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Reichenbach's odic force

Baron Dr. Karl Ludwig Freiherr von Reichenbach (1788-1869)reichenbach 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. (Jastrow says that for the most part, his subjects were "neurotic young women.") Given the fact that he deceived himself so thoroughly over such a long period of time, it seems reasonable to assume that he was (at the very least) unconsciously suggesting behaviors to his subjects. His enthusiasm for the project undoubtedly biased his subjective observations. That he came to think that the odic force could explain dozens of disparate phenomena, while being unable to convince other scientists that he had discovered anything, signifies the pathological nature of his investigations. Reichenbach's pursuit of the odic force is a classic example of pathological science.

Baron von Reichenbach published his researches on the odic force, Researches on Magnetism, Electricity, Heat and Light in their Relations to Vital Forces, in a special issue of the scientific journal, Annalen der Chemie und Physik. Just what was it that Reichenbach thought he had discovered and who were these "sensitives" that helped him discover it? The odic force ran through everything, but no machine could detect it. Only sensitive people could detect it. The odic force explained Mesmer's animal magnetism, hypnotism, dowsing, the Aurora Borealis, ghosts, magnetism, and feng shui. Yes, he even claims that churches should not have their altars at the east end, forcing worshippers to have their backs to the west, "an odically unfavorable position." He claims that people in the southern hemisphere prefer to sleep on their left side, while those in the northern hemisphere prefer the right side because of the odic force. Pianos have to face the right direction to get a good performance from the player.

"Is it not surprising in the highest degree," asks Reichenbach, "that a simple unschooled girl by the mere feeling of her fingers alone is able in one hour to classify all the elements of nature into a series, the constitution of which has cost the most learned scientists more than half a century of tireless industry and utmost expenditure of mental acumen!" Yes, it is. "But more surprising that a scientifically trained mind should be willing on the basis of this most elusive of all testimony to reconstruct the universe" (Jastrow, 348).

Where's the science, you might ask?

While experimenting, the Baron maintained a strict regimen of rest and diet and refrained from touching metals all day. Then at evening he held the hand of his sensitive while she reported hour by hour the variations of odic force transmitted through the Baron's hand; all of which is charted in curves, as professionally as the record of an experiment in thermodynamics. (Jastrow, 347)

He claimed sensitives universally love blue and hate yellow. And so on and so on. All his evidence is subjective and based on what the sensitives tell him. All substances are either odically positive, negative, or neutral. How does he know? His sensitives can feel it. They feel warmth or cold or nothing or a tingling or who knows what. They see glimmers of colored lights in the dark, a point which has led some to speculate that Reichenbach's odic force is a precursor of auras. In any case, seeing lights in the dark was taken as basic evidence of the odic force. His sensitives performed especially well with magnets and crystals.

He did this for many years, scoffed at the entire time by the scientific community, but he didn't give up. Why? Was he deranged? Perhaps. But whatever the condition of Reichenbach's mind, his behavior exemplifies "the extent to which a rationalizing mind under a prepossession may go in building a monumental research upon the fallibility of the human senses" (Jastrow, 349).

See also 9/11 conspiracy theorists, Blondlot and N-rays, the Nobel disease, and Wilhelm Reich's orgone energy.

further reading


Chabris, Christopher and Daniel Simons. 2010. The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. Crown. (my review of this book)

Gardner, Martin. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957).

Hood, Bruce. 2009. SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable. HarperCollins. (my review of this book)

Jastrow, Joseph. 1935. Wish and Wisdom: Episodes in the Vagaries of Belief. (Published in 1962 by Dover Books as Error and Eccentricity in Human Belief).

Sternberg, Robert J. ed. Why Smart people Can Be So Stupid. (Yale University Press 2002).

Van Hecke, Madeleine L. (2007). Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things. Prometheus.

blogs and websites

Wikipedia on Reichenbach

The New American Cyclopaedia: A Popular Dictionary Of General Knowledge

dumb beliefs about intelligence

Bright Scientists, Dim Notions

4 Nobel Prize Winners Who Were Clearly Insane

Last updated 23-Feb-2014

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