Franklin v Mesmer

by wjw on September 25, 2010

In what might have been the world’s first double-blind study, Benjamin Franklin, Antoine Lavoisier, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, and a group of elite French scientists examined the scientific claims of Anton Mesmer  . . . at the express command of Louis XVI, no less.  (That Dr. Guillotin’s humane execution machine later separated both Lavoisier and Louis from their heads is one of those ironies of history, I guess.)

The fine folks over at the Skeptic have translated the original report into English, as well as providing an introduction by Michael Shermer.  What we have here is an exquisitely reasoned, superbly documented demolition of Mesmer’s claims for paranormal powers based on his invisible electric fluid.

Because Mesmer refused to take part in the study, his student Deslon was selected to do the magic passes.

The experimenters began by trying to magnetize themselves — joined by rods, rope, and thumbs with Deslon giving proper instruction — to no effect. They then tried seven people from the lower classes and compared their results against seven people from the upper classes (recall the importance of class in pre-revolutionary France). Only three, all from the lower classes, experienced anything significant, so the Commission concluded it was due to the power of suggestion.

To test the null hypothesis that magnetism is really just a placebo effect, Franklin and Lavoisier devised a test whereby some subjects would be deceived into thinking they were receiving the experimental treatment (magnetism) when they really were not, while others did receive the treatment and were told that they had not. The results were clear: the effects were due to the power of suggestion only.

To reinforce this conclusion, Franklin had Deslon magnetize a tree in his garden. The experimental subject — allegedly “sensitive” to the magnetic effect but not told which tree was affected — then walked around the garden hugging trees until he declared he had sensed it. He collapsed in a fit in front of the fourth tree, but it was the fifth one that was “magnetized.” Undaunted, Deslon claimed that all trees carry some magnetism and therefore the test was invalid (not unlike the excuses of failed water dowsers and other modern mystics). In test after test, Deslon failed. One woman was blindfolded and told that Deslon was “influencing” her, causing her to collapse in a mesmeric “crisis.” He wasn’t. Another woman could supposedly sense “magnetized” water. Lavoisier filled several cups with water, only one of which was “magnetized.” After touching an unmagnetized cup she collapsed in a fit, upon which Lavoisier gave her the “magnetized” one, which “she drank quietly & said she felt relieved. Therefore the cup & magnetism missed their marks, because the crisis was quieted rather than exacerbated.” Q.E.D. The Commission concluded that “nothing proves the existence of Animal-magnetism fluid; that this fluid with no existence is therefore without utility; that the violent effects observed at the group treatment belong to touching, to the imagination set in action & to this involuntary imitation that brings us in spite of ourselves to repeat that which strikes our senses.” In other words, the effect is mental, not magnetic.

If only we could have these sorts of elite commissions today.  But no, scientists remain closeted with their instruments while quacks, charlatans, politicians, the self-deluded, and the History Channel dig away at the foundations of reason . . .

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