OVER A COFFEE : The power of beliefs — II — Dr Haider Shah
Some beliefs, both religious and secular, can have devastating effects. Take the example of the pseudoscience of phrenology, which caused wide-ranging injustices and miseries
The western world believed the cosmos to be earth-centric, as both the Bible and Aristotelian science advocated the same. Such beliefs only impeded the development of scientific knowledge. But some beliefs, both religious and secular, can have far more devastating effects. For instance, take the example of the pseudoscience of phrenology, which caused wide-ranging injustices and miseries. A German physician, Franz Josef Gall, the father of phrenology, theorised that the human brain had 27 distinct zones, with individual responsibility for certain functions and predispositions. He further contended that the size of each zone depended on how much it was used, like our other body muscles. He expanded his apparently harmless theory to senseless speculations by linking the zones with lumps and bumps on the anterior of the skull. As a consequence of the wide acceptance of this theory, perfectly normal persons found themselves as potential murderers or lunatics as they unfortunately had similar bumps or lumps that had been identified by the science of phrenology for murderers or lunatics. Such was the sway of these beliefs that even authors like the Bronte sisters and Arthur Conan Doyle’s popular character Sherlock Holmes promoted these ideas in some of their stories.
Phrenology also found its way into the personnel recruitment of private sector companies, where experts would check bumps and lumps in the heads of applicants. Even the courts entertained the theories by imprisoning defendants on the strength of ‘expert witness’ given by professional phrenologists. While phrenology gradually lost its craze in the UK by 1850, it captured new ground in the US where the Fowler brothers, Orson and Lorenzo, became its chief advocates, winning the support of inventors like Thomas Edison. Lorenzo, finding his lecture tour in the UK in 1860 very lucrative, decided to establish the Fowler Institute in London. Interestingly, the famous American humourist Mark Twain tried to expose Lorenzo’s claims by visiting him in a lower middle class disguise. Lorenzo declared him lacking in a sense of humour and creative ability because of an alleged depression in his skull. But such is the power of popular beliefs that Lorenzo continued making fools of the believers of phrenology. Phrases like ‘high brow’, ‘low brow’ in English owe their origin to the dubious science of Lorenzo.
The power of beliefs gives rise to the vulnerability of gullible individuals to charlatans. But at times this power can take an even more ominous turn. The case of phrenology gives a good illustration. The Belgian colonial office, led by phrenology science, carried out measurements of skulls of natives in Rwanda and declared the Tutsi tribe to be racially superior to the Hutu tribe. Accordingly, the two were racially discriminated, setting the foundations of ethnic warfare, which later resulted in the 1994 genocide in which Hutu extremists killed about one million Tutsi and the moderate Hutu.
Another example of scientific beliefs resulting in widespread harm can be found in the so-called science of eugenics. The foundational idea of this science is attributed to Francis Galton, who was related to Charles Darwin. Scientific knowledge is neutral in its essence. Like a knife it can be used for both useful and destructive purposes. While Darwin’s ideas heralded major scientific innovations in various branches of science, some have also put his ideas to nefarious use. Galton is one of them. In the Greek language, ‘eugenes’ means a noble race or birth. Eugenics, in the garb of science, advocated controlled breeding to improve desirable characteristics of a race. Developments in the field of genetics further encouraged the advocates of this pseudoscience. Mendel had used pea patches to derive his inheritance laws. Galton wanted to extend Mendel’s findings to the human race. He postulated that defective individuals should be sterilised so that the human race is improved. This way he equated the human race with the selective breeding of dogs or bloodstock. Galton preached that the adoption of eugenic techniques would usher in a new era of peace and progress for Britain. The new science-led beliefs were embraced by prominent personalities such as Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, John Maynard Keynes and Sidney Webb, the founder of the London School of Economics. It is not that eugenics gained popularity only among right-wingers. Many left-leaning leaders and authors were also ardent supporters of eugenics. Examples include the socialist Fabian Society, WB Yeats, the leader of the Suffragette movement Emmeline Pankhurst, Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald, George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell.
Hitler is often associated with active implementation of eugenics in his German empire. But in reality, Hitler had borrowed the concept of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Nordic super-race after studying the Californian eugenics programme that kicked off in 1909. Big financial institutions, like the Rockefeller Foundation and Stanford threw their active support behind the eugenics development programme. Even the US Supreme Court validated the science of eugenics in its landmark case Buck v Bull. Hitler put eugenics to full bloom by making it an integral part of his official policy. After the fall of Hitler, the intelligentsia in the western world recognised the darker side of this pseudoscience and eugenics fell out of favour.
The purpose of sharing these examples from the world of science is to showcase the dehumanising power of taken-for-granted beliefs. But science is humble in accepting that it can get things wrong, and hence once that is realised, it does not hesitate to embrace the better evidence. If people of faith were as humble, the world would have been a more peaceful place today.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org