Skepticism and Literature in Nineteenth-Century Spain

Antonio G. Valdecasas, Azucena López Márquez

“… take me to Spain.”

—“Spanish Caravan,” The Doors

The idea of Spain in the minds of foreign visitors has evolved substantially over the past three centuries. From an illiterate and savage country whose outlook may be synthesized in the dictum attributed to Voltaire that “Africa begins in the Pyrenees” or the commentary of Casanova upon entering Spain in 1767 (“Wretched Spain!”) (Casanova 1894), to its later transformation into a romantic and exotic place full of brave men and passionate women. This latter vision persisted and was made universal in the twentieth century through portraits of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) as depicted in the narratives of Hemingway and Orwell, among many others. From these, Spain’s devotion for bullfighting was then singled out as representative of the country as narrated in Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, which made Pamplona’s San Fermín celebrations famous worldwide. This oversimplified depiction of a highly diverse Spanish society was insightfully analyzed by the expert musicologist Judith Etzion in her landmark work on the Spanish fandango (Etzion 1993), a style of music and dance popular in eighteenth-century Spain. The truth is that many different “Spains” have existed in the Iberian Peninsula over the past three centuries and that different travelers have found what they were looking for, choosing to single out only one of many different realities.

Despite the presumed transition from an uncultured nation to a romantic and exotic one, disdain for science in Spanish society has been a traditional view that has remained constant during this time. Jules Verne best conveys the international view of science in nineteenth-century Spain. In his novel From the Earth to the Moon, originally published in 1865, Verne describes the international contribution to the cost of the voyage to the moon, for which he states:

As to Spain, she could not scrape together more than 110 reals. She gave as an excuse that she had her railways to finish. The truth is, that science is not favorably regarded in that country, it is still in a backward state; and, moreover, certain Spaniards, not by any means the least educated, did not form a correct estimate of the bulk of the projectile compared with that of the moon. They feared that it would disturb the established order of things. In that case it were better to keep aloof; which they did to the tune of some reals. (Verne [1865] 1900; emphasis added)

However, no one would deny that different social strata existed, some with very cultivated people seriously interested in the advancement of scientific knowledge. Emilio Huelin, author of the collected articles Cronicón Cientifico Popular (Popular Scientific Chronicle), is an excellent example of one of these intellectuals who wanted to disseminate scientific knowledge to the wider society (Huelin 1877). Indeed, a review published in the scientific journal Nature of Huelin’s first volume of work written in Spanish is a testimony of his important contribution:

We perused this volume with interest and pleasant surprise; we were pleased at finding it to be an excellent and well-written review of all new occurrences in the scientific world, and we were surprised to see such a work emanate from a country which hitherto has contributed but too small a share towards the progress and welfare of science. (A.G.B. 1877)

Other authors, with the same purpose of promoting scientific literacy within the general public, used literature as a means to cultivate public rationality. As an example, here we analyze one of the best narratives to illuminate the fraud of pseudomedicine: a story written by José Fernández Bremón titled Monsieur Dansant, médico aerópata (1879, Monsieur Dansant, airpathy physician). Its devastating critique of pseudomedicine is written in the context of an intriguing story with superb rhythm and structure.

Daniel Collado

In short, Monsieur Dansant founds a health business based on air. Different kinds of air, such as cool, warm, humid, fast, and slow (among others), are prescribed for a wide range of ailments. The treatments are usually administered in a splendid clinic built by Dansant’s wealthy partner, although specially “packed” air could be sent abroad on demand. This is the basis of the whole story, which also links a somewhat cynical love story with the development of the health business and perfectly illustrates the set of characteristics usually accompanying these kinds of fake cures.

As such, this tale identifies deception and other salient features that should be carefully considered when presented with any proposal of “miraculous cures” in the past, present, and future. All the features that characterize the pseudomedicine are in the story of Dansant, although not all are explicit. Let’s examine them in detail.

1. Be careful with the display of academic degrees.

Dansant introduces himself as a doctor, although he has never studied medicine. His knowledge is based mainly on intuition and so-called sympathetic medicine (see below). However, being called a doctor gives him some level of legitimacy, as this word is usually associated with practitioners of medicine.

The skeptical literature is full of debates with authors who call themselves doctors or who indeed have doctoral degrees, such as parapsychologists Rupert Sheldrake and Russel Targ. However, academic degrees are not passports to truth. Academic degrees do not necessarily give legitimacy to a person’s beliefs. There is no guarantee of truth just because one claims to be transmitting “knowledge.” The final arbitration of knowledge is played out in scientific journals, not in newspapers and popular science books. So, be careful with the exhibition of academic degrees as a passport to truth.

2. Rhetorical vocabulary may hide the lack of factual substance.

Pseudoscience uses two vocabulary-related strategies to try to give the perception of authority. On the one hand, it borrows common scientific terms to make their discourse seem credible. Terms such as energy, waves, frequency, and vibrations are common in the pseudoscience literature, but they are not used according to their proper definitions based on physics. On the other hand, pseudoscience uses less common words that are not necessarily connected with science but transmit a sense of deepness and wisdom. Typical examples include astral projections, crystal therapy, and biological recodification, among others.

3. Beware of excuses and justifications given when the expected result of a treatment is not obtained.

In the scientific treatment of diseases, when the application of a remedy does not have the desired effect, the explanation provided may focus on the specific role the substance plays in the targeted organ or tissue. The rationality of how a remedy works is reflected in the rationality of the lack of effect. Pseudomedicine explanations do not have this rationality. Rather, the all-inclusive excuse that “in some cases, it does not work” is often invoked. This is precisely the justification given by Dansant when patients ask why they are not getting better.

4. The use of large urban or foreign (far and exotic) places to authenticate the message.

Humans are social beings, and social context gives meaning to them. Context can provide a hint of seriousness and legitimacy, but it may also convey deception. London and New York have large numbers of conjurers and healers, and saying that you have been “practicing in New York” is an empty phrase. (If you have been teaching at Columbia University, for example, it may be another matter.)

5. The fact that a book has been published in different countries and languages does not necessarily fill it with more veracity.

The Bible is a book that has been translated into almost all languages, yet this does not make it more reliable concerning the origins of the universe or biodiversity.

Another example is L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, which was first proposed as a “model of the mind.” But when it was questioned as being pseudoscience, it transformed into a credo of the Scientology religion.

6. The likelihood of superficial explanations

Pseudorational explanations appear to have some degree of authenticity, although they may lack any kind of causal connection between the diseases and cures. Practitioners of sympathetic medicine believe that some diseases are best treated with things related to the disease (Stevens 2001). A good example is the belief within folklore medicine that the consumption of certain animal parts, such as rhinoceros horn, is the best cure for virility problems. In the same guise, Dansant approaches disease using the “sympathetic” methodology, prescribing hot air to treat a common cold or fresh air for a nervous breakdown and so on.

7. Uncertainty is not a question of zeros and ones but of degrees.

Degrees of uncertainty drive science and research but not to defend the idea that “everything may be valid.” The dictum “everything is connected with everything” lacks meaning. Everything admits degrees, and the connection between different causes and effects can only be elucidated by research. Parodying a popular statement of chaos theory, we may say that “when a citizen sneezes in New York, it may have an effect on someone in Tokyo,” but if truly deserved, an investigation could be carried out to test this hypothesis. Moreover, diffuse holism is not a reason to think that everything is relative. The truth is that some relationships are more uncertain than others, and human progress and knowledge has been built on the reduction of uncertainty.

Different kinds of air may affect human health differently. However, this is a matter of research. In fact, we already know a lot about the effects of urban air on human health as the result of an in-depth study of components and effects (Kolok 2016).

8. Playing on the hopes and fears of patients

The best indication of a fake cure is when it enthusiastically plays with the patient’s hopes, promising results that no other may offer.

9. Superficial altruism for added credibility

There are many kinds of altruism. The worst is superficial altruism, which involves only being generous to gain more than invested. This kind of behavior is usually found in deceivers.

10. External appearance is not necessarily related to the quality of content and truth.

Big buildings and lavish installations do not signify the efficacy of a therapy or treatment. This rule works in other areas as well. Not so long ago, the evolutionist Leigh Van Valen founded the journal Evolutionary Theory with the motto “primacy of content over display.” The opposite may be said of many pseudomedicines, which prioritize display over content.

11. Conflict with different proposals or with academic practices may increase popularity but is unrelated to plausibility.

As the Spanish saying goes, cuando el río suena, agua lleva (when the stream rings, it is because it carries water). According to our analysis, some people may be led to believe that just because there is some controversy about pseudomedicine, at least an atom of truth may exist on all sides. This relativistic thinking is misguided and dangerous.

12. Signs of improvement after a treatment are not always directly related to the treatment administered.

Placebo effects may play a role in the preliminary phases of alternative medicine treatments. However, the important point is whether this “improvement” continues and develops into a new state of health. The mind is an incredible tool: it can self-help but also self-deceive. In some cases, the feeling of improvement may have a hidden cause. A somewhat famous case in Spain involved the alternative treatment of a child with cancer by a healer. The parents were very happy at the beginning of the treatment, as the child showed changes in energy and happiness. However, all these signs quickly declined, and the child died not long afterward. It was later discovered that the healer had prescribed the child a tincture laced with cocaine (see

Bremón’s literary work has surprisingly and brilliantly described the main characteristics on which pseudomedicines base their promotion. This short story deserves to be better known, which should not be a costly task given the number of translation tools available today.



Further Reading




“… take me to Spain.” —“Spanish Caravan,” The Doors The idea of Spain in the minds of foreign visitors has evolved substantially over the past three centuries. From an illiterate and savage country whose outlook may be synthesized in the dictum attributed to Voltaire that “Africa begins in the Pyrenees” or the commentary of Casanova …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.