Friday, April 7, 2023

William Crookes and the Paranormal: True Science

William Crookes himself, on the other hand (cf. the previous note: No True Science Allowed! A Priori Assumptions Prevail), described his experiments in as much detail as he possibly could, in a series of papers, and also in his book “The Phenomena of Spiritualism”. In particular, in a number of experiments, Crookes researched the phenomenon known today under the name of “telekinesis”. 

A “gifted medium”, Mr. Daniel Dunglas Home, exerted some kind of a force that could not be explained by the known laws of physics. One of the arrangements of the experiment is represented in Fig. 3 – taken from Crookes’ book, p. 15 

What the spring balance measured, and what was recorded, could not be explained by the established laws of physics.

Curiosity Debunks the Debunker

What was the response of the scientific community? As Crookes remarks in his paper “Some further research on psychic force”, published in the “Quarterly Journal of Science”, October 1871, a leading scientific engineer of the United States, Mr. Coleman Sellers, objected that the mahogany board used by Crookes, given its dimensions, could not possibly have the weight of 6 lb, given by Crookes. It should have the weight of 13.3 pounds!

East African Mahogany (Khaya anthotheca)
It is a large evergreen tree up to 60m tall with an elongated or rounded, much-branched crown. Diameter between 60-120cm.

Well, hold on a minute! This declaration made with such certainty incited my curiosity and so I checked the material properties of mahogany wood given in the tables that are available on the internet, and I came to the conclusion that it could.

The dimensions given by Crooks were 36x8.5x1 inches. This gives us the volume of 342 cubic inches. One foot has 12 inches; therefore we are dealing with about 0.2 cubic feet. According to a wood densities table that can be found on the internet, African mahogany wood has the density 30-53 lb/ft3, which, assuming that Crookes’ board was really dry, gives the weight of 6 pounds!

Certainly, the scientific engineer, Mr. Coleman Sellers, could have figured that out himself even without tables of properties available on the internet today. One suspects that he took a board of the correct dimensions, soaked it for a long time in water, and then weighed it so as to be “telling the truth” in his critique. That is how a lot of science is done, by the way.

The Apathy of Science

Anton Chekhov

Crookes commented on the reluctance and apathy of the scientific community regarding these truly astonishing effects:

I confess I am surprised and pained at the timidity or apathy shown by scientific men in reference to this subject. Some little time ago, when an opportunity for examination was first presented to me, I invited the co-operation of some scientific friends in a systematic investigation; but I soon found that to obtain a scientific committee for the investigation of this class of facts was out of the question, and that I must be content to rely on my own endeavours, aided by the co-operation of a few scientific and learned friends who were willing to join in the inquiry.

As noted already, at the beginning, when Crookes announced his plans, the reaction was, as a rule, positive: “if men like Mr. Crookes grapple with the subject, taking nothing for granted until it is proved, we shall soon know how much to believe.”

Yet, as Crookes noted in his second paper:

These, however, were written too hastily. It was taken for granted by the writers that these results of my experiments would be in accordance with their preconceptions. What they really desired was not the truth, but an additional witness in favour of their own foregone conclusions. When they found that the facts which that investigation established could not be made to fit their opinions, why, - ‘so much the worse for the facts.(Italics, mine.)

It was not therefore a surprise when these reactions changed to “The thing is too absurd to be treated seriously.” “It is impossible, and therefore can’t be true.”

The Attack of Science on Curiosity

Crookes also anticipated the attacks from those who are not curious because they know it all in advance. They know what is possible and what is impossible, and they are not in any need in need of experiments to verify what they are convinced about – like Michael Faraday mentioned above. Crookes analyzed the problem succinctly:

Many of the objections made to my former experiments are answered by the series about to be related. Most of the criticisms to which I have been subjected have been perfectly fair and courteous, and these I shall endeavor to meet in the fullest possible manner. Some critics, however, have fallen into the error of regarding me as an advocate for certain opinions, which they choose to ascribe to me, though in truth my single purpose has been to state fairly and to offer no opinion.


Many people will say, ‘What is the use of seeking? You will find nothing. Such things are God’s secrets, which He keeps for Himself.’ There always have been people who liked ignorance better than knowledge. (…)

Other people may object that these chapters on the occult sciences are making our knowledge retrograde into the Middle Ages, instead of advancing towards the bright light of the future, foreshadowed by modern progress.

His reply to the last criticism makes an important point:

Well, then! I say that a careful study of these facts can no more transport us back to the days of sorcery, than the study of astronomy can lead us back to the times of astrology. (…)

Further on, Crookes asked:

Had the time really come? Was the way fully prepared? Was the fruit ripe? One can but begin, of course. Future ages will develop the seed.

I think we live in the “Future ages” and
nothing has changed in the attitude of those who are not curious, those who are narrow-minded, and those who cannot live without being subservient to some authority, be it religion, be it “the mainstream science”, or both. Those people - sometimes they are scientists, sometimes administrators, and sometimes magicians - try to kill any curiosity, any research that dares to go beyond the boundaries of that which they declare to be “rational” – a totally irrational attitude, I would say.

P.S.1. 08-04-23 16:22 Seventies - These were Good Old Times

Try once more like you did beforeSing a new song, Chiquitita

P.S.2. 09-04-23 11:54 Noted this passage while reading McGilchrist - "The Matter With Things", chapter "SOME POTENTIAL CAUSES OF CONFUSION":

"However, we live in a society where talking about life is as much our defining quality as living it. And when it comes to articulating a philosophy, or a working model by which to understand our society and the wider world, that wisdom suddenly disappears in the mind of the  public  spokesman,  politician  or  scientist  in  the  need  not  to appear  foolish.  We  become  unnaturally  self-scrutinising,  and  self-consistency suddenly becomes of prime importance. Regrettably we would  rather  speak  falsely,  if  doing  so  means  we  do  not  seem  to contradict ourselves: we realise that it is much simpler for our point of view to be dismissed as self-contradictory than untrue. Given this cast of mind, it is easy to see how one might easily argue one’s way into believing something which one knows perfectly well at a deeper  desire  to appear consistent to some – rather too simple – position." (bold - mine)

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