Parapsychology in Germany – review of Heather Wolffram’s Stepchildren of Science (2009)

In 2009 a fat and promising book landed on my desk, fresh from the publisher. I had looked forward to it for a while, as the topic was highly relevant for my dissertation, and this was the first full-length academic study ever to look at it. It was furthermore written by an author whose articles on the same topic I had been following for a while, with great interest. The book was Heather Wolffram’s Stepchildren of Science: Psychical Research and Parapsychology in Germany, c. 1870-1939. I was going to write a book review for Aries, which I did. It only appeared this spring, however. Since it is already three years ago that the book was published, I think it is about time to share the review with a broader community. So please find the pre-publication version of the review below.

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Bad science is normal (pseudoscience is neither)

Frankenstein's monster, immortalized by Boris Karloff's performance

Science gone bad. Frankenstein's monster, immortalized by Boris Karloff's performance.

I have an unhealthy interest in what some like to call the “pseudosciences”. Having spent quite a bit of time trying to understand this category from historical, sociological, and philosophical perspectives, I have also developed a keen interest for another category, “bad science”. Bad science and pseudoscience should not be confused with each other, however. While pseudoscience may also be bad science, most of bad science is not generally considered pseudoscience. In fact, bad science is normal. Pseudoscience, on the other hand, is defined precisely by deviating from the norm of science.

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Occult Trajectories towards Science: the conclusion of a course

Last semester I taught an MA course on the troubled relationship between science and esotericism in the post-Enlightenment era. I blogged about some of the classes earlier, particularly on mesmerism (here and here), spiritualism, the interactions with the ideological superstructures of naturalism and positivism (here and here), Frederic Myers, William James and psychical research, and the encounter between Jung and Pauli. It’s a diverse subject, which can go in very different directions. To show a bit of the diversity, I will briefly present some of the papers that were submitted. (more…)

Neurosurgical nonsense and the historical method

The brain of God, or just another Rorschach effect?

Some will have noticed the recent revival of speculation about the anatomical knowledge of Michelangelo. The blog at Scientific American reported on “findings” published in Neurosurgery this May. The authors, Tamago and Suk, claimed to reveal detailed anatomical sketches of a human brain and nervous system hidden in the “Separation of Light and Darkness” fresco in the Sixtine Chapel.

Rather exceptional, since these anatomical details were officially not known until 360 years later. The cutting-age anatomy of the day was that of Vesalius – very impressive, but hardly taught to modern-day neurosurgeons.

This unfortunate piece of Scientific American-backed high-publicity nonsense has been thoroughly debunked by Darin over at PACH (here, here, and here). In addition to clarifying some of the serious historical errors of fact in the SA piece, he has some very readable reflections on the utter disregard for the historical method, and the typical fallacies encountered (a little too often) when scientists try their hands at history of science. Go read it. (The PACH blog will now duly be added to the blog roll).

An etiology of angelic vision: Article on John Dee and Edward Kelly in Aries

A couple of weeks ago I promised to take a closer look at one of the articles from the present issue of Aries. Now I finally found an occasion to look at James Justin Sledge’s contribution, “Between Loagaeth and Cosening: Towards an Etiology of John Dee’s Spirit Diaries”. As the title suggests, it’s about the Elizabethan philosopher, mathematician and magus John Dee’s famous conversations with angels, and his favourite skryer, Edward Kelly.

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A bright day for freedom of speech in science

Courtesy of Richard Wiseman

After two years’ struggle, the British Chiropractic Association finally dropped their libel case against science writer Simon Singh. This has been a high profile case in the campaign (which has only just begun!) to reform the UK’s ridiculous libel laws. This is a great step in the right direction. For the man who’s occupied centre stage, the victory will still be a costly one. Singh has spent 200.000 pounds to defend himself in the case, which started after he wrote an article in the Guardian in 2008 criticising the (lacking) scientific basis for chiropractic treatments. Instead of meeting him with arguments and evidence, the BCA attempted to sue the criticism to silence.

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