Archive Gallery: Popular Science’s Brief Foray Into Pseudoscience

Telepathy, ouija boards, hypnosis, mythical monsters, and more subjects that probably shouldn't be classified as legitimate science
Astrology: September 1931

One less-than-desirable (to us, anyway) byproduct of the radio's popularity in the early part of the century was the resurgence of horoscopes. Day after day, scores of gullible audiences listened to astrologers divine the future by analyzing the positions of astronomical bodies. Worst of all, these astrologers claimed to use scientific principles while practicing their art. To procure credible answers, we interviewed a group of scientists from Yale, Princeton, Columbia University, the American Astronomical Society, and the American Museum of Natural History. All of them insisted that there is no scientific basis for any theory of the planets influencing people's destinies. When put to the test, astrologers were wrong about 90 percent of the time. We specifically cited an incident where a researcher asked six different astrologers whether he should marry that year. All of them gave a yes or no answer without realizing that the person asking the question was already married. Wouldn't the stars have told them that? (This is one of the earlier instances of 'gotcha journalism.') Ancient astronomers believed that the planets were influenced by gods, and thus, the planets influenced our destinies. But we'd grown aware of concepts like gravity, so there was no reason to believe that the position of Mars would ruin your day or that the conjunction of planets has anything to do with how you should make decisions. Read the full story in "Famous Scientists Tell Why Astrology is a Fake"

Everyone has some skeletons in their closets, and after 138 years in publication, we’re no exception. Just type the words “telepathy” or “Abominable Snowman” into our archives and you’ll realize that “Popular Science” includes fields that are a little heavy on the popularity, less so on the science.

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To be fair, at least half of our pseudoscience features focused on debunking these practices instead of supporting them. After American spiritualists elevated ouija boards from harmless parlor games to supernatural communication devices, one inventor created a typewriter-ouija board hybrid to that forced the operator to punch blank keys instead of moving a triangle over painted letters. Granted, the ouija board typewriter didn’t prove or disprove the involvement of spirits, but it did prevent swindlers from consciously moving the triangle while pretending they were possessed.

Refreshingly enough, the myth-busting didn’t always come from scientists. In 1930, we published an article from a scientist supporting hypnosis as a valid form of psychiatric treatment. His insights provoked famed magician Harry Blackstone to write a counter-article explaining how the power of suggestion could be exaggerated to convince people that they were being hypnotized. Later that decade, we explained how retinal sensitivity was responsible for ghost sightings, how precognition was glorified dumb luck, and how phrenology (or the study of skull bumps) was nothing more than a layman’s form of pseudoscience-y entertainment.

At the same time, we dedicated serious study to dream interpretation, the Yeti’s footprints, and the practice of hypnotizing chickens (by swinging them around, no less). Sure, it sounds like a load of bunk in retrospect, but you can’t blame us for exploring these subjects initially; after all, doesn’t every scientific breakthrough begin with a little curiosity?

Click through our gallery to learn more about how we covered horoscopes, mind-reading, and the like.

Ouija Board Typewriter: February 1921
Hypnotism Debunked...By a Magician: May 1930
Hypnotizing Animals: September 1931
Seeing Ghosts: November 1931
Mind-Reading: March 1937
Dream Interpretation: March 1938
Hunting the Yeti: December 1952
Cryptozoology: June 1961
Phrenology: August 1926