A New Court?

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/November 8, 1910

To Put An End To Disputes

Now comes Dr. J. Peace Norton, of Yale University, with the suggestion that the federal government set up a supreme court of scientific judicature, with a bench of savants and pundits, for the final settlement of all those vexatious problems of science, pseudo-science and quasi-science which so cruelly and incessantly afflict the plain people. Is it or is it not a fact that a nutmeg hung from the neck will stave off rheumatism? Is it or is it not a fact that a wet July is sign of late autumn? Is it or is it not true that boneset tea will cure the hideous spasms and cramps of infancy, that whisky is a food, that a rabbit’s foot brings good luck, that the spiritualists commune with the departed, that vaccination prevents smallpox? Why not have these questions answered authoritatively and for all time—and then give the answers the force and effect of law?

Dr. Norton believes that the vaccination problem, in particular, cries aloud for settlement. In nearly every American state vaccination is compulsory, and yet every state supports a society or societies dedicated to the doctrine that arm-scraping is little short of legalized homicide. Why not put an end to the eternal debate? Why not submit the discordant evidence collected by vaccinationists and anti-vaccinationists to some august and incorruptible, and what is more important still, unemotional tribunal of experts—and then abide by its decision? Why not, in brief, come to some official conclusion in the matter, some orthodox doctrine—and thereafter consign all who dissent from it to the gallows as public nuisances? Both sides cannot be right. Why not, then, find out which is right, and have done?

What About Vivisection?

Again, there is the matter of vivisection. In every state there are institutions devoted to pathological and therapeutic inquiry, and every one of them makes free use of guinea pigs, rabbits and other such fauna. Moreover, nearly every such institution receives aid from the public treasury, and it is therefore at the public expense, at least in part, that it supplies itself with the animals needed for its investigations and with the saws, augers and other implements necessary to their exploration. And yet every state also has a society devoted to the task of making such experiments felonies! The members of these societies, as taxpayers, must help to pay for the very doings they denounce as unspeakable! Suppose they are right? If they are, they are the victims of the most outrageous injustice imaginable. And if they are not, we who have to listen to their vociferous lamentations should be given relief.

Such is the argument of Dr. Norton. Ingenuous man! He forgets, in his enthusiasm, one of the fundamental rights of every American citizen—a right so sacred and so vastly esteemed that its invasion would mean revolution. I refer, of course, to the right to bolt the caucus, to repudiate the platform, to repeal the laws.

If the vaccination problem, for example, could be solved by the simple device of weighing the evidence for and against, it would have been solved long ago. As a matter of fact, it has been so solved—to the satisfaction of nine-tenths of us. But the remaining tenth will not have it so. What does it matter to them that the facts are all against them, that Dr. Osler and Dr. Welch are against them, that every man whose opinion is worth hearing is against them? So much the firmer do they cling to their right to deny the facts, to dethrone Dr. Osler, to make a loud noise. What is authority, what are facts—against that divine privilege?

Our Busy Theologians

There is no privilege, indeed, which gives the American people keener or more permanent delight. In the domain of theology, in particular, they are constantly engaged in exercising it. The people of most other countries find abundant play for their yearnings in four or five, or at most a score of sects. But not so we Americans. Our sects number more than 250 and new ones are being founded every week. Even so gross a revolt from the old theology as Christian Science did not long satisfy some of its adherents. Before the mother church in Boston was even begun, the Christian Scientists had begun to split up into sub-sects. Today the orthodox wing is sorely beset by rivals, one of which has come to such consideration that it has already got itself a bishop. The Dowieites, by the same token, began to develop factions before Dowie was translated to his heavenly pasture, and since that lamentable event they have separated into at least half a dozen sects, each of which denounces all of the others. Even the Mormons have their protestants and reformers.

In matters of science it is even worse. Probably 40 per cent of the people of the United States dissent from the medical theories of Dr. Osler and regard him as a mountebank. They fall naturally into three large groups. The first group leans toward homeopathy, the second favors osteopathy and the third believes in some form or other of mental healing. But not one of these groups, saving perhaps the homeopathic, is homogeneous. The osteopaths now have formidable rivals at their own fireside in a school of napropaths, two schools of chiropractics and a dozen or more schools of Bohemian thrusters, Swedish muscle rubbers and native bone-setters. As for the mental healers, their factions are so numerous that it would take a day to call the roll. From the Emmanuel Movement and Christian Science through the New Thought, so-called divine healing and mail-order healing, down to down-right magic, every faction flourishes and every one divides incessantly into sub-factions.

What good would it do to determine the truth? The very fact that it was the truth, that it was supported by the highest intelligence and authority, would be sufficient to make a large and noisy faction of Americans reject it instinctively, violently and as a matter of inevitable right.

(Source: University of North Texas, microfilm collection)

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.