Battling in the trenches filled with shot-down arguments and decaying disagreements, it’s hard to remember the progress of science unpolluted by pseudoscience. Astronomy recalls when astrology hung as a gangrenous limb from its body. Our climate science chokes on carbon-saturated air while solar cycles are repeatedly claimed as the cause of the cough. But these hangers-on are almost always thrown from the shoulders of giants as science marches on.
Psychology and infant neurology was no exception to the parasitic clutch of pseudoscience. Phrenology—the idea that the shape of one’s skull can speak volumes about his or her character—held onto our theories of human nature for a century; even as late as the 1900s. Take a look at these fascinating diagrams of phrenology principles from 1902. Pay close attention to the detail (and the vagueness), the conviction with which human character is characterized, the astounding generalizations about what a good husband’s head must be shaped like. You simply have to give the endeavor credit. These weren’t scribbled notes on a madman’s easel but a burgeoning science of the mind. We now know that phrenology was nowhere near its goal, and that modern science moved on.
The point of mentioning the failure of phrenology isn’t to lament early science’s wild goose chases, but to see the forest for the trees. Look how far we’ve come. We are probing into the mind to decode dreams! Fighting bad science in the trenches, the battle can seem lost. Sometimes you have to peek your head out to see that good science is winning the war.
Astrologers can have their horoscopes in newspapers, but astronomers are finding possibly habitable new worlds orbiting stars ten thousand trillion kilometers away. Acupuncturists can have their placebo, but we are formulating new ways to outsmart cancer, and evolution. Climate change deniers can have some of the highest governmental positions, but the Obama administration is finally moving to head it off at the pass. Empiricism charges forward through the muck because it works.
I am a skeptic—a science communicator who advocates for science and reason. A week from now I’ll be at The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM), the largest skeptic conference of its kind, to commiserate with my fellow skeptics. We will lament the psychics conning people out of money and the faith healers taking advantage of grief and vulnerability for personal gain. The fakers.
When you fight against bad science as a serious hobby or even a job, you can get a soldier’s mentality—you get a hair trigger and feel jumpy whenever the words ‘alternative’ and ‘medicine” get too close in a sentence. It’s easy enough to get depressed about the state of science communication without noting all the tripe taken as truth, but it’s just as easy to get excited about how far we’ve come. If you see me at TAM, I’ll be treating my pseudoscience PTSD by remembering the wide stride of science that spans so much, stretching far beyond the fakers. I’ll be trying to remember that we are winning the war; phrenology will never become psychology.
Science can always stub its toe after making a great stride. But it has always, inevitably, progressed. Buy me a beer and I’ll tell you all about it.
Phrenology diagrams of 1902 via The Public Domain Review
Kyle Hill is a science writer who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. He writes for the Scientific American Blog Network at his blog, Overthinking It. Hill also contributes to Slate, Wired, Nature Education, Popular Science, and io9. He manages Nature Education's Student Voices blog and you can follow him on Twitter under @Sci_Phile.