Most people remember Sir Arthur Conan Doyle solely as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. But Doyle was actually quite prolific, and wrote a large number of novels and short stories in a variety of different genres. One of these novels was The Land of Mist, published in 1926.
The novel was one of several to feature Professor Challenger, a ferociously talented scientist whose arrogance and combative nature made him very difficult to get along with. In this particular story, Challenger’s sidekick, a journalist named Malone, gets caught up in the Spiritualist movement. He witnesses various mediums produce manifestations he can not explain, and becomes persuaded that life after death is real. Challenger is horrified, of course, and ultimately gets sucked into a public debate with a spokesman for the Spiritualists. What follows is a scenario that everyone who has ever seen a scientist flounder in rheotrical combat with a fork-tongued creationist will recognize.
Please forgive the lengthy quote, but I find Doyle’s description of the debate to be so spot-on that I think it’s worth reading the whole thing. The only thing that rings false is his implication that the audience was initially evenly split between the two sides. In my experience, at these debates crank sympathizers tend to outnumber the sane people by a considerable majority.
Just in case anyone reading this is a fan of obscure Doyle novels and hasn’t gotten to this one yet, I should probably mention there are some spoilers ahead.
It was admitted on all sides that Challenger’s opening half-hour was a magnificent display of oratory and argument. His deep organ voice — such a voice as only a man with a fifty-inch chest can produce — rose and fell in a perfect cadence which enchanted his audience. He was born to sway an assembly — an obvious leader of mankind. In turn he was descriptive, humorous and convincing. He pictured the natural growth of animism among savages cowering under the naked sky, unable to account for the beat of the rain or the roar of the thunder, and seeing a benevolent or malicious intelligence behind those operations of Nature which Science had now classified and explained.
Hence on false premises was built up that belief in spirits or invisible beings outside ourselves, which by some curious atavism was re-emerging in modern days among the less educated strata of mankind. It was the duty of Science to resist retrogressive tendencies of the sort, and it was a sense of that duty which had reluctantly drawn him from the privacy of his study to the publicity of this platform. He rapidly sketched the movement as depicted by its maligners. It was a most unsavoury story as he told it, a story of cracking toe joints, of phosphorescent paint, of muslin ghosts, of a nauseous sordid commission trade betwixt dead men’s bones on one side, and widow’s tears upon the other. These people were the hyenas of the human race who battened upon the graves. (Cheers from the Rationalists and ironical laughter from the Spiritualists.) They were not all rogues. (“Thank you, Professor!” from a stentorian opponent) But the others were fools (laughter). Was it exaggeration to call man a fool who believed that his grandmother could rap out absurd messages with the leg of a dining-room table? Had any savages descended to so grotesque a superstition? These people had taken dignity from death and had brought their own vulgarity into the serene oblivion of the tomb. It was a hateful business. He was sorry to have to speak so strongly, but only the knife or the cautery could deal with so cancerous a growth. Surely man need not trouble himself with grotesque speculations as to the nature of life beyond the grave. We had enough to do in this world. Life was a beautiful thing. The man who appreciated its real duties and beauties would have sufficient to employ him without dabbling in pseudo sciences which had their roots in frauds, exposed already a hundred times and yet finding fresh crowds of foolish devotees whose insane credulity and irrational prejudice made them impervious to all argument.
Such is a most bald and crude summary of this powerful opening argument. The materialists roared their applause; the Spiritualists looked angry and uneasy, while their spokesman rose, pale but resolute, to answer the ponderous onslaught.
His voice and appearance had none of those qualities which made Challenger magnetic, but he was clearly audible and made his points in a precise fashion like a workman who is familiar with his tools. He was so polite and so apologetic at first that he gave the impression of having been cowed. He felt that it was almost presumptuous upon one who had so little advantage of education to measure mental swords for an instant with so renowned an antagonist, one whom he had long revered. It seemed to him, however, that in the long list of the Professor’s accomplishments — accomplishments which had made him a household word throughout the world — there was one missing, and unhappily it was just this one upon which he had been tempted to speak. He had listened to that speech with admiration so far as its eloquence was concerned, but with surprise, and he might almost say with contempt, when he analysed the assertions which were contained in it. It was clear that the Professor had prepared his case by reading all the anti-Spiritualist literature which he could lay his hands upon — a most tainted source of information — while neglecting the works of those who spoke from experience and conviction.
All this talk of cracking joints and other fraudulent tricks was mid-Victorian in its ignorance, and as to the grandmother talking through the leg of a table he, the speaker, could not recognize it as a fair description of Spiritualistic phenomena. Such comparisons reminded one of the jokes about the dancing frogs which impeded the recognition of Volta’s early electrical experiments. They were unworthy of Professor Challenger. He must surely be aware that the fraudulent medium was the worst enemy of Spiritualism, that he was denounced by name in the psychic journals whenever he was discovered, and that such exposures were usually made by the Spiritualists themselves who had spoken of “human hyenas” as indignantly as his opponent had done. One did not condemn banks because forgers occasionally used them for nefarious purposes. It was wasting the time of so chosen an audience to descend to such a level of argument. Had Professor Challenger denied the religious implications of Spiritualism while admitting the phenomena, it might have been harder to answer him, but in denying everything he had placed himself in an absolutely impossible position. No doubt Professor Challenger had read the recent work of Professor Richet, the famous physiologist. That work had extended over thirty years. Richet had verified all the phenomena.
Perhaps Professor Challenger would inform the audience what personal experience he had himself had which gave him the right to talk of Richet, or Lombroso, or Crookes, as if they were superstitious savages. Possibly his opponent had conducted experiments in private of which the world knew nothing. In that case he should give them to the world. Until he did so it was unscientific and really indecent to deride men, hardly inferior in scientific reputation to himself, who actually had done such experiments and laid them before the public.
As to the self-sufficiency of this world, a successful Professor with a eupeptic body might take such a view, but if one found oneself with cancer of the stomach in a London garret, one might question the doctrine that there was no need to yearn for any state of being save that in which we found ourselves.
It was a workmanlike effort illustrated with facts, dates and figures. Though it rose to no height of eloquence it contained much which needed an answer. And the sad fact emerged that Challenger was not in a position to answer. He had read up his own case but had neglected that of his adversary, accepting too easily the facile and specious presumptions of incompetent writers who handled a matter which they had not themselves investigated. Instead of answering, Challenger lost his temper. The lion began to roar. He tossed his dark mane and his eyes glowed, while his deep voice reverberated through the hall. Who were these people who took refuge behind a few honoured but misguided names? What right had they to expect serious men of science to suspend their labours in order to waste time in examining their wild surmises? Some things were self-evident and did not require proof. The onus of proof lay with those who made the assertions. If this gentleman, whose name is unfamiliar, claims that he can raise spirits, let him call one up now before a sane and unprejudiced audience. If he says that he receives messages, let him give us the news in advance of the general agencies. (“It has often been done!” from the Spiritualists.) So you say, but I deny it. I am too accustomed to your wild assertions to take them seriously. (Uproar, and Judge Gaverson upon his feet.) If he claims that he has higher inspiration, let him solve the Peckham Rye murder. If he is in touch with angelic beings, let him give us a philosophy which is higher than mortal mind can evolve. This false show of science, this camouflage of ignorance, this babble about ectoplasm and other mythical products of the psychic imagination was mere obscurantism, the bastard offspring of superstition and darkness. Wherever the matter was probed one came upon corruption and mental putrescence. Every medium was a deliberate impostor. (“You are a liar!” in a woman’s voice from the neighbourhood of the Lindens.) The voices of the dead had uttered nothing but childish twaddle. The asylums were full of the supporters of the cult and would be fuller still if everyone had his due.
It was a violent but not an effective speech. Evidently the great man was rattled. He realized that there was a case to be met and that he had not provided himself with the material wherewith to meet it. Therefore he had taken refuge in angry words and sweeping assertions which can only be safely made when there is no antagonist present to take advantage of them. The Spiritualists seemed more amused than angry. The materialists fidgeted uneasily in their seats. Then James Smith rose for his last innings. He wore a mischievous smile. There was quiet menace in his whole bearing.
He must ask, he said, for a more scientific attitude from his illustrious opponent. It was an extraordinary fact that many scientific men, when their passions and prejudices were excited, showed a ludicrous disregard for all their own tenets. Of these tenets there was none more rigid than that a subject should be examined before it was condemned. We have seen of late years, in such matters as wireless or heavier-than-air machines, that the most unlikely things may come to pass. It is most dangerous to say a priori that a thing is impossible. Yet this was the error into which Professor Challenger had fallen. He had used the fame which he had rightly won in subjects which he had mastered in order to cast discredit upon a subject which he had not mastered. The fact that a man was a great physiologist and physicist did not in itself make him an authority upon psychic science.
It was perfectly clear that Professor Challenger had not read the standard works upon the subject on which he posed as an authority. Could he tell the audience what the name of Schrenck Notzing’s medium was? He paused for a reply. Could he then tell the name of Dr. Crawford’s medium? Not? Could he tell them who had been the subject of Professor Zollner’s experiments at Leipzig? What, still silent? But these were the essential points of the discussion. He had hesitated to be personal, but the Professor’s robust language called for corresponding frankness upon his part. Was the Professor aware that this ectoplasm which he derided had been examined lately by twenty German professors — the names were here for reference — and that all had testified to its existence? How could Professor Challenger deny that which these gentlemen asserted? Would he contend that they also were criminals or fools? The fact was that the Professor had come to this hall entirely ignorant of the facts and was now learning them for the first time. He clearly had no perception that Psychic Science had any laws whatever, or he would not have formulated such childish requests as that an ectoplasmic figure should manifest in full light upon this platform when every student was aware that ectoplasm was soluble in light. As to the Peckham Rye murder it had never been claimed that the angel world was an annexe to Scotland Yard. It was mere throwing of dust in the eyes of the public for a man like Professor Challenger —
At this point Professor Challenger explodes and things get out of hand.
This is why I read older novels. Every so often you hit a little nugget that shows you that certain things are timeless. Doyle’s account was written more than eighty years ago, but it could just as easily have been written yesterday. For as long as there has been science there have been cranks. And for just as long those cranks have been very effective at putting their thumbs in the eyes of scientists.
In certain respects I have a great deal of sympathy for Professor Challenger. It is, indeed, frustrating to have to take time out from more important work to ponder the ravings of people who do not know what they are talking about. The Spiritualist’s arguments here are reminiscent of all those people who thought they were refuting Richard Dawkins’ arguments for atheism just by pointing to obscure theological works he had not read.
But in other respects, I am as annoyed with Challenger as I am with all the scientists who have naively gotten involved in creationist debates without first doing their homework. The crank wins just by looking serious and thoughtful and not at all like the raving lunatic mainstream consensus says he is. That the facts he cites are invariably wrong and the references he tosses off relentlessly unreliable is mostly irrelevant. Unless you have really spent some time immersed in crankdom, you should not be debating the subject publicly.
Alas, the novel comes to a disappointing close. If you are familiar with Doyle’s views on these subjects, you know he is not at all on Challenger’s side in this debate. There was hardly a form of crankery Doyle did not endorse during his lifetime. So if you are expecting the story to end with Challenger providing rational explanations for the manifestations the mediums produce throughout the novel, you are likely to be disappointed.
Instead the novel ends with Challenger’s conversion. He converts hard, after his own daughter serves as the medium through which various figures from his past send him messages of great import. Challenger ends up defending Spiritualism with precisely the same fervor with which he once denounced it. Familiar as I was with Doyle’s opinions on the supernatural, I was not surprised by this development. But it was no less disappointing for that.
A final coda. On the desk in front of me is an anthology that contains all of the Professor Challenger stories. I picked it up at a used book store during my recent trip to England. Here’s an excerpt from the material on the front flap:
The adventures of Professor Challenger are in one way, with the scientific novels of H.G. Wells, the prototypes of the stories now known as science fiction. But there are in fact several important differences: Conan Doyle’s Challenger stories are all based solidly on scientific facts, not possibilities; his imagination has the grip and persuasiveness of the master storyteller; and he never forgets the necessity for a strong logical story nor for full-scale characterisation.
I seem to recall something about not believing everything you read.