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Science Talk

Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain: Sci Am's History of Debunking

In this episode, Scientific American editor-in-chief John Rennie talks about the magazine's history of involvement with efforts to debunk medical quakery and paranormal fakery, which included a fistfight between a Sci Am editor and Harry Houdini. And we'll hear an 1883 Sci Am editorial on the relative merits of the telephone and telegraph. Plus we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include: gutenberg.org; ssrn.com/abstract=970413

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting January 2nd, 2008. I'm Steve Mirsky. This is the 100th episode of Science Talk, but Scientific American magazine is way older and it has some fascinating stuff in its closet, which we'll take look at. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. If you are a frequent listener, you've heard Editor in Chief John Rennie on the program every once in a while; he recently addressed the inaugural meeting of the New York Skeptic Society and I came along and recorded his talk. The first 15 minutes or so were devoted to [a] review of a couple of cases from way back in the magazine's history when we got directly involved in debunking or attempting to debunk some quackery and some fakery. Here's John Rennie.

Rennie: I am talking today about Scientific American: A Century and a Half of Skepticism. Even that's slightly undervaluing it. Scientific American has been around since August 28th of 1845. It was just four pages long, four big newspaper-like pages; it had lots of old patent announcements and it had poetry, and it had little reports on science and all kinds of things about that. And these days, it actually looks, you know, (tapping sound) more like this and has a picture of me in it, which means it's not actually gotten any better during that time (laughs), so it all should've neutralized itself. But, you know, having been around since 1845, this is a very long time obviously. This is around since basically about the beginning of the second industrial revolution. This is before the Civil War. This is so early that we know that Thomas Edison read it as a boy and we know Thomas Edison read it as a boy because he came to the offices of the editors and told them when he was demonstrating his invention of the phonograph for the first time. Having been around since 1845, I mean Scientific American has been around since before airplanes, since before automobiles, since before x-rays, since before relativity, obviously. It has been around since the discovery of the electrons; it has been around since before the germ theory of disease. It has been around for a very long time, but it has not been around longer than stupidity and that is something that at some level, the editors and writers for Scientific American have always dealt with during that very long history—and so I'm going to try to show you just a few highlights, or lowlights as the case may be, of some of Scientific American'sexperience with that. The golden era of Scientific American's involvement with anything like skepticism was really back in the late teens–1920s; because during this time, Scientific American was involved with several different projects that were aimed at trying to debunk various things that were of questionable scientific accuracy. One of them had to do with a whole area; it looked very critically at different areas of medical quackery, and to that end, this is maybe one that they are probably most famous for. How many of you have ever heard of the electronic reactions of Abrams [ERA]? Not too many, probably. These days it's not very well-known—take my word for it. However, at the time in the early 1920s, this was one of the major health fads sweeping the United States. It was founded by Dr. Albert Abrams, who came up with this radiological approach to diagnosis and ultimately treatment for disease, and it was so compelling, it was so attractive to a lot of the United States that it actually started to win over different practitioners and the AMA started to see it as a major threat; and they were mounting their own efforts to try to defeat the spread of the ERA. And Scientific American was pulled in to try to help debunk this as well and so, let's start by just taking about the ERA itself. Dr. Abrams seems to have hit about something around 1916 or so; he seems to have had this idea for approaching diagnosis that involved a device that he called the dynamizer. This is the magic of how the ERA actually worked. With the ERA, the patient would give a blood sample or could be a sample of pretty much anything indeed. Over time, it started to become something so liberal that it went from just blood or other body fluids to the point where Abrams was saying that you could take handwriting or just pictures of people, and that would be taken and would be inserted into the dynamizer. Then the wires from the dynamizer would then reach up and be attached to a healthy person, who would have to orient themselves facing west—because that was very important—and they would hold these things here and they would attach the other leads as necessary and then the practitioner would come up and would (tapping sounds), palpate this control person's belly and listen (tapping sounds); and from the sounds, he could determine what was wrong with the person who had given the blood sample because, you see, this is going to be scientific. So some of you may want to, I guess, [if] you asked me to repeat this, I will, because it's very complicated. The electronic resonances associated with the diseased Adams would migrate up through the wires and would alter the electronic resonances of this person and so the practitioner could then listen to this and could determine it. Now, why was [it] that he didn't just go and listen to the diseased person, I actually don't know, even it's not really clear; but this was great because Abrams would sell these boxes for like $400 to people who a[we]re licensed to become new ERA practitioners and the great thing was that part of the license was you were not for any reason allowed to open up the box and look inside. (laughs) Never could you look inside the box. And so, you know, he was selling this, he was also then selling different sorts of seminars, teaching people how to use the devices; he was minting money. He made millions of dollars in the early 1920s which was an appreciable sum of money. Oh! And this by the way: he didn't just stop with diagnosis, he also moved on to the area of treatment because of course if you can use these resonances to diagnose what's wrong, by reversing the polarity using a device called the oscilloclast, which is kind of an inverted dynamizer, he could then actually correct the resonances and fix whatever was wrong with you. And it was great. I mean after awhile, he was just fixing pretty much anything with this and he was even being used to, at some point, identify where people might be. I mean, Abrams at one point didn't stop short of actually taking a photograph of someone and using his dynamizer to look at a map and figure out where that person might be. Can you imagine why the health authorities thought this might actually be worth stopping? So Scientific American stepped into this and they undertook a nine-month investigation of the ERA, in which they painstakingly, laboriously looked at all the claims for it and treated it exactly the way; it was a model of investigation, because they basically said, "All right, Abrams would not cooperate with this, Abrams wanted nothing to do with it, but Scientific American found one practitioner who was willing to cooperate: Dr. X, as he is referred to in the magazine at the time, and Dr. X would consent to this." And so Dr. X would say, "This is how ERA works, this is what you're supposed to do", and the panel of Scientific American put together would then say, All right, if that's the case, well let's try this." So they started them with this great test, in which they gave the ERA practitioner, Dr. X, they gave him a series of pure germ cultures in test tubes and basically said, "So here it is, this is the purified causative agent of these; it's unlabeled, just tell us what this is." Because if you can certainly diagnose if someone has, say, syphilis in their bodies from this processing of blood sample and if we give you pure germ culture, you should certainly be able to identify it that way. And Dr. X agreed that this was a good test, and he then deployed that and the results were actually amazing, because the results were that he didn't get any of them right; he got all of them wrong. In fact, he actually—it was beyond what you would've imagined, that just [by] random chance you would've thought he would've gotten some of them right. Well Dr. X did not take this lying down, because he looked at it and said, "Oh! Here's the problem. You see the labels that you've written as—some of them have red ink—well the redness of the labels is interfering with the resonance." So they changed that and they kept doing this. They kept doing this over and over again, month after month. Every time they would test it and [the] ERA would fail, then there was always some sort of excuse and they would correct for this and they would go back and do it again and again. And they eventually got to the point where they did somehow find a dynamizer, and they just tore it open and looked inside and they determined that the dynamizer inside was, as you would probably have imagined, a complete rat's nest of just wires—and in some cases [they] weren't connected to anything. It would just look complicated, if you even did peek inside. Some of them didn't even connect to external leads on this thing. So, after nine months, Scientific American finally came to its own conclusion on all of this. And their verdict—and this was part of a much longer article denouncing all of this—but as you can see, it basically said, "This committee finds that the claims advanced on behalf of the Electronic Reactions of Abrams and of electronic practice in general are not substantiated and it is our belief that they have no basis in fact. In our opinion, the so-called electronic reactions do not occur and the so-called electronic treatments are without value." It was a model example of a kind of thing I think we could [would] all like to see, when it is possible to try to take some sorts of medical quackery and subject it to good skeptical scrutiny all the way through.

Scientific American was not always so successful in this regard. Because around the same time, another series of things that it was involved with was in looking at the spiritualism movement. Spiritualism [was] very, very big at the time—lots of séances were going on—and Scientific American undertook a competition in which they basically, they were promising two $2,500 prizes to any spiritual medium who could demonstrate certain things, of being able to demonstrate a physical manifestation to the satisfaction of the investigating board or could otherwise, I think, just show other sorts of proofs of this. And they went through for months after months, really years, looking at different mediums and just, you know, blowing them up. Harry Houdini was part of the team that would travel around with Scientific American. I don't believe that Arthur Conan Doyle was actually part of this, because of course he was little soft on the subject of spiritualism, but he was involved with this a lot as well, and there was one editor, Malcolm Bird, who was—wonderfully named, Malcolm Bird—who was the managing editor of Scientific American at the time, and it's pretty clear when you read back through the accounts that they wrote of their attempts to bust these different séances, that Bird was kind of sympathetic to the spiritualist cause. It was pretty clear that he actually in lot of cases, really wanted to find a ghost in some of these; however, the board that they put together, the panel they would send to these séances never, you know, they found what they found—they kept finding fraud after fraud. This all came to a head however, when it eventually came to look[ing] at the case of a famous spirit medium whose name was Mina Crandon, but she was generally referred to as Margery. This became sort of the downfall of Scientific American's ghost-busting crusade, because Margery was, you know; she would have these various meetings in which she would just seemingly just would show amazing things and prove that she has had amazing contact with the spirit world, often through the medium of Walter—Walter who was the male voice who would speak through her at these times. People were really quite impressed with the job that she was doing and apparently—now this is something I'm getting directly from Penn Jillette himself, because when he was telling the story back at the amazing meeting last year, Penn Jillette was actually able to elaborate on this because he had met and interviewed the granddaughter of Mina Crandon and the granddaughter was able to confirm certain things—Mina was kind of a looker, particularly by the times, and apparently she would do a lot of her séances in the nude. (laughs) This may have sort of softened some of the skepticism (laughs) that was associated with this and that may in fact have actually affected [the investigation]. When Scientific American's investigative team showed up and actually started living in the Crandon's house in Boston, Malcolm Bird is just transfixed with Mina; he just thinks she's great. When you read those accounts, he is strongly believing that he has finally, finally found the genuine article, and again, I would only cite what Penn Jillette told me about this: that apparently, according to Margery's granddaughter, yes, she really was sleeping with all of them, which was convenient—not for Scientific American, however. Because Scientific American was well on its way toward forking over those $5,000 in prize money. But then it was prepared to do this, while Harry Houdini who was properly part of the team, was not there; he was off on tour and he heard about the fact. He was reading that it looked like Scientific American was closing in on doing this, and so he rushed back so he could be there for another séance that involved all of them, and he's there for the séance. He is very upset that Malcolm Bird and other members of the panel seemed ready to award this, and in the middle of the séance at one point Harry Houdini, leaks [leaps] to his feet and points to some evidence of fakery, and he is denouncing her right in the middle of it. And Malcolm Bird leaks [leaps] to his feet and starts to vigorously defend Mina's honor, which lead[s] to what I get the impression was then a fistfight of some sort (laughs) that broke out between Harry Houdini and Malcolm Bird; and I think it is probably an excess of my own imagination that imagines [the fight] spilling out into the street somehow, because I really can't imagine that in a fistfight between Harry Houdini and Malcolm Bird that it would last very long. However, it was enough to pretty much destroy the ghost-busting attempts of Scientific American at that point. So we never actually gave out the $5,000 in prizes, yeah.

Steve: By the way, some Scientific American content from the 19th century is available free via Project Gutenberg, which digitizes material that's off copyright. Just go to www.gutenberg.org

Now it is time to play TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Marathons are associated with a decreased risk of motor vehicle fatalities.

Story number 2: An archaeological dig in Jordan finds that the oldest human-powered transportation appears to be something like a modern scooter made of two wheels with a wooden plank between them.

Story number 3: Scientific American magazine once published an article saying that the telephone would never successfully replace the telegraph.

And story number 4: Statistically, when CEOs buy really big, expensive houses, the company's stock tends to go down.

Time is up.

Story number 1 is true. Motor vehicle fatalities are reduced during marathons because the roads are closed and according to research published in the British Medical Journal, more lives are saved on the roads than are lost to sudden cardiac events in the marathons.

Story number 4 is true. A study showed that stock performance is inversely related to the CEOs spending on their new home. The research appeared online at the Social Science Research Network in an abstract called, "Where are the Shareholder's Mansions? CEOs' Home Purchases, Stock Sales and Subsequent Company Performance." The author is right. "Future company performance deteriorates when CEOs acquire extremely larger, costly mansions in the States. We therefore interpret large home acquisitions as signals of CEO entrenchment, which means that the CEO's job is probably safe regardless of company performance."

And story number 3 is true. SciAm once did indeed publish an article saying that the telephone would never replace the telegraph. More on that in a moment.

All of which means that story number 2, about an ancient scooter being the oldest human-powered form of transportation, is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Because a recent paper in the Biological Journal of the Linnaean Society of London reports that the oldest human-powered transportation appears to be ice skating, going back about 5,000 years. The skates were made of animal bones. The paper proposes that ice skating was probably invented in southern Finland and that the bone skates could have cut energy use—which means food requirements—by a full 10 percent.

(phone ringing sound)

So, in the spirit, so to speak, of John Rennie's look back at SciAm history, here's a wonderful editorial item on telephones and telegraphs that I stumbled on recently while I was going through our ancient issues. It's actually a reprint of something of that first appeared in the New York Sun, but we apparently liked it enough to run it in the issue of Scientific American dated May 26th, 1883. The title is "Telegraph or Telephone".

"Despite the fact that recent experiments have demonstrated the possibility of telephoning over long circuits, it is to be doubted if the instrument will be used otherwise than locally. It is too sensitive to induction, to atmospheric electricity and to grounds for circuits exceeding a few miles in length. The experiments have been tried under the best, not under the worst conditions. It is hardly possible for the telegraph business of two large cities to be conducted by telephone by the senders of messages themselves, for 500 wires might not suffice to prevent a block in busy hours and merchants could not and would not wait. To operate telephones as the telegraph is now used would be equally impractical. Even where the instruments as little liable to disorder as the Morse, the greater danger of errors would weigh against them. There is no system of signals as clear as the present Morse code, as interpreted by the sounder. Each letter of a word is given in[and] the ordinarily good operator seldom err[s]or in the record. By telephone, it is the sound of a word and not its vowel and consonants which the operator receives and a mistake can easily happen even out of the best conditions. It is to be doubted too of the repetity [sic] of transmission by telephone, where the message had to be written down at the receiving station would even approximate that of the Morse system. Proper names, scientific terms and phrases in a foreign language etc., would have to carefully spelled out and even then would fall wide of accuracy."

So they were not conceiving of two people actually talking to each other, even. They are thinking that somebody on the other end of your speech is going to be writing all this down and then handing a piece of paper to the recipient. And the little editorial concludes: "All in all, there seems to be but little prospect of the present series of experiments resulting in a practical good they are talking about the telephone now, however gratifying from a scientific standpoint."

Well that's it for this edition of the weekly SciAm podcast. You can write to us at podcast@SciAm.com and check out numerous features at the new www.SciAm.com Web site, including "The Year in Robots",continuing discussion with the authors of the Big Solar Energy Proposal article featured on the podcast two weeks ago and the "Sci-Doku" puzzle. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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