Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Bias Sphere; or, Turning Gould into Irony

Thirty years ago Stephen Jay Gould wrote The Mismeasure of Man in which he castigated the early 19th century scientist Samuel George Morton. Morton's crime is that he measured skull capacity from different ethnic groups and managed to ensure that the caucasian skulls had the largest capacity, and thus that white people were smarter than other ethnic groups. Gould used this to show that even the most basic elements of science, such as volume measurements, were not free from potential bias.

Now some 21st century scientists got together and did something radical: they remeasured the skulls that Morton used. It turns out his measurements were accurate, and Gould's were not. In fact, nearly every specific claim Gould makes about Morton is incorrect. The few incorrect measurements on Morton's part tended to go the other way, imputing greater volume to African skulls. Their research was published in an open-access journal and you can read it in its entirety here. If you want something a bit more colorful, I strongly suggest the righteous indignation of John Hawks. There you will find such tidbits as "Gould made up the whole thing. It was an utter fabulation. It is disgraceful that later authors have cited this idea as fact." "Gould fudged his own numbers!"

Anyway, you can see why I find this outrageous. Gould used the well-documented work of a long-dead man to make an argument that unconscious bias is widespread in science. He posed as a concerned critic, but thereby cast doubt on the validity of the scientific enterprise. He picked volume measurement and tabulation of averages as his target, making it seem as if the simplest and most objective observations -- the Junior High-level science methods -- were themselves subject to all-encompassing cultural biases. His paper and book are very widely read and cited by people who will never examine the primary evidence. ...
This stuff really ticks me off. I don't think that Gould's errors can be written off as "unconscious bias". Reading back over his 1978 article, I cannot believe that Science published it.

One thing that irritates me (that Hawks doesn't mention) is the imputation of racism to Morton. An article in the New York Times about the new measurements counters this.

Dr. Gould, who died in 2002, based his attack on the premise that Morton believed that brain size was correlated with intelligence. But there is no evidence that Morton believed this or was trying to prove it, said Jason E. Lewis, the leader of the Pennsylvania team. Rather, Morton was measuring his skulls to study human variation, as part of his inquiry into whether God had created the human races separately (a lively issue before Darwin decreed that everyone belonged to the same species).

Via Ann Althouse. Now I think Gould's overriding point -- that scientists are just as prone to bias as us lesser mortals, and that this can find ways into their experiments -- is valid. The fact that Gould illustrated this in a way he did not intend just makes the point much more humorous; in much the same way as when Carl Sagan uncritically repeated an urban legend in order to show how people are gullible. I would argue that Gould's implication that bias is widespread in science is exaggerated. Part of science's glory, after all, is its self-correcting nature. But that doesn't make it infallible.

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13 comments:

Humphrey said...

Not 'cutting edge' enough!

unkleE said...

Love the title! Enjoyed the content. Agree with the message. What more can I ask of a blog post?

Ilíon said...

"Rather, Morton was measuring his skulls to study human variation, as part of his inquiry into whether God had created the human races separately (a lively issue before Darwin decreed that everyone belonged to the same species)."

What the Hell!?

Anonymous said...

Speaking of urban legends is not the entire ball of wax bound up in the supposed "death-and-resurrection-of Jesus" the ultimate urban legend?

No body ever witnessed this supposed "event". Because it never happened. Could not have happened.

Humphrey said...

Anon - did you just want this blog restarted so you could start trolling it?

Humphrey said...

Jerry Coyne also covered the Morton Smith paper

http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/06/14/steve-gould-gets-it-in-the-neck/

He also had a few choice words to say about Steve Gould (though Coyne likes to brings in his views on contingency in evolution when it suits him)

I covered Morton & the historical background here:

http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/2009/06/science-vs-religion-battle-of-human.html

Ilíon said...

I'll bet the Anonymouse believes in 'Science!' ... which means be believes *really* strange and anti-rational things, such as that "once in a very great while, your car will spontaneously ooze through the brick wall of your garage and be found the next morning on the street." For, after all, *that* claim isn't a clain of "religion (i.e. Christianity), but rather of 'Science!'

Jim S. said...

Speaking of urban legends is not the entire ball of wax bound up in the supposed "death-and-resurrection-of Jesus" the ultimate urban legend?

Oh no! If only we had addressed that at some point!

David B Marshall said...

Finally, an objective way to settle arguments! Now just get out your measuring tape, and compare the skulls of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris, to four representative anti-New Atheist writers. (I don't mind being included, as long as we leave the skulls on.) It wouldn't be the WORST argument associated with this debate.

Ilíon said...

That simple measure of the size of skulls could be misleading. After all, one expects "numb-skulls" to have bigger skulls ... which just happen to be made of an inordinate amount of bone. Better to try to measure the content of those skulls.

Suburbanbanshee said...

Re: Ilion's query --

Oh, that was a latemodel theory. See, the traditional thing was for Jews and Christians to believe that all humans were descended from Adam and Eve. But some Victorians weren't sure that other races weren't separately created, ditto Neanderthals, because they looked different. But mostly because Victorians were modern and knew better, there were skeptic types looking for signs that not all humans descended from the same stock, and therefore that some humans could be classified as apes and treated like animals.

There may also have been some Victorians looking for Nephilim giants, children of Lilith, fairies, etc. But generally it was a pretty utilitarian racism thing.

Ilíon said...

"Oh, that was a latemodel theory ... "

Thus my "WTH!"

Ilíon said...

I mean, DarwinWorship is bad enough as it is without adding the amusing "fact" that he taught us we were all one species.