Sunday, January 12, 2020

Louis XVI and Mesmer

From The Conversation:
Of course, some were sceptical. The one who spoiled Mesmer’s game was French King Louis XVI. In 1784, Louis set up a commission of leading scientists to investigate Mesmer’s methods. They systematically tested and dismantled his claims. 
The most memorable example was a patient who went into convulsions whenever she drank “magnetised” water. The commission members gave her the water, observed the dramatic convulsions, and offered her a drink of normal water afterwards to help her recover. The only problem for Mesmer was that they had switched the drinks. 
It was painfully clear that Mesmer’s results were due to the power of suggestion – his patients were being mesmerised, and nothing more. If he had been more rigorous and less colourful, he might have been much more widely recognised as a founding father of clinical hypnosis. Instead, he left France disgraced, in search of clients elsewhere. 
Meanwhile, the commission’s ingenious methods provided a model for controlled clinical trials to rigorously assess medical treatments, in what is now considered perhaps “the first modern psychology study”. The Mesmer case was a particularly impactful and high-profile example of why academics now eschew colourful language and grand claims in their written research. Academic writing is deliberately dry and impersonal to help researchers assess where the truth actually is, as opposed to where they would like it to be. 
That’s why one of the greatest discoveries in the last century was written up in some of the most dry, technical language imaginable. Francis Crick and James Watson’s seminal paper unlocking DNA’s structural secrets ends with the classic understatement: “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.” 
Of course, the full story is more complex than just one single spectacular scandal changing the course of science. By Mesmer’s time, calls for dry, clear language in science had been gathering pace for a century, pioneered by writers such as Francis Bacon. Along with a growing contingent of scholars endorsing a more rigorous approach to scientific investigation, he was highly critical of the then widespread use of elaborate and manipulative language. Many alchemists, for example, hid their findings behind cryptic stories so that they would be incomprehensible to what they considered the unworthy public. (Read more.)

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