When I spoke at the conference two and a half years ago, argument was rife as to when the next millennium would begin. Now, there is no doubt we are well launched into the third thousand-year period since something important was supposed to have happened.

To understand what skeptics thought a thousand years ago is difficult; the state of skeptical thought a hundred years ago is more accessible. We can consider what progress, if any, people like us have made in that time. My claim to cover this topic is based on my observation of the field during two-thirds of the period.

Some of my comparisons will reflect merely a change in taste or style, others the replacement of one superstition or fad by another. For example, then they had ectoplasm, now we have bent spoons; then table rapping, now psychokinesis. There is not time to look at every paranormal fad or pseudoscientific belief, so I will pick just a few examples to consider.

To start at the depressing end, consider the increase in acceptance of astrology. My reading of early skeptical literature suggests that our comrades of one hundred years ago did not rate astrology among the prevalent intellectual weaknesses of the population, and even fifty years earlier, a commentator thought that astrology and other nonsenses would die out once universal education was introduced. Even a cursory survey of the present position makes us far less optimistic, in spite of well over one hundred years of compulsory schooling.

“It is to be hoped that the day is not far distant when lawgivers will teach the people by some more direct means, and prevent the recurrence of delusions like these [haunted houses]… by securing to every child born within their dominions an education in accordance with the advancing state of civilisation… If ghosts and witches are not yet altogether exploded, it is the fault, not of the ignorant people, as of the law and the government that have neglected to enlighten them.”
C. Mackay, 1840s

Astrology and Palmistry

Rawcliffe, in the preface to his “Illusions and Delusions of the Occult of the Early 20th Century”, wrote dismissively “No attempt has been made to enter into the question of such groundless occult practices as astrology, palmistry or similar naive forms of divination”. Compare what a commentator of the present day wrote:- astrology is “The only “science” editors of British newspapers and television current affairs programmes seem to understand”.

I now turn to the matter of health. Then, as now, dubious or fraudulent medical treatments were concerning those of a critical turn of mind. During the century the vast advances in understanding of how our bodies work have caused a shift in emphasis; what have not changed are people’s yearning for health coupled with widespread ignorance of how to achieve it, and the hijacking of new scientific discoveries by practitioners of pseudomedicine.

Medical Vibrations

The discovery of radio waves, and the spread of broadcasting early last century, brought in their train a host of quacks trading on people’s fascination with new but poorly understood science. Foremost among these in the USA was Adam Abrams, a genuine doctor with a medical degree from Heidelberg, no less. His theory was that each disease had its specific vibration frequency, and cure required treatment with waves of identical frequency. (Where have we heard that more recently?) Very conveniently for the therapist, presence of the actual sufferer where the gadgetry was located was unnecessary, a drop of blood, or even a signature, could serve just as easily! A commentator on Dr Abrams in the late 1950s thought that this therapy would by that time have been laughed out of existence, and his gadgets found rusting in American rubbish dumps. How wrong he was! In recent years we have seen the “Dermatron”, a worthless gadget used by at least one medical person in New Zealand to ‘diagnose’ toxic conditions, and the equally useless “Quantum Booster” which so impressed us at our Conference two years ago.

Perhaps the only claim to progress we can make here is that the numbers of these devices are fewer than the thousands of those sold by Abrams and his imitators.

Apart from the increase in sophistication of the quackster’s approach, I notice also a greatly reduced robustness in the attitude of authority. Perhaps because he was a “genuine” doctor, the Journal of the American Medical Association carried an obituary of the above-mentioned Dr Abrams in 1924. Far from acknowledging him as “one of their own”, the obituarist described him as “the dean of all twentieth century charlatans”, and the same association was equally damning of many other “healers”. At that time also mail-order shopping was big business (who has not heard of the Sears Roebuck Catalogue?), so that prevention of passage of patent medicines, etc. through the mails could seriously dent the trade. In the USA such action was possible by virtue of a law against “using the mails to defraud”. So a determined Post Office official, if he could persuade his Head Office to act, could put a stop to the patent medicine producers. Compared with these attitudes, authority today appears very feeble.

Enter Radioactivity

To the list of pseudo-electromagnetic treatments used 100 years ago, in 1903 was added radioactive materials, with the award to Marie Curie of the Nobel Prize. Claims were soon made for the healing properties of “Radium Water”. One such medicine, claimed to cure rheumatism and cancer, was “Waters of Life”, from California. A large shipment was impounded by Federal agents on its way East, and was found to contain nothing but ordinary spring water (no radium, thankfully!). The decision to condemn this water as “misbranded” was upheld by the courts. Compare this with the reaction of our own government to a similar case in New Zealand, the “Infinity Moods of Yellow Remember”. The Commerce Commission intends to take no action, and the Health Ministry feels powerless because “water is not a medicine”, and so the advertising of this stuff does not breach the Medicines Act. In this instance, we have clearly slipped backwards.

“Oxygen” has been a word to conjure with for almost two centuries after its role in our metabolism had been discovered. Its essential nature was widely recognised, and this attracted many fraudulent therapies. Such a one was the ‘Oxydonor’ in the USA. A disc fastened to the patient’s body led by a wire to a metal rod, hollow but sealed, immersed in a bowl of water; the rod caused oxygen to flow into the body, so healing whatever malady the patient had been convinced he or she was suffering from. An unsporting skeptic opened some of the metal rods; some were empty, some filled with carbon.

Now, we have ozone and hyperbaric oxygen therapies, and even polyatomic oxygen therapy. It is claimed that ozone inactivates HIV and cures AIDS, and the allegation that there is a conspiracy between the Food & Drug Admin-istration and the drug companies to put the oxygen therapists out of business will be a familiar story to skeptics.

For about two centuries the world of pseudomedicine has flourished by the sale of “patent medicines”. This is an odd title; a “Patent” is granted by governments, a guarantee of exclusive rights in exchange for disclosure. These medicines, on the contrary, were prepared according to secret recipes, usually with a basis in herbs. Some patent medicines are directed universally, eg cures for “listlessness”, “sluggish liver”, etc., others were targeted to one sex, such as to “weak men” (we can guess what weakness was implied.). Or we can consider those referred to delicately as for “female complaints”, or even for “female irregularities” (and we can guess what those did). As usual, current science is used inappropriately in advertising these things. Then it was vague ideas about the liver, kidney or nerves, now we are bombarded by anxiety-causing tales of vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

The overriding concern of women today, according to the advertisers, is not irregularity, but shape. Here are a few headlines from the front covers of British women’s magazines (Table 1).

Table 1. Headlines from Women’s Magazines, 2001
Healthy Eating. 12 Diet Myths (read this and shed lbs).
English Woman’s Weekly, 24.8.01
Slim and Smiling! Together Danny and Jan lost 61/2 stone
EWW, 7.8.01
Last-minute Diet Plan. Lose pounds in no time at all!
EWW, 14.8.01
50 low-cal treats to help you slim.
EWW, 28.8.01
Low Cal Low Carb High Energy
Good Housekeeping, 6.01

Do not think that investigative journalism started with the Watergate men. Early in the last century SH Adams looked into the patent medicine racket in America, and his damning reports, published in Collier’s Magazine, caused such a stir the Food and Drugs Act was passed soon afterwards. The requirement to publish the ingredients exposed many of the dangers and hypocrisy of the patent medicines; the dangers could include high concentrations of opium (morphine), the hypocrisy was the presence of high concentrations of alcohol in medicines sold in “dry” districts, sometimes with the unknowing support of Temperance enthusiasts. Consider the analyses in Table 2.

Table 2. Alcohol content of a range of beverages
Beer 5-6
White wine 13.5
Sherry 18.6
Whisky, Brandy 37.5
Hostetter’s Bitters
(A popular USA patent medicine)

Has the view of the psychic ability of animals changed in 100 years? Then, there were three widely reported examples, all from Germany! Clever Hans, the calculating horse, is probably best known, but there was also Muhamad, who could not only do simple arithmetic, he could work out square roots, hold a conversation, and knew his master’s telephone number.

Thirdly there was Lola, the super-intelligent dog, who held long conversations with his mistress by tapping her palm with his paw. All these, of course, are either entirely imaginary or the response of the animal to unconscious cues. Slightly different in recent times, is Sheldrake’s dog, who “knew” when his mistress left her work, and went to wait at the door for her. A careful observation of the animal revealed what Sheldrake had not troubled to find, that the dog was just restless, and went often to the door at times unrelated to what the absent lady was doing.

Some who are credited with the most astute intellects are taken in by simple fraud; brains are not the same as sense. Then, the creator of the super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes took for real the pictures of fairies cut out of a children’s book. More recently, children were able to convince an eminent physicist that they were “Gellerian” spoon benders. On the whole, though, I think there is improvement in this area. I know of no present day equivalents of William Crookes and Oliver Lodge, both scientists of the highest eminence, but both deceived by mediums into belief in spiritualism.


So we see that, though the detail has changed, credulity and gullibility have not diminished, despite the advances in education and knowledge which optimists predicted. New Zealand Skeptics is in no danger of running out of targets for our investigations. We need not disband and go home to put our feet up by the fire just yet.

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