Review: A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, by Robert E. Bartholomew and Peter Hassall


2015, Prometheus Books

This is indeed a fascinating and comprehensive collection of “deluded” crowd behaviours. It includes over 100 well-documented and referenced examples of such behaviours, grouped together into a taxonomy of 14 different ‘categories’. Those categories include rumours and gossip, urban legends, fads, crazes and manias (each has a different definition!), stampedes, panics and riots, and the more intriguing anxiety hysterias and classical mass hysterias.
In each chapter, the authors first take us through their definition of a given category, and then present a group of well-referenced historical examples, describing the circumstances of each mass delusion from start to finish.

Some of the cases revealed are truly fascinating. There are witch hunts, UFO and Big Foot sightings, the urban legends of alligators in sewer systems, and various disturbing cases of ‘motor hysteria’, in which those affected suffer tremors and fits as a result of their mass delusions.

There is also the case of the (in)famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast – this did indeed cause a major community panic, and even loss of life – but not in the United States as I (and perhaps many others) had always understood. In 1938, Orson Wells gained some notoriety by broadcasting a contemporary version of H.G. Welles’ story of invading Martians. The incident was re-popularised in the 1970s made-for-TV movie “The Night that Panicked America”. But the authors of the current book give that incident barely a passing mention as a rather limited ‘small group’ panic. Obviously it caused a stir, but was by no means an actual panicking of all of America.
The story of real significance actually occurred in Ecuador in 1949, when a similar realistic-sounding broadcast of invading aliens was made by a radio station that truly panicked the city of Quito. When the locals learned they had been deceived, they became a rioting angry mob, trashed the radio station and brought about the deaths of 20 people. The impact of the South American incident was clearly more profound than the Orson Wells broadcast, but the former seems to be all but unknown today.

The book is not without its flaws and weaknesses, however. Here are three, in order of importance, beginning with the trivial.

Proofreading. I’ve come to expect the occasional typo in just about every piece of professional writing I read these days. This book seems to have more to its fair share, especially in the first half. And there is also at least one howler where the concluding sentence of a paragraph appears to contradict the original point being made. These editing errors aren’t so numerous to be that big a deal, of course. Or at least, they shouldn’t be. But I found they occurred just often enough to be an annoying distraction.

Referencing. The liberal use of references is a testament to the authors’ expertise and depth of research in the field. However, I was still bugged by a couple of points. When a book contains citations, I’m the type of reader that keeps one thumb in the references and the other as a current page marker, flipping “in real time” between the two whenever a citation appears.
To repeat: The references are one of the strong points of the book. But I was disappointed by (a) the high degree of reliance on secondary sources (many of which didn’t feel fully accurate or persuasive), and (b) the over-use of ibid. If there are only one or two pieces of source material describing a particular event, we only need one or two citations at the end of the paragraph. We don’t need one every second sentence pointing back to the same source.

Treatment of Religious Beliefs
While we have here a well-curated collection of irrational human behaviour in tribes and crowds, I feel that the mass delusions of religious beliefs are let off far too easily. Sure – there is certainly coverage of some religious-inspired oddities, like self-flagellation, the Salem witch hunts, worshiping the image of Jesus in a tortilla, and the Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown mass suicides. However, the field of religious beliefs and practices – the traditions, the psychology, the counter-intuitive rationalisations – is rich for further expansion, and much has been left on the table that could have been explored in this context.
One might fairly argue that dealing with religious beliefs wasn’t the intention here. But if that is so, then the error is in the title of the book itself. Rather than being A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, a more accurate label might have been A Colourful Collection of Irrational Crowd Behaviour. After all, not all rumours and pieces of gossip, or fads, or stampedes or riots, for example, are necessarily driven by “delusion”. On the other hand, why should it be assumed that poisoning oneself in order to board a comet to heaven is any more delusional than, say, the belief that a piece of bread is an actual (not metaphorical) piece of the body of Jesus Christ, or that Muhammed actually ascended to heaven on a winged horse? Delusions of this type are some of the most popular of all time, and are sadly all but neglected here – not simply by example, but as representative of some of the most powerful aspects of human tribal psychology.

Despite its limitations, this is still an excellent collection of material that I can see myself dipping back into from time to time, whenever I want to recall examples of popular, irrational crowd behaviour.
3 out of 5.


Naturopath takes it personally when I challenge their profession

For reasons that will become clear, it is worth stating upfront that I got into the habit some time ago of copy-pasting and/or screen-shotting Facebook discussions whenever they became “interesting”.

Anyway, so I have a business colleague and Facebook friend that is a proponent of the new “wellness” industry, including naturopathy.  It’s no big deal; for the most part I’m content to live and let live.

The other day, a (rather innocuous) post appeared in my feed as a result of my friend’s added comment.  The original post (OP) was by a naturopath and described some simple recommendations for dealing with “gastro” (eg., ginger tea, barley water with lemon juice, stewed apples… that kind of thing).  The post ended with the advice to take some probiotics, and to “See your naturopath”.

I guess I was feeling a little cheeky that day, so I added my own comment.

naturopath-takes-it-personally-when-i-challenge-their-professionAnd thus began an opinionated, but largely friendly to-and-fro in the comments section of the OP.  Here is my friend’s initial Facebook response to my comment:

S[…]: Don’t get me started Paul 😉 I’ll just say E[…] recommends seeing a doctor for a diagnosis – so does my other friend K[…] who like E[…] has many credentials and years experience (not all naturopath’s are the same just as not all doctor’s are). Over the years if I had listened to the doctors only I would have several parts of my body missing and be heavily medicated – however I’m in 100% good health. I also observe the difference in ageing friends between those who have relied on Doctors versus those who have made a point of being very mindful of how they treat their body. Drugs are often a quick fix that don’t deal with the root cause of the problem. I now see doctors (and naturopath’s) who have a balanced point of view recognising the connection between mind and body. Watch the documentary The Connection – plenty of highly credentialed doctor’s backing this up!

It was difficult to leave things at that, so there were a few more comments to follow.  My comments are the light blue blocks. My friend/colleague’s comments are in green.  The OP-maker naturopath’s comments are in red.

naturopath-takes-it-personally-when-i-challenge-their-profession1When someone suggests to me to “bring it on!!!”, that’s even harder to decline.  Hence…:


This would be good place to close things off.  We’d both made our points, and I was left feeling somewhat superior, having responded to a challenge with an argument that, other than the appeal-to-anecdote, had no comeback.

However, in the meantime another participant had joined the discussion in a different comment under the original post, replying to my earlier remark about demonstrating evidence. The new commenter is in yellow.  Previous participants eventually joined back in too:

naturopath-takes-it-personally-when-i-challenge-their-profession3(My comment was truncated in Facebook screenshot. Here it is in full text…:)

P[…]: “…any naturopath can demonstrate concrete evidence…”

Of what…? That type of claim is so open-ended as to be meaningless.

“…as far as I know they are regulated…” OK, so what exactly do you know about the regulation of naturopaths in Australia? I’ll admit I know nothing about it. I suspect there is no consistent regulation at all, and until shown otherwise, I don’t believe they are subject to anything like the same types of scrutiny and practice controls as real doctors.

And the next comment, about evidence, from my colleague:

S[…]:Evidence: I’m sick – Doctor diagnoses. Recommends life time of drugs after removing or tampering with essential part of my body. I see trusted naturopath. Follow advice, take natural medicines. I am fully healed no pharmaceuticals, recurrence, chronic illness or surgery. Times this experience by at least 10 over my life time, and another 5 based on the experiences of people known to me personally and I would say that’s all the concrete evidence I need. But everyone has to do what works for them 😉

The responses below take us to the end of the main commentary, but there was some more “side dialogue” and activity that I’ll describe afterwards:


Of course, I certainly was not suggesting that “anyone with a medical degree should be trusted more than [anyone else]…”.  Hence I tried to conclude the discussion by re-emphasising the point that I was making in the first place:

naturopath-takes-it-personally-when-i-challenge-their-profession6Aaanyway, as I said before, this was a good place to leave things.  Both of us had made our points, and it was time to move on as far as I was concerned.

However… Remember that remark earlier in the comment thread about regulation and scrutiny?  Well, that resulted in another short discussion in parallel with the one above.  As a reminder, this is the last sentence of the relevant remark that I made earlier:

…I suspect there is no consistent regulation at all, and until shown otherwise, I don’t believe they are subject to anything like the same types of scrutiny and practice controls as real doctors.

Which triggered this:

naturopath-takes-it-personally-when-i-challenge-their-profession7Now, I didn’t actually expect an answer to be forthcoming to my question, since our good doctor had apparently already made up their mind that I was “brick wall”.  Furthermore, in the intervening time, I’d already checked it out myself.  In Australia, medical practitioners are registered with AHPRA: The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency.  In fact, our naturopath here appears on that register – as a practitioner of Chinese medicine, including acupuncture.  But this is just a side-note, because the qualifications of our naturopath were never in question.  I never raised this as part of the discussion – I was simply challenging the “field” as a whole.

Having said that, it is worth mentioning at this point that our naturopath does not appear on AHPRA’s register as a practitioner of naturopathy, btw.  But that’s ok, because no-one in Australia appears on the register as a practitioner of naturopathy. And the reason for that is simply because naturopathy is not recognised by AHPRA.

No surprises so far.  What happened next, however, was a surprise.  The following morning, my question above (about the regulation of naturopathy in Australia) and my entire final reply to my friend/colleague – the one that ends with “These are not sound bases for knowledge or health” – were excised from the comment thread.
So, I added a new comment:


And that was the end of that.

Or so I thought. Because an hour later, the following appeared:

naturopath-takes-it-personally-when-i-challenge-their-profession9There was no way I could let that be the last word!  Here is my (final) response:


That was a satisfying way to conclude the whole discussion.

Arguably, though, our naturopath did actually have the final say.  A short time after this, every single comment on the original post either made by me or referring to me was deleted.  Everything you see in this post was wiped.

The original content was the naturopath’s own feed of course, so she’s well within her rights to manage comments as she sees fit.  So I’m not complaining about that fact, since I have my own channel here to document the discussion.

Superstition and scepticism

This post is a further reply to the conversation started on the Atheist Forum blog, here.

Our Different Backgrounds and Cognitive Processing
The last few comment posts here are certainly highlighting our impasse, but also provide some important indicators for me about our different backgrounds, education, and beliefs.
I mentioned previously that I’ve had some formal training in the sciences, which include the neurosciences in particular. Throughout this part of my education, I was often struck by the capabilities and capacity of the human mind for cognition, abstract thought and imagination. And also by some of the profound effects that ‘natural’ external influences, and our own physiology, can have on these processes.
I am convinced there is nothing more complex that we have ever encountered (so far!) than the human brain. I am also convinced that this capacity of the human brain has evolved ‘naturally’ over the course of millions of years, driven initially by environmental pressures that favoured the most primitive behaviours of planning and decision making. (More on this in another post, perhaps.)
The entire body of human scientific knowledge has demonstrated overwhelmingly that the world – in fact the whole universe – is natural . And this is very important: This includes the astonishing capability of the human brain to imagine, construct and assume the existence of the supernatural.

Psychological Predisposition to Superstition
On the subject of Port Arthur ghosts – and this may sound offensive, although I don’t mean it to – you (and many, many others, I’ll grant) are inclined to believe that ghosts exist because you are more psychologically predisposed to accepting superstitious claims. This is a normal, natural, human property, perhaps an evolutionary side-effect of the important and very valuable emotion of fear. I must admit that I take for granted that most Western educated adults understand this, so I continue to be surprised when apparently smart people seem to be drawn in to what are obviously (to me) bogus claims.
Beliefs, hallucinations, odd feelings: These are things that are certainly very real. Scientists have measured these things for decades, perhaps even a century or more. Ghosts themselves: These things are as-good-as-definitely not real. I’m convinced that if they were, scientists would have ‘measured’ them too by now. More on that in a moment.

‘Quick to Dismiss’
In some of your comments there is an implication that I (and presumably other sceptics) are ‘quick to dismiss’ miracles and the supernatural, in particular when no strong alternative hypotheses are offered. I’d like to counter this by asking you to step into the shoes of a sceptic, just for a moment. Many of us sceptics (although again, I speak only for myself) have not formed our world views hastily. Over the course of decades of our own lives, we have read, studied, experienced, experimented on and observed the world and the people around us. Those of us with questioning minds exempt nothing from enquiry and challenge. That includes deeply-held societal beliefs and behaviours and even the nature of our own existence and creation. So while ‘quick to dismiss’ seems like an accurate description of our response when it comes to some supernatural claim, please understand that an enormous amount of thought and analysis has already gone into considering that something belongs in the category of superstition.

Ghosts Revisited
As mentioned above, this includes ghosts. Consider any report of ghosts: What do they comprise of? At their strongest, they interfere physically with the ‘natural’ world and people within it. These interferences must therefore be measurable objectively, and yet they have never been shown. We are left to rely on people’s personal (and occasionally, collective) verbal accounts. Hearsay. Not evidence.

Coming down the spectrum of ghost interferences, we have the more common accounts of visualisations (seeing them!), sounds, and even tactual accounts (ie., feeling their touches). Again, if these experiences are true to human senses, they are measurable by objective means – cameras, sound recorders, etc. Yet again, never has there been conclusive evidence recorded. Within a couple of years, the large hadron collider in Europe has allowed us to measure the effects of sub-atomic virtual particles. These must be some of the most elusive things in the entire universe. Ghost experiences are so ubiquitous that I suggest they are a daily occurrence throughout the entire world. And yet, no scientist has ever published a single picture of a ghost in the nearly 200-year vast and pervasive history of accessible photography, and been taken seriously. The logical contrast is astounding: We can measure virtual frikkin’ particles!, and yet the ghosts that apparently visit us every day remain statistically non-existent.

Moving on, at the simplest end of the ghost experience then is the basic visceral sensation of another presence. The hard-to-describe ‘feeling’ of someone else being present, but not physically. I imagine every single thinking, feeling person on earth, and who has ever lived, has experienced such a feeling, perhaps many times during their lives. Again, these sensations are measurable. Heart rates quicken, skin temperatures drop, pupils dilate, stress hormones are excreted into the blood stream. Physiological feedback loops are invoked and these responses can be amplified. Hallucinations – visual, auditory, and tactile – can be experienced. And the human brain, with a little bit of the right kind of environmental stimulation (like a dark room, or even a verbal suggestion), is capable of producing all of this. These things have been demonstrated in the laboratory, countless times. The evidence is falsifiable. The experiments are repeatable.
Staying within the shoes of the thorough and honest scientific researcher, prepared to lay bare all of his/her materials, recordings, conclusions to their independent peers, how readily will you stand up and say, “I’ve seen a ghost.” In light of all our knowledge and all the logic described above, it is this type of conclusion that is hasty.

Rationalising Superstition
The sceptic does not dismiss people’s accounts of seeing ghosts as readily as it might seem. Instead, the sceptic considers these reports against an exhaustive and well-understood history and science on the nature of superstition and human physiology and psychology. We then ask simply, what is more likely – that a ghost really was present? Or that the astonishingly powerful human mind imagined it?
Given the above background, hopefully this helps you understand why the sceptic turns to Occam’s Razor. We favour the natural explanations, not simply as the more logical, but also as the obvious.

Joseph Smith Revisited (Briefly)
I haven’t come back to the Mormons in this post, but it’s somewhat reassuring to learn that you treat these claims with scepticism: “…it appears the most reasonable explanation is that Smith created the story of Mormon.”
Indeed – this entire cult is differentiated from the rest of Christianity on the basis of a mythology that is utter bullshit.
And yet, 14 million people in first-world countries are vested heart and soul in this bizarre collection of beliefs. What are they seeing that the rest of us are missing?

And Finally, The Resurrection Revisited
“…Yet, if I do demonstrate that this is unlikely [that one or more persons made up the resurrection story], I would suggest that it is on the sceptic to either revise their theory or accept the thesis? Would that be fair?….”
Rob, if you have successfully been able to get into the shoes of the sceptic as I’ve tried to describe above, then you’ll understand that I see your question almost as a kind of logical non sequitur.

By all means, give it your best shot. If you have some compelling evidence that is truly new, I’ll be open to it (and I reckon you’d be in the running for a Nobel Prize).
However, I do doubt, in the strongest, most sincere terms, that you will be able to get within a million miles of convincing me that the resurrection wasn’t made up. If the evidence really was overwhelmingly convincing and truly incontrovertible, I’d already believe in it.
I suspect that applies to the other five billion non-Christians on the planet too.