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Hall of Alternative Medicine

From belief in the touted curative effects of spring water and mineral baths to the purchase of quack nostrums and various popular forms of "alternative medicine," people continue the ancient quest for healing. Why do pseudoscientific treatments and "snake-oil" cure-alls seem to work? First of all, healing occurs naturally in the body, and some serious conditions, including multiple sclerosis and certain types of cancer, may undergo what is termed "spontaneous remission," whereby the disease gets better on its own, with or without treatment.


Here in this hall you will find an investigation into the history of the bizarre lengths to which people have previously gone to achieve relief from a multitude of maladies, in a variety of (sometimes amusing, sometimes dangerous, and sometimes just plain strange) ways.  Highlighted here is the Snake Oil Collection, which is currently featured on the New York Heritage website.  An item in the Snake Oil Collection, a rare Clark Stanley Snake Oil Liniment bottle with its original box, was featured last year (2013) on the Travel Channel's "Mysteries at the Museum" television program, and we are very proud to have it here on display.


So please, enjoy your look around, and critical inquiry into, the Hall of Alternative Medicine!

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Hall of Extraterrestrials

Although mankind has always seen strange objects in the sky, the modern wave of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) began in 1947 with reports of "flying discs." One of these crashed at Roswell, New Mexico, in that year, but was later shown to have been a secret research balloon. Investigation frequently converts UFOs to IFOs when the unidentified objects are identified as meteors, balloons, secret aircraft, and other phenomena.

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Hall of Ghosts and Spiritualism

Modern spiritualism-- the belief in communication with the dead (often through persons known as "mediums")-- began at Hydesville, NY in 1848. Two sisters, Maggie and Katie Fox, pretended to receive rapping messages from ghostly entities. Years later they confessed that it was all a trick, but spiritualism had long since begun to flourish as a popular belief.

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Hall of Miracles and Relics

The Anglican writer C.S. Lewis succinctly defined a miracle as "an interference with nature by a supernatural power." Investigation, however, demonstrates that miraculous claims are often based on nothing more than a lack of knowledge regarding the true explanation, thus involving a "leap of faith."

The word miraculum (from mirari "to wonder at") has been defined many ways.  Typically, it is held to be a supernatural event, attributable to divine intervention, because "it can't be explained" by recourse to natural laws.  However, such a claim is based on logical fallacy called arguing from ignorance (that is, from a lack of knowledge).  One cannot say, "We don't know what caused a statue to seemingly weep bloody tears; therefore, it was a miracle from God."  Science has never, in fact, authenticated a single miracle, and it remians for a claimant to prove an event was miraculous, not for a skeptic to prove otherwise.

Because they are commonly regarded as having miraculous powers, relics are included here.  In Catholocism, a relic is an item (or portion of it) that was once connected with the body of a saint -- possibly a lock of hair or fragment of bone (called a first-class relic), or an item used by a saint, such as a piece of clothing (second-class relic); it may also be an item deliberately touched to a first-class relic (thus becoming a third-class relic) or touched to a second-class relic (with the intention of creating a fourth-class relic).

So prevalent had become the sale of relics in St. Augustine's time (about 400 CE) that he deplored "hypocrites in the garb of monks for hawking about the limbs of martyrs," adding with due skepticism, "if indeed of martyrs."

(For more on miracles and relics, see Joe Nickell, The Science of Miracles, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2013, and Relics of the Christ, Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007.)

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Hall of Parapsychology

Belief has persisted in special mental powers such as mind reading, clairvoyance (seeing that which is hidden), fortune telling, and psychokinesis (mind-over-matter). A term for these alleged powers was introduced in 1934 by Dr. J.B. Rhine at Duke University. He and his colleagues conducted experiments with test subjects that supposedly verified "extrasensory perception" (or ESP). However, skeptics pointed out numerous flaws in the test procedures, a problem that has plagued successive ESP research.

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Hall of Pseudoscience

That which has the superficial appearance of science, usually with its jargon and other trappings, but which fundamentally is not science, is called pseudoscience (a.k.a. "junk science," "quackery," etc.). Whereas the scientific method involves objectivity (enhanced by peer review, replicability, and other means) and letting the best evidence lead to the most likely solution, pseudoscience tends to be non-falsifiable (that is, there can be no evidence to disprove it). The pseudoscientist typically begins with a conviction and works backwards, seeking only the evidence seeming to justify that belief. For example, astronomy and evolutionary biology are sciences, while astrology and creationism (and Intelligent Design) are pseudosciences.

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Hall of Strange Creatures

Various types of "strange" creatures -- Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, mermaids, Vampires, and so on -- continue to fascinate.  Unlike the Known animals that zoologists study, however, these creatures are difficult to categorize for the very reason that they cannot be examined.

Some are considered supernatural -- werewolves, for instance -- and thus belong not to science by to muthology and other works of literature.  Science has never authenticated anything as supernatural.

On the other hand, some creatures -- like lake monsters -- if they exist at all, could be entirely natural-world animals.  Such potentially "real" creatures are now ofted called "cryptids" (meaning "hidden animals"), and those who study them call themselves "cryptozoologists."

Still, there is no hard-and-fast system of classification for these "strange" creatures.  Until science comes into possession of a specimen, one could endlessly debate whether a given entity -- a "merbeing," say -- is supernatural, natural, or imaginary.  Different "theorists" have different opinions, while most scientists do not give any of them much thought.

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Hall of Superstition & Luck

This exhibit space is dedicated to artifacts which showcase the variety of superstitions and "lucky charms" that humankind has believed in and relied upon throughout history.  Superstitions, beliefs based on magical rather than rational thinking, are persistent. Most promise either good or bad luck (as from finding a four-leaf clover or a heads-up penny) or misfortune (such as by the breaking of a mirror), and thus they are a reflection of people's hopes and fears. Folk beliefs often vary, and one person's taboo may well be another's boon-- a selective process in either case. Actually, "luck" is randomly distributed and cannot be brought about by charms, rituals, or other non-causal processes. Many people are uncomfortable living in a world of randomness, and superstitions may help them cope.

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Hall of World Religions and Mythologies

In folklore studies, the term myth refers to a narrative which presents preternatural topics as explanations or metaphors of cosmic or natural forces or the like (creation myths, for example).  From the tendency to characterize others' beliefs as "false mythologies" while regarding one's own beliefs as the correct religion, comes the idea that myth means "false belief"; however, folklorists do not use the term in that way.

To the folklorist, the Central Eskimo belief in Qudlivun as a place in the sky filled with games and happiness, and the Christian idea of heaven, are equally myths that posit an afterworld located in the sky.  In this light, whether they are called mythologies or religions, belief systems composed of stories about supernatural or (by extension) supernatural beings (extraterrestrials, for instance) who interact with humans in ways that are cosmically important, are myths, pure and simple.

(For further discussion, see C.W. Sullivan's entry "Myth" in Jan Harold Brunvand, ed., American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, New York: Garland, 1996, 497-99; Maria Leach, ed., Funk & Wagnall's Standard Dictionary of Folklore, New York: Harper & Row, 1984, 487, 778, 914-15; Joe Nickell, Tracking the Man-Beasts, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2011, 227-29.)

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Nickell Snake Oil Collection

Although the term "snake oil" in time became a disparaging description of any patent medicine, real snake oil— rattlesnake grease— was actually sold for use as a liniment.


Although snake oil has become synonymous with medical quackery in today's parlance, not many are aware of how it came to be so. This digital collection from the Center for Inquiry Libraries' Dr. Joe Nickell Collection features 27 items relating to the sale of these "patent medicines," including bottles of snake oil, other cure-all liniments, various advertisements, and even a taxidermic rattlesnake.


The latter half of the 19th century saw an influx of Chinese immigrants bound for work on the railroads. Some of them brought the oil of the Chinese water snake with them, a remedy that had been used as a liniment for aches and pains for centuries in China. The oil of the Chinese water snake was "rich in the omega-3 acids that help reduce inflammation" and was thought to be quite effective. Some Americans, most notably Clark Stanley, capitalized on this Chinese remedy by offering an Americanized version purportedly made with rattlesnake oil. However, rattlesnake oil does not have the same levels of omega-3 acids in it as the oil of the Chinese water snake (Source: Gandhi, 2013).


The efficacy of rattlesnake oil is not how snake oil became associated with quackery. Rather, the advent of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 spelled the end of snake oil and other "patent medicines" because it aimed at "preventing the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors, and for regulating traffic therein, and for other purposes" (Source: History of Medicine Division, 2004). Federal investigators later discovered that Stanley's snake oil did not in fact contain any snake oil upon seizing one of his shipments (Source: Gandhi, 2013).


This collection is a representation of the origins of a cultural phenomenon that falls in line with the mission statement of the Center for Inquiry: to objectively observe and state facts about a believed-to-be significant object. The main stakeholders for the organization and digitization of this collection are researchers who are interested in the origins of cure-alls and quackery. Snake oil is not only representative of the cure-all phenomenon, but it is also flamboyant and eye catching. While there have been plenty of cure-alls before and since, snake oil is significant because it is the one that is so well remembered. Because it was one of the first cure-alls to be widely advertised and later debunked, it became a cultural icon for sham medicine and false advertising.  This collection of snake oil artifacts has been assembled by Dr. Joe Nickell, and has had items featured in a variety of formats - including a Clark Stanley bottle which was featured in 2013 on an episode of the Travel Channel television show, "Mysteries at the Museum."  You can also find this collection on the New York Heritage digital collections website.

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