Review: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

By Charles McKay

Magnum opus on historical fantasies in three volumes. There’s no part of this I didn’t like. Every book in every volume (my Gutenberg PDF has the bulk of the book in part one, followed by three more books devoted to alchemists, fortune tellers and magnetisers) is full of interesting historical stories of varying degrees of import.

It was good after hearing about tulips for so many years to finally read a detailed report, and to learn about parallels in England, France, and so on. But I also liked the little stories, like the mobs who disrupted an English theater in protest of a nominal price hike. And if you ever wondered whether or not people used to repeat stupid catch phrases prior to TV, Mackay helpfully (and disdainfully) catalogues a few recent (to him) phrases that caught fire among the rabble. (“What a shocking bad hat!”)

It’s a good reminder that as awful and crazy as the world seems to be today, it has ever been thus. Instead of housing bubbles, we had tulip bubbles. Instead of trying to turn sunlight into power, we had people trying to turn lead into gold. Instead of Internet flame wars, dueling was the madness.

Our major advance, I suppose, would be that we don’t generally kill people. We might cost a lot of people their livelihoods in our pursuit of social status, but we don’t actually stab or shoot them in duels.

So we’ve got that going for us. Which is nice.

I do think Mackay falls short where skeptics always fall short, which is believing that skepticism is a somehow more logical (or workable) viewpoint than being trusting. That is, taking the viewpoint that something isn’t true isn’t any more virtuous than taking the viewpoint that it is. It’s easy enough to dismiss the magnetisers for their quackery, for example, but one reason they were so successful is that they resolved issues conventional medicine could not.

It also allows one to ignore the quackery in conventional medicine. We can all see the flaws of medicine 175 years ago, but we’re inclined to believe modern medicine has things all nailed down.

Note that Mackay himself fell for a popular delusion in his own time—the Railway mania—which perhaps suggests, above all, that a little humility is almost always in order.

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