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June 16, 2011

Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man: Still a Very Useful Tool for Understanding Unconscious Scientific Bias

In Stephen Jay Gould's 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man, he attacked unconscious scientific bias--in this case, of a racial variety. Gould used the work of 19th century anthropologist Samuel George Morton to make his point. Morton had collected and analyzed hundreds of skulls and drew conclusions about the relative cranial volumes of different races.

In order to determine volume, Morton measured the skulls by filling them with peppercorns--not metal balls--through the hole at their bases. He would then pour the peppercorns out and measure their volume. Gould related that Morton had skewed his research by fudging the data. He did so by taking advantage of the fact that peppercorns are irregular and can be compacted by shaking and compressed by hand (or a thumb, in this case). Gould said that Morton would shake a Negroid skull very little, and that he would shake a Caucasoid skull violently and then compress the peppercorns by pressing down hard on them with his thumb. And Morton did all this because he hated black people. Gould also said that later research performed with metal balls revealed that the skull differences were negligible.

How he arrived at such conclusions regarding Morton's behavior and motivations without, say, interviewing him was a a bit of a mystery. But it was Stephen Jay "Punctuated Equilibrium" Gould from Harvard, so we knew that his claims had to be reliable. He must have drawn his conclusions based upon an overwhelming amount of contradictory evidence, because not even The Amazing Kreskin can read minds like that--especially of the deceased.

It's not a mystery anymore. Gould never measured the skulls.

Another study has been published that refutes Gould's conclusions, and in this study, they actually went back and measured the skulls in question. From Discover:

The team went back and measure Morton’s skulls themselves. What they found was that very few of his measurements were off, and the errors he had made actually contradicted his hypothesis that Caucasian brains would be larger. Nature News’ Great Beyond provides the team’s full list of mistakes Gould made in his analysis.

So Gould made up the whole thing.

Gould himself let political bias influence his scientific conclusions. He set out to demonstrate everybody is the same, that any differences are negligible, and that anyone who concluded there are meaningful differences in brain size were not only wrong but also stupid, depraved, evil, and racist, etc. And he did this to the exclusion of any opposing data or conclusion. He hurt a lot of people in the process. Perhaps he felt he had enough scientific credibility to burn in order to make himself into a hero--instead of a scientist. But I wouldn't want to start mind reading.

This whole Gould affair bothered me, because I saw a PBS show in the early 80's where he persuasively demonstrated how these evil scientists were racist and stupid. I was totally convinced. I saw him with an ugly grin, gesturing with his thumb, showing how Morton had compressed peppercorns into the base of Caucasian skulls. I didn't find out until the late 90's that he was wrong, and that he shat upon a lot of people in the process. (This wasn't the first study to demolish Gould's findings, only the latest.)

So, yes, it bothered me. I had been made to feel angry at some scientist I had never read and disgust at people for the prejudices they can hold. And Gould did all this just to demonstrate the superiority of his politics. It is another great example of how ostensibly smart people can be terribly stupid. These people--I call them "perception morons" because of the subjective filtering of perceptual information--always seem to be lead astray by their politics. Think of the brilliant, yet perennially stupid, Noam Chomsky.

John Derbyshire calls Gould "an unscrupulous propagandist." And, indeed, Gould had some interesting views about science:

Gould . . . believed that "the purpose of critical science is to promote socialism, which is the only just form of government", and they saw sociobiology, erroneously as it turns out, as an inherently right-wing, individualistic philosophy. They accused Wilson of sending human nature back to the concentration camps.

So science was just a means to political end for Stephen Jay Gould. As Ace says, projection is not just a river in Egypt. In one respect, science was a way for Gould to project his own ugly, unacknowledged, unconscious thoughts and emotions--his biases--upon other people. So, ironically, Gould's Mismeasure of Man is still a very useful work for examining unconscious scientific bias. But not in the way originally intended.

More at John Hawks Weblog.

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posted by rdbrewer at 12:51 PM

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