John Hawks, author of an excellent anthropology blog, writes on a new paper that critiques the late Stephen J. Gould’s treatment of George Morton’s 19th Century studies of the measurements of human skulls. (By God, that was a dry sentence.) Gould, a critic of all things sociobiological, argued that Morton fudged his data to support his racist view of human variation. This inspired his book The Mismeasure of Man – which attempted to debunk biological determinism. Trouble is, say Jason Lewis et al, Gould misrepresented Morton’s science. Sure, the old skull-measurer’s research was flawed, but Gould had to fudge his work to make it seem, er – fudged.

Morton’s work, through the medium of Gould, has since been thought of as a textbook case of scientific misconduct. Time, the authors propose, for these textbooks to be rewritten…

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.

A while ago I wrote on a paper that dissected fraudulent criticism of the sociobiology-sympathising anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. The author, Professor Alice Dreger, railed against politicised abuse of disagreeable scientific theories. Fair point, I wrote, but let’s not go too far – after all, disagreeable science can be (a) wrong and (b) influential, and opposing it demands a little more than a letter to a journal. This was true, of course, but perhaps I’d underestimated the problem she described. Gould’s claims are an article of faith amongst his political allies but seem dubious.

This suggests Lewis n’ co’s conclusions – if, indeed, they’re correct in their appraisal – are a little optimistic. If Morton’s work was smeared, they suggest, it “weakens the argument…that biased results are endemic in science“. Well, if so, what about Gould’s biased results? His critique of Morton was first published in Science, one of our largest journals. Since then, apparently, it’s been accepted as fact – cited in textbooks and peer reviewed studies. Seems like you can get away with biased results so long as you can nestle in the prejudices of your era, or crouch behind a reputation that’s seen as impervious. Doubtless that has been, and will go on to be, as true of others and God knows what their inclinations may be.

Yet, as the authors write, the great thing about science is that the data will survive beyond the people who’ve obscured it. And, in fact, that’s one reason to pick apart all claims, especially, maybe, if they affirm your prejudices. Because politics will change, reputations will fade and some upstart will smash a theory and bring down your premises.

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