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Saturday, September 19th, 2009
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Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

by Charles Mackay

New Age in Ages Old

A review by Doug Brown

We are told by modern pundits that we live in a time where people have abandoned rationality, as evinced by the proliferation of non-evidence based medical treatments, crystals, astrology, etc. However, Charles Mackay was railing against all these intellectual bugaboos and more back in the mid-1800s. Even then, it was clear they had all been around for a long time. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds came out in two volumes, the first in 1841, and the second in 1852; most in-print editions include both.

The first section of Extraordinary Popular Delusions... is particularly pertinent to our times. Mackay details economic bubbles and pyramid schemes that caused thousands to lose fortunes, and in some cases economies to be brought down. Tulipomania gets a full chapter, recounting a time when otherwise sane people gave their fortunes for single tulip bulbs. The term "bubble" to describe an artificial rise of a market was around in the early 1800s, as Mackay spends a fascinating chapter on an early IPO called "The South-Sea Bubble." The South-Sea Company was allowed to issue stock valued entirely on what it was expected to do in the future. Claims by company officers of soon-too-be-realized riches caused a rush on the stock, although the company never actually made money. Soon, other claimants began starting their own bubble stocks in hopes of gaining capital for their ventures. Mackay lists 86 of these bubbles that were eventually declared illegal, including schemes to trade in hair, pave the streets of London, horse insurance, and even a wheel of perpetual motion. People collected "bubble cards" that listed the follies of the various enterprises.

From economic delusions, Mackay moves on to alchemists, prophecies, magnetic healing, haunted houses, and witch mania. The chapter on alchemists is a bit trying, as it is over 150 pages of biographies of alchemists throughout history. One name that Harry Potter fans will recognize -- a man that claimed to have invented the philosopher's stone in the 1300s was Nicholas Flamel. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (strangely called Sorcerer's Stone in the U.S.), the philosopher's stone was being held by Dumbledore for his immortal friend Nicholas Flamel. However lengthy the chapter, though, it demonstrates how powerful the human urge towards gold, immortality, and magical cures are. At the beginning of the 1800s, a man claimed that magnets (which he called "tractors," a word which clearly meant something else back then) placed on the body would heal pretty much anything. Sound familiar? Fortunately, while crackpots are nothing new, neither are skeptics. Some eminent doctors painted some pieces of wood to look like the magnets and applied them. Four out of five patients immediately reported alleviation of their ailments, demonstrating that another thing that isn't new is the Placebo Effect. The doctors published their results under the title Of the Imagination, as a Cause and Cure of Disorders, Exemplified by Fictitious Tractors. Mackay wrote over 150 years ago, "Thus was magnetism laughed out of England for a time." Alas, but only for a time.

A particularly interesting chapter for me was "Popular Follies of Great Cities," most of which is about catch phrases and songs that sweep through the populace for a brief period. We tend to think that modern media created these types of fads, but they've always been there. As Mackay rather snobbishly puts it, "...walk where we will, we cannot help hearing from every side a phrase uttered with delight, and received with laughter, by men with hard hands and dirty faces, by saucy butcher-lads and errand boys, by loose women, by hackney-coachmen, cabriolet drivers, and idle fellows who loiter at the corners of streets." Strange catch phrases that Mackay captures as having enjoyed brief popularity in London include "Quoz," "What a shocking bad hat!", "Walker!" (first syllable said with a drawl, then a quick rise on the second), "There he goes with his eye out," and my favorite, "Has your mother sold her mangle?"

Anyone interested in money manias and stock bubbles will be interested in the first three chapters of Extraordinary Popular Delusions... Folks who know who Michael Shermer and James Randi are will fascinated by the rest of the book. It is a bit demoralizing to see how many metaphysical notions that still persist had been solidly debunked by 1852, but Mackay's accounts do show the need for skeptics to speak out. Perhaps the tide of ignorance can never be beaten fully back, but one can at least temporarily banish particular aspects of it. In Mackay's words, "Still it is evident that these follies have greatly diminished. Sooth-sayers and prophets have lost the credit they formerly enjoyed, and skulk in secret now where they once shewed their faces in the blaze of day. So far there is manifest improvement."

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