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.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Brain fart?

Eleven years ago, the psychologist Philippe Rushton sent a lot of social scientists a little booklet, which was an abridgement of his book, Race, Evolution, and Behavior.  Rushton’s work is easily appreciated as falling within the generally constituted domain of scientific racism, for example in his belief that the average IQ of native Africans is 70 (or the equivalent of a European with mild Down’s syndrome).  Pretty much any knowledgeable scholar can see the primitive racist assumptions guiding the work – the misapplication of evolutionary theory, mistaking the facts of social history for those of biological microevolution, overblown claims about innateness of IQ, and the use of idiotic surrogate variables, like crime rate and degree of civilization, for intelligence – not to mention penis size and libido for reproductive rate.  Len Lieberman did a nice critique of Rushton’s nonsense  a while back.  Joe Graves did such a good job revealing the utter biological incompetence in Rushton’s work that if I remember correctly, Rushton may have actually threatened him with litigation.

[Lieberman , L. 2001. How "Caucasoids" Got Such Big Crania and Why They Shrank: From Morton to Rushton. Current Anthropology 42:69-95.]

[Graves, J. 2002. The misuse of life history theory: J. P. Rushton and the pseudoscience of racial hierarchy. In Race and Intelligence: Separating Science from Myth, edited by J. Fish. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 57-94.]

When Rushton’s awful book was published, sociobiologist David Barash, fearing that it might give human sociobiology a bad name (as if such a thing were possible), reviewed it in the British journal Animal Behaviour in terms that merit quoting in order to properly admire them.  “I don’t know which is worse,” wrote Barash, “Rushton’s scientific failings or his blatant racism.”  Methodologically, said Barash, Rushton cherry-picks data of very dubious quality to make his pseudo-scientific argument, which amounts to

the pious hope that by combining numerous little turds of variously tainted data, one can obtain a valuable result; but in fact, the outcome is merely a larger than average pile of shit.

[Barash, D. P. 1995. Book review: Race, Evolution, and Behavior. Animal Behaviour 49:1131-1133.]

Damn, I wish I had said that.  My hat goes off to Barash for saying it.  I would argue, further, that racism should be no more tolerable in science than creationism is.  (In fact I do argue that, in a forthcoming essay for a volume called Pragmatic Evolution, edited by Aldo Poiani, and being published someday by Cambridge.)

Oddly, though, some otherwise reputable scholars had trouble critically evaluating Rushton’s work.  I have occasionally referred to these scholars as ”Mr. Eds”,  being knowledgeable about their narrow area, but so unfathomably ignorant outside that narrow area that they are essentially talking horses.   Mathematical geneticist Henry Harpending, for one, was so uncritical about Rushton that Rushton excerpted a blurb from Harpending’s review in the aforementioned pamphlet. 

"Rushton's Race, Evolution, and Behavior.. .is an attempt to understand [race] differences in terms of life-history evolution.. . . Perhaps here ultimately will be some serious contribution from the traditional smoke-and-mirrors social science treatment of IQ, but for now Rushton's framework is essentially the only game in town."

[Harpending, H. 1995. Human biological diversity. Evolutionary Anthropology, 4 (3):99-103.]

He missed what most others found to be retrogressive, incompetent, and galling in the book.  In the same review Harpending also expressed his admiration for The Bell Curve, which a lot of people had problems with, and which also included a pre-emptive defense of Rushton in an appendix, since it cited about twenty of his papers.  Another senior biological anthropologist, Ralph Holloway, also had trouble reading Rushton critically, and defended Rushton’s work to an early internet chat group in 1999: “I know Phil Rushton, and have had the pleasure of his visit to my lab, and even was able to talk to him at the last AAPA Meetings, and while I disagree with his theories, I have not found him to be a ‘bigot’.” “In short, a ‘racist’ he may be, but I don’t see the ‘bigotry’ myself, despite to what uses his theories might be put.”

Whatever.  As if a guy who ass-rapes evolutionary ecological theory in order to show that Africans have an innate intellectual ability equivalent to mentally handicapped Europeans, might merely be a racist but not a bigot – and may not be responsible for how other people will use his objective, scientific work?

As cranial anatomists go, Holloway is a distinguished one, but if you’re going to talk about race, you have to be able to read the literature critically.  After all, there is supposed to be a distinction between, say, neurobiology and phrenology, which may not be readily apparent to outsiders.  And anyone who can’t read Rushton’s work critically simply isn’t competent to teach anthropology, much less to represent it publicly.  I wrote a monthly column in the Anthropology News (formerly, the Anthropology Newsletter) for the General Anthropology Division, and when we received Rushton’s Abridgement, I said something about it:

Which reminds me, did you all get your copies of the Special Abridged Edition of J Philippe Rushton’s book, Race, Evolution & Behavior? The mass mailing was bankrolled by the Pioneer Fund, an organization outed in a famous essay in the New York Review of Books on Dec 1, 1994 by Charles Lane. With friends like Henry Harpending (Utah) and Ralph Holloway (Columbia), Rushton shows how just hard it is to tell bio-anthropological science from racist pseudo-science.

            [Anthropology News, February 2000, p. 60]

The other day my attention was called to Holloway’s recent writing on the subject.  In 2008, Holloway published an old fart memoir in the Annual Review of Anthropology, and included the following statement.

Indeed, Jon Marks claimed he “outed” me as a “racist” (Marks 2000; see Holloway 2000 for reply) in his biological section of the American Anthropologist Newsletter because I had the temerity to defend Arthur Jensen against Loring Brace’s assertion that Jensen was a bigot. I had read much of this literature (e.g., Jensen 1998) including Jensen’s infamous 1969 piece in the Harvard Law Review and did not find him a racist.

 [Holloway, Ralph L. 2008. The Human Brain Evolving: A Personal Retrospective.  Annual Review of Anthropology,. 37:1–19]

Let’s overlook Holloway’s inability to judge Arthur Jensen’s infamous claim that blacks are innately intellectually inferior to whites as racist.  Let’s also overlook that the periodical was called the Anthropology News, not the American Anthropologist Newsletter.  Finally, we'll overlook that it was in the General Anthropology Division column, not the Biological Anthropology Section column (which I had in fact edited a few years earlier).  Now let’s start looking.  First, I associated Holloway with Rushton, not with Jensen.  Rushton and Jensen are indeed associated any number of ways, and they co-wrote a particularly horrid review article in 2005, but Holloway is inventing the Jensen connection, or confusing me with Loring Brace (I’m the one without the ponytail).  Second, since I simply named  Holloway as a defender of Rushton, the only way that Holloway can say I outed him as a racist is if he equates Rushton’s work with racism.  That’s his inference.  (Of course, I’m willing to accept the possibility that the shoe might fit...)  And third, I clearly used the word “outed” in relation to the Pioneer Fund, not to Holloway as a racist.

[Rushton, J. P., and A. Jensen. 2005. Thirty years of research on race differences in cognitive ability. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 11 (2):235-294.]

There isn’t even that much there to misquote, but he sure managed to.  Unfuckingbelievable, Wilbur.
The really amazing thing is that I wrote that Anthropology News piece pre-tenure.  Looking back, I probably said a lot of things without tenure that a smarter person would have waited until having tenure to say.


No guns or smoke.  Holloway made six mistakes in his single sentence about me in the Annual Review of Anthropology in 2008.  Measuring brains must be real easy compared to that.  It’s possible that he has rethought Rushton over the last decade or so; I certainly hope so.  The Gould-Morton business was mildly interesting when it came out in Current Anthropology in 1988. ]