Let’s try something. I’m going to drop some words below, and I’d like you to note how you feel about each one. Do you feel strongly drawn to it or what it represents? Are you repulsed or intrigued by it? Would you trust someone who suggests they’re drawn to any of these particular words?
Science. Chemistry. Physics. Parapsychology. Experimentation. Religion. Spiritualism. Occult. Psychic medium. Scientific method. Séance.
The recent publishing of Richard Noakes academically-focused book, Physics and Psychics: The Occult and the Sciences in Modern Britain, has dug into a historical can of worms. When we look back at the history of physical science, the Victorian and Edwardian eras get smirked at for their fascination with spiritualism and psychical science. But should they be?
The space between
The boundary between science and supernatural may seem obvious and rigid — ghosts on the left, test tubes to the right — but it’s actually more of a smear than a line. In fact, there’s actually a fuzzy, gray area in the middle, and we as individuals tend to draw our own lines through it. How did you do with the words above? Did you figure out where you’d place your line?
Physics and Psychics is a fascinating academic book written for Cambridge University that explores the history of psychical research and provides evidence that spiritualism held widespread interest with prominent scientists of the time. New ideas were being postulated and old dogmas were challenged. Things got tense.
In this book, Noakes details a few select scientists and shows that they weren’t necessarily as materialistic as we may have believed. Sir William Crookes is renowned for being extremely dedicated to scientific accuracy and facts, having discovered the element thallium, invented the radiometer, and pioneered research with vacuum tubes and cathode rays (Crookes tube, anyone?). He also served as the president of the Society of Psychical Research (SPR).
It wasn’t just Crookes. There are many other esteemed scientists discussed in the pages of Physics and Psychics (JJ Thompson, Sir Oliver Lodge, Karl von Reichenbach, John Tyndall, to list a few). Noakes suggests that while we appreciate and laud them for contributions to their fields of science, we sweep their interest in psychical research under the rug. While the SPR and other similar groups did their best to provide clarity and control for paranormal events, the members had varied beliefs on where the boundary between science and spectra exists.
Now I need a shower
But it’s something we’ve been taught to separate and define. Science is this, spectral realm is that; don’t cross the streams! It almost feels dirty to talk about. The fact that the people we revere as luminaries could hold these ideas we’ve been told is nonsense and contradictory just feels … wrong. Maybe that’s why history largely ignores ignores it? Noakes thinks that that’s not how we should look at it.
It’s clearly inappropriate to pretend that psychical research was (and is) of no value. It was the birth of psychological experimentation and paved the way to exploring consciousness. Psychical research helped us learn about statistical analysis, sharing data, holding back biases, dealing with issues of morality or discrepancies between science, the supernatural, and religion — all big ideas we’ve been working on improving and understanding ever since.
Though many of the ideas that were held about things like animal magnetism, the ether, and telepathy turned out to be absolutely off-base, we learned how to approach metaphysical research through physical science concepts. That’s pretty amazing. Which isn’t to say the debunking of frauds and “alternative sciences” of the past isn’t absolutely thrilling. While there’s little that’s as exciting as revolutionary scientific advancement, seeing bad science and swindlers get their butts handed to them is pretty darn righteous.
Should we go back and talk about the historical significance of the time that you got spiritualism in my physics? According to Physics and Psychics, yes. While Noakes makes it clear that healthy doses of skepticism and critical thinking are extremely valuable, he points to the creativity, persistence, and confidence that grew from those who attempted to harness the realm of the unknown. There’s even a slight indication that what we should be looking at skeptically is our collective bias against both those who searched for supernatural or paranormal, and those who dismissed psychical science as a whole.
In the conclusion, Noakes expresses that he understands why today’s scientists hold a negative attitude (or complete ambivalence) toward psychical research — shady dealings with frauds, lack of convincing evidence, challenging founding scientific assumptions, etc. — but says we shouldn’t be embarrassed by what’s happened in the past. We should embrace it, and perhaps continue to explore it with newer technology.
“I might be biased, but …”
Honestly, I agree with the sentiment of embracing the history of spiritualism, especially in science classrooms. Talk about it, explore, create. That’s where good science comes from, isn’t it? New ideas, unique views. Different ways of looking at things.
Can it get dodgy when you mention the occult or talk about the religious and secular overtones of the spiritualist movement? Sure, but there’s people out there really struggling to be engaged. Besides being academically dishonest, removing this history only makes it seem more sterile, and could push away people who might find a meaningful connection.
No doubt, Physics and Psychics is a tedious read and definitely requires some level of familiarity with the subject matter. As a major academic writing, it’s sourced to the teeth and immaculately worded. There are figures to reference, though not many, but they really help remind you of what point in time we’re dealing with. Also, it’s super easy to get lost among the names of people, places, manuscripts, and chosen vocabulary.
That said, if you are interested and are up for a challenge, this book is amazing. The time and work put into researching the historical value of spiritualism to science is top notch. For the scientists explored in these pages, it’s not an embarrassing foray, but a measure of humanity that brings them to life in an interestingly new, almost whimsical way. If I was telepathic, I’d beam it right into your brain right now.
Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.