Study: Stephen Jay Gould, Crusader Against Scientific Bias, Was Guilty of It

By Veronique Greenwood | June 15, 2011 12:59 pm

Early anthropologist Samuel George Morton, accused by
Gould of bias in his measurements of skulls, may finally
be exonerated.

What’s the News: Harvard biologist and popular author Stephen Jay Gould was a well-known advocate for evolution and denouncer of scientific bias. But a new study shows that one of his most famous claims—that an early researcher unconsciously manipulated his measurements of skulls to make Caucasians seem smarter—is baseless.

The researcher actually made few errors, and it looks like Gould never bothered to measure the skulls himself, as the study’s authors did, before crying bias. “Ironically,” the authors write, “Gould’s own analysis…is likely the stronger example of a bias influencing results.”

How the Heck:

  • Gould’s influential 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man, asserts that Samuel George Morton, a 19th-century anthropologist, fudged his measurements and analysis of 100 human skulls to support his hypothesis that brain volume would be larger in Caucasians. It’s now a textbook example of how unconscious bias can sway the results of a study.
  • 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.
  • This isn’t the first time that scientists have looked into Gould’s assertion and found it lacking, writes the NYTimes:

    An earlier study by John S. Michael, then an undergraduate at Penn, concluded that Morton’s results were “reasonably accurate,” with no clear sign of manipulation.

  • But because it was the work of an undergraduate, the scientific community did not immediately accept the conclusion. “It is not entirely evident that one should prefer the measurements of an undergraduate to those of professional paleontologist,” [Philip Kitcher, a philosopher of science at Columbia] wrote in 2004 (via NYTimes). “Pending further measurement of the skulls and further analysis of the data, it seems best to let this grubby affair rest in a footnote.”

What’s the Context:

  • Gould, who died in 2002 was a colorful figure in biology, but among some scientists, he had a reputation for muddling the facts as well as a tendency to polemicize, writes Razib Kahn over at Gene Expression.
  • Scientists’ responses have shown disappointment in Gould (via Wired Science):

    “Gould used the well-documented work of a long-dead man to make an argument that unconscious bias is widespread in science,” wrote University of Wisconscin anthropologist John Hawks, who was not involved in the new study, on his blog. “Gould owed us a responsible reading and trustworthy reporting on that evidence. In its place, he made up fictional stories, never directly examined the evidence himself, and misreported Morton’s numbers.”

  • And some, including Ralph Holloway, an author of the paper, have found their old fears about Gould justified. “I just didn’t trust Gould,” Holloway said (via NYTimes). “I had the feeling that his ideological stance was supreme. When the 1996 version of ‘The Mismeasure of Man’ came and he never even bothered to mention [Penn undergraduate] Michael’s study, I just felt he was a charlatan.”

Reference: Lewis JE, DeGusta D, Meyer MR, Monge JM, Mann AE, et al. (2011) The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias. PLoS Biol 9(6): e1001071. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001071

Image credit: PLoS Biology


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