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Old 30th May 2016, 05:11 PM   #1
PainKiller
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Lightbulb Old forgotten or neglected skeptics before James Randi

I am just starting this thread to discuss/document historical skeptics who lived before James Randi but did similar sort of work in investigating paranormal claims, psychics or other fringe topics.

We have already discussed Harry Houdini and Joseph Rinn on this forum. I would like to discuss some rarer examples.

I will start off by mentioning P. T. Barnum, the famous American showman. It is usually forgotten that he was also a skeptic.

Barnum was the author of the book The Humbugs of the World: An Account of Humbugs, Delusions, Impositions, Quackeries, Deceits and Deceivers Generally, in All Ages (1866). The book title speaks for itself, but I especially like this book because it has a skeptical chapter on spiritualist mediums such as the Davenport brothers.

It is online: https://archive.org/details/humbugsworld00barnrich

So yeah, just mention any of your favourite historical skeptics if possible and reasons why. I will update this thread now and again with new examples but would be nice to read about others suggestions. Thank you all.
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Old 30th May 2016, 11:55 PM   #2
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Mentioned fairly recently, but worth noting again in a dedicated thread; Rose Mackenberg, who was part of Houdini's "secret service" of spiritualism investigators as a young woman and who persisted in that calling for the rest of her career:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rose_Mackenberg
http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles...ud-for-houdini

Harry Price, a controversial and interesting British skeptic and debunker:

http://www.harrypricewebsite.co.uk

E.W. Barton-Wright, most famous for his invention of "Bartitsu", an eclectic self defense method, at the turn of the 20th century, also wrote a detailed expose of Georgia Magnet leverage tricks often presented as supernatural feats:

http://theghostracket.com/2016/04/21...-exposed-1899/

The most obscure skeptic I know of would be Tom Driver, A.K.A. "Professor Kudarz", a magician who investigated and exposed spiritualist fraud in New Zealand during the early-mid 20th century:

http://robertkudarz.com
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Old 31st May 2016, 06:43 AM   #3
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What about Benjamin Franklin and "animal magnetism"? Franklin was appointed in 1784 by Louis XVI to a Royal Commission of inquiry in France to investigate this alleged phenomenon.
A committee of scientific investigators, including Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), found that the energy healer [Anton Mesmer] did have successes, but they were due to self-delusion or illnesses running their natural course. The committee found no reason to postulate magnétisme animal or any life-force manipulation to explain the satisfied customers.
The report stated that
magnetism without imagination produces nothing
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Old 31st May 2016, 09:23 PM   #4
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I don't think Martin Gardner gets enough credit. His books were my first forays into skepticism and critical thinking.
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Old 1st June 2016, 03:07 AM   #5
Craig B
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Originally Posted by xjx388 View Post
I don't think Martin Gardner gets enough credit. His books were my first forays into skepticism and critical thinking.
Yes he was great. I remember reading with great pleasure his debunking of the Cottingley Fairies scam and delusion.
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Old 1st June 2016, 06:35 AM   #6
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I'm just re-reading "Fantastic Archaeology", about all the crazy "theories" that have plagued American Archaeology....And the the author mentions Barnum as a good skeptic who right away saw the "Cardiff Giant" as a fraud... (but tried to buy it...And failing that simply made his own!)
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Old 1st June 2016, 07:05 PM   #7
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Thumbs up

Thanks for the suggestions.

Mackenberg, you might be interested in the book The Houdini-Price Correspondence by Gabriel Citron. Harry Price was in correspondence with Harry Houdini. The book contains their letters. I have not read this book yet but its look interesting. You may have already read it.

I recently uploaded a book by Martin Gardner online, it is not widely known but early in his career he was an amateur magician and published some booklets on magic tricks. These were published in the 1930s and 40s.

Some information on his involvement with magic here:

http://martin-gardner.org/MagicOutput.html

Some of these are very rare to get hold of in original prints.

As for another early skeptic, I would mention John Mulholland , he was a professional magician who also worked for a time with the CIA. He published books on methods of deception but also a very interesting debunking work on spiritualism entitled Beware Familiar Spirits in 1935.
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Old 1st June 2016, 07:15 PM   #8
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I would be interested - thanks for the recommendation.

Gardner recently led me to Bergen Evans and his book The Spoor of Spooks and Other Nonsense, which I've ordered and am looking forward to reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bergen_Evans

There's also the anonymous author of Ghost Stories: Collected with a Particular View to Counteract the Vulgar Belief in Ghosts and Apparitions, an early-19th century collection of tales in which the apparently supernatural is consistently revealed to be the product of delusion or deception:

http://theghostracket.com/2016/05/08...aritions-1823/
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Old 2nd June 2016, 06:17 AM   #9
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Originally Posted by Mackenberg View Post
Mentioned fairly recently, but worth noting again in a dedicated thread; Rose Mackenberg, who was part of Houdini's "secret service" of spiritualism investigators as a young woman and who persisted in that calling for the rest of her career:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rose_Mackenberg
http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles...ud-for-houdini

Harry Price, a controversial and interesting British skeptic and debunker:

http://www.harrypricewebsite.co.uk

E.W. Barton-Wright, most famous for his invention of "Bartitsu", an eclectic self defense method, at the turn of the 20th century, also wrote a detailed expose of Georgia Magnet leverage tricks often presented as supernatural feats:

http://theghostracket.com/2016/04/21...-exposed-1899/

The most obscure skeptic I know of would be Tom Driver, A.K.A. "Professor Kudarz", a magician who investigated and exposed spiritualist fraud in New Zealand during the early-mid 20th century:

http://robertkudarz.com
Thanks for that. I wasn't aware that Barton-Wright dabbled in debunking, I will file that away for further research and inclusion in an Edwardian-set RPG
scenario. His encounter with the 'Georgia magnet' is mentioned on the Bartitsu website.
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Old 2nd June 2016, 06:38 AM   #10
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May I propose Charles Mackay. He first published what is now known as Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds in 1841 with additional material in 1852. This book covers several areas of interest to modern skeptics and is available in reprint form.
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Old 2nd June 2016, 07:41 AM   #11
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Doubting Thomas?

Couldn't resist...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doubting_Thomas
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Old 2nd June 2016, 07:59 AM   #12
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Originally Posted by xjx388 View Post
I don't think Martin Gardner gets enough credit. His books were my first forays into skepticism and critical thinking.
One of his books for elementary school children (aha! Gotcha I think - there was also a filmstrip?) discussed Pascal's wager and its flaws, I would think that many schools would have a problem with raising a topic like that in a class discussion...though I'm religious so it obviously didn't bother me unduly...
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Old 2nd June 2016, 10:26 AM   #13
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I'd like to mention Sir Thomas Browne, author of the pseudodoxia Epidemica. Bearing in mind that it was first published in 1646, some of what he thinks is obsolete to us, but it is an interesting look into the popular mistaken beliefs of his time.

The book was written during the controversy over whether the sun revolves around the Earth or not. Unfortunately, this is one subject he doesn't go into except to say that, either way, God still exists.

The book is in pdf form here

https://books.google.co.uk/books/abo...UC&redir_esc=y
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Old 3rd June 2016, 02:10 AM   #14
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I have just gone back to a classic book Behind the Scenes with the Mediums (1907) by magician David Abbott.

Upon doing some research on Abbott I found out he was friends with another magician and spiritualist debunker Tom Chislett (also known as T. H. Chislett). He was the chairman of the Sheffield Magicians' Circle.

Chislett is the author of a rare booklet Spirits in the House (1949) that records his experiences in staging séance phenomena and fooling the sitters.

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Old 3rd June 2016, 02:21 AM   #15
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Originally Posted by Ersby View Post
I'd like to mention Sir Thomas Browne, author of the pseudodoxia Epidemica. Bearing in mind that it was first published in 1646, some of what he thinks is obsolete to us, but it is an interesting look into the popular mistaken beliefs of his time.

The book was written during the controversy over whether the sun revolves around the Earth or not. Unfortunately, this is one subject he doesn't go into except to say that, either way, God still exists.

The book is in pdf form here

https://books.google.co.uk/books/abo...UC&redir_esc=y
Thanks

Daniel Loxton has mentioned Browne:

Quote:
Over 100 years before Franklin’s investigation into Mesmerism, English medical doctor Sir Thomas Browne attacked a broad swath of popular falsehoods in his 1672 debunking book, Pseudodoxia Epidemica: or Enquiries into Commonly Presumed Truths (also known as Vulgar Errors). Written in the early grey dawn of the scientific era, Pseudodoxia Epidemica may seem peculiar to modern readers. Many of the common myths Browne addressed have largely passed out of history, such as the idea that chameleons eat only air, or that diamonds are made soft by the blood of a goat, or that “the flesh of Peacocks corrupteth not.” But there is much that is familiar, too.

Browne spoke out against our old friends the psychics (“Fortune-tellers… Geomancers, and the like incantory Impostors”) and alternative medicine providers (“Quacksalvers, and Charlatans” whose “Impostures are full of cruelty, and worse than any other; deluding not only unto pecuniary defraudations, but the irreparable deceit of death”).
http://www.skeptic.com/downloads/Why...l-Movement.pdf

Loxton also mentions many other early skeptics. Including the already mentioned P. T. Barnum, Charles Mackay and Benjamin Franklin.

Loxton cites the following historical skeptics and their books:

Quote:
Rose Mackenberg (active from the 1920s into the 1950s); The Spoor of Spooks (1954) and The Natural History of Nonsense (1946) by Bergen Evans ; The Dead Do Not Talk (1946) and Spook Crooks! (1928) by Julien Proskauer; Hoaxes by Curtis MacDougall (1941); the decades of law enforcement campaigns against quack healers and fraudulent fortunetellers led by Mary Agnes Sullivan, described in her autobiography My Double Life: The Story of a New York Policewoman (1938).

The smart-alecky The Marks of a Clear Mind, or Sorry But You’re Wrong About It by Alfred Edward Wiggam (1930); Spiritism and Common Sense by the Jesuit magician Rev. C. M. de Heredia (1922); Nostrums and Quackery, from the American Medical Association (1911); The Evidence for the Supernatural: A Critical Study Made with “Uncommon Sense,” by Ivor Tuckett (1911) Studies in Spiritism, by Amy Eliza Tanner (1910); Behind the Scenes with the Mediums by David P. Abbott (1907); Mediums of the 19th Century, by Frank Podmore (1902); and Fact and Fable in Psychology by Joseph Jastrow (1900).
I have read most of these books.

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Old 3rd June 2016, 02:36 AM   #16
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Originally Posted by Didymus View Post
May I propose Charles Mackay. He first published what is now known as Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds in 1841 with additional material in 1852. This book covers several areas of interest to modern skeptics and is available in reprint form.
An excellent example, I've read the book (first as a teenager) and it's aged surprisingly well.
It's also in the public domain and can be obtained as a free ebook, for those interested, here or here, read online here or obtained as a free audiobook here.
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Old 3rd June 2016, 02:51 AM   #17
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Shame on you all for making 16 posts without mentioning Carl Sagan.





Ok he was a little younger than Randi, but that is no excuse.

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Old 3rd June 2016, 03:06 AM   #18
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Originally Posted by Lothian View Post
Shame on you all for making 16 posts without mentioning Carl Sagan.
Carl Sagan has not been forgotten or neglected.
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Old 3rd June 2016, 03:09 AM   #19
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Originally Posted by Pixel42 View Post
Carl Sagan has not been forgotten or neglected.
Who?
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Old 5th June 2016, 08:13 PM   #20
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I was going to mention Sir Thomas Browne, but see that he's already come up. Browne was not a thoroughgoing skeptic, still a bit too attached to the idea that classical authority trumps experience, but he made a good start. Some similar ground is covered in the 1967 book The Prevalence of Nonsense, by Ashley Montague.

I think in some areas one could do a lot worse than good old Mark Twain, and his more or less contemporary Ambrose Bierce. Especially when it comes to religion, no skeptical library is complete without Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, and at least Twain's rollicking demolition of Christian Science. Within that fairly narrow range, I'd also recommend Jules Michelet's classic Satanism and Witchcraft, which is, in addition to being informative, nicely written.

I see also that Martin Gardner has already come up. Long ago I read his classic from the 1950's, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, and it was in this book that I first ran across references to his colleague, "the Amazing Randi," with whom he worked closely. For those who have not read this classic, it covers a large percentage of the crackpot theories we still see today.

eta: Actually I think it was the 1980 or so "Science, Good, Bad and Bogus," that I read, in which Randi figures prominently.
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Old 6th July 2016, 07:41 AM   #21
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Updating this to add the hallowed name of Charles Dickens:

http://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK...d-Ghost-Story/

Quote:
Living in an age rife with supernatural speculation, he steadily developed the mind of a skeptic. Rather than being caught up in the Spiritualism craze that arrived from America in the 19th century (with its séances and rampant rise in ghostly sightings), Dickens acquiesced to the scientific theory of his day, that paranormal phenomenon had a physiological basis: that apparitions were a result of, as he put it, “a disordered condition of the nerves or senses.”

But this never diminished Dickens’ inherent “hankering” for ghosts or intellectual curiosity in the hereafter. “Don’t suppose that I am so bold and arrogant as to settle what can and what cannot be, after death,” he once told a fellow writer. And acting upon that open-mindedness, later in life, he joined the London Ghost Club – one of the first paranormal research organizations, founded in 1862. Dickens also attended numerous séances, investigating their claims and, more often than not, debunking the phony phantoms of the “spirit business.” Describing the dubious sightings at one particular séance, Dickens mockingly questioned just what sort of spirits these mediums were employing:

“The seer had a vision of stalks and leaves, ‘a large species of fruit, somewhat resembling a pine-apple,’ and ‘a nebulous column, somewhat resembling the milky way,’ which nothing but spirits could account for, and from which nothing but soda-water, or time, is likely to have recovered him.”
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Old 17th July 2017, 02:26 PM   #22
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Originally Posted by epeeist View Post
One of his books for elementary school children (aha! Gotcha I think - there was also a filmstrip?) discussed Pascal's wager and its flaws, I would think that many schools would have a problem with raising a topic like that in a class discussion...though I'm religious so it obviously didn't bother me unduly...
Don't know about the filmstrip BUT: https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_s...=1W610O2KB8JDB

Amazon has book and book.........
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