Friday, June 17, 2011

Plotz biology

Yet through all this juggling, I detect no sign of fraud or conscious manipulation.

                        S. J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, 1981: 69.

A couple of weeks ago a paper came out in PLoS Biology – an online, open access journal – that had some tongues wagging.  Various bloggers blogged about it, some journalists wrote it up – the one about Stephen Jay Gould fudging his data in accusing craniologist Samuel George Morton of fraud 150 years earlier.

            The problem with the paper is a fundamental one: It purports to be a contribution to the area of “science studies” but is signally poor as such.  It may be a contribution to revisionist positivism studies, but that’s about the most charitable thing I can say about it.  Even the conclusion is completely ass-backwards, which is something of a giveaway.  The conclusion they come up with, after arguing that Gould fudged, is that there is less fudging in science than is widely thought, rather than more – strange, given that they had presumably just added to the stock of fudge.
            There is an informal rule-of-thumb in the anthropology of science, that goes, “When smart people say stupid things, they’re usually doing it for a reason.”  Let’s start there.  What is this paper even about?  What makes it novel and interesting?  Why are they writing it?  (Sorry to sound like a science studies fan, but I think that’s what they might ask.)  The authors tell us: 
Gould’s analysis of Morton is widely read, frequently cited, and still commonly assigned in university courses (refs.).  Morton has become a canonical example of scientific misconduct...

Let’s pause right there.  Who says it’s an example of misconduct at all, much less a canonical one?  Gould didn’t; Gould argued that Morton fudged unconsciously.  I wrote chapters on “Bogus Science” and on  “Scientific Misconduct” in my book, Why I Am Not a Scientist  (their Ref. 4), and didn’t mention Gould’s  treatment of Morton, and I mentioned Morton himself only in passing, as a phrenologist.   (Perhaps unsurprisingly , that interest of Morton’s – the scientific aspects  of head bumps – doesn’t get a mention in the new paper.)
            So why didn’t I cite it as a canonical example of misconduct?  Two reasons:  First, Gould himself didn’t think it was; and second, even Gould’s argument for unconscious fudging had been convincingly challenged in a paper published in Current Anthropology 23 years ago (their ref. 14).
            In fact, not only didn’t I cite Morton as they were bemoaning, but (if their central assertion is true) only one other reference in their list might reasonably be expected to cite Morton, as a work of “science studies” analyzing scientific misconduct – The Great Betrayal, by Horace Freeland Judson (their ref. 16).  And Judson doesn’t mention Morton either.

Michael, J. S. 1988. A new look at Morton's craniological research. Current Anthropology 29:348-354.

Judson, H. F. 2004. The Great Betrayal. Orlando, FL: Harcourt.

Marks, J. 2009. Why I Am Not a Scientist: Anthropology and Modern Knowledge. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

            So who do they cite in support of the statement that Morton is a canonical case of misconduct?  Works by three skeletal biologists: Loring Brace, Della Cook, and Jane Buikstra.  The problem is that the authors of this new paper seem to be criticizing the science studies literature for the perceived failings of skeletal biologists.  This is unfortunate, but not the problem of people working in science studies. 

            In fact, if you take the trouble to read Brace's Race is A Four-Letter Word (their ref. 11), you'll be more industrious than the authors of the new article. Why? Because in the context of an extensive and erudite discussion of Morton, Brace goes on to cite Gould's analysis in precisely the opposite way than the new paper claims.

            As far as science studies goes, then, the paper is erecting and attacking a straw man.  They produce no evidence that people who work in this area regard Gould’s critique of Morton as canonical, important, or valid.  The only two relevant works they cite do not in fact mention it.  One of the three references by skeletal biologists they cite as accepting Gould is actually completely dismissive of Gould (and I don't have access to the papers by Cook and Buikstra).   The central argument of this paper, then, is to correct the way that some skeletal biologists are mis-citing an obscure historical issue. 
            That is not new, interesting, or important.
            The bulk of the paper is indeed devoted to establishing a point that has been widely known for over two decades, and is widely accessible  because it was published in a major journal:  that Gould did not even reliably establish that Morton had indeed fudged unconsciously.  That paper is their ref. 14.  So their industry brings positive knowledge: Now we know, for absolutely sure, that Gould did not even reliably establish that Morton had indeed fudged unconsciously.
            Which brings us to the next question:  What do the authors themselves  think is new, interesting, or important about this?  What lessons do they think are to be drawn from their labors, of establishing something that was already known, and is unfortunately occasionally still mis-cited by people in physical anthropology?
            Here are their parting words:        

That Morton’s data are reliable despite his clear bias weakens the argument of Gould and others that biased results are endemic in science. Gould was certainly correct to note that scientists are human beings and, as such, are inevitably biased, a point frequently made in ‘‘science studies.’’ But the power of the scientific approach is that a properly designed and executed methodology can largely shield the outcome from the influence of the investigator’s bias. Science does not rely on investigators being unbiased ‘‘automatons.’’ Instead, it relies on methods that limit the ability of the investigator’s admittedly inevitable biases to skew the results. Morton’s methods were sound, and our analysis shows that they prevented Morton’s biases from significantly impacting his results. The Morton case, rather than illustrating the ubiquity of bias, instead shows the ability of science to escape the bounds and blinders of cultural contexts.

I must say, I had to read this several times in order to grasp the enormity of their illogic.  First, by vindicating Morton, they believe they have shown that “biased results” are not  “endemic in science”.  Well they certainly  still are in physical anthropology.   Physical anthropology is just now being discovered by historians of science, but its secrets are fairly well known.   What about Hooton’s criminological work (describing the statistical physical differences between inmates and volunteer firemen in three states)?  The physical difference may well have been real, but his interpretation of it was so crude that Harvard  never published the successor volume to Hooton’s 1939 The American Criminal, Volume I.  What about the nationalistic, racial, and anatomical biases that permitted Piltdown Man to go unchallenged for decades?   What about national traditions between Japanese and American primatologists?  Haven’t you ever noticed how Chris Stringer always seems to find the evidence for Replacement, and Milford Wolpoff always seems to find the evidence for Multiregional Continuity?  Do you think that’s a coincidence?
            It’s biased any number of ways, but it’s still science, and it may or may not be true.
            Let me give a relevant example, because it concerns a literal successor of Morton’s  - Carleton Coon of the University of Pennsylvania, sitting President of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in 1962.  Coon published his book, The Origin of Races, as a scientific manifesto for the segregationists.  How do we know this?  Because we have his mail.  He worked with the segregationists and gave them preprints of his book, which tried to demonstrate that Africans had become Homo sapiens 200,000 years after Europeans – and which, he coyly suggested, may explain their backwardness and uncivilizability.

Coon, C. S. 1962. The Origin of Races. New York: Knopf.

Jackson, J. P., Jr. 2001. "In ways unacademical": The reception of Carleton S. Coon's The Origin of Races. Journal of the History of Biology 34:247-285.

———. 2005. Science for Segregation. New York: NYU Press.

            The author, Professor Coon, wanted his work to be judged independently of the circumstances of its production.  He worked hard to conceal his ties to the segregationists, and wanted people to read it  as if it were an objective work of science.  But it never was an objective work of science, and to read it today as if it were such a work, is to accept the author’s highly political dissimulation.  It was a scientific work written for the segregationists, and cannot be read honestly today as anything but that.
            So whatever Morton may or may not have done, and Gould may or may not have done, it has nothing to do with understanding the role of ideology in co-producing the facts of human science.

            Their second conclusion is even less logical:  That although the biases of the investigators are ubiquitous, a scientific fact can transcend them.   I suppose so, in theory.  But what particular fact are we talking about here, exactly?  That  a sample of African  skulls measured by a creationist phrenologist polygenist may have a smaller average volume than a sample of European skulls?
            Morton, whose work the new paper wants to convince you was shielded from cultural bias, actually was so engrossed in the differences among the sets of skulls that he was unable to see them as belonging to a single species, as the products of a single origin.  Does that sound like culturally unbiased scientific work?  Do the authors of the new paper believe that fact shines through the cultural bias as well?  If not, why not?

            The ideological bias is so overwhelming, that these authors can’t even see it themselves.  It resides in the question: What do you actually think you are explaining in documenting a difference in cranial volume between two non-representative samples?  Morton really thought that a difference of an average cubic inch in cranial volume explained why black people were enslaved.  Do you?  If you don’t, then why do you think this is important?  Morton’s conclusion about the hat size of races is not now, and never was, an important scientific fact.
            Earnest  Hooton really believed that he was explaining criminality by nailing down “the criminal look” of the head.  Carleton Coon really believed he was explaining racial problems in America not as the products of social history and injustice, but of evolutionary  biology.  In the 21st century, explaining human social facts by recourse to human biological facts is passé as science.  Go find another reason to measure heads. 

            That, to me, was the brilliant lesson of The Mismeasure of Man – it put the craniologists and psychometricians on the defensive, and forced them to justify themselves.  (And they eventually did so a few years later, I suppose, with The Bell Curve.)

Herrnstein, R., and C. Murray. 1994. The Bell Curve. New York: Free Press.

            But this brings me to the dirtiest thing of all about this paper.  Its model isn’t any admirably truth-seeking science; it’s inspired by the venomous nonsense of Derek Freeman.  Freeman was the maniacal Australian anthropologist who attacked Margaret Mead’s 1928 bestseller, Coming of Age in Samoa.  What was weird wasn’t so much the zeal with which he pursued the half-century old work, but his extraordinary assumption that it was somehow a lynch-pin of modern anthropology.  By elevating the significance of Coming of Age in Samoa, Freeman thereby elevated himself; and moreover, in knocking it down, he would be leading the way to a new and better (sociobiological) anthropology.  Freeman permitted other ideologues, like Steven Pinker, to dismiss Margaret Mead, and by extension, normative anthropology, as having been simply discredited.

Mead, M. 1928. Coming of Age in Samoa. New York: Morrow.

Freeman, D. 1983. Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pinker, S. 2002. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking Penguin.

Shankman, P. 2009. The Trashing of Margaret Mead: anatomy of an anthropological controversy. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

            I see a lot of that in here.  I don’t think Gould’s analysis of Morton was any more important to science studies than Coming of Age in Samoa was to anthropology.  By inflating its significance, the authors of this study themselves become that much more important.  And they see their own exceedingly parochial obsessive work as being somehow paradigmatic.  It just isn’t.
            So I will take away two lessons from this.  First, about  Stephen Jay Gould.  Gould, like everybody else in science, tended to see what he was looking for.   That’s a good science studies lesson.  Second, about this paper.  For the most part, it is paranoid positivist rhetoric mixed with slovenly-argued bombast, and a warmed-over critique of Gould, not a significant new contribution to knowledge.  If it were, it might have been publishable in a real journal, like Current Anthropology.


I met Steve Gould once or twice.  He autographed my copy of Ontogeny and Phylogeny, “To Jonathan – May the creationists never have a day of peace!”  Years later, he did get me hooked me up with the Annals of Improbable  Research, which awards the IgNobel prizes annually, and for that I am grateful to him.  G. G. Simpson hated his guts, but that’s a story for another time.


  1. Thank you for this piece, which really puts the questions out there. I have written some related material at my blog-post, "Mismeasuring Gould in 'The Mismeasure of Science.'":

    I've had two of the co-authors critique my comments, and would be grateful for any feedback.

  2. I reiterate antrosio's thanks. This article has been bugging me since it came out -- I don't remember Gould saying what they say he said, but rather that, as you point out, scientists are prone to filter their findings through their own cultural biases. Certainly Morton wasn't the only one to do this (or Gould for that matter). This study does little to challenge the thrust of Gould's work, yet it's being trumpeted (as, let's face it, just about every piece of scientific research that makes it to mainstream news is) as a significant challenge to current thinking.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. "As far as science studies goes, then, the paper is erecting and attacking a straw man."

    Come now, straw man argumentation and guilt by association were Gould's specialties: attacking somebody from the 1840s that almost nobody today knew anything about was how Gould attacked modern scientists like Arthur Jensen.

  5. Like your post, but take offense at this cheapshot remark: "If it were, it might have been publishable in a real journal, like Current Anthropology."

    PLoS Biology is a respected journal for the field of biology, thank you very much. I know plenty of good papers in that journal, and they are quite 'publishable in a real journal'. Is Curr Anthropol even open access? If not, it loses some points right there for being part of the barrier to public accessibility of science.

    In short, attack the paper, not the journal. Or attack the whole peer reviews system if you must, I'm cool with that. Just don't insult other researchers' work by smearing the entire journal. Otherwise there's a ton of 'interesting' things to say about Nature and Science, who are some of the worst offenders among 'upper tier' journals.

    Otherwise, good critique. I haven't read the original paper or much fanfare about it yet, will wait a few months for dust to settle down and sensationalism die down a bit...

  6. As usual, you are saying what I want to say before I say it: Freeman's strawman argument about Margaret Mead (strawmead?) is the only new thing that the sociobiologists added to their programmatic statements when they declared themselves "evolutionary psychologists."

    I think you might state the case to strongly when you say that Coon published is book as "as a scientific manifesto for the segregationists." I think a more accurate statement was that he helped the segregationists use his book as a scientific manifesto. All of his activities behind the scenes you have depicted quite correctly.

  7. Sorry for the rather late comment but I just found this post. I think of both Gould's The Mismeaure of Man and Mead's Coming of Age... as canonical works. As you yourself note, Mead's book was a bestseller. Off the top of my head I don't know if Gould's book was a bestseller, but there's a good chance it was. However, this is just anecdotal. So I'll be more specific? What measure do you consider valid for judging if something is canonical? I would consider citation trends and syllabus inclusion trends as good evidence, but I'd like to know what criterion you're using.

  8. Very Informative and useful... Keep it up the great work. Biology

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