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How Pseudoscience Thrived in an Age of Enlightenment

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In 1778, the practice of animal magnetism started in Paris. Magnetists enjoyed six happy years; then a star-studded panel of mostly French academicians declared, as John Adams put it, that their science did not exist. Late in 1784, the American Herald published a letter from Adams, then in France, to his friend the physician Benjamin Waterhouse, then in Boston. The letter contained the first mention in the American press of both animal magnetism and its debunking at the hands of the French academicians. The Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer had been making a success de scandale in Paris by claiming to cure illnesses with the invisible fluid of “animal magnetism” (magnétisme animal), a living analog to mineral magnetism that was distributed throughout the cosmos and was especially active in human bodies. (“Animal” is something of a misnomer; Mesmer meant animal as opposed to mineral, not as opposed to human. Think “vital magnetism.”) Adams aptly called Mesmer’s practice “a kind of p...

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