Twentieth Century Psychology: Recent Developments in Psychology

By Philip Lawrence Harriman | Go to book overview

A CASE STUDY IN THE PERPETUATION OF ERROR

GEORGE W. HARTMANN

Department of Psychology
Harvard University

Almost every literate adult within the English-speaking world has probably heard the story of the Black Hole of Calcutta, a minor event supposed to have happened almost two centuries ago in connection with the British conquest of India. Innumerable histories, major and minor, record the short but horrible tale; sober encyclopaedias give it the respectable stamp of their authority; and more recently, solid medical, engineering, and psychological textbooks have by their repeated references thereto all but universalized an awareness of this episode. One can hardly encounter any lay or professional discussion of atmospheric or ventilation problems which does not compulsively mention the Black Hole, as though no account would be complete without this scholarly adornment.

Yet there is grave doubt whether this alleged event ever actually occurred. Strangely enough -- or is it strange? -- psychologists have been as gullible as others in their uncritical reception and transmission of this tradition. This circumstance makes it a choice candidate for inclusion within any mature study of the mechanism of rumor. Let us examine some of the evidence, with an advance warning that full verification would be equivalent to a doctoral thesis, which the reader shall be spared.

Two things immediately strike any investigator attempting to check this incident: (1) the paucity of "eye-witness" accounts, and (2) the nationalistic alignments among historians,

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