Reichenbach’s odic force

Via The Skeptic’s Dictionary

Baron Dr. Karl Ludwig Freiherr von Reichenbach (1788-1869) thought he had discovered a basic force in nature, which he called “od.” He is one of several classic examples of a respected scientist becoming fixated on an idea that only he can validate. The delusion in such men is impervious to criticism, which might lead one to conclude that a psychological aberration has occurred in a previously well-balanced and competent scientist.

Reichenbach was a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences and had made numerous contributions to science in several fields before he became fixated on “sensitives” and their claims of perceiving things that other people didn’t perceive. For most of the last thirty years of his life, he did research and defended his discovery of a totally new, hitherto unknown physical force. He was unable to convince the scientific community of his discovery, yet he persisted. After he was rebuked by a scientific committee in Berlin that heard his arguments and sat through his demonstrations, he ridiculed them as den Gelehrten Berline Sieben (the seven wise men of Berlin) and was undaunted (Jastrow, p. 342-343). When his sensitives failed to detect positive from negative current or whether the current was on or off (as Reichenbach claimed they could do because of their ability to detect the odic force), Reichenbach claimed that the “magnetic” current reacted upon the “odic” current and confused the sensitives (Jastrow, 343). The committee of seven experts wrote:

the demonstrations of Baron von Reichenbach have in no wise established what they were intended to show, and give no proof of a new natural force.

As far as I know, the baron had no training in psychology or psychopathology and no training in devising experiments involving people. He applied many standard scientific techniques and followed standard practices of data collection and recording, including graphs and charts. But he seems to have had no sense of how to do a controlled experiment with so-called “sensitives,” people who might better be described as neurotics or delusional.

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