“What a weak credulous, superstitious, ridiculous world ours is, as far as concerns the mind of man. How full of inconsistencies, contradictions, and absurdities it is.” Those are not the words of some commentator bemoaning the lack of current critical thinking, although they well could be. They were uttered in 1853 by Michael Faraday, one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. Faraday’s remarks were prompted by the craze of “table turning” that was sweeping across Europe. Participants at seances sat around a table with their hands placed on top waiting for spirits to demonstrate their presence by causing the table to turn. And it often it did! But as Faraday would go on to show, spirits were not involved.
By the time Faraday turned his attention to seances, he had already invented the electric motor, the electric generator, the transformer and the process of electrolysis that led to the isolation of a number of elements. Indeed, it is no understatement that he changed the world. And his popular public lectures at the Royal Institution introduced people to the science of that changing world.
The birth of spiritualism, a movement based on the belief that the spirits of the dead exist and have the ability and inclination to communicate with the living is often traced to the home of Kate and Margaret Fox in Hydesville, N.Y. It was there in 1848 that the sisters claimed to have contacted the spirit of a murdered pedlar whose body had been found in the house. The communication was not verbal but was in the form of rapping sounds audible to anyone present. People flocked to hear the messages that supposedly came from the murdered man in the other world. Actually, they were quite of this world. The sisters had developed a remarkable ability to crack their toes! One could call them the original rappers. Incidentally, there never was any record of a murdered pedlar.
From these bizarre beginnings the spiritualist movement spread far and wide. Believers began to frequent sittings known as seances at which they attempted to communicate with the dead under the guidance of a medium. In the dim light of a seance, the spirits would often signal their presence by the movement of small objects, the playing of instruments without musicians and the tilting and levitation of tables. Fraud was often involved with mediums using magic tricks to convince the gullible that they had made contact with the spirits. This annoyed magicians who used the same effects for entertainment, but always made clear that no supernatural phenomena were involved. And naturally scientists like Faraday who were well-versed in the laws of nature became interested in these supposedly paranormal events.
Faraday became curious enough to attend some seances and witnessed first-hand the movement of tables without any evidence of trickery. If it wasn’t chicanery or the handiwork of spirits, in which he did not believe, then what caused the movement? Some scientists suggested that the motion was due to electrical or magnetic forces generated by the sitters, but Faraday demonstrated that this was not the case by covering the table with a variety of insulating materials through which electrical or magnetic forces could not pass. The table still frolicked.
Having dispensed with the possibility of human emissions, Faraday suggested that the sitters were subconsciously exerting a force with their hands, a phenomenon that would eventually be referred to as the “ideomotor response.” Simply put, this occurs when a thought brings about a muscular response without the awareness of the subject. In the particular case of table turning, the seance participants hoped so much that the spirits would appear that their own muscles made it happen. But how to prove this?
Faraday devised a system of cardboards attached to each other and to the table by rubber cement in such a way that the top board on which the hands rested could move sideways before that motion was translated to the table. Sure enough, he was able to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the participants that it was their inadvertent hand motion that tipped the table. The sitters were honest, intelligent people who deceived themselves by engaging in muscular activity that was consistent with their expectations.
As he stated, Faraday had managed to “turn the tables on the table turners” but nevertheless spiritualism persisted. He resolved to continue the battle through education, the object of which was “to train the mind to ascertain the sequence of a particular conclusion from certain premises, to detect a fallacy, to correct undue generalization, to prevent the growth of mistakes in reasoning.” Restating that goal today is well warranted.
As far as spirits go, we cannot prove that they do not exist. But if they do, it is curious that they have nothing better to do than move furniture around.
Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society (mcgill.ca/oss). He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.
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