June 08, 2011

Stephen Jay Gould: incompetent or biased?

Razib points me to a new article which re-examines Stephen Jay Gould's perceived bias in the study of human cranial volume by the 19th century scientist Samuel George Morton. Gould asserted that Morton:
  1. Physically mismeasured skulls so that their cranial volumes would match his expectations about racial differences in cranial volume
  2. Statistically manipulated population means by taking averages of individual skulls rather than averages of population averages, hence biasing his "Indian" means to be lower
Lewis et al. pretty much demolish both claims. By remeasuring almost half the original skulls studied by Morton, they show that Morton did not inflate "Caucasian" cranial volumes at the expense of non-"Caucasians". Indeed, most of his measurements deviated only a little from those done today, and, in the few cases where large discrepancies were discovered, they were in the opposite direction of Morton's perceived bias.

Furthermore, they show that Morton's supposed statistical manipulation had very little effect: the difference was only 0.3 cubic inches. Not only this, but Gould fudged his own measurements which were supposed to proved that different populations did not differ in cranial capacity:
Gould's reanalysis of Morton's 1849 shot-based data resulted in a Native American mean capacity of 86 in3 rather than Morton's original 79 in3. Gould obtained his new average by again taking the group mean of Native American populations with four or more crania. But Gould also applied an additional restriction: he only included Native American crania that Morton had also previously measured with seed. This restriction is entirely arbitrary on Gould's part, as Morton's publications and analyses for his seed- and shot-based measurements are completely separate (1839 versus 1849), and Gould did not apply this restriction to the other groups he reanalyzed in Morton's shot-based data. If this restriction is lifted, Gould's Native American average would be reduced to about 83 in3, considerably below his reported 86 in3.
In other words, Gould's bias is about an order of magnitude higher than Morton's presumed "bias".

It is remarkable that 30 years after the Mismeasurement of Man Gould's errors are uncovered. Why did it take so long? While one could understand why the (totally unfounded but -on the surface- plausible) idea of measurement bias could have gone unnoticed until someone actually re-measured the skulls, but the statistical error that Gould committed was there for anyone to see.

From the paper:
Of the substantive criticisms Gould [1] made of Morton's work, only two are supported here. First, Morton indeed believed in the concept of race and assigned a plethora of different attributes to various groups, often in highly racist fashion. This, however, is readily apparent to anyone reading the opening pages of Morton's Crania Americana. Second, the summary table of Morton's final 1849 catalog [10] has multiple errors (Dataset S3). However, had Morton not made those errors his results would have more closely matched his presumed a priori bias (and see Box 4). Ironically, Gould's own analysis of Morton is likely the stronger example of a bias influencing results [11].
First, there is a conflation here between "believing in the concept of race" (which is in no-way invalid, and certainly its validity or lack thereof is not the subject of this paper) and "assigning a plethora of different attributes..." which may indeed be true, but completely irrelevant to the actual quantitative measurements of skulls.

What is most interesting is that Gould's analysis of Morton's work shows clear evidence of bias in favor of his own hypothesis ("Morton was a racist, different races have not much different cranial capacities"), rather than the opposite. Nonetheless, Gould has been viewed by some as some sort of progressive enlightened intellectual, whereas Morton is vilified as a bad scientist who fudged his data because of his racist bias.

Morton may have been a racist, but his data were not provably the product of his racism. Gould was a non-racist, but his data was clearly the product of his biological egalitarianism and/or his quantitative incompetence.

PLoS Biol 9(6): e1001071. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001071

The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias

Jason E. Lewis et al.

Stephen Jay Gould, the prominent evolutionary biologist and science historian, argued that “unconscious manipulation of data may be a scientific norm” because “scientists are human beings rooted in cultural contexts, not automatons directed toward external truth” [1], a view now popular in social studies of science [2]–[4]. In support of his argument Gould presented the case of Samuel George Morton, a 19th-century physician and physical anthropologist famous for his measurements of human skulls. Morton was considered the objectivist of his era, but Gould reanalyzed Morton's data and in his prize-winning book The Mismeasure of Man [5] argued that Morton skewed his data to fit his preconceptions about human variation. Morton is now viewed as a canonical example of scientific misconduct. But did Morton really fudge his data? Are studies of human variation inevitably biased, as per Gould, or are objective accounts attainable, as Morton attempted? We investigated these questions by remeasuring Morton's skulls and reexamining both Morton's and Gould's analyses. Our results resolve this historical controversy, demonstrating that Morton did not manipulate data to support his preconceptions, contra Gould. In fact, the Morton case provides an example of how the scientific method can shield results from cultural biases.

Link

25 comments:

gcochran said...

Incompetent and a liar.

Charles Nydorf said...

It is very fortunate that the Morton collection survived making it possible to check Stephen Jay Gould's assertions.

Onur said...

If the results of this paper are accurate (they seem to be so), it is gratifying and encouraging, for the sake of justice, to hear that Samuel George Morton, the father of American physical anthropology, has been finally acquitted of the false charges of Gould and retrieved his lost reputation after 30 years of detraction. So it is now Gould who should be brought to trial by the scientific community.

TruthPlease said...
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Antonio Pedro said...

I wouldn't be so aggressive against him; he was trying to make a political point in a racist society.

Dienekes said...

I wouldn't be so aggressive against him; he was trying to make a political point in a racist society.

If he wanted to make a political point he should have become a politician and not pretended to be a scientist.

Also, anyone who tries to combat racism by fudging their data is actually feeding racism, because he makes it appear that the only way to combat racism is by lying.

TruthPlease said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sykes.1 said...

Those of you who think Gould was an honest scientist should read pp. 109-110 in "Mismeasure of Man." There, Gould criticizes H. T. Epstein's analysis of head size vs. profession. Epstein, following correct statistical procedure, used the standard error of the means in his comparison of mean head sizes. Gould makes the absurd claim that Epstein should have used the standard deviations of the samples.

Gould used statistics in his own research, so it is hard to believe that this was an honest error.

Roy said...

@ Truthplease

You want the truth? Gould was a marxist liar, Lewontin was incompetent, and Jared Diamond in failing to mention the crucial role of 'African' diseases in Haiti (in his book Collapse) distorts its history by ignoring what might be perceived to be 'racial'.

Charles Nydorf said...

@Dienekes
All scientific work is to some extent biased. For competent scientists, initial biases are the starting point of an investigation. As soon as the investigation turns up facts that contradict these biases they correct them. This is a difficult standard to live up to but live up to it we must.

M said...

I remember some reviews of Mismeasure cited a 1988 paper by JS Michael which concluded Morton had conducted his measurements with integrity and any errors were in a different direction to those suggested by Gould.

I see the authors of this paper found Michael's paper was itself flawed, although he was at least prepared to question Gould's findings.

Michael J. S (1988) A new look at Morton's craniological research. Curr Anthropol 29: 349–354.

M said...

***You want the truth? Gould was a marxist liar, Lewontin was incompetent, and Jared Diamond ***

It seems unlikely someone as smart as Lewontin could just be described as incompetent. He makes it pretty clear that his social views and marxist beliefs influenced his science. EO Wilson & Steven Pinker have written about this.

Jared Diamond also seems to advocating a particular egalitarian position and omits research that contradicts that position.

argiedude said...

I read the whole study (open access). It's even worse then I had thought after reading Dienekes' notes about it. The "errors" are much more than just the cranium capacity measurements. It looks to me like this is more intentional rather than a subconcious bias on the part of Gould.

Roy said...

@ M
Agreed. Lewontin will be remembered more for his Fallacy than his objectivity though, and those who 'omit research' cannot claim it fully.

J said...

Now we have infinitely more data than Morton in 1849. What is this obsession of yours and of Gould to find out 150 years later Morton's level of precision? We dont need Morton's data and his speculations on racial characteristics belong to his time and place. No one takes them seriously. Gould was beating a horse long dead. He was fighting political racism and he said so. The only people to whom "racial science" had ever been applied is the Jewish people, so Gould felt he was fighting for his life. Gould was an excellent snail taxonomist and we need to move on.

Anon5rY3agyp said...

Not long ago (2002-2003) there were studies first refuting Boas, then other reconfirming, and a third one trying to reconcile both the refutation and the reconciliation somehow. Let's see how it's gonna be in this case.

Olave d'Estienne said...

It seems unlikely someone as smart as Lewontin could just be described as incompetent. - M

If Lewontin invented his fallacy to confuse people and stifle curiosity about an interesting question, he was highly competent.

Olave d'Estienne said...

Jared Diamond also seems to advocating a particular egalitarian position and omits research that contradicts that position. - M

Diamond's position on ethnicity and intelligence is not egalitarian. He believes that people from New Guinea are in general more intelligent than North Americans, because the former are good at staying on poorly-marked trails while the latter watch too much TV.

This level of "psychometric inquiry" garnered no criticism from the mainstream left. Factor analysis, on the other hand, is considered "racist junk science".

Onur said...

What is this obsession of yours and of Gould to find out 150 years later Morton's level of precision? We dont need Morton's data and his speculations on racial characteristics belong to his time and place. No one takes them seriously.

Did you read the whole study? I did before writing my first comment. Morton's measurements are still reliable, irrespective of whether or not his interpretations are reliable today. So before attempting to write "no one takes Morton seriously" you should seriously consider Morton's achievements in physical anthropology.

argiedude said...

John Hawks on Gould

"Some of Gould's mistakes are outrageous, with others it is hard for me to believe that the misstatements were not deliberate misrepresentations."

apostateimpressions said...

Now we have infinitely more data than Morton in 1849. What is this obsession of yours and of Gould to find out 150 years later Morton's level of precision? We dont need Morton's data and his speculations on racial characteristics belong to his time and place. No one takes them seriously. Gould was beating a horse long dead. He was fighting political racism and he said so. The only people to whom "racial science" had ever been applied is the Jewish people, so Gould felt he was fighting for his life. Gould was an excellent snail taxonomist and we need to move on.

J, if you think that it is OK to lie about physical anthropology for "political" reasons, then why should we believe you when you say that "we dont need Morton's data and his speculations on racial characteristics belong to his time and place"?

Surely we should be all the more careful to objectively consider the matter seeing as some "scientists" show a politically motivated desire to lie about it.

D M Mulvihill said...

One of my favorite TV shows from the 90s was Northern Exposure. There was an episode in which the astronaut character Maurice played by Barry Corbin had two literature professors over for dinner. One of them was a traditionalist who loved 19th century American literature and the other was post-modern critic. After diner they started talking and it got out of hand and then they started arguing like crazy. At that point Maurice yells to interrupt the argument and says "Guys! Guys! It's just literature!." If this string of conversion, although interesting, were acted out, I would be tended to interrupt it and say "It's just anthropology!"

mathilda said...

"Gould was a marxist liar, Lewontin was incompetent, and Jared Diamond"


Gould had zero interest in the truth. His work was an attempt to descredit the now widely accepted and proved racial differences in IQ as they conflicted totally with his left wing political beliefs. He had an ideal he wanted people to believe in and wasn't above manipulating data.

It should have been called 'the mismeasures of Gould'.

One of my relatives (working in PNG) knew Jared Diamond and delighted in telling me he's as nutty as a snickers bar. He's not a man who's work I'd take seriously after reading his book, anyway.

scp1957 said...


"I wouldn't be so aggressive against him; he was trying to make a political point in a racist society." -- Antonio Pedro

Mayhap you are referring to the racist bias in favor of mestizos in the Mexican society, Tony?

As for your sentiment, on its own merits, it fails. Consider the long, slow collapse of the American civilization, which can fairly be credited to the pursuit of the noxious ideas contained in the work of John Rawls. Gould's popular work was infused with the self-same assumptions of human behavior and society that have have come to constitute what is (laughably and tragically) called "social science".

zadeh79 said...

I never bought into any of the charges brought posthumously against Gould. The man was a brilliant and open-minded scientists, who made (real) contributions, to his field. A handful of objections he made against IQ (the convenient assumption of constancy of intellignece, heritability, and genearlity of intelligence), remain unanswered by IQ proponents. All of this can't be said of the Jensens, RUshtons, Gottfiredsons, and certainly not Morton.