This time, it’s Albert Einstein, who endorsed a psychic in 1932. Einstein said “She told me things no one possibly could know,” the standard cry of the credulous upon encountering a persuasive con artist. He got scolded by a writer for The New Republic.
Anyone who has visited California is astounded by the openness with which superstition flourishes and the prodigality with which those who trade upon it are rewarded. The California public certainly does not need any spectacular endorsement to induce belief in the activities of a well billed vaudevillian like Gene Dennis. Into this situation, where disposition to belief is general and disposition to doubt exceptional, Dr. Einstein precipitated himself and gave his enormous prestige to the side which, if it needs any attention at all from celebrities, needs to be subjected to corrosive skepticism. To be sure, a careful study of his words, as reported in the press, will show that he did not by any means give Gene Dennis a complete endorsement. But it is my firm belief that in any argument about the correctness of her “guesses,” Einstein’s august name will be invoked to support her claims to supernatural powers. Worse, his name will be invoked, by thousands who never gave him a serious thought before, to justify their belief in all sorts of idiotic adepts at the hocus-pocus of card-reading, crystal-gazing, mind-reading, etc., who flourish so magnificently in the California atmosphere. Instead of coming to the support of what is sane and rational consistently and always, in harmony with his position as a great scientist, he has here made a tremendous and, in all probability, resounding contribution to the success of superstition.
The situation raises the much debated question about the worth of the scientific method as a mental discipline. We have seen our scientists, no matter how eminent, reveal themselves time and again utterly “hopeless” once they step outside their narrow specialties. The physicists, particularly, have been guilty of all sorts of strange and weird conduct. We need not concentrate our fire on Dr. Einstein. We can cite the vagaries of Drs. Eddington, Jeans and Whitehead. And then there is Dr. Einstein’s colleague in California, the famous Dr. Robert A. Millikan. But even Millikan hasn’t endorsed any vaudeville actors yet.
The New Republic has also republished some of the letters written in Einstein’s defense, by people like Upton Sinclair, no less, who calls Einstein’s statement “strictly scientific”, and defends telepathy and clairvoyance while chiding people who confuse “mental radio” with spiritualism.
The moral of the story: smart people can be fooled, and sometimes do stupid things. All the authority of actually being Albert Einstein does not justify occasional flights of foolishness, or make the claims of psychics valid.