The Ecphorizer

An Island of Truth In a Sea of Error
John Cumming

Issue #11 (July 1982)

A Victorian fact collector labors to set us all straight

Popular Fallacies Explained and Corrected
was written early in this century by an English engineer, A. S. E. Ackermann, who also listed among his published works: Coal Cutting by Machinery in America,

In which we are disabused of the notion that one and one always make two.

style="font-style: italic;">The Utilization of Solar Energy, The Physical [quoteright]Properties of Clay, and Bacon and Shakespeare. Besides being an engineer, Mr. Ackermann was clearly a polymath and - as he showed in Popular Fallacies -- an optimist concerning the certainty of truth and the correctability of man's errors.

Many of the entries in Popular Fallacies contain good common sense, pitted against faulty observation. Others are preachy and designed to point out right action to the unenlightened. Some concern themselves with matters specific to the time (Victorian-Edwardian) and place (England). Several of the items assume an understanding of things specific to a culture now largely extinct. It is clear that Ackermann was writing for an audience that shared a common body of beliefs far more compact and uniform than anything we know today. To the modern reader, a book like this can represent a fascinating snapshot of Imperial England, a very small place in the center of a huge empire.

Lippincott's 1924 edition runs to 984 pages. A total of 1,350 fallacies are corrected therein, up from 460 in the first edition of 1909. The book is doubly impressive for its meticulous index, its bibliography, and its extensive footnoting. A few quotes from the index may give the reader a feel for the extent of the author's determination to assail error wherever it crops up: Snakes and music, 336; Snakes, death of before sunset, 322; Snakes, forked tongue of, 318; Snakes, Glass, 332 (they're really lizards); Snakes, jumping off the ground, 342; Snakes, not slimy, 335; Snakes, power of fascination, 328. Under "Weather," the index includes articles on Almanacs, Lightning Flashes, Prophets, and Treatment After Exposure To.

As an engineer, Ackermann zeroes in on such notions as:

That a Thaw Bursts the Water Pipes. Thaws were believed to burst water pipes because it was in the spring that leaks were observed. Ackermann sensibly notes that it is the freezing of water that does the damage, and water leaks out only when it is warmed to a liquid state. He recounts that "An American invented a water pipe with a series of small air vessels in it so that ... the expansion of the ice would take place into these air spaces." He adds that "Mr. H. Powell told the author that about the year 1890, all water pipes belonging to the municipality of Rouen were oval in cross-section, so that if the water in them became frozen, the expansion would merely make the pipes more nearly circular.

On the other hand, he seems to miss the point somewhat when he denies

That In All Circumstances One Added To One Makes Two. This "fallacy" is addressed by a quote from Sir Oliver Lodge, FRS, in the Hibbert Journal for January 1912: "I would contend that whereas the proposition that one added to one makes two is abstractedly beneath controversy, it need not be true for the addition of concrete things. It is not true for two globules of mercury ... nor for a couple of colliding stars; not true for a pint of water added to a pint of vitriol... for snakes in a cage, or for capital invested in a business firm... life can ridicule arithmetic."

Ackermann uses almost a full page to refute the following notion, which must have been a popular preoccupation of the time:

That the Primrose was Lord Beaconfield's Favorite Flower. The idea apparently arose because Queen Victoria regularly sent Disraeli primroses picked from the slopes at Windsor. This quaint habit may have been based on some sort of misunderstanding between the two individuals. However that might be, Ackermann disapproves, and concludes his article with a quote from the Daily Chronicle of April 20, 1910: "The woods are denuded of primroses to commemorate the statesman who recommended them as a salad."

The author takes frequent opportunities to moralize, as in the following item where he also puts down a petty prejudice:

That the Birth Rate of Jews is Greater than of Non-Jews. He quotes an article in Nature (March 21, 1918) holding that though the Jewish birth rate is actually less than that of the general population, their infant mortality is much lower. This is ascribed to breast feeding, greater care overall by the parents, and (delicately) "to the lesser incidence or almost entire absence of transmissible taints resulting from diseases acquired by the parents in the worship of Venus and Bacchus."

There is much about child care in the book. Ackermann comes down on the side of science when he opposes the idea

That Brimstone and Treacle is Good as a Medicine for Children. He disposes of the sulfur and molasses treatment with a quote from Chevasse's Advice to a Mother "In olden times poor unfortunate children were dosed, every Spring and Fall, with brimstone and treacle to 'sweeten the blood!'... To dose a healthy child with physic is the grossest absurdity." Mensa parents, please take note.

Back on the subject of prejudice again, consider the notion

That Red Haired People Are Treacherous, Deceitful, and Passionate. Ackermann is somewhat unsure of this one. 'Me author has failed to find any satisfactory evidence for or against the idea, but it should be clearly understood in all such cases that it is the duty of those who propound such theories to support them by reliable facts and experiments which may be checked by others." After two pages of speculation, with references to several authorities (including Shakespeare), the author concludes that "girls with red hair almost always have nice complexions and fine skins." He should have considered taking up politics.

Popular Fallacies was written at a time when nineteenth-century certainty was being replaced by twentieth-century doubt. Were he alive today, after Einstein, Freud, and two world wars, one wonders whether Ackermann would have been able to bring the same energy to bear on the task of erasing "vulgar errors" from the common mind. 

Lexiconophiliac John Cumming is now plunging into a study of the state of knowledge around the turn of the century, as revealed in its reference books.  Stay tuned for further news flashes from 1900.

More Articles by John Cumming

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