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Mediums, Skeptics, and William Crookes …. Oh My

William Crookes (1832-1919) was a physicist, chemist and member of the Royal Society (which is the oldest national science institution in the world) who contributed a great deal to science. Crookes is credited with the discovery of Thallium, being the first to identify helium, inventing sunglasses as well as other contributions to chemistry and physics such as vacuum tubes and the Spinthariscope (i.e. device used to study nuclear radioactivity) (Gay, 1996). Crookes was also the individual who first coined the term ‘psychic force’ and carried out experiments in the controversial area of spiritualism.

While Crookes maintained his distance from the spiritualist views he did come to conclusions that went against the prevailing psychological and naturalistic views of the time. Crookes’ journey into the investigation of spiritual phenomena began when he announced his intention to investigate spiritualistic phenomena, which was followed by his first experiments with D.D. Home (medium). These experiments were designed to test two types of phenomena, which included Home’s ability to play musical instruments without human interaction and Home’s ability to affect the weight of physical objects. In the first experiment Mr. Home held an accordion inside a cage that was underneath a table with one hand at the opposite end of the keys.

According to the witnesses present, which included three observers including Dr. Huggins, Sgt Cox, and Crookes’s assistant the accordion began to play music and at one point Home removed his hand altogether and the accordion still expanded and contracted while playing music (Crookes, 1874). In the second experiment Home placed his fingertips at the extreme end of a wooden board and was able to exert downward pressure on the opposite end of the board moving the self-registered weight index (Crookes, 1874).

Following these experiments Crookes conducted further experiments regarding psychic force with different and more objective measurements and apparatus all of which gave further proof to Crookes’s psychic force.

These experiments were conducted during the Victorian period, which has been called the age of science due to the increasing beliefs in naturalistic laws rather than supernatural agencies or superstitions (Noakes, 2004). Scientific practitioners and investigators of Spiritualism believed that the phenomena of the séance could be reduced to natural laws; however Spiritualism became so popular it was represented as beyond natural laws and science (Noakes, 2004). According to Noakes (2004) the belief that Spiritualism was beyond the reach and explanation of science posed a threat to Victorian scientists because if these phenomena were real they called into question orthodox science’s credibility, claims, and expertise. Orthodox science was forced into the business of debunking spiritualistic phenomena in an effort to uphold their natural laws and since Crookes’s new psychic force lay outside these natural laws his research was severely criticized. The first part of this article will discuss how Crookes presented his experiments into a psychic force as scientific and objective as a way to display his results as being in accordance with orthodox science. The second part of the article will focus in on how Crookes’ experiments were received by orthodox science. The third part of the article will illustrate how similar patterns of presentation and reception of unorthodox claims still exist in modern science using the example of parapsychology.

Presentation of Crookes’ Experiments

The presentation of experiments including measurements, methods, and conclusions is important in regards to how the experiment is received and viewed. In the next section we will look at how Crookes presented his experiments which follow the pattern of describing his version of proper science and scientific methods, justifying his investigations into the phenomena, and finally application of his version of science and the scientific method. It should be noted that an agreed upon scientific method had not been established during the Victorian period (Noakes, 2004), therefore Crookes presented what he believed was the most scientific approach to test the phenomena and his expertise in this approach.

Crookes (1874) begins by announcing his intention to investigate spiritualistic phenomena and clarifying “what experimental proof would be needed before admitting a new department of knowledge” to science. (p.4) Crookes also emphasizes that his version of science will be congruent with the “modes of thought current amongst those who investigate science” (p.4) In other words Crookes was stating that before he began his investigation into the phenomena he wanted to make clear what would suffice as good enough scientific evidence to warrant further investigation. The phenomena would have to pass Crookes’s version of science to be deemed worthy. Lamont (2007) points out that Crookes’s version or mode of science was based on two central themes, which included accurate observation and lack of preconceptions about what is possible. In an attempt establish his expertise and experience in accurate observation Crookes (1874) states that “his whole scientific education has been one long lesson in exactness of observation.”(p.4) Crookes further points out the importance of accurate observation in the following examples; “the supremacy of accuracy must be absolute” (p.4), “imperfect observation may cause infinite trouble to thousands” (p.5), “accuracy and knowledge stand foremost among (…) scientific men.”(pp.4-5) Crookes (1874) then stresses that accurate observation can only be found when human senses are not the primary mode of conclusion. In discussing the imperfection of relying only on human senses Crookes states “We ask for instrumental means to increase their [human senses] sharpness (…) when [they] are liable to be off balance.”(p.5) Crookes presented his version of science to include accurate observation which includes objective measures and strict testing conditions. He believed that any force that could “toss a heavy body up to the ceiling” could surely “cause a delicately-poised balance to move under test conditions.”(Crookes, 1874, p.6) At this point Crookes has established himself as a scientific man with experience and expertise in observation, who is capable of utilizing objective measurements. Crookes then points out the contrast between his version of science and the “pseudo-scientific spiritualists” version of science. Crookes points to the pseudo-scientific spiritualist’s lack of “calculations”, “hard experiments”, and “laborious readings” (p.5) as leading to unscientific conclusions. By Crookes emphasizing science as opposite of the techniques of pseudo-scientific spiritualists he further implies that his version of science is an abundance of calculations, hard experiments, and labours readings. At this point Crookes has stressed that in order for science to accept any knowledge it first must be investigated with accurate and objective measurements, under strict test conditions by those with scientific knowledge and reasoning. According to Lamont (2007) by presenting science as based on accurate observation Crookes is able to build up the authority of scientists over spiritualists and establish himself as being qualified to carry out investigation of the phenomena.

Along with accurate observation Crookes’s version of science was presented as including no bias or preconceptions (Lamont, 2007). Crookes (1874) attempted to present his experiments making clear the fact that he did not currently “adopt any explanation which has been suggested” regarding the causes on the phenomena. (p.3) He believed the natural explanations were “easy, but miserably insufficient” and that the spiritual hypotheses were “sufficient, but ponderously difficult.”(Crookes, 1874, p.3) Crookes (1874) states “In the present case I prefer to enter into inquiry with no preconceived notions.”(p.4) Crookes emphasized that his purpose was to “bring light in any direction” and further emphasized his lack of preconceptions stating “I care not in what direction.”(p.4)

Crookes also presented in his writings justification for investigating spiritualistic phenomena. While Crookes was clear in that he was not bias he also had to prove why investigating these phenomena is important to science, rather than a waste of time. Crookes’s (1874) first view regarding justification was the belief that it was the scientific man’s duty “to investigate the phenomena, which attract the attention of the public.” (p.3) Crookes’ second justification was that the current research on spiritualistic phenomena is inadequate. According to Crookes (1874) “scientific reasoning is misunderstood by spiritualists” and “truly worthy scientific minds are reluctant to investigate.” (p.3). Crookes (1874) further warrants his investigation by inferring that he is not the only scientist with this opinion stating “I began an inquiry suggested to me by eminent men exercising great influence on the thought on the country.” (p.7)

So far Crookes has provided a description of his view of science which is based upon accurate observation and lack of preconceptions (Lamont, 2007) as well as justified his investigation into the phenomena. The next step is the development and application of his version of science to his experiments (Lamont, 2007).

In Crookes’s (1874) first experiments he presents his first task as identifying and testing phenomena which he believes could be “tested with scientific accuracy.” (p.10) Crookes (1874) then describes the two phenomena he will investigate which include the alteration in weights of bodies and the playing of musical instruments without human interaction. Once it is clear what phenomena he is studying he develops two different apparatus and experimental procedures for objective measurement of the phenomena (for a more detailed description of apparatus and procedure, see Crookes, 1871). Mr. Home was able to demonstrate his abilities under controlled test conditions; therefore, Crookes presented his results stressing his accurate and objective observations. Detailed illustrations, witnesses (Dr. Huggins & Sgt Cox), “carefully arranged apparatus” and “copious notes written at the time of the occurrences” where presented as evidence to this accurate and objective observation (Crookes, 1874, p.16). Lamont (2007) argues that Crookes’ experiments and results were also designed and presented in a fashion to counter against a number of potential criticisms such as misremembering (i.e. notes written at the time of occurrences), exaggerations (i.e. ‘plain unvarnished facts’), dishonesty (i.e. ‘irreproachable witnesses’), and bias (i.e. ‘investigator should be cold and passionless’).

In Crookes’s second series of experiments his presentation still remains consistent with his version of science. In these experiments Crookes improved his apparatus and procedure to increase accurate and objective observation and further rule out natural explanations regarding movement of the measurements. For example in these experiments Home never touched the board and in one experiment was 3 feet away, however still caused a weight change in measurements. Crookes’ illustrations of his apparatus were also more technical and specific as Crookes answered some early criticisms of his first experiments. Crookes (1871) also conducted experiments with another subject besides Home to rule out possibility of fraud on Home’s part. Crookes (1874) further warrants continued investigation into the phenomena stating that “experiments similar to his” have shown similar results, which provide evidence for replicability. (p.27)

According to Lamont (2007) Crookes, in presenting his experiments in the fashion that he did, was able to “present himself as an exemplary scientist and his experiments as the product of proper scientific enquiry, while inoculating against a range of potential criticisms” that they were not carried out scientifically. (p.43) As will be discussed in the next section his inoculation attempts were minimally effective as critics painted Crookes’ measurements, apparatus, and results as flawed due in part to his incompetence and bias views.

Reception of Crookes’s Experiments

As mentioned in the previous sections Crookes presented his experiments in a fashion that can be argued as being scientific and lacking bias. Orthodox science’s response, however was to criticize the very things that Crookes tried to inoculate against. The reception of the experiments led to responses from critics that called into question Crookes’s lack of preconceptions, accurate observation, and justification for investigation. His critics tactics generally fall into three categories which include; professional and personal attacks (i.e. bias, scientific incompetence); natural explanations for Crookes’ results (i.e. fraud, mesmerism, and apparatus flaws); and insignificance (i.e. experiments were waste of time, unimportant, and trivial).

Personal and professional criticisms against Crookes as well as those who witnessed and verified the experiments mainly focused on their alleged bias, incompetence, and gullibility. According to an article entitled Spiritualism and its Recent Converts an anonymous reviewer (it was later revealed to be W.B. Carpenter) focused on Crookes’ witnesses stating “Dr. Huggins is one of a class of scientific amateurs” and Sgt. Cox “is one of the most gullible of the gullible.”(Carpenter, 1871, p.341) Carpenter (1871) also chooses to point out that Sgt. Cox was fooled by a previous clairvoyant, George Gable, who turned out to be a fraud. Some examples of Crookes's incompetence include; “Mr. Crookes is entirely ignorant of the previous history on the subject” (Carpenter, 1871, p. 328); “we speak advisedly when we say that this distinction [Fellowship of the Royal Society] was conferred upon him with considerable hesitation” (Carpenter, 1871, p 343); “part at least of this predisposition [towards Spiritualism] depends on the deficiency of early scientific training.”(Carpenter, 1871, p. 351) Carpenter (1871) implied bias regarding Crookes by stating “He entered into the inquiry (…) with an avowed forgone conclusion of his own (...) this obviously deprives his conviction of their objective reality” (p. 343) Other personal attacks that were focused on Crookes and his witnesses included categorizing them as only being trained and competent to study specialized areas in science. Carpenter (1871) states “A man may have acquired a high reputation as an investigator in one department of science and yet be utterly untrustworthy in regard to another.”(p. 340) In other words Carpenter is acknowledging the importance of Crookes’ and Dr. Huggins’ accomplishments in chemistry and astronomy, however implies that they are only competent in those areas. Carpenter (1871) states that Crookes is a “special among specialists” and his results are untrustworthy “in any inquiry that requires more than technical knowledge.”(p. 343)

A great deal of orthodox scientists were quick to point out possible natural or physical explanations for the results reported by Crookes in his experiments. Professor Stokes in a letter to Crookes points out “possible sources of error (…) with reference to your first apparatus” and goes on to explain how physical pressure could have explained the weight change (Crookes, 1874, p.28). In a lecture at Velsey Hall in Chelsea Carpenter was quoted as saying “anyone who had a pair of scales in the house could make an experiment to prove the fallacy of one of the points in Mr. Crooke’s paper.”(Crookes, 1874, p.73) Coleman Sellers, an American engineer, questioned how controlled the experiments with Home were and implied fraud. (Crookes, 1874). Carpenter (1871) points out natural explanations (i.e. unconscious muscular actions) and fraud, using examples of other mediums (Mrs. Hayden and Mr. Foster) that were caught cheating. (Crookes, 1874, p. 32) Professor Balfor Stewart believes that a possible cause was that Home “possesses a great electro-biological power, by which he influences those present” (Crookes, 1874, p.33)

There were also criticisms which focused on the absurdness and unimportance of the experiments to science. Statements such as; “This thing is too absurd to be treated seriously” (Crookes, 1874 p. 22); “It is impossible therefore cannot be” (Crookes, 1874, p.22). J.P. Earmaker (1871) believes that the experiments were “inaccurately performed (…) the detail not sufficiently examined (…) obvious errors apparently avoided (…) they [experiments] are not worthy of scientific consideration.”(p. 279) Charles Wheatstone who was a member of the Royal Society in a letter to Crookes stated “your experiment (…) does not offer an iota of proof in favour of (…) you psychic force” (Crookes, 1874, p.76) Criticisms focusing on the experiments triviality and unworthiness to science had a huge impact as they were used to refuse acceptance of papers into the Royal Society. In reference to reasons why Crookes’s experiments were not accepted by the Royal Society Professor Stokes states “don’t see much use discussing the thing in sections, crowed as we are” and “the subject seems to be investigated in a philosophical sense”(Crookes, 1874, p.32) He goes on to suggest that Crookes start a committee, however is clear in stating that “he [Stokes] would not give his time to such a committee” (Crookes, 1874, p.32) Carpenter adds in a public lecture that “it was unanimously resolved that the paper be returned (…) as in the opinion of the Royal Society it was good for nothing.”(Crookes, 1874, p.73)

Similar Patterns in Modern Day Boundary Work

The presentation and reception of Crookes’s experiments remain a valid example of how unorthodox scientific claims are treated even in contemporary times. It has been over a hundred years since Crookes’ experiments, however unorthodox and orthodox sciences continue to utilize the same tactics. It seems that unorthodox scientists will present their findings as scientifically and objective as possible and orthodox scientists will attempt to poke holes in the alleged science and objectivity of the findings.

In more recent times Parapsychology has been attempting to establish the existence of paranormal phenomena (psi) and orthodox science has been attempting to deny this phenomena’s existence. In order to deny the legitimacy of parapsychology’s claims orthodox science is using tactics that can easily fit into the categories discussed earlier (personal/professional attacks, natural reasons for results, and insignificance of claims and results).

In 20th century Germany those who believed in or studied paranormal phenomena were deemed to have a “psychological weakness” and their mental stability was questioned (Wolffram, 2006, p.244). Albert Moll (1929, as cited in Wolffram, 2006, p.251) argued that those in parapsychology lack “the qualities essential for scientific research.”

Natural explanations regarding parapsychology’s positive results have focused on poor controls, statistical flaws, experimenter fraud, and participant cheating (Collins & Pinch, 1979). According to Ransom (1979) a major criticism of parapsychology is that parapsychologists interpret the evidence of their data improperly and jump to conclusions. Deception, psychological tricks, hysteria, hypnosis, and Le Bon’s crowd psychology hypothesis (magnetic influence over people in crowds by speaker) were other natural explanations (Wolffram, 2006). These explanations are remarkably similar to accusations of mesmerism and Professor Stewart’s claim people were electro-biologized in Crookes’ experiments.

Insignificant, unimportant, unworthy, and trivial are all categories critics of parapsychology have placed the discipline’s results and claims. In 1958 the Vice President of the American Associations for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) stated in regards to the existence of psi “I cannot believe it” and goes on to say that not “even the evidence of his senses would lead me to believe.” (Collins&Pinch, 1979, p.244) Dr Rawcliffe states (1959, as cited in Ransom, 1979, p.417) that the ”ESP movement (…) is basically a cult.” The view of parapsychology as unworthy, unimportant, and insignificant may also be tied with lack of publication in orthodox journals, which is similar to the reasons regarding denial given by the Royal Society regarding Crookes’s experiments. Collins and Pinch (1979) point to survey work which indicates a bias against publishing the positive results of parapsychologists in orthodox journals.

Parapsychologists have undertaken and presented their research and results in the same manner as William Crookes as they incorporate current legitimate scientific methods and rely heavily on meticulous observations in a controlled environment. According to Collins and Pinch (1979) “parapsychology comprises some of the most rigorously controlled and methodologically sophisticated work in the sciences” (pp.244-243) Like Crookes modern day parapsychologists are also attempting to justify the legitimacy of their discipline as well as the investigation into psi phenomena. Collins and Pinch (1979) believe that parapsychologists have been in metamorphosis, which is the process of changing into and presenting themselves as legitimate scientists. Parapsychology has acquired university posts, PhD students, and in 1969 the Parapsychological Association was accepted into the AAAS (Collins&Pinch, 1979).


William Crookes’ experiments in 1871 revolved around the controversial topic of spiritualistic phenomena. Crookes presented his experiments and results into these phenomena stressing the importance of accurate observation, lack of preconceptions, objective measurements, controlled test environments, reliable witnesses, and significance of phenomena to science. Crookes in a sense was making his experiments, procedures, and results as scientific as he possibly could as a way to counter potential criticisms (Lamont, 2007). Orthodox science responded by criticizing the very things that Crookes tried to inoculate against. Orthodox science accused Crookes of being bias and his results and experiments as being flawed and the results of fraud, incompetence or natural explanations. Examples of the same presentation tactics of unorthodox claims and criticism tactics of orthodox science can be seen over a hundred years later regarding Parapsychology. Parapsychologists attempt to present their positive findings regarding the existence of Psi in accordance with current scientific methods, objective measures, and lack of preconceptions and their critics respond by implying bias and suggesting that positive results are due to methodological flaws, lack of expertise, fraud, or natural explanations.


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