In the comments thread of my last post, the subject of speculative bubbles came up. Of course we are all too familiar with such bubbles nowadays–the dot-com bubble, the real-estate bubble, the derivatives bubble. But the phenomenon has been well known since at least 1841, when Charles Mackay published his famous book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.
In his book, Mackay deals with “manias” of all kinds. The book is best known for its discussion of economic manias, such as the famous tulip mania in 17th-century Holland, in which the prices of tulip bulbs were bid up to extraordinary levels before crashing. But Mackay focuses most of his attention on social and intellectual crazes. He devotes a great deal of space to alchemy, and he is fascinated by the dueling epidemic–a bizarre historical episode in which people were inexplicably quick to challenge each other to duels and consequently died by the hundreds.
Another famous social mania (not discussed by Mackay as far as I recall) was the revivalist craze that swept through the United States in the early 19th century. Revivalist preachers would travel around the country, hosting public events in which people were exhorted to confess their sins and be born again. Entire towns would convert to the old-time religion in a veritable orgy of righteousness, banning liquor and gambling and vowing to stay on the strait and narrow ever after. Within a few weeks, they naturally had backslid to their old ways, the preacher having long since moved on to a new community. But while the preacher was there, and for a little while afterward, almost everyone in the town was caught up in a fervid atmosphere of religious extremism.
A more famous historical example, and one that is treated by Mackay, is the notorious witch burnings. Gripped by mass hysteria, whole communities would become fanatically convinced that witches were working mischief among them. The number of so-called witches who died at the hands of these mobs is unknown, but the phenomenon continued for decades, springing up first here, then there, unpredictably, and almost always with fatal results.
In thinking about all this, I couldn't help but recall the history of Spiritualism in America and England. Spiritualism originated just a few years after Mackay's book was published (its origin is usually dated to 1848, the year when the "rappings" of the Fox sisters were heard) and spread like wildfire. Before long, ordinary middle-class people were spending their evenings table-tipping or playing with planchettes. People made assiduous efforts to develop their talents at automatic writing or to become trance mediums. Spiritualist churches sprang up in abundance, and in at least one case, a vocal critic of the movement converted to it after falling into a trance and producing channeled information himself! There were celebrity spiritualists like Arthur Conan Doyle, and there were distinguished scientists who backed at least some of the claims of the movement–people like William Crookes, Oliver Lodge, and Alfred Russel Wallace. Spiritualism even found its way to the White House during the Civil War; Abraham Lincoln's wife, a devotee of the movement, invited mediums to perform séances, some of which her husband attended, though his attitude about the whole thing is unclear. The movement had its ups and downs, but remained vigorous and influential at least until the 1920s, when repeated debunkings by Harry Houdini and enterprising journalists soured the public on the alleged phenomena.
Much of this fits the descriptions of public manias in Mackie's book. You have a social innovation that catches on with extraordinary rapidity and draws in people who, under ordinary circumstances, would have nothing to do with it. Just as nonviolent types somehow got caught up in the mania for dueling, and prudent investors somehow were drawn into the world of tulip bulbs, just as heavy drinkers became teetotalers and loving husbands joined a mob to burn their wives at the stake, so it seems that many otherwise cautious and sensible folks became committed to Spiritualism. Was this due to the high quality of the evidence they were receiving, or was it due to the social atmosphere of the times?
The question is important, I think, because a tremendous amount of the evidence for life after death was gathered during this very period. Even today, anyone with a serious interest in the subject of mediumship has to make reference to famous mediums of roughly a hundred years ago–people like Leonora Piper and Gladys Osborne Leonard. The study of these mediums was more sustained and methodical than any such study before or since, and the results obtained are among the most impressive and often-cited in the field.
The usual skeptical objection to these studies is that they happened so long ago, they can't be taken seriously. My usual reply is that there's no reason to discard evidence simply because it happened to be collected sometime in the past, as long as it was collected by competent researchers following adequate protocols. And I still think that's true, as far as it goes. But what if the researchers' competence and protocols were compromised by a general atmosphere of mania–an atmosphere of irrational excitement and wild enthusiasm, which prompted people to overlook obvious flaws and jump to unjustified conclusions?
Remember that a society (or a segment of society) in the grip of a mania cannot function rationally. The businessman who ordinarily would not think of investing in any venture unless he thoroughly understood its methods, objectives, and prospects may throw all of his prudence out the window when gripped by a mania, and start tossing money at any dot-com stock or condo development in sight. He will invent reasons to excuse his own behavior and justify his own irrationality. No matter how many warning signs flash in front of him, he will ignore them and keep his gaze fixed firmly on the imaginary but irresistible prize on the horizon. He will not come to his senses until the whole investment scheme comes crashing down, and he and all of his like-minded colleagues have suffered huge losses. Then, perhaps, he will look back in bewilderment, shaking his head and wondering how he could have allowed himself to be so woefully deluded.
When we consider the effect that manias can have on even the most intelligent and worldly-wise individuals, we have to ask ourselves if the credentials, competence, and general honesty of the early Spiritualist investigators are as clear-cut as we might like to believe. I have no doubt that most of these people were intelligent, educated, knowledgeable, and well-meaning. But probably so was our deluded businessman. His intelligence and other qualities did not prevent him from being taken to the cleaners, because those qualities were short-circuited by mania. Could a similar short-circuit have been at work in the minds of the investigators whose research forms the bedrock of the scientific exploration of Spiritualism?
At least in some instances, there is reason to answer yes. William Crookes' controversial experiments with the medium Florence Cook are a case in point. When not performing for Crookes, Florence was caught cheating on more than one occasion. For a while, she partnered with another medium, quaintly named Rosina Showers, who turned out to be a complete fraud. It seems unlikely that Florence could have been genuine when she was working hand in glove with a con artist. The materialized entity that supposedly emanated from Florence Cook while she was in a trance sometimes bore a remarkable resemblance to Florence herself, although at other times it did not. The conditions of absolute darkness and the seclusion of the medium in a curtained-off cabinet made fraud a very real possibility. And yet Crookes, a distinguished physicist who was eventually knighted for his work in that field, seems to have been completely convinced of Florence Cook's authenticity. He wrote passionately on the subject, producing a rather feverish essay about his final moments with the dematerializing spirit guide, with whom he shared a secret kiss.
The whole episode is strange on many levels, but it seems less strange if we think of it in the context of the extraordinary popular delusions–the manias–that Charles Mackay writes about. Absent mania, under what circumstances would a normally sober physicist surrender his objectivity so completely? Notice that Crookes did not give up on Florence even after he learned that Rosina was a fraud, though surely he should have grasped that if the one girl was faking, then the other girl–performing at her side–could hardly have been the real deal. But he found some way to rationalize that problem out of existence, just as he rationalized the occasional physical similarity between Florence and the materialized spirit guide as reflecting the mysterious properties of Florence's own ectoplasm.
I'm not saying that all the investigative work done by scientific researchers during the heyday of Spiritualism was of this same low quality. But perhaps a great deal more of it falls into this category than we would like to believe. Perhaps it is a mistake to rely too much on the professional reputations of the investigators involved, or even on their personal reputations for probity and good sense. All these things can vanish like smoke in the grip of mania.
At the very least, it might be worthwhile to revisit the major investigative work undertaken during the Spiritualist years in an attempt to see how the researchers' unconscious biases, assumptions, and hopes, fueled by an atmosphere of credulity and enthusiasm, may have sabotaged their results. Was even a researcher as well respected as Richard Hodgson immune to the siren call of the Spiritualist mania? Perhaps he was. Perhaps not. It is often pointed out that Oliver Lodge, another distinguished physicist and afterlife investigator, developed an interest in the subject even before his son Raymond died in the First World War and allegedly began communicating through mediums. The implication is that Lodge could not have been swayed by emotion in his initial investigations because he had no close personal loss to cope with. But suppose he was swayed by something more general than personal grief. Suppose he was swayed by the turbulent atmosphere of an ongoing social craze that swept up both the educated and uneducated alike.
It's worth thinking about, especially when we consider that much of our data not only about mediumship but also about crisis apparitions, deathbed visions, and hauntings stems from this era. If a great deal of this material is merely the result of an "extraordinary popular delusion," the case for life after death will look very much weaker.