The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense

By Michael Shermer | Go to book overview

8
A SCIENTIST AMONG
THE SPIRITUALISTS

Crossing the Boundary from
Science to Pseudoscience

HISTORIANS HAVE A MOST unusual task among seekers of truth. In order to think ourselves into the minds of our predecessors to understand how they thought, we must forget what we know because we would unfairly judge them by our standards—they did not know what we know. On the other hand, in order to glean lessons from the past to understand which ideas were dead ends and which led to the modern worldview, we must remember what we know and compare their ideas with ours in order to make history useful as well as entertaining. It is a tricky balance to maintain, especially when traveling along the borderlands of science where what we might today call pseudoscience, a different age would call science. A case study in exploring the boundary issues in the nature of science versus pseudoscience can be found in the investigations of spiritualism by the renowned nineteenth-century British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, best known for his codiscovery (with Charles Darwin) of natural selection.

Wallace merits our attention not only because he was honest and passionate (lots of people are, but that does not make them good investigators), but because he was considered one of the greatest scientists of his age. How does an eminent scientist, through a series of investigations (as opposed to compartmentalized religious or spiritual beliefs), come to accept suprascientific or supernatural ideas? The answer is not just a historical curiosity. There is a powerful social movement underfoot, driven largely by the Templeton Foundation, that distinctly and purposefully crosses the boundary between science and religion

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