that not enough elimination was carried out.

An interesting insight into Victorian spiritualism, specifically that of celebrated medium Daniel Douglas Home, is explored in University of Edinburgh report by Peter Lamont of 2004. [5]

In this fascinating history, the author refers to a “crisis of evidence” whereby those who were sceptical that séances were genuine events were yet confounded when such “phenomena was ostensibly validated by scientists.” Such phenomena in his appearances included apparent levitation of people.

Home appears as anomaly, as unlike most mediums he is reported never to have charged for his services. Further we hear, “ in 25 years of conducting services, he was never caught cheating, despite many attempts to catch him, he was tested more thoroughly than any medium in this period, and he convinced many non-spiritualists in the existence of a natural (which became known as psychic) force”.

Home attracted formidable followers and patrons, and took a formal stance of exposing and denouncing fake spiritualists. Examples like this can indicate why a qualified Physician like Arthur Conan Doyle might yet be persuaded by spiritualists, although his declared belief in them came later in 1887 than with Home’s practices, as he’d retired by 1876.

The interesting conjecture of this post is a switch on the role of evidence. In that if no-one, despite extensive contemporaneous and subsequent testing, has been able to confirm that Home’s displays of psychic events were simply tricks and been able to explain how they were achieved, does this mean his séances have any weight as actual evidence that they were genuine?

[1] 5.1.2023)

[2] 6.1.2023)

[3],_Epworth(accessed 7.1.2023)

[4] 6.1.2023)

[5] 6.1.2023)

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