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Phrenology – A case of science overextending itself

Self-portrait as phrenology illustration

Self-portrait as phrenology illustration by obscure allusion / Jason Priem

Phrenology is a word popularized by Johann Caspar Spurzheim (1776-1832) to describe a pseudo-scientific theory developed by Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828).

Gall hypothesized that different brain regions are responsible for specific functions. Today, the details are debated but this model is generally accepted.¹

So for Gall, a stronger trait or ability allegedly corresponded with more developed brain regions, while weaker traits or abilities coincided with less developed brain regions.

From there, he proposed that different abilities and tendencies are linked to the size and shape of the human skull.

Gall believed the skull would exhibit measurable bumps over larger, well developed brain regions, making his theory not only scientific but practical. Heads can be measured. And from those measurements, different treatments could be implemented.

This theory fell into disrepute around the 1900’s. Contemporary researchers highlight the importance of learning, stimulation, nutrition, attitudes, beliefs, as well as the density and differentiation of neural pathways in relation to brain performance and abilities.
Embed from Getty Images
Colour etching by W Taylor satirising the work of Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Spurzheim, proponents of phrenology, showing a doctor examining a patient’s head, whilst other patients with variously-shaped craniums await inspection.

Much like modern computer processors, bulk size doesn’t necessarily matter. Complexity does. Also, recent concepts like plasticity and epigenetics further discredit older, fully deterministic brain theories. In other words, genes matter but other factors come into play.

Perhaps because phrenology could easily be abused, it’s not well-known today. Hitler and the Nazis, for instance, used something similar to phrenology to try to separate Jews from non-Jews.²

Today, phrenology is sometimes upheld by sociologists and historians as an example of all that can go wrong when scientism (pseudoscience) masquerades as science.

“Raoul Hausmann was one of the leading members of the Berlin Dada movement… [his] most well known [work} is Spirit of Our Time. Finished in 1921.” – via Utopia/Dystopia

Wikipedia puts it well:

Phrenology is…based on the concept that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that certain brain areas have localized, specific functions or modules. Although both of those ideas have a basis in reality, phrenology extrapolated beyond empirical knowledge in a way that departed from science.

Some writers at web sites like Mad In America zealously argue that all of contemporary psychiatry is pseudoscience and profit mongering. I think this is an extreme, polarizing view and not really helpful toward better integrating good science and good spirituality.

Quick Historical Outline


Among the first to identify the brain as the major controlling center for the body were Hippocrates and his followers, inaugurating a major change in thinking from Egyptian, biblical and early Greek views, which based bodily primacy of control on the heart.


This belief was supported by the Greek physician Galen, who concluded that mental activity occurred in the brain rather than the heart, contending that the brain, a cold, moist organ formed of sperm, was the seat of the animal soul—one of three “souls” found in the body, each associated with a principal organ.


Phrenology came about at a time when scientific procedures and standards for acceptable evidence were still being codified. In the context of Victorian society, phrenology was a respectable scientific theory.


Phrenology was mostly discredited as a scientific theory by the 1840s.


In Belgium, Paul Bouts (1900–1999) began studying phrenology from a pedagogical background, using the phrenological analysis to define an individual pedagogy. Combining phrenology with typology and graphology, he coined a global approach known as psychognomy. Bouts, a Roman Catholic priest, became the main promoter of renewed 20th-century interest in phrenology and psychognomy in Belgium.


During the 1930s Belgian colonial authorities in Rwanda used phrenology to explain the so-called superiority of Tutsis over Hutus.


Phrenology was one of the first to bring about the idea of rehabilitation of criminals instead of vindictive punishments…


In psychiatry phrenology was proposed as a viable model in order to reform the disciplinary field.

¹ Neurologists differ on how:

  • different combinations of the brain occur and affect functioning
  • much of the brain we use
  • the brain is linked to the rest of the nervous system, surrounding organs and microorganisms (e.g. bacteria).
  • sex differences affect brain functioning

² Josef Mengele, a sadistic and cruel doctor at Auschwitz, wrote a dissertation on “differing Lower Jaw formations and Racial differences.” See

Related » Face Reading, Social Darwinism

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 From the Bookshelves: States of Delinquency: Race and Science in the Making of California’s Juvenile Justice System by Miroslava Chávez-García (

 The Many Ways Science Has (Wrongly) Assessed Your Personality (

 Use your head when buying a conversation piece (


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Rona and other myths undercut our cosmological arrogance

In Oceanic mythology Rona is a fierce female cannibal who eats her beautiful daughter’s lover.¹

Another Oceanic myth tells of a male god, Rona, who fights the moon to rescue his abducted wife.² According to this story, when the moon tires from the battle with Rona, it wanes. When the moon regains its strength, it waxes.

This is a good example of what might be called alternative logic, lateral thinking or, for some, anthropomorphism. From his fieldwork, the depth psychiatrist Carl Jung observed that archaic myths are logical and meaningful to so-called primitives, just as scientific explanations appear logical and meaningful to many so-called advanced, thinking persons.

More recently, postmodern critiques of science tend to view theories as working myths or fictions instead of facts. This makes sense if one is willing to admit bias and the limits of human understanding.

English: Karl Popper in 1990.

Karl Popper in 1990 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Take Karl Popper, for instance. He points out that scientific theories are never really proved, per se, but only supported. Also, scientific theories are subject to falsification, modification or radical change through, as T. Kuhn suggests, a paradigm shift. We know that Newton’s Laws of Motion perform well for conventional problems. But Einstein’s work is required for areas that Newton couldn’t observe and probably didn’t imagine.³

Somewhat ahead of his time, Jung says he treated so-called primitives with respect and, when interviewing local elders and tribesmen, didn’t challenge their beliefs or try to convert them to a modern scientific or, for that matter, Protestant Christian perspective.4

A considerate move on Jung’s part. Imagine if advanced extraterrestrials publicly visited Earth. Let’s say the visitors could see beyond our common view of directional time and the (apparent) solidity of matter. These beliefs are important to the functioning and psychological security of 21st century mankind. So if ETs revealed too much knowledge too fast, they’d likely blow our minds as David Bowie put it in the song “Starman.”

Likewise, had Jung tried to convince indigenous peoples that the sun’s rising did not depend on contemplation and sacrifice but, rather, the Earth’s natural rotation, he might have upset their psychological wellness.5

This raises questions about our “developed” cosmological assumptions and how they tie in to the idea of progress. Clearly this topic can go in many directions. I touch on some of these in entries on numinosity, spirituality, mysticismscience, psychiatry and scientism, among others.

¹ See for the source of these and also for this Wikipedia retelling:

According to Māori legend, a Ngaio tree can be seen on the moon:

The man in the moon becomes, in Māori legend, a woman, one Rona by name. This lady, it seems, once had occasion to go by night for water to a stream. In her hand she carried an empty calabash. Stumbling in the dark over stones and the roots of trees she hurt her shoeless feet and began to abuse the moon, then hidden behind clouds, hurling at it some such epithet as “You old tattooed face, there!” But the moon-goddess heard, and reaching down caught up the insulting Rona, calabash and all, into the sky. In vain the frightened woman clutched, as she rose, the tops of a ngaio-tree. The roots gave way, and Rona with her calabash and her tree are placed in the front of the moon for ever, an awful warning to all who are tempted to mock at divinities in their haste.

English: Hand-colored photograph of Carl Jung ...

Hand-colored photograph of Carl Jung in USA, published in 1910 (Photo: Wikipedia)

² Ibid.

³ See Reddit – Ask Science.

My PhD thesis suggests that Jung thinks and behaves like a postmodern before the idea of postmodernism becomes fashionable. Jung’s father, Paul, was a Protestant minister who said Carl had to “believe.” Jung later writes that he doesn’t know how he is to find this belief. With access to his father’s theological library, the young Jung took to Latin and religious studies like a dove to water.

Jung interviewed a Hopi elder and other Native Americans who held these beliefs. See

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sea turtle – Test Tube – Gummy bear contamination! (Please note: No gummy bears were harmed or consumed in the making of this photo shoot) via Flickr

Scientism has two meanings. One refers to the (almost religious) belief that science may eventually understand and solve all natural and human problems. This kind of scientism has also been called “scientific fundamentalism.” Wikipedia gives a good outline of this approach:

Scientism is belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most “authoritative” worldview or the most valuable part of human learning – to the exclusion of other viewpoints. Accordingly, philosopher Tom Sorell provides this definition of scientism: “Scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture.”¹

The second meaning refers to the partial and/or deceptive use of methods generally recognized as scientific.

Put simply, some people actively deceive or try to appear scientific for personal, economic or political gain. For examples of this see Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Hall of Science by W. Broad and N. Wade (1982). More recent examples can be found here:

Related to the second meaning, a specious argument may be given a scientific gloss to make it seem legitimate. We find this in so many TV ads where professional actors wear white lab coats, trying to look like authoritative scientists or medical professionals while selling products ranging from automobiles to toothpaste.

Also, the representation of statistics may be disproportional to actual results. Sometimes we find bloated or extended bar graphs that make results look more significant than they really are—another common advertising trick that falls under this kind of scientism.

Because the entire definition of science is problematic, one could say that the idea of scientism, itself, is also fraught with difficulty. Science is a human enterprise. And in my opinion it’s often a fine line between science and scientism. Or maybe a gray and blurry one.


Related » Advertising, Athleticism, Chance, Marx, Marxism, Politics, Postmodernism, Power, Religion, Science, Thomas Szasz


Thomas Szasz

Dr Thomas Stephen Szasz photographed by during his 90th birthday seminar in London.

Thomas Szasz (1920-2012) was a Hungarian psychiatrist and author of many books, including his best known work, The Myth of Mental Illness (1961).

Almost a decade before collaborating with The Church of Scientology, Szasz argued that the science behind psychiatry is essentially scientism. For Szasz, the term mental illness points to a social myth rather than an absolute fact. To borrow from the lingo of postmodernism, he believes that the idea of mental illness is a historically relative discourse, located in networks of power/knowledge.¹

Written before Henri Ellenberger’s landmark publication, The Discovery of the Unconscious (1970), and around the same time as Michel Foucault‘s poststructural work, Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (1961), Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness is often required reading for undergraduate courses in the Humanities at liberal-democratic universities.

Critics of Szasz’s perspective question his knowledge of genetics and neuroscience. And they point out that psychiatry, like any other science, is in a constant state of development. Depending on factors like the patient’s condition, the competency of the psychiatrist and the socio-political climate in which assessments are made, psychiatry may be used for good or ill. So it makes little sense to demonize it as a whole.

However, Szasz was prolific right up to his death. His later publications contain some sociological and philosophical insights but arguably reveal the unrealistically polarized views of a somewhat isolated but well-meaning humanitarian (e.g Schizophrenia: The Sacred Symbol of Psychiatry, 1988; Psychiatry: The Science of Lies, 2008).

Again, most recognized psychiatric associations have rejected his ideas, a situation not entirely unlike an orthodox Church marginalizing so-called heresies. This polarization of anti-psychiatry vs. psychiatry is unfortunate because it probably makes all involved parties more intransigent, lessening their ability to see other perspectives.

Anti-Psychiatry Demonstration in Washington, D.C. “It’s not just Scientologists that don’t like Psychiatry and the big-pharma connection. Thousands joined my wife and I and people from all up and down the east coast for a big anti-psychiatry demonstration in D.C.” – Image and text by Jettero Heller via Flickr

When someone or a tight group is convinced they’re absolutely right and outsiders are entirely wrong, constructive dialogue usually disappears. And when dialog disappears among the whole spectrum of human inquiry, not only psychiatry suffers, but also its clients.

Taking a more moderate approach than Szasz, I would agree that psychiatry may fall short in the interpretation of behavioral and physiological differences. At some point, difference is often construed as a disorder, and the “appropriate” diagnostic labels are applied to patients.² Many patients believe in this perspective and see themselves as medically “ill.”

However, in some cases we may be witnessing variation instead of disorder. And in some instances differences could be preliminary trials, as it were, for key evolutionary changes to our species.³

Unfortunately, the evolutionary idea is hard to prove because we might have to wait a thousand years before finding out if there’s anything to it. But if true or even partially true, I think this expanded perspective could dramatically change how some psychiatric patients see themselves, possibly making them happier.

So to return to Szasz, I don’t see him as totally wrong. He has been roundly critiqued on a point-by-point basis by psychiatrists. But his overall objection deserves some attention. Otherwise, psychiatry becomes a new religion, which isn’t science at all, but as Szasz and many others put it, scientism.

¹ See Michel Foucault, discourse and counter-discourse for more.

² To continue in a postmodern vein, the word “appropriate” is often uncritically used to reinforce current attitudes, beliefs and practices.

³ Along these lines, spiritual and parapsychological factors are often dismissed. We rarely hear about the possibilities of healing grace, demonic influence, the transfer of sin or bona fide mind-reading in psychiatry.

Related Posts » DSM-IV-TR, Madness, Postmodernism, Unconscious



The Bible Code

Bible code example, from en:, by user:McKay, p...

Image via Wikipedia

The Bible Code is a best selling book by Michael Drosnin which, if anything, demonstrates the popular craving for novelty and a sense of wonder.

I’ve talked to otherwise intelligent people who are impressed by this highly questionable book. But when you try to talk with them intelligently about what it says, they’ll usually blank out. They don’t want their fun ruined.

The author claims that meaningful words may be discerned when an ELS (Equidistant Letter Sequence) method is used to rearrange transliterated Bible characters.

Critics note that the same kind of results can be found when the method is applied to non-biblical books. Also, the choosing of the specific grid pattern is not well explained. The inside book cover merely says that “the computer” generated the pattern. No explanation is given as why a certain number of rows and columns were chosen for the matrix found in The Bible Code.

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Mad Scientism Shiny Box

Mad Scientism Shiny Box by twilightzero via Flickr

The idea of chance has several meanings. For this entry I’ll be focusing on the belief that things just happen with no rhyme or reason—that is, that some events are impossible to predict and also have no overriding cause or meaning. While this definition combines several hair-splitting philosophical views,¹ it does seem to capture the general mood of what we mean by the idea of chance.

The concept of chance is often contrasted with other belief systems, such as fate and providence.

While some seem to see the idea of chance as the logical answer in view of certain observations, it’s not. It is nothing more than a human concept. And to attribute something to chance implies a basic assumption that can’t be proved—namely, that some events randomly occur with no overriding plan, purpose or meaning. This belief can arise when people are faced with large amounts of data too vast to discern an overriding plan and purpose (as with the various data encountered in daily life).

Some statisticians, of course, would reply that the belief in an overriding purpose cannot be proved either.

My point is that the one commonality among the belief in chance and the belief in a divine or cosmic plan is belief itself.

Many religious persons freely admit that they believe. They may claim that their beliefs are supported (but not proved by) experience combined with reason. But rarely will a sincerely religious person claim to know, and if they do, upon further questioning they’d probably admit that their supposed “knowledge” is really belief, or reason to believe

On the other hand, some superficial and, perhaps, a few duplicitous scientists claim that their hypotheses – proposed explanations tied into a particular approach – are “proved” by observation and reason. This isn’t really true science but many scientists and lay persons fall into this kind of believing without admitting it, or even knowing that they’re just fooling themselves (and usually others).³

Again, the bottom line in this discussion of chance is that both religious and scientific viewpoints appear to be premised on belief.

Related Posts » Scientism, Tyche

¹ See

² Granted, there are always fanatics who claim to “know” and cannot (or don’t want to) momentarily step aside from their beliefs.

³ This being one definition of scientism.

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Face Reading

Drummers from Ayrtam (Central Asia).Facial fea...

Drummers from Ayrtam (Central Asia) via Wikipedia

Face Reading is the belief, often criticized as a discriminatory practice, that personality characteristics may be determined by studying facial features.

In the U.S. several corporations employ “face readers” for productivity seminars and to assist in the hiring process. and more recently, online dating companies claim that facial characteristics can give you a perfect match.

Funnily enough, U.S. law forbids discrimination on the basis of age, race, sex, religion and color but not on the appearance of the face.

Historically, Confucius believed in his own version of face reading. And a quick web search brings up sites promoting Chinese Face Reading.

Related Posts » Phrenology