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The ‘dangerous nonsense’ of phrenology shows how pseudoscience takes hold

In the 19th century, the Viennese physiologist Franz Joseph Gall placed a formidable thumb on the scales of the ‘nature vs nurture’ debate when he proposed a simple – and, as we now know, false – solution to the age-old conundrum. Everything you need to know about someone’s character, he argued, could be predicted by the shape of different brain regions – and by extension, the contours of their head. That phrenology, as it became known, was built on conjecture rather than empiricism was clear to a great many scientists of the era. Still, it caught on in the public consciousness, and often with sinister consequences. This animation from BBC Reel provides a brief history of phrenology, shedding light on why facile solutions often gain traction over rigorous empiricism, and how pseudoscience can sometimes open gateways for the real thing.

Video by BBC Reel

6 May 2021

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