Tag Archives: France

Phrenology and the Grand Delusion of Experience

Geoffrey Dean via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

In the nineteenth century, phrenology was hugely influential despite being totally invalid. Its history shows why we must be skeptical of any belief based solely on experience.

In the nineteenth century, phrenology was hugely influential despite being totally invalid. Its history shows why we must be skeptical of any belief based solely on experience.

Today, phrenology (“head reading”) is usually seen as the fossilized stuff of cranks and charlatans. But in the nineteenth century it had a huge influence at all levels of Western society, more than all of its later competitors (such as psychoanalysis) put together. It was in­fluential because of its attractive philosophy and because practitioners and clients saw that it worked. But we now know that it could not possibly work; personal experience had led millions of people astray. Indeed, few beliefs can match phrenology for its extent of influence and certainty of invalidity. So it has valuable lessons about any experience-based belief.

Phrenology’s Influence

In the nineteenth century, phrenology affected all levels of Western life and thought. In Britain, Europe, and Amer­ica, its influence was felt in anthropology, criminology, education, medicine, psychiatry, art, and literature. In France, it eroded established power and led to wide social changes. In Australia, it rationalized the violence against Abo­rigines and explained the criminality of convicts. For ordinary people everywhere a head reading was often required for employment or marriage.1 But how could this happen if phrenology was totally invalid? For answers, we need to start at the beginning.

First Steps to Delusion

Around 1790, the German-born anatomist Franz Joseph Gall, one of the founders of modern neurology, put together his skull doctrine that later led to phrenology. He held that behavior such as painting or being careful had their own specialized organs in the brain, and that they influenced the shape of the skull. So the skull’s bumps would indicate behavior and abilities that were innate. Gall spent eleven years examining hundreds of heads to test his ideas: “If … he observed any mechanician, musician, sculptor, draughtsman, mathematician, endowed with such or such faculty from birth, he examined their heads to see whether he might point out a particular development of some cerebral part…. He also called together in his house common people, as coachmen and poor boys, and excited them to make him ac­quainted with their characters” (Spurz­heim 1815, 271).

Gall’s seemingly logical approach had two fatal defects. First, his claims were often based on a single striking case, for example “Cautiousness” was placed above the ears because an extremely cautious priest had a large bump there. Second, Gall looked only for confirmingcases and ignored disconfirming cases, a flaw not lost on his critics. Thus David Skae (1847), a physician at the Royal Edinburgh Asylum, noted that once the truth is “fixed upon our minds,” looking for confirmation is “the most perfect recipe for making a phrenologist that could well be devised.” But to Gall and the thousands of phrenologists who came later, personal experience mattered more than procedural defects. Phren­ology had taken its first giant step on the road to delusion.2 Note that the delusion of experience is not limited to artifacts of reasoning such as the Barnum effect.

How to read heads. For each “brain organ” (whose number and location depends on which book you read) you guess its development (no yardsticks here) and thus its meaning (based on speculation), which you juggle (more speculation) against all the other speculative meanings and the all-important temperament based on external signs such as build and vulgarity (i.e., on even more speculation) to obtain a final assessment of character and destiny. If unsatisfactory, try again. This was phrenology’s secret weapon—it was based on an experience that could never be wrong.

How to read heads. For each “brain organ” (whose number and location depends on which book you read) you guess its development (no yardsticks here) and thus its meaning (based on speculation), which you juggle (more speculation) against all the other speculative meanings and the all-important temperament based on external signs such as build and vulgarity (i.e., on even more speculation) to obtain a final assessment of character and destiny. If unsatisfactory, try again. This was phrenology’s secret weapon—it was based on an experience that could never be wrong.

Continue Reading @ The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – – –

All About Graphology

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid

Can handwriting analysis really tell us about the personality and aptitudes of the writer?

Read podcast transcript below or listen here

handwriting2Today we’re going to take pen in hand and write a short passage, and then have the handwriting analyzed by an expert. Is it true that useful information about our personalities or lives can be divined through a study of our handwriting? Can the strength of our loops, the spaces between words, and the crossed Ts and dotted Is actually reveal our intentions or thoughts? Some refer to it as a science and make important business, life, or legal decisions based upon it; others regard it as a pseudoscience and dismiss its utility. Let’s see what the light of science will reveal when we shine it upon graphology.

The first thing to understand is that there are three basic types of handwriting analysis, and it’s crucial to be clear on which one we’re talking about today. The first is used in the medical profession, usually in neurology, to help diagnose conditions like Parkinson’s disease in which motor function is affected and fine skills like handwriting will degrade. This is perfectly legitimate as an aid to diagnosis in some cases. The second type is forensic document analysis, also known as graphonomy, which seeks to establish the authenticity of documents or autographs. This can include not only chemical analysis of the paper and ink, but often comes down to comparing certain metrics of the handwriting between a known sample and a test sample to see if they were written by the same person. silly-beliefs_300pxIt’s important to note that a graphonomer would never make a conclusion about the personality of the writer; as that is purely the realm of the third type of handwriting analysis: graphology. Graphology is the practice of determining personality traits, skills, aptitudes, or even fortunes, through the study of an individual’s handwriting.

Skeptical evaluation of graphology has historically found that it is in the same classification as astrology or palm reading. It’s generally described as purely unscientific, little differentiated from a psychic reading, and that any correct statements depend on lucky guesses or the reading of other cues from the subject, such as the content of the writing or the appearance and behavior of the subject, if they are present during the analysis. In short, the science-based assessment of graphology is overwhelmingly negative.

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Supernatural Creep: The Slippery Slope to Unfalsifiability

Sharon_hill_80pxBy Sharon Hill via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) – Sounds Sciencey

I’m taking a step beyond sciencey with the following topic. What happens when science doesn’t cooperate with your subject area? Researchers of unexplained events may get frustrated and disenchanted with the scientific process when the eyewitness accounts they collect are too weird to explain via conventional means. They go unconventional.

hill-supernatural-creep-1Captain Jean-Baptiste Duhamel led the hunt for a beast that was attacking and devouring victims in the Gevaudan, France, in 1794. He had a problem. He could not catch and kill the man-eating monster. Being a proud man, he had to justify why he could not conquer this particular foe. Since the option that he was an inadequate huntsman was not acceptable, the creature must be supernatural in its abilities to escape his capture. The characteristics of the beast were exaggerated—it was huge, cunning, and not just an ordinary wolf. Captain Duhamel left defeated by what must truly be an extraordinary beast.

Captain Jean-Baptiste Duhamel led the hunt for a beast that was attacking and devouring victims in the Gevaudan, France, in 1794. He had a problem. He could not catch and kill the man-eating monster. Being a proud man, he had to justify why he could not conquer this particular foe. Since the option that he was an inadequate huntsman was not acceptable, the creature must be supernatural in its abilities to escape his capture. The characteristics of the beast were exaggerated—it was huge, cunning, and not just an ordinary wolf. Captain Duhamel left defeated by what must truly be an extraordinary beast.

The cognitive dissonance experienced by the French captain is reflected today by those who can’t capture Bigfoot. When normal processes and causes fail to satisfactorily explain events or answers to questions, then the reasoning slips beyond nature, into super nature, beyond the testable claims of science.

I call this “supernatural creep.” Although, I swear I’m not the first one to name it as such. I searched to find where I have seen this referenced before. (If anyone knows, please email me so I can give the originator due credit.) Once I noticed this kind of reasoning, I saw it frequently. Wherever I come across this concept, it reveals a bit about human nature:

If you have to choose between the belief or a rational explanation, the rational explanation may be that which gets rejected.

hill-supernatural-creep-2_200pxThe effect of supernatural creep can be seen with UFOs, anomalous natural phenomena (Fortean topics), and in bizarre stories categorized as “high strangeness” (which I’ll explain a bit further on in this piece). A perfect example is that of “black dogs” whose appearance is spectral or demonic and is associated with either protection from or nearness of bad spirits. Could it be just a big black dog? Witnesses perceive that it’s more than that. When the circumstances feel uncanny, we slip into thoughts of the supernatural. An enjoyable book that illustrates supernatural creep quite nicely is Three Men Seeking Monsters by Nick Redfern. Fun stuff.

With phantom black dogs, there is a connection to local legends and ghost stories. A modern example of the dispute about supernatural creep is evident in the Bigfoot/Sasquatch community.

Bigfoot proponents generally fall into two camps: those who search for a real animal that functions as nature intended (called ‘apers’) and those who entertain the option that the entity is not natural (paranormalists).

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Debunking the Anti-Monsanto/Anti-GMO claims

via The Soap Box

conspiracy-theory-alertOn May 25, a local group held a protest near where I live to protest Monsanto and GMO foods.

The protest itself, while larger than what I actually expected, wasn’t as large as what it could have been, with maybe only about 50 to 60 people attending.

Now about a week before this protest occurred someone was going the area and putting up some posters on lamp post and electric post not only advertising the protest, but also making several claims against both Monsanto and GMO foods.

I’ve looked into these claims that were made, and this is what I have found:

1. Monsanto fights labeling laws.

This is true [read here] but only to a certain extent, and there are a lot of other companies and groups (including scientists) that oppose these laws because many of them consider them to be unfair, and/or leaves to many loop holes, and many opponents also claim that these laws are really attempts to out right ban GMO foods.

Also, when the people of California were given a chance to vote into law Proposition 37, which would have required labeling of GMO foods, the voters rejected it, so really you can’t actually blame Monsanto about that, because when given the chance, the people rejected such laws.

2. Monsanto’s propriety and legal actions harm small farmers.

Monsanto has, since the mid-1990’s, filled 145 suits against individual US farmers for patent infringement and/or breach of contract in connection with its genetically engineered seed, and while this may sound like a lot, this is actually a very small number in comparison to thousands of individual, independent farmers in the US.

Also, only 11 of these suits actually went to trial, all of which Monsanto won.

3. Scientists’ studies show severe damage to GMO-feed animals.

There was a study in 2012 by Gilles-Eric Seralini that claimed to show that rats feed GMO corn increased cancer rates in these rats compared to rats that were not feed GMO corn. This study has been highly criticized for certain unscientific methods (such as the failure to record the amounts of food the rats were feed and their growth rates) and has pretty much been debunked. [read here, here, and here]

4. Monsanto’s Agent Orange and DDT contaminate food crops and villagers abroad.

Agent Orange was only used between 1965 to 1970 by the US military in Vietnam (before then they used a herbicide called Agent Blue). Even though this was true, you really can’t blame Monsanto because they are not the ones who actually used it. It was various governments around the world who used it. Monsanto (along with Dow Chemical) just made the stuff.

As for DDT, most countries have been banning the stuff since the 1960’s for agricultural use, and again, Monsanto is not the only company that made DDT, and it doesn’t even make it anymore because of the 1972 US ban.

5. Monsanto falsely advertised it’s Roundup as “biodegradable.”

In 2007 Monsanto was convicted in France for false advertisement of it’s product Roundup as being biodegradable. France is of course the only country that has done this, and some people might even claim that this is the result of France’s environmental laws, rather than reality as Glyphosate (the technical name for Roundup) does not bioaccumulate and breaks down rapidly in the environment.

Whether or Roundup should be considered biodegradable or not seems to be more of a matter of opinion then fact.

6. Monsanto blocks regulations. It’s CEOs are in a revolving door from Monsanto to FDA (ex: Micheal Taylor, current Food Safety Czar).

This is completely false. Micheal Taylor (whomever he is) was never the Food Safety Czar. There has only been one Food Safety Czar, and that was Dr. David Acheson, and he only had that position from 2007 to 2008.

Monsanto can not actually block regulations, all it can do is lobby against laws and regulations that could affect it’s business, and there is no “revolving door”, so to speak, between Monsanto and the FDA.

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Also see:


Penn and Teller discuss Genetically Engineered foods and organic foods.
WARNING: ADULT LANGUAGE
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