• Gould’s Mismeasures & why it matters

    Right.  I’m back.  Less said about the festive season the better.

    To kick off with, I have just stumbled across the following article about Stephen J. Gould’s book “The Mismeasure of Man”.  Go take a read.  To summarise, it appears that in attempting to prove that Samuel Morton’s measurements of human skulls were wrong due to personal bias, Gould was actually doing what he claimed Morton was.  That is to say, Gould was omitting measurements, driven by bias etc.  It turns out that Morton’s cranial measurements were on the money after all.

    A little background: this was during the time of phrenology and eugenic pseudo-science, and Morton’s measurements showed variations in cranial volume between different groups.  As the article notes:

    That Morton believed cranial volume differences represented cognitive variation is now doubted, but many other researchers did. Such features are now recognized as physyiological adaptations to climate, with no cognitive implications.

    (That’s correct; a significant indicator of intelligence is the size of different parts of the brain, which are heavily influenced by training, but does not affect cranial volume or structure)

    But Gould was so hell-bent on demonstrating his point that he went and distorted the evidence.  This always, always has evil consequences.

    Would you care to guess the kind of websites that are hooting about this?  Two are the white supremacist VDARE and the neo-Nazi Stormfront.  By failing to live up to the scientific standard, Gould ended up promoting the opposite of what he wanted.

     If one gains the immediate purpose of the lie – the price one pays is the destruction of that which was intended to serve. – Ayn Rand

    That is how it always plays out in the end.

    I should add here that as a defender of laissez-faire capitalism, I get quite depressed by the tendency towards climate denialism, and have written about it elsewhere.

    The significance of this is to do with a certain someone’s quote about questions of evolutionary psychology:

    If it’s a paper that presumes to tell you the evolutionary basis of differences between the sexes or races, it’s bullshit. That means the author is going to trot out some prejudice about how sexes or races differ before building some feeble case from a collection of poorly designed surveys or sloppily analyzed statistics to make up a story

    Really?  So, all the work that shows that men are more likely to have autism are all faked, right?  Or the links between testosterone and aggression are all dishonest?

    Leaving aside the above individual’s utter lack of respect for the scientific process, let me just point out that this sort of attitude does nothing but support the genuines racists and racial supremacists out there, while maligning the innocent.  A good day’s work.

    In Shermer’s Why People Believe weird things, Shermer mentions that there is a deep problem with the unwillingness of more mainstream historians to acknowledge when they have found genuine information from fascist and Nazi sources (more common than you might thin; the standard text on the Holocaust, The Destruction of the European Jews made use of materials dug up by neo-Nazis) allowed those sources to say, “If they won’t tell you that, about what else have you been mislead?”

    Words to ponder.


    Category: ScienceSkepticism

    Article by: The Prussian

    • Wilkommen! (don’t know the German for back). (or Happy New Year) (Ok, so something to do with Neue Jahre) (or something)

    • Welcome back!

      Thanks for reporting on the news about the re-evaluation of one of Stephen Jay Gould’s findings. I wasn’t aware of the story, but just adds to the decidedly mixed feelings I have about Gould. On one hand, one of the great spokesmen for rationalism, and a sometimes spot-on critic of excessive adaptationism, or what he called “ultra-Darwinism”. His ideas about spandrels I think have been a valuable contribution to evolutionary biology theory. On the other hand, some of his contributions like “punctuated equilibrium” amounted to little more than failed theory, and he was pretty quick to embrace ideas like group selection (which is still an area of real scientific debate, especially since EO Wilson has embraced the idea) simply because it left more room for sociological explanations of human behavior, which he tended to favor. He also had some extremely accommodationist ideas (“non-overlapping magisteria”) both about religion and the relationship between academic disciplines that seemed to be more about keeping the peace between intellectuals than the pursuit of truth.

      I picked up a book on his ideas called “The Science & Humanism of Stephen Jay Gould” a few years ago, and highly recommend it. I actually ended up disagreeing with some of Gould’s ideas and especially the messages the book’s authors took from Gould (they were social scientists who saw in Gould a defense of the idea of walling off their discipline from the hard sciences), but the book is quite readable and engaging nevertheless.