Note: The following essay is based on a segment from Skepticality.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is known for many things: the creation of Sherlock Holmes, a spectacular mustache, and his belief in spirits and fairies.
M’colleague, Bob Blaskiewicz, has discussed Doyle’s* seemingly ludicrous belief in the Cottingley fairies, but spiritualism was Doyle’s burning passion. He possessed a religious, missionary, perhaps even messianic zeal to promote belief in discarnate spirits and life after death. He lectured and wrote voluminously on the subject, including a two volume History of Spiritualism.
It’s easy to make fun of Doyle’s beliefs. Really easy. Stunningly easy. In fact it’s quite hard to refrain from making fun of them. In his writings on spiritualism, he displayed the same degree of levelheadedness and perspicacity that led him to conclude that this is an actual picture of a fairy:
His credulity seems almost infinite. By the time he published The History of Spiritualism, most of the mediums he discusses had been exposed resorting to fraud, in some cases repeatedly. Some of the mediums had even confessed. None of this deters him. He is able to defend the supernatural abilities of anyone who seems to display gifts that in some way bolster his religious beliefs:
In the light of our later, fuller knowledge we know that much that bears the appearance of fraud is not necessarily fraud at all.–The History of Spiritualism, Vol. I
How can an apparent fraud not be a fraud? Oh, so easily. For instance, he defends medium Eusapia Palladino although everyone–including Doyle and Palladino–admits that she sometimes did cheat. He, like Palladino, blames her trickery on skeptics who were looking for trickery. In other cases, the fraud wasn’t really fraud. On more than one occasion, an investigator grasped the foot Palladino was using to produce effects. Doyle doesn’t deny that a foot was grasped or that it was attached to Palladino’s body; however, he suggests it may have been a pseudopod, an ectoplasmic limb extruded from her body. This explanation assumes that skeptics are incapable of counting up to three.
Doyle even believed that magicians, like his erstwhile friend Harry Houdini, possessed real supernatural abilities but refused to admit it. Doyle genuinely believed that when Houdini appeared to walk through a wall that he was actually dematerializing and walking through a wall (Brandon 168).
Doyle’s credulity, rationalizations, and cognitive biases are not particularly unusual. They were shared by many contemporaries and are still common today. Doyle, however, combined credulity with arrogance, condescension, and an unswerving belief in his own rightness. He railed against scientists for not taking spiritualism seriously. He claimed that
[T]he attitude of organized science during these thirty years was as unreasonable and unscientific as that of Galileo’s cardinals, and that if there had been a Scientific Inquisition, it would have brought its terrors to bear upon the new knowledge. No serious attempt of any sort, up to the formation of the S[ociety for] P[sychical] R[esearch] was made to understand or explain a matter which was engaging the attention of millions of minds.–The History of Spiritualism, vol. I
When scientists did take spiritualism seriously, he railed against them for being too skeptical. In discussing the work of the Society for Psychical Research he says,
In an exaggerated striving after what was considered to be an impartial, scientific attitude, a certain little group within the society has continued for many years to maintain a position, if not of hostility to, yet of persistent denial of, the reality of physical manifestations observed with particular mediums. It has mattered not what weight of testimony was forthcoming from trustworthy men whose qualifications and experience made them worthy of credence.–History of Spiritualism, Vol. II
While dismissing many scientists and sciences, he praises to the high heavens those scientists who shared his credulity and biases, such as Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection. He is inordinately fond of the argument from authority, frequently citing the testimony of eminent men.
He can be both snobbish and anti-intellectual. He even quibbles with other spiritualists and many mediums who don’t understand the true significance of spiritualism–that is to say, they do not interpret it the way he does.
Worst, he can be uncharitable. Inevitably, he spends a considerable amount of time discussing Katie and Maggie Fox, who sparked the craze for spiritualism when they heard (or produced) knocks and raps in 1848. They were eleven and fifteen years old at the time. They were relentlessly exploited by their much older sister Leah. Leah ended up wealthy and secure and lived to a ripe old age. Kate and Maggie both descended into poverty and alcoholism, and Leah abandoned them when they became scandalous.
Doyle believes in the Fox sisters’ gifts and has great respect for Leah, but he says of her sisters,
[T]hey misused their gift in the direction of giving worldly advice, receiving promiscuous sitters, and answering comic or frivolous questions. If in such circumstances both their powers and their character were to deteriorate, it would not surprise any experienced Spiritualist. They deserved no better, though their age and ignorance furnished an excuse.–History of Spiritualism, vol. I
Despite all his flaws, though, I find myself getting angry on Doyle’s behalf. He became a fervent, evangelizing proponent of spiritualism in the wake of World War I. His eldest son was seriously wounded in the war. After he had largely recovered, he died of Spanish flu. Doyle’s brother and two brothers-in-law died during the war and two nephews shortly after. Doyle’s devotion to spiritualism sprang from deep grief. He needed to know that his loved ones were all right, that they still existed in some form, that he would see them again, that he could still communicate with them.
People who claimed they could communicate with his loved ones took advantage of his grief and betrayed his trust, just as psychics continue to take advantage of grieving people today. A wise man has asked “What’s the Harm?” Doyle provides an answer.
Arthur Conan Doyle, The History of Spiritualism. Vol. I (1926): https://archive.org/details/historyofspiritu015638mbp; Vol. II: http://www.gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0301061.txt
Ruth Brandon, The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, New York: Knopf, 1983.
*There is some confusion about Doyle’s name, specifically, whether “Conan” was a middle name or part of a compound surname. It seems to have been a middle name, but Doyle sometimes used it as a compound surname. For instance, his second wife was known as “Jean Conan Doyle” rather than Jean Doyle. Strictly speaking, however, his surname was simply “Doyle.”