Phrenology: the weirdest pseudoscience of them all?

4 minutes

It’s rocket science

5 minutes

A brief history of the devil

5 minutes

HAGS (have a good summer)

9 minutes

The rifleman

10 minutes

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

How sky-high dreams launched one man’s audacious life in homemade rocketry

As the first civilian to successfully launch an amateur rocket into space in 2004, and a holder of a great many rocketry-related world records since the 1960s, Ky Michaelson has truly earned his self-anointed title as ‘The Rocketman’. Following a decorated career as a Hollywood stunt performer and coordinator, Michaelson, now aged 82, is retired from show business and spends most of his time building rockets in his garage. And his audacious spirit hasn’t mellowed with age. These days, he has his sights set on launching the first homemade manned rocket into space. This upbeat documentary portrait by the US-based director Rachel Knoll explores Michaelson’s unconventional path as a high-school dropout turned rocket engineer who wouldn’t let dyslexia stop him from aiming for the sky.

Director: Rachel Knoll

Producer: John Pesavent

The devils you know – how Satan became a versatile stand-in for all manner of evil

From the three-headed man-eater of Dante’s Inferno to the Mephistopheles of German folklore, clad and caped in red in a Goethe-penned stage production, depictions of Satan have mutated into a fearsome multitude of pitchfork-wielding, fire-summoning and otherwise malevolent creatures. But how did a somewhat minor character from the Old Testament evolve into a versatile shorthand for all manner of human evil? Featuring a parade of the many meme-ified devils that have come to permeate the public imagination, this crafty animation from TED-Ed provides a brief history of how some of Satan’s most infamous forms came to be.

Video by TED-Ed

Directors: Reza Riahi, Mehdi Shiri

Writer: Brian A Pavlac

A filmmaker reflects on his adolescence with the help of some long-lost friends

In HAGS (Have a Good Summer), the US filmmaker Sean Wang casts his newest project from the pages of his middle-school yearbook. Calling up five long-lost friends that he hasn’t spoken to in years, Wang zeroes in on the two most willing to chat – Way Chen, who’s working at a restaurant while trying to make it as a dancer, and Fahad Manzur, who worries he just might have peaked in eighth grade – for an exploration of middle school, young adulthood and the wide chasm in between. Overflowing with sound and sight gags, Wang brings an apt sense of carefree humour to the work. But beyond its novel concept and nostalgic charms, the film also offers touching reflections on identity, the second-generation American experience and how expectations of ‘adulthood’ evolve even after you reach it.

Director: Sean Wang

Animator: Deepti Menon

How did the NRA transform from a sporting group to a mighty political force?

Compiling newsreels, articles and television news reports, The Rifleman examines some four decades in the history of the National Rifle Association (NRA). Via these archival materials, the US director Sierra Pettengill frames her portrait of the controversial gun-rights group around Harlon Carter, the former NRA president and a US Border Patrol chief, with an overturned murder conviction to his name, who was central in forging the NRA’s transition from a sporting organisation to one of the most potent and controversial political forces in the United States. Tracing the many overlaps between Carter, the NRA and US Border Patrol, Pettengill finds a group that, since the dawn of Carter’s influence, has been propelled by reactionary racism.

Director: Sierra Pettengill

Producer: Arielle de Saint Phalle

Website: Field of Vision

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

Aeon is not-for-profit
and free for everyone
Make a donation
Get Aeon straight
to your inbox
Join our newsletter

Photo by Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum

Essay/
Mood and emotion
Radical acceptance

The painful feelings you avoid grow twisted in the dark. By facing your sorrows and struggles you can take back your life

Joshua Coleman

Dani people preparing for a pig feast. Baliem Valley, West Papua, Indonesia, 1996. Photo by Susan Meiselas/Magnum

Essay/
Anthropology
How equality slipped away

For 97 per cent of human history, all people had about the same power and access to goods. How did inequality ratchet up?

Kim Sterelny