In the past couple of years, and particularly during my time living in a commune, I’ve heard it thrown around as fact that we know the weight of the human soul. This is a wonderful example of pseudoscience, and how such “facts” are perpetrated.
I personally came across the idea of the soul’s weight in the book Flying Without a Broom: Astral Projection and the Astral World (which, incidentally, is a pretty good book on the subject, but I will recommend better when I write the post on astral projection). In it, D.J. Conway writes “…scientists began to wonder if they could measure the “soul” at death. They began to weigh dying people and discovered a discrepancy of a few ounces which they could not explain. Dr. Duncan McDougall in England and Dr. Zaalberg Van Zelst in The Hague, working independently, came to the same conclusion. These doctors both arrived at the same displaced amount: 69.5 grams.”
Hm. Sounds like a good title for a movie. Except it’s the wrong number!
That’s right, the weight that Dr. Duncan McDougall (of Haverhill, Massachusetts, incidentally, not England) arrived at was three fourths of an ounce, or 21.3 grams. At least, this is the weight difference he got the first time he weighed a dying man. Nobody likes to talk about the other five times he tried it, because he arrived at a different figure each time, and practically admitted himself that he had no idea how to adjust the scale.
Dr. G. J. Zaalberg Van Zelst (who, incidentally, also worked with Dr. J. L.W. P. Matla) also weighed bodies at death and supposedly arrived at the weight D.J. Conway quoted, of 69.5 grams. As I’m not able to read Dutch I can’t verify this, and I do see the weight 12.24 mg thrown around on the internet with connection to their names, so perhaps things weren’t too clear cut there either.
But the story doesn’t end there. Dr. Becker Mertens, and Dr. Elke Fisher of Dresden, Germany weighed dying people in 1988, and came to the conclusion that the soul weighs 1/3,000th of an ounce. For reals this time guys! Seriously! Their findings have been contested by scientists who say that it’s all just air leaving the lungs, and to be sure, 1/3,000th of an ounce seems an awfully small weight to be positively sure of, especially at the instant of death, when all manner of fluids and vapors are escaping, and the body spasms in a way sure to throw scales for a loop.
By this point, the story had gotten absurd enough for that infamous satirical tabloid, the Weekly World News to write their own take on it in 1993, and the scientific humor writer Daedalus didn’t take long to follow in early 1994.
And yet, in 2002, D.J. Conway thought this was a subject which had not only been taken seriously, but had been settled many decades before. (As, perhaps, did screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga Jordán, a year later.) But I don’t blame her. She keeps an extensive bibliography in her books, and if you wanted, you could probably trace this “fact” back through the decades, being passed from one New Age text to the next, without one author who could be bothered to verify it.
I imagine at some point, someone probably wrote a passage something like “Dr. Duncan McDougall of *New* England experimented with weighing the soul in 1907. Dr. G. J. Zaalberg Van Zelst and Dr. J. L.W. P. Matla ran a similar experiment independently in The Hague. They [Zaakberg Van Zelst and Matla] arrived at a weight of 69.5 grams.”
It’s easy to see how poor copying and paraphrasing could turn this into “Dr. Duncan McDougall of England and Dr. Zaakberg Van Zelst of The Hague independently discovered that the soul weighs exactly 69.5 grams.” This is the sort of thing that happens when things aren’t tracked back to the original sources.
Edit: When this was originally posted, I suggested that the story of Nelson Lintott was also fabricated. Various sources give vastly differing accounts of his tale, saying he was convicted in 1993, 1991, or right around 1900 of raping either over 113 or over 200 women between the ages of 10 and 34, and either filming or photographing it, which eventually led to his discovery and subsequent trial. Since I’ve received a comment from someone who claims she personally was a victim of Nelson, I’ve removed this bit until I can find more information.