Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"Mismeasure of Man" Revisited

Stephen Jay Gould's 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man, made the case against 'scientific racism'. He opened the book with an attack on the 19th-century physical anthropologists, the craniologists, who measured skulls as a way to classify different races as superior or inferior. Later on, he examined the origins of the IQ test and argued against its validity and statistical basis. In 1996, the book was reissued with a set of new essays, in response to the controversial 1994 book The Bell Curve. This was welcomed by those who opposed the Bell Curve's revival of biological determinism in intelligence.

Fifteen years on, Gould's book is back in the news but to criticism, rather than acclaim. One of the bodies of work that he analyzed and apparently refuted was that of Samuel George Morton, an American craniologist who amassed a large collection of skulls from around the world. Gould claimed that Morton's measurements exhibited bias, unconscious or not, that bolstered the preconceived notion that Europeans should have larger brain volumes than other, 'inferior' races. Morton supposedly fudged his analysis by selective reporting (see my previous blog post on other ways to fudge your science) and improper measurement. However, Gould did not remeasure the skulls himself, basing his criticism only upon his re-analysis of the published data. Now, a study by anthropologists who painstakingly remeasured Morton's skull collection has absolved Morton of misconduct. There was no mismeasurement, contradicting Gould's thesis that unconscious bias had influenced Morton's scientific methodology. The research team says: "Ironically, Gould's own analysis of Morton is likely the stronger example of a bias influencing results."

Read more at the New York Times, and the original article in PLoS Biology.

Jason E Lewis et al. 2011. "The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias." PLoS Biology 9(6): e1001071. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001071

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