This post is coauthored by Josh Levy, the Manuscript Division’s historian of science and technology, and Jackie Katz, 2022 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow. It is the first in a series on teaching scientific literacy using primary sources related to pseudoscience.
What’s the difference between science and pseudoscience? Designating a discipline as a science indicates that it involves the study of observable, natural phenomena that can be better understood through tests that produce consistent and predictable results. The findings of these tests must always be considered tentative. If any of the above tenets are absent, the research is pseudoscientific.
It’s important to help students assess research to determine where on the scientific spectrum it falls, and primary sources from earlier periods of scientific inquiry can help. Here we offer a primary source to help students consider physiognomy, a longstanding form of folk knowledge based on interpreting a person’s character or personality by assessing their facial features.
When Swiss theologian Johann Kaspar Lavater encountered that knowledge in the late 18th century, he reinvented it as a scientific practice, spurring a new breed of practitioners eager to defend their findings in scientific terms.
Dr. Joseph Simms (1833-1920) was a Massachusetts physician and a widely known practitioner of physiognomy. The source displayed here shows a summary of Simms’ work that appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch following his death. Introduce Simms to students by providing groups with one of the images from the article (Fowler’s Phrenology Chart, Curious Chart, The Ingenious Kallometer, orThe Motor Centers of the Brain). Do not provide any of the accompanying text. Ask students to observe, reflect, and question using the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Ask each group to explain what they think their image is showing, supporting with evidence.
Once students articulate their predictions about the images, provide them with the text of the article. As students read, ask them to focus on a few guiding questions:
- What is physiognomy?
- What is phrenology?
- What evidence is presented to support these disciplines?
Students will likely bring up some of the famous figures that Simms used as evidence for each characteristic. For example, Simms claimed the eye shapes of Mormon leader Brigham Young and women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller demonstrated their commitment to polygamy and monogamy, respectively. Record other evidence that students mention.
Students can also search through Simms’ 1891 book Physiognomy Illustrated, which demonstrates how subjective his assessments of human beauty could be, and how often they seemed to overlap with his own racial biases. It was no coincidence that Simms found the highest ideal of human beauty, the “most pure and perfect type of humanity,” in the Caucasus region of Western Asia.
After students generate evidence lists, ask if they would classify that evidence as scientific, and why. Allow time for each student to write a response to this question. Then, ask them what criteria they used to determine the scientific nature of the evidence. Develop a class definition for science. Guide students to include words such as natural, observable, testable, consistent, predictable, and tentative.
Review the list of evidence the class generated to determine if it matches the criteria listed in the definition. Students might recognize that the evidence would likely not be consistent if a scientist other than Simms made the observations. Ask students how biases might have affected Simms’ conclusions. To learn more, students may research the link between the study of physiognomy and scientific racism.
By discussing pseudoscientific concepts, students can build their scientific literacy and critical thinking skills, helping them consume the news of today with more confidence. Pseudoscientific concepts also provide an opportunity to have difficult conversations regarding bias in science and its social impacts.
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