The Deep Roots of Scientific Skepticism

I'm only a few pages into Daniel Loxton's Why Is There a Skeptical Movement? (available in PDF here) and it's already fascinating. I think I had heard a bit about how Harry Houdini leveraged his experience as a stage magician to combat the "spirit mediums" so common (and so fraudulent) in his day. What blew me away, though, was how far back these skeptical roots went.
  • P. T. Barnum offered cash prizes to any psychic who could "pertinently" answer questions he had sealed in envelopes and stored somewhere else. Okay, you know your game's crooked when P. T. Barnum thinks your "humbug" has gone too far!
  • Benjamin Franklin, Antoine Lavoisier, and M. Guillotin served on a special commission to the French monarchy to investigate "animal magnetism" healing touch quackery. Sort of like an 18th c. Justice League, but for science! and mostly French.
     
  • This stuff goes back yet another century, to the Pseudodoxia Epidemica of Sir Thomas Browne (1672) and A Candle in the Dark by Thomas Ady (1655). It seems that almost immediately after the scientific method was invented, people started putting every sort of paranormal and pseudo-scholarly scam to the question. One gets the impression that people (maybe lots of people) always doubted, but couldn't think of a way to get hold of the spurious claims.
     
  • Apparently Michel de Montaigne's Essays (1580... but we're not even close) contains some skeptical passages, especially some keen observations of human psychology. I actually have this text (thank you Honors first-year sequence!), so it's jumped up a few places on my to-read list.
     
  • These debunking accounts, Loxton writes, go clear past the Roman Empire and straight into Biblical times, with the deuterocanonical 14th chapter of the Book of Daniel. There's also the pseudo-empirical test of divinity in the Book of Kings.
The big take-away here is that some of these claims, especially prognostication and extraordinary remedy, are very, very old, and yet not only have the claims not really changed, but they were challenged and skewered even at their inception! There's something remarkable there, that people have gotten wise to the game of charlatans just as long as people have been duped. I'm not sure whether that's a net optimistic or cynical sign, but in the spirit of contrarianism (since it's too darn fashionable to be a cynic these days) I'll say things are looking up.