The reputation of another famous scientist is dashed to the ground

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.


  1. says

    Sorry to say that Einstein tended to believe the press that characterized him as an all around genius. He held forth on a number of subjects in which he had no expertise. One of the more infamous was the forward he wrote for a book by Charles Hapgood that disputed the then still debated plate tectonic theory. Whoops.

    He is perhaps the fore-runner and great-grand-daddy of all the scientists (and engineers!) who express opinions on disciplines outside their area of formal schooling. AGW comes to mind.

  2. normolsen says

    Sounds like it may not be a true story though? Read the letter by Saul S. Klein part way down the page.

  3. says

    @sadunlap #2 – Einstein is just a recent manifestation. Remember, Isaac Newton was principally an alchemist and metaphysicist; his equations on gravity and invention of calculus were, to him, incidental to much greater pursuits.

  4. moarscienceplz says

    I don’t think this is a blow to Einstein’s rep. It’s simply a reminder that peoples’ opinion outside their area of expertise shouldn’t be given much weight. Scientists are notorious for being easy for mentalists to fool because nature may mislead you, but will never outright lie to you like psychics do all the time.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    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…

    Au contraire! This shows the value of the scientific method. Fallible humans have been able to make great progress by applying it within their areas of expertise.

    BTW, Einstein wrote some incredibly stupid things on the topic of science & religion.

  6. doublereed says

    Did people have the idea that Einstein was absolutely brilliant all the time? I thought people stereotyped him mostly as an absend-minded professor or something.

    Also, I find it rather distasteful that people hold themselves to superior to people that get conned. It’s a con. They are literally trying to deceive you. It’s not like con artists are stupid people. So of course smart people, especially who are naive of specific cons, are going to be susceptible to cons. That’s not interesting and I find it strange to have that realistically lower someone’s reputation or even say “well it’s not his area of expertise.”

    You can ALWAYS blame the victim of a confidence artist. Regardless of how elaborate, targeted, or vicious the con is.

  7. says

    This sort of thing is actually extremely common. Here’s rational wiki on the Nobel disease.

    Among the victims (RW has links to the specifics):

    Charles Richet (Physiology or Medicine, 1913) – ESP, paranormal, ghosts[5]
    Erwin Schrödinger (Physics, 1933) – Quantum mysticism and global consciousness[6][7]
    Otto Stern (Physics, 1943) – Psychokinesis and Pauli effect[8]
    Ernst Boris Chain (Physiology or Medicine, 1945) – Evolution denial[9]
    Wolfgang Pauli (Physics, 1945) – Pauli effect, psychokinesis and paranormal[10][11]
    Linus Pauling (Chemistry, 1954, and Peace, 1962) – Vitamin C quackery/orthomolecular medicine
    William Shockley (Physics, 1956) – Racialism and eugenics[12]
    James Watson (Physiology or Medicine, 1962) – Racialism[13][14]
    Eugene Wigner (Physics, 1963) – Quantum mysticism
    John Eccles (Physiology or Medicine, 1963) – Quantum consciousness[15]
    Sin-Itiro Tomonaga (Physics, 1965) – Aliens
    Alfred Kastler (Physics, 1966) – Paranormal[16]
    Hannes Alfvén (Physics, 1970) – Plasma cosmology[17]
    Ivar Giaever (Physics, 1973) – Global warming denial[18]
    Brian Josephson (Physics, 1973) – Psychic and paranormal phenomena.[19] Cold fusion [20]
    Nikolaas Tinbergen (Physiology or Medicine, 1973) – Crank theories of autism[21]
    Kary Mullis (Chemistry, 1993) – Generally barking mad. AIDS denial, alien abduction, astrology, conspiracy theories, cosmic raccoons, global warming denial, ozone denial. Possibly related to his heavy use of LSD.[22][23]
    John Forbes Nash (Economy, 1994) – Total madness and paranoia
    Richard Smalley (Chemistry, 1996) – Creationism, Intelligent Design and evolution denial[24][25]
    Louis J. Ignarro (Physiology or Medicine, 1998) – Herbalife
    Luc Montagnier (Physiology or Medicine, 2008) – Homeopathy and vaccine hysteria

  8. screechymonkey says


    Did people have the idea that Einstein was absolutely brilliant all the time? I thought people stereotyped him mostly as an absend-minded professor or something.

    I think the predominant image is “smartest person evah!” And often in a general way rather than limited to physics.

    Look at the ways Einstein is usually referenced in culture:
    — calling someone an “Einstein” is a way of saying they’re smart, or more frequently, it’s used sarcastically to say that they’re not (like calling a bald man “Curly”)
    — theists quoting Einstein as having supposedly believed in God, the implicit and sometimes explicit argument being “you think you’re smarter than Einstein?”
    — passing around the urban legend about Einstein having poor math grades as a child, as a way of saying grades aren’t everything, people can improve, etc.
    — the popularity of Einstein T-shirts and posters (especially in college dorm rooms, though I may be dating myself here), especially the ones of Einstein with particularly wacky hair or the one of him sticking his tongue out; the message being “he’s incredibly smart but still silly and wacky — just like me!”
    — the frequent attempts to anoint someone living, usually Stephen Hawking, as the “new Einstein”

  9. Philip Hand says

    “…the authority of actually being Albert Einstein…”
    But the great thing about science is that there is no authority attached to being Einstein (or very little). His authority is exactly as great as his good ideas, and extends no further. Sure, sometimes as a linguistic shortcut we say “Einstein,” but it doesn’t mean the man. It means the physicist, the developer of relativity, the contributor to quantum mechanics. All the rest is just soap opera – interesting soap opera, but soap nonetheless.

  10. Menyambal says

    Why would anyone think that Albert was an authority on anything outside his field? He cultivated the appearance of an absent-minded professor, with the wild hair and all. (As some other scientists noted, if you neglect your hair, it doesn’t fluff out in a lovely cloud, it hangs down all matted and lank.)

  11. jimmyfromchicago says

    But Jonathan Sarfati is a super-dee-duper chess player…and a YEC, so creationism has to be true, right?

  12. Alex says


    Yeah, he was such a qm newbie, and didn’t even have formal training in relativity!

  13. nomadiq says

    @13 makes a good point. Einstein spent most of his career trying to show that quantum physics was wrong. That the dice metaphor was wrong. To this date, it still looks like Einstein was wrong. He was wrong for most of his life! Holly shit, Einstein was like every other scientist!

  14. Alex says


    Yeah, if he hadn’t done three Nobels worth of work by the age of 26, one could almost think that…

  15. robro says

    It’s interesting that so many legends or potential legends can be spawned within the life time of a notable person, and continue to be told and I suspect amplified. Even in the age of mass media with it’s concept of “fact,” the emergence of scientific history, and widespread rationalist thinking, the power of fictive narrative seems to overwhelm us. Imagine the stories about Einstein if they had been communicated only as oral tradition for a couple of generations.

  16. Rich Woods says

    @nomadiq #16:

    He was wrong for most of his life! Holly shit, Einstein was like every other scientist!

    Yep, he was indeed. That’s an important thing and worth stressing. An important thing for all of us in any field of life. Notably as important as Einstein eventually admitting that he fucked up.

    BTW, I’m not going to address the ‘holly shit’ thing. That just spoils Christmas for me. Each to his own. ;-)

  17. F.O. says

    This is not so bad. There are plenty of people who reject psychics but would use Einstein’s authority to support something stupid; ever head about the story of little Einstein proving God to his evil atheist teacher?
    This story should open a crack in his authority for a lot of people, and hopefully stopping them from abusing poor ol’ Albert any further.

  18. moarscienceplz says

    Why would anyone think that Albert was an authority on anything outside his field?

    Lots of Texans thought Don McLeroy was a good authority on what should be in a biology textbook. And he’s only a dentist.

  19. says

    Regarding John Forbes Nash on the Rationalwiki list, he did have paranoid schizophrenia. Like others who say this shows the value of the scientific method of overcoming the bias of any particular scientist regardless of how eminent; Nash’ contribution shows it is open towards people with mental health difficulties, myself am going into a same field with similar health issues.

  20. twas brillig (stevem) says

    The situation raises the much debated question about the worth of the scientific method as a mental discipline.

    The problem worth discussion is NOT: the “worth” of the scientific method. But identifying when the scientific method was used, or not. The problem is assuming that some scientist in particular (e.g. Einstein), is perpetually locked into only using the method, and never slips up, out of it. Not everything he said was the careful result of the scientific method. He clearly let emotion overrule him for some quite famous declarations (e.g. “God does not play dice with the universe.”), And do not make the correlating mistake of concluding that all scientists are wrong cuz Einstein was wrong about Q.M.

  21. jesse says

    Um, as I recall, didn’t Einstein propose that a simple test of ESP would be if it declined with distance?

    And again — someone correct me if I am wrong — he noted that since it did not decline with distance, it wasn’t a physical phenomenon, so it didn’t fit.

    I don’t recall any of my Einstein bios (and no they aren’t hagiographies by any stretch, I am thinking of Fölsing’s work) saying that he was particularly credulous about psychic phenomena… or that he paid a ton of attention to it.

    Anyone know?

  22. firstapproximation says

    Physicists don’t even think Einstein was always right when it came to physics.

    The man was a fallible human, which makes his accomplishments all the more impressive. Let’s not diminish them by turning him into a being with supernatural intelligence.

  23. knowknot says

    @26 Tony!
    I think he would have seen the write-up:

    – In the experiment reported in the journal Plos One, the word was converted into binary numbers – a method of counting using only ones and zeroes – which were conveyed by the person thinking about either their hand or their foot.
    – The word was emailed to France where the Is and 0s were transmitted to a receiver using a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation. The magnetic pulses produce brain activity that gives the perception of flashes of light in peripheral vision, which are converted by the receiver back into the word.

    … and then said “What?”
    Sounds very much like an overblown version of hooking up rudimentary EEG to tDCS. Plus a binary reference sheet.
    Thinking that the term “telepathy” was clickbait.

  24. Ichthyic says

    The situation raises the much debated question about the worth of the scientific method as a mental discipline.

    no, it doesn’t. not at all. what it does is raise the question as to why people are looking to force the scientific method into being some sort of panacea for poor judgement.

  25. Ichthyic says

    He clearly let emotion overrule him for some quite famous declarations

    yup, that one is a perfect example.

    though, I think many might not realize that the declaration itself was related to his contest with the concepts of Heisenberg, it really had fuckall to do with god as anything more than allegory.

  26. Ichthyic says

    there has got to be a physics joke about Einstein and blue crystal meth at this point in time, somewhere…

  27. Ichthyic says

    Kary Mullis (Chemistry, 1993) – Generally barking mad. AIDS denial, alien abduction, astrology, conspiracy theories, cosmic raccoons, global warming denial, ozone denial. Possibly related to his heavy use of LSD.

    … cosmic raccoons?

  28. anteprepro says

    Cosmic raccoons? Apparently someone was a fan of Rocket before he was even included in the Guardians of the Galaxy.

  29. chigau (違う) says

    Mullis? raccoons?
    you don’t know???
    You need to read this
    Kary Mullis, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field. Vintage Books (1998). ISBN 0-679-44255-3.
    (not a link)

  30. AtheistPowerlifter says

    OMG…do you mean to say that Einstein was like, a human being, who sometimes was credulous and sometimes said stupid shit??? Wow, then by all means let’s discount all the great things he ever said or did.

    Fuck my life.

  31. AtheistPowerlifter says

    Haha no I was just kidding. My sarcasm came across very poorly. Perhaps a result of a few too many cocktails. I am well and hope you are too chigau.

    Still happily lurking!


  32. Ichthyic says

    Actually, it mat have been an opossum.

    nope. giant glowing space raccoon. I looked it up.

    trying to find a torrent of the book now.

  33. AtheistPowerlifter says

    Still learning and growing from the great comments here. Thanks all. Actually had a chance to lecture my university athletes about gender stereotypes (many of you may have been quoted without credit. Apologies.). Anti-harassment education is now a mandatory part of “frosh week” activities. Progress of a sort.

    Sorry. This is off topic. Carry on.


  34. chigau (違う) says

    still off topic, don’t care
    aP #41

    Anti-harassment education is now a mandatory part of “frosh week” activities.

    That is Wonderful!!
    Yay your University!

  35. knowknot says

    @39 AtheistPowerlifter

    Haha no I was just kidding. My sarcasm came across very poorly.

    The minority report on this (if it is a minority report… I’ve never actually gotten my decoder ring) is that no, it came across fine. I got it, and actually laughed. Because crazy out of nowhere swearing or something, maybe.
    I mean, if it does count, I don’t mean to mess with anyone’s fear or hatred of the hive mind or anything. Because idle minds are the Devil’s toothbrush. (And better hatred and fear than being banged around in there. Ew.)

  36. Ichthyic says

    OK. I trust you.

    well, it’s from the wiki on him anyway:

    Mullis reported an encounter with a glowing green raccoon at his cabin in the woods of northern California around midnight one night in 1985.

    sadly, nobody appears to be seeding the epub version of the book atm.

  37. chrislawson says

    For goodness sake, everyone, can you please follow normolsen@3’s advice to read the whole article. If you follow the correspondence that follows the “debate” you will find a letter from Saul S. Klein who looked into what happened. Here is the key quote:

    The Gene Dennis claims and press reports about this matter are also untrue. Here is how it all happened. A few days after Dr. and Frau Einstein arrived at the hotel in Palm Springs, the manager of the hotel, who was in charge of their stay there, suggested an automobile ride, to which Dr. Einstein agreed. At the time the suggestion was made, Dr. Einstein did not know Gene Dennis and he did not know that she had made this proposal in order to make a contact with the celebrated guest for publicity. Dr. Einstein, like any other person who does not think in terms of tricks or schemes, consented to the ride and made the best of the situation thereafter. He and his wife were introduced to Gene Dennis in the automobile and Dr. Einstein politely and courteously listened to Miss Dennis. He did not endorse any of her bag of tricks and I doubt whether he knows now what her deliberate purpose was. Dr. and Frau Einstein were really trapped into this.

    I mean, I’m all in favour of the “no heroes” approach, and Einstein had plenty of real, abundantly documented flaws, but can we please make sure we’ve got the story straight before we jump on the “they wuz wrong!” bandwagon?

  38. A. R says


    I also seem to recall that Mullis came up with the idea of using Taq when he was camping next to some sort of hot springs whilst fuck high on acid.

  39. A. R says

    Also, Kary Mullis refuses to take statins because they might change his mind. If you know anything about him, this is the point where you’re probably doubled over.

  40. chrislawson says


    I have to take issue with John Nash appearing on that list of Nobel disease. There is very little in common between paranoid schizophrenia and pursuing crank science.

    I’m also skeptical of the Eccles inclusion — not to defend Eccles, who had some very strange views about the world, but his paper with Friedrich Beck on quantum consciousness is not really a crank paper. Both authors acknowledge that they are generating an hypothesis rather than testing it, and they note that the quantum mechanics they are using is based on a highly contentious interpretation by Eugene Wigner that “clearly lies beyond ordinary quantum mechanics.” I don’t think it’s fair to call this crank science — it was certainly not mainstream, but Eccles and Beck didn’t exhibit the usual traits of pseudoscience (esp. compared to the junk put out by full-blown cranks like Fred Hoyle or William Shockley in their later years).

    Frankly, to me that RationalWiki page has the flavour of skepticism that is more interested in laughing at odd ideas than promoting rational thinking.

  41. Ichthyic says

    If you know anything about him, this is the point where you’re probably doubled over.

    or just shaking my head sadly.

  42. helenaconstantine says

    Wasn’t Einstein mean to women? That would mean relativity can be ignored, right? and he can be throw into the same trash can as Feynman was recently chucked into?

  43. says

    t’s necessary to understand how works “prophecies”, what is “future”, and knowing that evolution is a prophet that predicts events yet-to-be, events ahead ( not time ahead), because evolution already went there and came back. So, if a natural force can do it, why not humans too?

    We need seeing a graphic ( unfortunately I can’t bring it here) about how naturals events under evolution occurs, for seeing “time” going forth and back. Make the graphic yourself:

    Cartesian graphic; vertical coordinate is “complexity”; horizontal is “time”. At any point next to the axis put yours pen making a point. Write “lizard”and “50 years”. Now from that point you will draw the line of evolution starting at lizards. So, complexity and time grows, the line will climb a hill. At certain point, stop the line, make a point at the end and write: “dinosaurus”, and “1000 years”. You know that evolution did not followed from dinosaurus. Evolution went from reptiles to mammals. The reptile that began keeping eggs inside must be the cynodont. Cynodonts appeared from lizard evolution and lived short time, since was transformed into mammal. So, go back at yours line and where is “100 years”, makes other point. Lif up a line a little bit and continuing it parallel to the prior line. This line will pass the point of 1000 years and going further, to 1.500 years. But, before the final end, cynodonts were already acting as mammals, so, at 700 years, write “mammals”.

    Now look to the results. You have a graphic as an account for ” real history”. Not “evolution process”yet. Evolution is revealed only when you make another line, from point 50 (reptil), to point 700 ( mammals).

    But… what about the 1000 years, reached by dinosaurus? !ooo years is time ahead of 700 years, it is the future. Well, this difference of 300 years was cleaned, disappeared from the history of evolution, but not from the history of the world. Dinosaurs were extinct, but they left marks on this world. A problem here is that time really does not exists, it is merely a human creation for ordering events into a comprehensible chronological scale. Evolution does not care about time, it does not recognize time.

    This movement of going ahead and returning back happens every time that adult humans, 30 years old and 200 pounds is reproduced into a baby, one day old and 10 pounds. The adult is out, fired, evolution will continuing through the baby. But… an observer situated at the time’space of the adult, already knows a lot of things that will happen with the baby. I am good prophet reading the destiny of babies, I can tell that they will grow, they will marriage, etc.

    Ok. So, must have another kind of animal that will continuing evolution, if human species is going towards its extinction. If we know what animal it is, we can predict its future, because we knows what happens in the world history on the future of that animal. But…

    Could be that Mrs. Genne Denis belongs to the old shape going to extinction and Mr.Einstein the new “baby” of the next evolutionary species? Yes… why not? The thing that is evolving just now is not human bodies, but it is something invisible to us, called “consciousness”.

    I think that the ability of Mrs. Genne is an specific internal property for seeing “auras”. Auras are merely the network of connections among photons located inside electrons of ours atoms. This network draws the same figure of DNA, that’s why they see “two moving serpents called kundaline”, which are the strand of DNA; they see chacras between two serpents, which are the nitrogenous bases. etc. This chakra performs the body of consciousness. So, what Mrs Genne is seeing as prophecy is what reptiles from that point of 800 years could say to mammals at that time. They already saw that mammals grows, marriage, etc., and they know the history of the world ahead of that mammals. ( huh… huh… maybe I made same mistake?…. it is not me talking here, it is a extra-terrestrial thing called Matrix/DNA, about what I developed Matrix/DNA Theory)

  44. says

    The Kary Mullis raccoon story:

    The path down to the john heads west and then takes a sharp turn to the north after a few earthen steps. Then it runs level for about twenty feet. I walked down the steps, turned right, and then at the far end of the path, under a fir tree, there was something glowing. I pointed my flashlight at it anyhow. It only made it whiter where the beam landed. It seemed to be a raccoon. I wasn’t frightened. Later, I wondered if it could have been a hologram, projected from God knows where.

    The raccoon spoke. “Good evening, doctor,” it said. I said something back, I don’t remember what, probably, “Hello.”

    The next thing I remember, it was early morning. I was walking along a road uphill from my house. What went through my head as I walked down toward my house was, “What the hell am I doing here?” I had no memory of the night before.”

  45. A. R says

    What the hell am I doing here?” I had no memory of the night before.

    Yup. No possible way LSD and alcohol were involved in this at all

  46. chigau (違う) says

    Given the volume and variety of Kary’s chemical consumption, I wouldn’t go straight to LSD.

  47. Ichthyic says

    throw into the same trash can as Feynman was recently chucked into?

    Feynman was circular filed?

    by whom?


  48. Ichthyic says

    ah, you mean like this person did?

    The problem of Richard Feynman

    or did they…

    Feynman is no hero to us, brilliant as he was. Personally, I won’t stop writing about his contributions to physics, nor will I apologize for doing so, but please don’t take that as tacit acceptance of his behavior.

    yeah, not buying the fictional narrative that Feynman’s observations on science were tossed out because he was a misogyinist.

    likewise, can’t recall anyone saying Dawkins’ observations on evolution and his ability to construct a compelling narrative to explain it are useless because he’s an absolute tosser when it comes to projecting his ego elsewhere.

    people are rarely entirely useless.

    …and when they are, they get jobs on Fox News or writing for Whirled Nut Daily.

  49. Ichthyic says

    uh, it’s probably good that everyone ignored louismorelli, right?

    I mean, that screed is looking like unto timecube territory.

    I’ll just pick… this bit though:

    So, complexity and time grows,

    as being the key bit that makes their entire screed a big mash of fail.

  50. Ichthyic says

    …I actually can track him posting on Pharyngula all the way back to 2009, if this is indeed the same guy.

  51. Ichthyic says

    actually, while most of his screed indeed makes no sense, THAT bit I had heard before.

    it’s the old evolution is a ladder that produces ever more complexity bullshit.