Earlier this year, former US president Barack Obama, standing before an audience attending the Nelson Mandela memorial lecture, took the opportunity to explain why there is no longer any point in debating with those who question the threat of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming. It’s as simple as this, he opined:
“You have to believe in facts. Without facts there’s no basis for cooperation. If I say this is a podium and you say this is an elephant, it’s going to be hard for us to cooperate…I can’t find common ground if somebody says climate change is just not happening, when almost all of the world’s scientists tell us it is.”
Of course, Obama has no direct experience, or indeed understanding, of the intricacies of climate science. However, he will be confident that he has no need for such insights because he presumes an understanding of what he believes to be the first law of science: Scientists are only interested in determining the truth for the benefit of mankind, and to do so they employ a methodology that ensures objectivity and probity. So if you are approached by a body that claims to speak on behalf of the scientific community, then you had better accept that body’s assertions as fact, otherwise you are being antiscientific. And we all know how heinously dumb the antiscientific are.
Notwithstanding Obama’s simplistic outlook, it cannot be reasonably maintained that he is a stupid man. His respect for scientific dogma is motivated by a well-nurtured rationality that has, no doubt, served him well throughout his life. His puzzlement over, and disdain for, those who do not share his position is genuine and infused with a sense of morality. He sincerely believes that it is no longer in our best interests to entertain doubt regarding CAGW, and if that means denigrating and deriding the opposing view, then so be it – sometimes you just have to shame the devil. Unfortunately, the fact that such certitude is an anathema to the scientific ethos that he professes to hold in such high esteem seems to have escaped him.
In fact, there is no reason to presume that scientists are immune from naivety, and there doesn’t seem to be anything in the scientific method that protects even the most eminent amongst them from extreme instances of gullibility. Take, for example, the case of ‘the notorious Mr Slade’.
Henry Slade was no scientist. On the contrary, he was an American mystic who specialised in duping the great and the good of Victorian society into believing he had magical powers. His pièce de résistance was ‘slate-writing’, in which he could encourage mystical spirits to write messages upon slates, seemingly without any physical assistance from the entranced Henry Slade. And Victorian London fell for it, big time.
Except, not everybody was prepared to take Henry’s magical mystery at face value, and so it wasn’t too long before he found himself before a London magistrate facing charges of ‘using subtle crafts and devices, by palmistry and otherwise’ to deceive his clients. During the course of the trial, testimony attesting to Henry’s bona fide skills was given by a number of eminent scientists led by none other than Dr Alfred Russel Wallace, the naturalist and biologist who had been credited with conceiving the theory of evolution independently of Charles Darwin. Wallace et al were convinced that Slade was the real deal and found no difficulty in persuading the magistrate of the ‘overwhelming’ evidence in his favour. Yet, despite the science being settled, the magistrate felt that his hands were tied. None of Slade’s defence witnesses were present at the actual séance in dispute, but the two plaintiffs were. Reluctantly, the magistrate felt obligated to rule out the scientific testimony and, despite being convinced of Slade’s innocence, he convicted him, stating:
“What is before the Court is not what has happened upon other occasions — however convincing these eminent witnesses may be — but what occurred upon this particular occasion, and here we have two witnesses on one side and only the prisoner on the other.”
So Slade was sentenced to three months hard labour on a point of law. Despite being appreciated as a genuine mystic, he had fallen foul at the hands of two scurrilous slate-writer deniers.
Fortunately for Slade, however, things took a turn for the better when he was able to successfully appeal his conviction, once again on a technicality. Although the words ‘by palmistry and otherwise’ appeared on the statute, they were accidentally omitted from the indictment. But, lest anyone were to make too much of this technicality, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in his History of Spiritualism, was keen to point out that “it must not be assumed that had the technical point failed he might not have escaped [anyway] on the merits of his case.” After all, the scientific community had been firmly on Henry Slade’s side. Even so, there were those amongst the scientific elite who were not satisfied with the state of affairs. Science had placed its reputation on the line, and so a mere technical exoneration of their man would not suffice. There might still be people out there who would argue that the podium was an elephant. So enter Professor Zöllner of Leipzig University.
Johan Carl Friedrich Zöllner was a professor of physics and astronomy and, as such, was well acquainted with the n-dimensional, non-Euclidian geometry first developed by Georg Bernhard Riemann of the University of Göttingen. Upon hearing of Henry Slade’s exploits, Zöllner became convinced that here was clear scientific evidence for the existence of a fourth spatial dimension. Not only was this dimension obviously the denizen of the spirits with which Henry was in communication, it was also a dimension within which Henry himself could move. And to prove this point, Professor Zöllner devised a number of challenges that would be impossible for a three-dimensional entity but would be easy-peasy for those possessing the required extra-dimensional dexterity. For example, if Slade were able to entwine two solid wooden rings or untie a knot within a sealed loop of rope, what more evidence of four-dimensional shenanigans would one require? Eagerly, Professor Zöllner contacted Henry Slade to set up a suitable series of scientific tests that would surely re-establish Slade’s credibility and, with it, the credibility of the scientific community that had been insisting on Slade’s authenticity.
To give you some idea of the gravitas of the scientific consensus we are dealing with here, it may help to identify some of its leading lights. We have already met Wallace and Zöllner, but to that you will have to add Sir William Crookes, inventor of the cathode ray tube; Wilhelm Weber, who gave his name to the SI unit of magnetic flux; J.J. Thompson, discoverer of the electron; Lord Rayleigh, possibly the greatest classical physicist of the nineteenth century; Professor Miner, another professor of physics and astronomy at Leipzig university; Sir W. F. Barrett, professor of experimental physics at the Royal College of Science for Ireland, and Sir Oliver Lodge, an eminent pioneer of radio technology. There were more, of course, but I trust I have made my point. These were all individuals who carried much influence in their day. To challenge their opinion was to be antiscientific.
To be fair, Slade was not able to perform all of the tasks set for him – at least not when the laboratory conditions were sufficiently well controlled. Nevertheless, those scientists who witnessed his performances were left in no doubt regarding his mystical prowess. All concerned, according to Professor Miner, were “perfectly convinced of the reality of the observed facts, altogether excluding imposture or prestidigitation.”
Zöllner was particularly forthright in his defence against the naysayers:
“If, nevertheless, the foundation of this fact, deduced by me on the ground of an enlarged conception of space, should be denied, only one other kind of explanation would remain… This explanation would consist in the presumption that I myself and the honourable men and citizens of Leipzig, in whose presence several of these cords were sealed, were either common impostors, or were not in possession of our sound senses sufficient to perceive if Mr Slade himself, before the cords were sealed, had tied them in knots. The discussion, however, of such a hypothesis would no longer belong to the dominion of science, but would fall under the category of social decency.”
With this statement the deniers’ inevitable accusations of conspiracy theory and hoax were roundly refuted. Slade was possessed of mystical powers and that was a scientific fact.
Nevertheless, the detractors were not going to take this lying down. For example, the quarterly science magazine Bedrock had this to say of the opinions of Professors Barrett and Lodge regarding telepathy:
“It is not necessary either to regard the phenomena of so-called telepathy as inexplicable or to regard the mental condition of Sir W. F. Barrett and Sir Oliver Lodge as indistinguishable from idiocy. There is a third possibility. The will to believe has made them ready to accept evidence obtained under conditions which they would recognize as unsound if they had been trained in experimental psychology.”
And with that we come to the nub of the issue. The scientists watching in awe as Henry Slade cavorted within the fourth dimension were simply succumbing to experimenter’s bias and no amount of scientific respectability or methodology could save them from their will to believe. Science had spoken and yet the podium was still an elephant.
Despite the ringing endorsements from the many scientific luminaries, Henry Slade’s career became increasingly mired within controversy as client upon client was to expose his fraudulent behaviour. Defiantly, Conan Doyle was having none of it. Speaking of the ‘reckless statements’ made by ‘captious critics’ of spiritualism, he patiently explained that “there is truly no limit to the credulity of the incredulous.”
So where are they now?
In later life, Henry Slade’s powers degenerated as alcoholism took its toll. According to Conan Doyle, this led him to increasingly resort to deception in order to supplement his undoubted powers. Ruefully, Conan Doyle observed “that while there was an overpowering preponderance of psychic results, there was also a residuum which left the unpleasant impression that the medium might supplement truth with fraud.” Eventually, Slade died in a Michigan sanatorium and slipped gently into the fourth dimension.
Professor Zöllner died in 1882 after enjoying a relatively short but successful scientific career in which he published numerous papers on photometry and spectrum analysis, together with a somewhat controversial treatise on transcendental physics. He is the only player in this story that has a lunar crater named after him.
J.J. Thompson and Lord Rayleigh both went on to win the Nobel prize in physics for their monumental contributions to human knowledge. The citations failed to mention their unfaltering support for the honourable trade of psychic slate-writing.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle remained a staunch spiritualist to his dying day. However, his reputation was severely damaged when he threw his weight behind the Cottingley Fairies. Upon first seeing the obviously fake photos, he excitedly proclaimed, “When our fairies are admitted other psychic phenomena will find a more ready acceptance.” His admonishment that the critics of spiritualism were demonstrating ‘the credulity of the incredulous’ was never more ironic.
President Obama was last seen fleeing for his life across the plains of the Serengeti, hotly pursued by a stampeding herd of angry podiums.