Charlatan: A person who falsely claims to have a particular skill.

Compact Oxford English Dictionary[1]

This is G. I’m back, but you’d never know it from the last five blogs. Those guys were so busy turning out copy that I don’t think they even noticed when I walked back in the door. But I got their attention with the last blog when I edited it and made them change some stuff after it was published. Not that I’m being critical, you understand; they did an enormous amount of work in a very short time. And it was accurate. I’m just saying; when time permits, writers should never, ever miss an opportunity to do an edit.

I guess you could say, those who can write, do. The rest of us edit. So in the spirit of fairness, this time I’m going to write something and let yesterday’s authors play the editor’s part. But not about just any old thing; I’m going to write about Anton Mesmer, the principal villain of the last piece. My thesis is, no matter what people say he wasn’t really a charlatan.

Let’s review the circumstances.[2] Mesmer lived and practiced in Paris roughly from 1778 to 1784. At one time he relied on regular magnets to treat illness, but at some point he switched to applying animal magnetism to effect cures. Apparently his patients thought he was successful; there are plenty of stories about his ability to influence them[3], and he developed methods for treating them en masse. The one we know is the baquet, a tub filled with bottles of water supposedly charged with animal magnetism.  Patients stood around the tub in a circle, and touched (or were touched by) iron connections to the bottles. At the height of his practice, Mesmer had four baquets in operation.[4]

How did Mesmer explain his methods? Well, not very well. There was a mutual influence, he said, “between the heavenly bodies, the earth, and animate [i.e. living, moving] bodies”[5] This is true because there is a fluid, “which is universally distributed, so continuous that there is no space which it does not fill, of incomparable subtlety, and by its nature capable of receiving, propagating, and communicating all impressions of movement.”[6] I don’t know about you, but to me that seems a bit like the dark energy today’s astronomers use to explain why the universe expands faster than they think it should.[7] You know, mysterious, not seeable, and measurable only by influence, that sort of thing.

Of course, there is something of a difference between today’s astronomer/physicist and Mesmer the hypnotist. The modern astronomer has access to lots of sophisticated and expensive equipment[8], and finds ways to test his theories regardless of the fact that, in the end, dark energy can’t be seen, it can only be inferred. Mesmer, on the other hand, didn’t have a clue about how animal magnetism worked. He said only that it was “governed by mechanical laws, which up to the present time are unknown.[9]” So he wasn’t able to devise rigorous tests to make his point, and this put him at a disadvantage when the French investigators arrived.

Left to their own devices, they hung around a baquet, submitted to treatment, and felt little effect. Then they tested sick people, from the upper and lower classes, and found no significant results; what they could find was easily explained by “known psychological causes.” And, finally, they tested children, who were led into supposedly magnetized areas, but were not told about the experiment. The children felt no effects.[10] Given all this the scientists concluded there really was no magnetic fluid.

What should Mesmer have done? Quoted Don Rumsfeld, and said “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence?”[11] French scientists of that time were in the midst of the Enlightenment and wouldn’t have been bamboozled so easily. They would have known that if a scientist has no evidence, his theory is not confirmed. No excuses permitted. Or put another way, absence of evidence is not evidence of presence.

Should he have said, “Hey, I have lots of clinical evidence of success, no matter what your tests show?” That should count for something. Also, what do you really know about your approved remedies, which emphasize “harmful regimens of purging, bleeding, blistering and drugs.[12]” I was doing my patients a favor by keeping them away from all that.

I suppose even today a purist might say we don’t really know if any medicine will work on this or that patient at any given time. Read the literature that comes with your medications, if you don’t believe me. What we patients know, at best, is the pills have been screened rigorously under modern procedures; they’re more or less safe to use, but can have side effects; and some, but not necessarily all of the people who take them may benefit. Check with your lawyer, if you don’t believe me. And by the way, if your lawyer is a litigator, he or she won’t guarantee a result, either.[13]

But if Mesmer didn’t discover magnetic fluid, or prove its existence, what might he have found? How about the placebo effect? The old definition was that a placebo was a flatterer, sycophant, or parasite.” But nobody needed to discover those types. They’ve always been with us. The medical definition is more relevant. In medicine a placebo is “an epithet given to any medicine adapted more to please than benefit the patient.”[14]

Mesmer claimed results greater than simply pleasing his patients. He maintained, and others confirmed, that from time to time he actually cured people. If we accept that, then we have to admit Mesmer discovered something, i.e. the power of mesmerism.[15] He developed techniques to hypnotize patients, bring them under the power of suggestion, or whatever you want to call it. That, I think, was something new in his day.

So, let’s go back to the question: Was Mesmer a charlatan? Some think so[16], but I disagree. To me there’s an element of intent required to be a charlatan. One has to know one is wrong, and proceed anyway. Mesmer had results in his clinic, and he thought that was enough to prove his theories. Perhaps he was a bad scientist, but that didn’t make him a fraud. I think.

 


 

 

[1] See Compact Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford, 3rd Edition, 2005) at charlatan, p. 160.

[2] Like everybody else, I’m going to rely for my facts on Pattie, Mesmer and Animal Magnetism (Edmonston, 1994) (hereafter, cited as Mesmer at __).

[3] See, e.g., Mesmer at Reactions of the Patients, p. 71 -74.  See also Mesmer at “D’Eslon’s Report o Eighteen Cases Treated by Mesmer, p. 115 – 116; Mesmer’s Cures of Chronic Diseases, p. 136 – 138; and  Reports of 116 Cures, at p. 176.

[4] See Mesmer at Mass Methods of Treatment, p. 70 – 71.

[5] See Mesmer at The 27 Propositions, p. 87 – 93, especially p. 87.

[6] Id.

[7] See the Wikipedia entry on Dark Energy, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_energy ; see also NASA Science, Dark Energy, Dark Matter, at http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/focus-areas/what-is-dark-energy/

[8] See, e.g., Hobby-Eberly Dark Energy Experiment at http://hetdex.org/

[9] See Mesmer at The 27 Propositions, p. 87.

[10] See, e.g., Mesmer at The Bailly Report, p. 145 – 151, especially p. 147 – 149.

[11] Oh, look, and anachronism. Mesmer couldn’t quote Rumsfeld because Rumsfeld hadn’t been born yet. I point this out because sometimes it seems he’s always been with us.

[12] See Mesmer at Mesmer’s Character, p. 276 -283, especially p. 283.

[13] See, e.g.,  ABA Litigation News, Ohlendorf,  Attorney Blogger Runs Afoul of Ethics Rules on Advertising (May 30, 2013) at http://apps.americanbar.org/litigation/litigationnews/top_stories/053013-blog-ethics-advertising.html

[14] See The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically (Oxford University Press, 1971).Henceforth, we’ll cite this version as OED (1971) at __). See OED (1971) at placebo, Vol. 2, p. 2192, senses 3 & 4.

[15] See Mesmer at Mesmer’s Character, p. 276 -283, especially p. 282.

[16] Including Frank Pattie, the author of our principal reference. See Mesmer at Mesmer’s Character, p. 278 – 283, especially p. 283: “Mesmer was indeed a charlatan; he claimed to have knowledge which he did not have, and he rejected the methods of investigation which would have given him the knowledge that he needed.”

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