Conan Doyle's Witnesses
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
Conan Doyle's Witnesses is an article written by Joseph Jastrow published in The New-York Times on 9 september 1923.
Critic of Arthur Conan Doyle's beliefs in ectoplasms.
Conan Doyle's Witnesses
Their Prestige Cannot Be Accepted as Final Proof of His Spiritualistic Theories Says Professor Jastrow.
To the Editor of The New York Times:
Once more Sir Arthur Conan Doyle makes a startling announcement of wholesale conversion of eminent men of science to a belief in the reality of supernormal phenomena, including the belief in the communication of the departed, with revelations of Personal identity. Sir Arthur has proved himself so frequently and so variously credulous to a degree as startling as his announcements that this further pronouncement will be taken not with a grain but with a liberal spoonful of salt. When about to venture upon a second American lecture tour he sent word advance that 100 eminent men of science of Germany and had subscribed to the reality of "ectoplasm," to the "genuineness" of the movements of objects at a distance, defying all the laws of physics, and to other marvels. I have been unable to find out just what those men of science were requested to witness, and particularly what they subscribed to. A list of the names (in part) was available. A well-selected list of scientists from any large country, is likely to include a majority of critical observers who, if they are without prejudice in such matters and are prepared to exercise their critical faculties, will be cautious in what they say. It will be time enough to decide what their testimony amounts to when we have before us the exact text of their statement. Meanwhile, we may remain entirely skeptical as to the correctness of Sir Arthur's account of what they saw or subscribed to.
Now we are told that a group of thirty-four men of distinction in Paris have been convinced, including three editors, twelve leading doctors from the Paris hospitals (no names given), one Academician, one member of the Prefecture of Police, three men of science, Richet, Flammarion and Sir Oliver Lodge. That makes twenty; other fourteen not indicated. All that is quoted is that they were sure that there was no illusion and no possible cheating. What we are interested in is the critical quality of this jury. It would be easy anywhere to select thirty-four or more men of distinction who have no more fitness for such a rôle as these were invited to assume than so many men selected from any other comparable class of laymen. What these men saw and what they subscribed to may or may not be important. But we may be permitted to remain very doubtful as to the value of this indirect testimony at the hands of Sir Arthur.
The situation may be made clear. Sir Arthur came to this country on his second venture and offered large but not responsive audiences evidence of survival of the dead in the way of spirit photographs that was an insult to the intelligence of any audience beyond the moron grade. That the City of New York — not by way of exception, but as typical — should have given him the attention and the income which he received is by no means to be cited as evidence of a high intelligence quotient among the classes capable of paying for seats at Carnegie Hall. On the other hand, the newspaper accounts showed a creditable attempt to offset the wave of obscurantism that would have been the issue of such a propagandist movement if the American public had really been represented by the audiences assembled. It is very easy to show that Sir Arthur has been repeatedly and grossly deceived by the most vulgar kind of spirit-seance that is designed to prey upon the emotions of the gullible. He has subscribed to the genuineness of frauds that have been repeatedly exposed to last detail of ingenious or clumsy deception. He has attempted to revive a belief in the reality of fairies based on photographic evidence so palpably fraudulent that the children of like age as those who made the photographs would hardly be convinced. In brief, if there is any one member of the very small modern group of distinguished men who for one reason or another have gone over to the delusion of the supernormal who is thoroughly discredited by his versatile and eager credulity and his readiness to ignore all the exposure of fraud that has been accumulated, it is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is naturally with a feeling of great regret that one must record this conviction; for within his own field we are all pleased to honor his talent and to welcome his presence. But to ask the public to entertain anything else than a critical attitude of protest against his parody of scientific evidence would be to stultify ourselves in our own estimation.
The matter does not end here. There is a very small group of men convinced that there has been established a science of metapsychics, demonstrating after the manner of true science the reality of phenomena not to be incorporated with physics or biology or psychology, but transcending them. Of these Professor Charles Richet is the most distinguished advocate, and has recently recorded in his "Thirty Years of Psychic Research" the basis of his conviction. This also includes a faith in ectoplasm, in the movement of objects without contact and in clairvoyance. In all this he does not receive the support of his colleagues in France or elsewhere. That all this alleged science rests upon bad logic, faulty observation, an unjustified ignoring of the possibility of fraud, as well as a personal prejudice, can be abundantly shown. I shall have something to say on this topic in a forth-coming issue of The Literary Review and elsewhere, and trust you will permit me to refer your readers to these articles to offset the announcement of Sir Arthur. The world of science is not disturbed by these personal vagaries of a few men who happen also to have achieved a reputation in one and another field of science. Such isolated cases are inevitable, however they are to be accounted for. One may respect the integrity and the courage of such a men as Professor Richet while still expressing amazement at his use of arguments which would affect unfavorably the tending of a sophomore in an accredited college. Let us not be deceived in any sense by the argument of prestige. Good men may go wrong. The majority remain cautious. Ectoplasm will go the way of all myths founded on deception and the will to believe. I haven't the slightest fear that the American public will lose its head over "metapsychics"; but I have a strong conviction that the scientific and educational lessons of such pseudo-scientific movements should be utilized for stiffening the critical intelligence of the public. That is part of the mission of the public press.
Professor of Psychology, University of Wisconsin.
New York, Sept 2. 1928.