Wednesday, April 5, 2023

No True Science Allowed! A Priori Assumptions Prevail

 But, let us go back to the scientific curiosity of William Crookes. In the beginning, Crookes’ plans to conduct truly scientific experiments with respect to “spiritualist” phenomena were welcomed by the learned community. The attacks came only later, when the results of his experiments did not confirm their a priori assumptions.

Crookes published his second paper on this subject in the October 1871 issue of the same journal1. There he presented clearly his motivations and the philosophy behind his research. He started with stressing the role of Science, and he did it in an eloquent and, for me, really beautiful way:

Science alone makes steady progress in the present history of mankind. It is science which has transformed the world, though we rarely render her the justice and the gratitude that are her due. It is through her that we live intellectually, and even materially, at the present day. She alone can guide us and enlighten us.

The Strange Case of the Disappearing Camille Flammarion

The motivations behind the work done by William Crookes and other curious researchers were described in the book “The Unknown” by a famous Frenchman, Camille Flammarion. That leads to the question: Who was Camille Flammarion?

Universum, C. Flammarion, gravure sur bois, Paris 1888

Charles Richet, who in 1913 won the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine, wrote the eulogy for Camille Flammarion in 1925, opening with these words:

“Nous venons de subir une perte cruelle.

Voici que disparaît, en pleine puissance intellectuelle malgré son grand âge, notre héroïque ami Camille Flammarion.

Il fut un grand savant. Il fut un noble poète. Il fut un ardent ami de l'humanité et de la paix. Il fut aussi un des fidèles de notre sainte cause, et, comme il avait le culte de la vérité, les problèmes qui nous occupent ici ont animé ses dernières années.” "We have just suffered a cruel loss.

Our heroic friend Camille Flammarion, in full intellectual strength despite his great age, has passed away.

He was a great scholar. He was a noble poet. He was an ardent friend of humanity and peace. He was also one of the faithful of our holy cause, and, as he had the cult of truth, the problems which occupy us here animated his last years."

Shockingly, French Encyclopedia Universalis ignores this famous French personality completely; fortunately, the website of ObservatoryMeudon gives us the relevant details:

Nicolas Camille Flammarion was born in 1842 at Montigny-le-Roi in the department of Haute Marne, France. He first studied theology, but early became interested in astronomy. At age 16, in 1858, he wrote a 500-page manuscript, Cosmologie Universelle, and became an assistant of LeVerrier (the man whose calculations had led to the discovery of Neptune) at Paris Observatory. From 1862 to 1867, he temporarily worked at the Bureau of Longitudes, then returning to the Observatory where he became involved in the program of double star observing. This project resulted in publishing a catalog of 10,000 double stars in 1878.

Flammarion was honored by the naming of a Moon Crater (3.4S, 3.7W, 74.0 km diameter, in 1935) and a Mars Crater (25.4N, 311.8W, 173.0 km, in 1973). Asteroid (1021) Flammarion was discovered by Max Wolf on March 11 …

In his book “The Unknown” Flammarion writes with true passion about the research of William Crookes and others:

This work is an attempt to analyze scientifically subjects commonly held to have no connection with science, which are even accounted uncertain, fabulous, and more or less imaginary.

I am about to demonstrate that such facts exist. I am about to attempt to apply the same scientific methods employed in other sciences to the observation, verification, and analysis of phenomena commonly thrown aside as belonging to the land of dreams, the domain of the marvelous or the supernatural, and to establish that they are produced by forces still unknown to us, which belong to an invisible and natural world, different from the one we know through our own senses.

Is this attempt rational? Is it logical? Can it lead to results? I do not know. But I do know that it is interesting.

“I do know that it is interesting.” The hallmark of a true scientific mind!

There is No Science Without Curiosity

William Crookes started his scientific investigations of phenomena that were - up to that point – considered to be outside the domain of science, simply because he saw that they were “interesting” and they incited his curiosity. There is no science without curiosity – I think one should always keep this in mind.

Frederick Engels and Dialectical Smearing

What kind of experiments was Sir William Crookes performing, and what was the reaction of the scientific community to these experiments and to their results? Before I answer these questions let me tell you about the reaction of one distinguished philosopher of this time, namely one Frederick Engels. In his “Dialectics of Nature” Engels had a whole chapter devoted to the subject of “Natural Science and the Spirit World”. The dialectic method is used there with the obvious purpose of smearing Crookes’ reputation with comments that have nothing to do with the experiment itself, probably with the hope that the reader would be warned off from actually checking the sources – the scientific publications of William Crookes himself. Obviously, this tactic works only on those who have no natural curiosity. Thus writes Engels:

The second eminent adept2 among English natural scientists is Mr. William Crookes, the discoverer of the chemical element thallium and of the radiometer (in Germany also called "Lichtmühle" [light-mill] ). Mr. Crookes began to investigate spiritualistic manifestations about 1871, and employed for this purpose a number of physical and mechanical appliances, spring balances, electric batteries, etc. Whether he brought to his task the main apparatus required, a sceptically critical mind, or whether he remained to the end in a fit state for working, we shall see.

In fact, this “we shall see” was completely misleading, because Engels did not discuss any details of the experiments; his intent was purely and simply to defame. Again we must ask the question: is lack of curiosity and lack of character co-related?

1Available from

2Notice how he uses the word “adept” right in the first sentence in order to create an initial influence in the mind of the reader. Just how this sort of “priming” works is studied extensively in modern cognitive science. 

See Timothy Wilson: “Strangers to Ourselves.”

Next post:  

William Crookes and the Paranormal: True Science

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