The Mismeasure of Stephen Jay Gould



"No scientific falsehood is more difficult to expunge than textbook dogma endlessly repeated in tabular epitome without the original data.” With those fateful words, published in Science in 1978 [PDF], the paleontologist and historian of science Stephen Jay Gould launched a famous assault on Samuel Morton, a 19th-century physical anthropologist. Morton’s measurements of skull size had been used to justify the claim that Caucasians have larger skulls and are therefore more intelligent than other races, an inference discredited by modern science. Gould accused Morton of mismeasuring craniums, botching his math, and selectively excluding or weighting evidence. In every case, Gould said, Morton’s errors had favored his bias, boosting whites or cheating blacks. But this year, a team of scientists turned the tables on Gould, showing that the true errors and bias on display were his own.
Gould’s attack on Morton—which he expanded into a broad critique of racist anthropology in his 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man—itself became dogma, widely read and assigned to students as an incisive study of scientific bias. Several years after its publication, John Michael, an undergraduate at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, remeasured some of the skulls in Morton’s collection, checked some of his calculations, and reported in Current Anthropology that Morton had actually been largely accurate in both respects. In 1996 Gould revisedThe Mismeasure of Man. He didn’t acknowledge Michael’s paper, but in a footnote he conceded that he had underreported the average Caucasian skull size in Morton’s collection.“The reason for this error is embarrassing, but instructive, for it illustrates, at my expense, the cardinal principle of this book,” Gould wrote. “I was working from a Xerox of Morton’s original chart, and his correct value of 89 [cubic inches] is smudged to look like an 80 on my copy.” Gould noted that the range of cranial volumes in the relevant subset, which made an average of 80 impossible, was “clearly indicated right alongside” the smudged number, but “I never saw the inconsistency—presumably because a low value of 80 fit my hopes for a depressed Caucasian mean. The 80 therefore ‘felt’ right and I never checked it.”
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