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Opinion
Faye Flam

Ben Franklin's Guide to Spotting Pseudoscience

His classic test of "mesmerism" was an early win for experimental psychology.
His work in social science was equally electrifying.

His work in social science was equally electrifying.

Image: Currier and Ives/MPI/Getty Images

Scientists -- especially those in fields plagued by irreproducible results -- could learn a thing or two from Benjamin Franklin. In the late 18th century, humanity had yet to invent most of the statistical tools now considered essential for social science, yet Franklin conducted a top-rate psychology experiment yielding conclusions that stand to this day.

To do it, he had to invent some of the core principles of experimental science. Franklin’s contribution to social science often gets drowned out by his equally great strides in electricity and other forms of innovation. But now, with critics charging that most published social science can’t be replicated, Franklin’s foray into psychology deserves some attention.