Fake Science in Design Writing

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Fake Science in Design Writing

photo: flickr member oskari kettunen shows us how phrenologists measured noggins.

I’ve thought for a while the design disciplines in America have a too-cozy relationship with the same entities that separate our society by class and race—advertising and self-proclaimed tastemakers.

It makes me deeply uncomfortable to hear design writers speak about ideas of “highbrow” and “lowbrow” culture without ever referencing (or realizing?) that those terms are themselves deeply, horrifyingly racist.

They’re everywhere in design writing. For example: here’s a Google search index of Design Observer. See what I mean? It’s everywhere, it’s not based in any sort of fact, and I wonder if these people know what they’re actually saying when they throw those words around.

Phrenology itself is a weird pseudoscience that kinda made roots in late 18th century Germany. Its basic presupposition, roughly, is that a being’s disposition and character can be traced to a series of intellectual centers of the head, and their various sizes determine the composition of the cranial sizing and scale. The way this worked out, a higher browline connoted intellectual, “honorable” thoughts and a lower one meant a greater presence of baser thinking skills. So you could, in essence, determine a person’s moral and personality makeup by measuring their head with a caliper.

So by this definition, anyone with a lower brow and deepset eyes became a visualization of the other, of the baser aspect, of a criminal. And that led straight into the Holocaust. It’s essentially a way to define racism in scientific terms.

So yes, please, let’s please continue this wildly racist, classist, outdated, and scientifically invalid system of cultural references in which smart, wealthy, good, beautiful people participate in honorable pursuits while the rest of us wallow in the muck, dancing to our base, stupid pop music, like the garbage we clearly are.

Or, more wisely, we can simply look at our culture honestly, and forget about how well our brows are groomed.

Many thanks to Maria Popova for inspiring this with her entry at Brain Pickings.