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

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

skull
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

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins
  • Kent

    Gould and Carl Sagan have similar legacies: both were great proponents of science who did a lot of good until they became celebrities and abused their scientific credentials to push their personal political agendas. I have great fondness for both, but at the same time I also feel a lot of contempt for how they set themselves up as examples for the Rush Limbaughs of the world to use to argue that scientists cannot be trusted as impartial sources of information.

  • Pat Fish

    Kent, maybe you could be bothered to provide evidence of the charge you aim at Carl Sagan?

  • js

    I make Pat’s words my own, I’m unaware of any evidence that would even come close to putting Sagan in the same light.

  • kilgoretrout

    “Kent, maybe you could be bothered to provide evidence of the charge you aim at Carl Sagan?”

    I can do that for you in two words – Nuclear Winter. There wasn’t a shred of evidence to support the contention that a nuclear exchange would trigger a nuclear winter as espoused by Mr. Sagan. No one ever wanted to call him on it because no one wanted to appear to be in favor of a nuclear war.

  • http://pascophronesis.wordpress.com David Bruggeman

    Did Sagan commit sloppy or biased research to support of his conclusions? If so, then I think there’s a better case for a parallel with the case against Gould.

    However, if the issue with Sagan is one over interpretation and extrapolation from theory, I think that’s a different kind of issue, and one that might be closer to debates over models in string theory, where effective experimentation on the issue at hand is difficult, if not impossible.

  • John Lerch

    I think the larger issue re Gould is: What evidence did he marshall for his assertion? This article seems to imply that he asserted that the bias was true without citing any evidence to that fact. Was there some systematic slant to the measurements which suggesting fudging? The fact that the authors found there was a systematic slant BUT IN THE WRONG DIRECTION suggests that Morton may indeed have created at least some of the data. The fact that the data was in the wrong direction might have shown up as fudging without giving a measure of whether the fudging was in the correct direction to support bias toward the hypothesis.
    This question of bias AWAY FROM the hypothesis is relevant to another issue alluded to above–CO2 induced climate change. There does indeed seem to be some manipulation; but the manipulation seems to be because the unbiased recognizers of climate change try to downplay the results so the greedy toady types who deny anthropogenic climate change have a smaller target.

  • Ben Wise

    Does nothing embarrass the editors of 80 Beats? It’s hard enough to bear their conceit in cutsey section titles (How the Heck; Not So Fast; etc.), and now in the midst of an article decrying S. J. Gould’s alleged inaccuracies, they utterly mistitle the book they are attacking (it’s The Mismeasure of Man). If nothing else, Gould possessed an exquisite sense of irony, something the editors could use a good dose of.

  • Veronique Greenwood

    @Ben Wise, “mis” added. Actually, we are big fans of irony. We have all the albums going back to 1973.

    If you’ve got suggestions, consider sending them to azeeberg [at] discovermagazine [dot] com.

  • Tristan Smith

    John Lerch writes, “The fact that the authors found there was a systematic slant BUT IN THE WRONG DIRECTION suggests that Morton may indeed have created at least some of the data.” There was no *systematic* slant in Morton’s data. Most all of his measurements (98%) were correct. And there was no real pattern to his errors, in any “direction.”

  • JMW

    It is always easier to fight for one’s principles than to live up to them. Alfred Adler

  • kilgoretrout

    “Did Sagan commit sloppy or biased research to support of his conclusions? If so, then I think there’s a better case for a parallel with the case against Gould.”

    You are right. He did absolutely no research to support his conclusions on nuclear winter. But he did publicly espouse them on national broadcasts to a lay audience of millions as if they were fact and supported by good science. And he did so to advance his political agenda for nuclear disarmament. The parallels to Gould are quite obvious to me. Both espoused laudable ends, fighting erroneous racial stereotyping and nuclear disarmament. And both used duplicitous means to advance those ends as supported by “Science”. While both undoubtedly did many other wonderful and noteworthy things, in these instances they were plainly wrong. The damage done to science’s reputation by this ends justify the means mentality should not be underestimated.

  • Jockaira

    Wait! What? Setting off a bunch of nukes won’t start a nuclear winter? What a relief!

    I can get back to my project of World Domination. First thing, I’ve got to cycle all these babies up to “ready status” and then figure out which cities and countries deserve to be targeted.

    I hope you’re right about Sagan, I’d hate to destroy half the planet for nothing.

  • http://Facebook SP

    SO, do present day Europeans have larger skulls than people from present day African decent? The article does not seem to come to a conclusion?

  • Jerome

    ” Both espoused laudable ends, fighting erroneous racial stereotyping and nuclear disarmament. ”

    It would appear that the racial stereotyping being “fought” was not of the erroneous variety. As to whether nuclear disarmament was or is a laudable goal, I suppose that is a subject for debate. The accusation, however, was that Carl Sagan chose his “scientific truths” so as to fit his leftist agenda. Just like Gould.

  • Thomas

    kilgoretrout, Sagan had enough evidence to get an article published in Science “Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions” although I haven’t read it. Also the concept has survived and the evidence has become stronger over the years, so it is likely that Sagan was right, although it would be preferable not to find out for certain.

  • Ben Wise

    @Veronique Greenwood (#8). No charge for my editorial service, this time, and glad you responded (but I note that the short blurb version on the email notice still contains the error). And thanks for the address for “suggestions.” I think those Irony albums need to be reissued, so thanks for the reminder. Great stuff.

  • Craig Gosling

    Gould and Darwin and all of us are biased, even the best scientists are guilty of it. It is the way our brains work. Check out Graham Lawton’s article, “The Grand Delusion” in NewScientist magazine (May 14). That is why we value peer review, and repeated testing of hypotheses. No big deal. Gould and Darwin get the bad publicity but the rest of us hide our every day bias in anonymity.

  • dave chamberlin

    The first comment by Kent is wrong twice. First of all Carl Sagan and Steven Jay Gould are simply not comparable on the issue this thread addresses, namely committing scientific sacrilege by cooking the evidence. Secondly their slants, wrong or right, have absolutely nothing to do the Rush Limbaughs of the world being very popular. If Carl Sagan was wrong isn’t the point, cutting edge deep thinking scientists are more often wrong than right with their initial hypothesis, the point here is you can’t make shit up in science, Gould did and Sagan did not. Carl Sagan was deeply fearful that the human race was going to extinguish itself because the general population was incredibly flawed in it’s ability to perform critical thinking. I think the best evidence of this is the popularity of babbling talk show idiots like Rush Limbaugh. Sagan and Gould have nothing to do with their being a seething mass of fools in the world. I have enormous respect for Carl Sagan the scientist and to have him associated with a man who committed the cardinal sin of science is wrong.

  • Carol

    FYI, science is littered with bias coloring results, so why pick on Gould? As they say, paradigms die one old scientist at a time. And paradigm is just systematic bias.

  • Kent

    Re: Carl Sagan

    In the lead-up to the first Iraq war, Carl Sagan claimed that the research of he and his colleagues demonstrated unequivocally that if a small fraction of Iraq’s oil wells were set alight, the smoke would lead to a snowball earth. He used this argument on every major news program to argue against the war. A few scientists did indeed say at the time that there was no basis for Sagan’s claims, but he was a celebrity and garnered all the media attention.

    In the end Saddam lit way more wells than Sagan was worried about, and they burned longer than anyone anticipated. And the result was… nothing.

  • dave chamberlin

    Well Kent, maybe you should head over to Wikipedia and correct it because it contradicts you. Carl Sagan got it wrong on the the effects of the first Gulf War Oil fires, no doubt. But according to Wikipedia he did not do state anything near to what you said he did. He was a very imaginative scientist and he made mistakes, but he made his mistakes the right right way, through hypothesis, sometimes later to be proved wrong, sometimes later to be accepted as groundbreaking. Steven Gould used the bully pulpit to attack ideas and people he opposed, big difference.

  • http://thesnowleopard.net Paula Stiles

    I find it curious that in the midst of all this schadenfreude about Gould (who, admittedly, had his faults), neither the article nor anyone commenting has addressed the reason why Morton measured the skulls in the first place–to support his hypothesis that white men were smarter than anybody else (Actually, I’m not sure he even bothered with measuring women, since most men of his day just assumed women were dumber than men). That hypothesis remains, at best, unproven. If normal variations in brain size (or even just skull capacity, which isn’t necessarily the same thing) have *any* bearing on intelligence, I’d like to see the study that bears that out.

    Gould fudging (well, not fact-checking Morton’s measurements would be more accurate) his attack on Morton’s findings does not change the importance of Gould’s critique. If Morton had not gone into his study with the (unproven) conviction that white men were smarter than everyone else, assuming the (equally unproven) correlation between brain size and intelligence, he wouldn’t have measured all of those skulls, and noted each one’s race, in the first place.

    So, yeah, Gould’s assertion that Morton was operating based on unconscious bias should still stand. And while it’s good to know that Morton’s methods within the study were sound (especially since Morton was a major and respected founder of anthropology), it doesn’t change the many statements he made that clearly showed his racial bias. There is no evidence he would ever have concluded that any other race was more intelligent (i.e. had larger skulls) than white men, whatever his findings, and a great deal of evidence that he was absolutely set on proving the opposite, to the point where Gould found him an easy target a century and a half later.

    For example, how much do we know about Morton’s selection process of these skulls as representative of their race, and his elimination of outliers in a given racial group? And what about Morton’s claim that Egyptians were white and not “African”, because the Ancient Egyptians he studied did not fit his assumptions about what Africans should look like?

    Also, it’s been a while since I took statistics, but 100 skulls strikes me as a pretty small study sample to represent all of the world’s races, especially when not taking into consideration factors we would automatically include now, such as diet and environment, because they would affect things, such as the individual’s height and weight, that would certainly affect the size of any individual’s skull. It seems to me that all this study’s authors have really proven is that Gould did a bit of fudging, himself, not that Morton held no bias, or even held less bias than Gould.

  • Tristan Smith

    Paula Stiles writes, “I find it curious that in the midst of all this schadenfreude about Gould (who, admittedly, had his faults), neither the article nor anyone commenting has addressed the reason why Morton measured the skulls in the first place–to support his hypothesis that white men were smarter than anybody else (Actually, I’m not sure he even bothered with measuring women, since most men of his day just assumed women were dumber than men).”

    A. He did measure the skulls of women.
    B. The paper does discuss the reasons why Morton measured the skulls. It was in hopes of figuring out whether humans were one species or several, one of the biggest questions of the day. Morton doesn’t really mention intelligence at all.
    C. So Morton didn’t go in assuming that brain size and intelligence were correlated. In fact, he wrote the opposite: “A well-formed head is no evidence of superior intellect.”
    D. Gould’s mistakes go well beyond just failing to “fact check” Morton’s measurement – read the paper or some of the more thorough coverage.
    E. It was 1000 skulls, not 100. And the paper discusses the impact of stature and sex.
    F. Nobody said Morton was unbiased. In fact, the point is that Morton *was* biased. But his measurements and reporting of them were not (contra Gould).

  • Demian W

    It is not the size of brain but the density of the connections that counts. To be fast and loose with my references I believe that current brain research on invdividuals over 50 show a prononced reduction of brain size over time. Before this was used to explain senility and alzheimers. The research actually found that over time the brain’s connections did not disapear but instead grew denser. So the only effect is a reduced short term memory capacity, but no actual reduction in intelligence. I do not doubt that this translates to this discussion and that size does not in essence determine intelligence.

  • http://daybrown.org Day Brown

    Jared Diamond followed a New Guinea Highlander into the forest & listened to him expound for hours on the minutiae of the flora & fauna drawing on an encyclopaedic scale database in his head. Back in the village, when he cannot remember all this, the villagers think Diamond is retarded; yet the same men cant deal with simple algebra. Who is it that getsta decide what ‘intelligence’ is?

    Missing from the analysis is the ratio of grey to white matter. The white cushions the grey, and increases if a skull is subjected to blows, especially in childhood. Also, its what causes boxers to be ‘punch drunk’. Nobody measured the cost of non-white moms not making sure their kids wore helmets on bikes, or tolerating the rougher play or what we think is physical abuse.

    Missing from the analysis also is consideration of the cultural effect of Europeans needing to spend so much time packed in together every winter to stay warm, and the intolerance of physical violence cause the kids and women are close enuf to be “ancillary casualties”.

    This has something to do with why tropical hunting tribes have 20 times the signs of parry fractures in their graveyards compared to European yeoman farmers. Note also how commonly photos of African men show the front teeth bashed out, while our Neanderthal ancestors died with fuller dental sets.

  • Russell

    Dave Chamberlain

    Thanks for pointing out the evidentiary bias in Wikipedia’s treatment of nuclear winter. The real question is : Why other to correct it if it gives its author’s joy?

    Nothing succeeds like semantic aggression and the scientific meltdown of the original apocalyptic hypothesis has no more removed the neologism from use than the remaindering of the book Sagan and Ehrlich wrote to tout it. Not much air time is wasted nowadays on warnings about The Energy Crisis and Y2K, and the only folks dedicated to keeping nuclear winter alive are those who invested their credibility in the original , apocalyptic hypothesis. One arrived at by invoking the precautionary principle to justify worst-case values for all thirty of the parameter choices that went into what was bizarrely styled ” a sophisticated one dimensional model.”

    Their collective problem is that , thanks to the PR firm hired to promote it, the original hype was so over the top that sober research could only drive the topic in one direction. Down- , by two orders of magnitude from a 22,000 degree day worst case in the 1983 climate model to just a few hundred today- replacing twenty below zero with single degree cooling means no more snowball earth.

    After Sagan jumped the shark on the Kuwait fires, , the literature flatlined , The spectacle of the original researchers writing ‘review articles ‘ about their own work has not done much to redeem the subject, but their perseverance in front loading the Wiki with Cold War factoids reminds us that one of science’s Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not covet thine own hypothesis is often more honored in the breech than the observance. Sagan’s insistence that “Apocalyptic predictions demand , if they are to be taken seriously, higher standards of evidence ” has come full circle — history is full of prophets of doom who fail to deliver.

    Nuclear winter wasn’t shot down by the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Beck’s of the 1980′s . It took climate scientists of impeccably liberal credentials who feared for the credibility of their profession on the eve of the global warming debate to rein in Sagan’s ill starred end run on the Nobel peace prize.

  • Russell

    Note Gould was among the ‘et al.’ s in Sagan & Ehrlich’s original ‘nuclear winter ‘ papers.

    Ehrlich, Paul R., et al., “Long-Term Biological Consequences of Nuclear War.” Science 222 (1983): 1293-1300.

  • Roberto

    N. 22 you nailed it. not enough numbers to conclude anything. im amazed we (well, lewis et al. and everybody else) ignore this

  • Daniel J. Andrews

    Re: Sagan and nuclear winter. The late Stephen Schneider discusses his falling out with his friend, Carl Sagan, over the nuclear winter issue in his book Science as a Contact Sport. Sagan ran with the nuclear winter idea even though evidence against it was very strong, and Schneider had the unpleasant task of contradicting Sagan. He writes how Sagan ignored evidence that contradicted his idea even though he’d just discussed it with him (Schneider). Sagan also misrepresented the findings of at least one of the papers he used as evidence.

    Both men put their differences behind them a few years later.

  • http://eforexloginnews.info Lakita Thomure

    Wonderful website. Plenty of useful info here. I’m sending it to a few friends ans also sharing in delicious. And certainly, thanks for your effort!

  • Kiwiguy

    ***assuming the (equally unproven) correlation between brain size and intelligence,***

    @ Paula Stiles,

    “Imaging studies of intelligence and brain structure. Correlations between intelligence and total brain volume or grey matter volume have been replicated in magnetic
    resonance imaging (MRI) studies, to the extent that intelligence is now commonly used as a confounding variable in morphometric studies of disease. MRI-based studies estimate a moderate correlation between brain size and intelligence of 0.40 to 0.51 (REF. 28; see REF. 29 on interpreting this correlation, and REF. 30 for a meta-analysis).

    NEUROBIOLOGY OF INTELLIGENCE: SCIENCE AND ETHICS, NATURE REVIEWS | NEUROSCIENCE VOLUME 5 | JUNE 2004

    http://www.yale.edu/scan/GT_2004_NRN.pdf

  • http://thesnowleopard.net Paula R. Stiles

    @Tristan Smith

    >A. He did measure the skulls of women.

    As I said before, I was not sure (It had been a while since I read either Gould or Morton) and the article above doesn’t mention it.

    >B. The paper does discuss the reasons why Morton measured the skulls. It was in hopes of figuring out whether humans were one species or several, one of the biggest questions of the day. Morton doesn’t really mention intelligence at all.

    This strikes me as disingenuous hair-splitting. A major underpinning of the multiple origins theory was the idea that people who were not of European origin were not human. And in Morton’s time, scientists firmly believed that humans were superior to non-humans.

    Ergo, intelligence certainly came into it. So did many other unpleasant ideas.

    >C. So Morton didn’t go in assuming that brain size and intelligence were correlated. In fact, he wrote the opposite: “A well-formed head is no evidence of superior intellect.”

    “Well-formed” is not the same as size. It was another common idea at the time that the shape of the head and facial features determined personality and moral character. This assumption was separate from the size of the skull itself.

    >D. Gould’s mistakes go well beyond just failing to “fact check” Morton’s measurement – read the paper or some of the more thorough coverage.

    I’m talking about the article, here, which discusses more sources of criticism than that one study. Therefore, it works best to analyze said article separately from the paper you cite. If the article doesn’t mention something in the paper, then that thing should not be used to support the article. If it were a good point, the author should have put it in.

    >E. It was 1000 skulls, not 100. And the paper discusses the impact of stature and sex.

    According to the article, it was 100 not 1000. The paper is not what we’re discussing here.

    >F. Nobody said Morton was unbiased. In fact, the point is that Morton *was* biased. But his measurements and reporting of them were not (contra Gould).

    The article doesn’t support this. And there are two different points the article is trying to make, neither of which is fully supported because each depends on the other (which is a logical fallacy). One is that Morton’s work wasn’t biased, despite the fact that even his supporters admit that *he* was. The other is that Gould got him wrong. It is entirely possible for only one of these statements to be true. Gould fudging data about Morton doesn’t automatically make Morton’s work unbiased.

    I should also point out the third, unacknowledged point underpinning the whole enterprise, which is that either of these noted scientists having been wrong, biased, or prone at times to fudging would make their entire body of work invalid. I trust we can all see why that would be a questionable conclusion, at best.

    @Kiwiguy
    You seem to have missed Demian W and Day Brown’s points that there is far more to intelligence and brain density than just the overall size of the brain. Also, as Dr. Gould himself did once point out, these 19th century scientists were usually measuring the capacity of skulls, which is a very different thing from measuring the contents.

    Further, if brain size and intelligence were directly correlative, tall men with large heads would always be smarter than everyone else. Which would make a lot of football players geniuses.

  • http://www.curtisweyant.com Curtis

    @Paula

    Morton was undoubtedly a racist and a sexist, and he had preconceived notions about the superiority of white men over all others. Nobody denies that, and the Lewis et al paper acknowledges it. They even bemoan having to print Morton’s racist terminology.

    Your criticism of this blog post seems to be that it doesn’t go into every detail of Lewis et al’s criticisms of Gould and Gould’s criticisms of Morton. That’s irrational. To repeat everything these scientists criticized about each other, along with the original research, would take up many volumes. In fact, it DOES take up many volumes. You’re claiming ignorance because the article doesn’t go into detail, but yet you argue against others’ points and refuse to educate yourself on the materials, even by simply reading the referenced study (which is quite short and easy to read).

    If you REALLY want to know what’s going on, you can read Morton’s three volumes of data (“Crania Americana”, “Crania Aegyptiaca,” and the “Catalogue of Skulls of Man and the Inferior Animals”) which are all available on Google Books for free. You also can read Gould’s “Miseasure of Man,” in particular Chapter 2 where the bulk of his criticism against Morton resides, along with his 1978 paper (I don’t have the title off hand, but it’s cited appropriately in “Mismeasure”) that provides the tabular data not presented in the book. Finally, you can read the Lewis et al study refuting Gould and exonerating Morton’s data (but NOT his racist conclusions). Once you’ve read all that, perhaps you will have a better idea of why this blog post couldn’t go into the kind of detail you are criticizing it for not having.

    One note: Morton DID see a correlation between brain size and intelligence. From “Crania Americana” (p. 8-9): “The _first_ proposition, that the size of the brain, other conditions being equal, is in direct proportion to the power of mental manifestation, is supported by analogy, by several well known facts, and by high physiological authorities.” He considered the correlation between brain size and intelligence already to be proven. His effort in the “Crania” volumes and final catalogue was to confirm that different races had different average cranial capacities (and, therefore, different-sized brains), such that they could be ranked. He believed his data (which, according to the Lewis et al study is accurate) proved this. Where I think Gould still holds the higher ground is that Morton never considered other possibilities for the different brain sizes, such as climate, sex, etc. (some of Morton’s sample sets were all male, and for others the sex couldn’t be accurately determined).

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