Parapsychology. You may have heard of it. You know, telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis. Spoon-bending and that sort of thing. If you have heard of...

Parapsychology. You may have heard of it. You know, telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis. Spoon-bending and that sort of thing. If you have heard of it, you probably think of it as a pseudoscience. And indeed it is. But it wasn’t always so. There was a time in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when practitioners and advocates of parapsychology abounded. William James, one of the very founders of modern psychological science, was a fan. Most of the founders of modern psychology, of course, weren’t fans. They considered the parapsychologists frauds peddling cheap tricks to gullible people. These con-men, they said, gave true psychological science a bad name.  There was only one thing to do: unmask them.

As Michael Pettit shows in his fascinating book The Science of Deception: Psychology and Commerce in America (University of Chicago Press, 2013), that is precisely what the scientific psychologists did, or at least tried to do. They worked hard to create a firm boundary between their legitimate practice and what they considered illegitimate trickery. In so doing, they developed a science of deception, one that had far reaching implications for science, the law, and commerce in the United States. Listen in.

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