Scientific misconduct misdiagnosed because of scientific misconduct

by GLaDOS2 min read10th Jun 201155 comments

60

Practice & Philosophy of ScienceReplication CrisisConfirmation Bias
Frontpage

Please remember to have no heroes or villains, but this just looks plain bad to be honest. I'm lowering my estimation of the quality of Stephen J. Gould's work in this area.

USA today:

The late scientific icon, Stephen Jay Gould, botched and perhaps faked his critique of a racist 19th-Century scientist's skull collection, suggests a second look at his efforts.

UPenn

In a 1978 Science paper, Gould (1941 - 2002) , reported that the Samuel George Morton (1799-1851), "a prominent Philadelphia physician," had mis-measured the cranial capacities of his 1,000-skull "American Golgotha" collection gathered from around the world, to suit his racist beliefs. The finding led to one of Gould's best-known books, The Mismeasure of Man, a critique of scientific racism.

"Morton is now viewed as a canonical example of scientific misconduct. But did Morton really fudge his data?," asks a PLoS Biology study led by anthropologist Jason Lewis of Stanford University. "Are studies of human variation inevitably biased, as per Gould, or are objective accounts attainable, as Morton attempted?"

So, the study team remeasured the skulls collected by Morton, now owned largely by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia.

Overall, they find, Morton did make mistakes in measuring skull capacity (he first stuffed them with seeds, and later lead shot to measure their brain size). But the mistakes were random. The random mistakes didn't favor any racial theory of larger brain sizes for white people over others.

"Given how long Gould's work has been criticized in this arena, I'm a little surprised that it took this long for the work to be done to write this article," says the University of Texas's David Prindle, author of Stephen Jay Gould and the Politics of Evolution. "People who dislike Gould's work will likely go on disliking him even more after this article. People who are fans of his writing will likely go on supporting his views."

Haha. Humans.

The paper itself:

In reevaluating Morton and Gould, we do not dispute that racist views were unfortunately common in 19th-century science or that bias has inappropriately influenced research in some cases. Furthermore, studies have demonstrated that modern human variation is generally continuous, rather than discrete or ''racial,'' and that most variation in modern humans is within, rather than between, populations. In particular, cranial capacity variation in human populations appears to be largely a function of climate, so, for example, the full range of average capacities is seen in Native American groups, as they historically occupied the full range of latitudes, say the study authors.

...

Samuel George Morton, in the hands of Stephen Jay Gould, has served for 30 years as a textbook example of scientific misconduct. The Morton case was used by Gould as the main support for his contention that ''unconscious or dimly perceived finagling is probably endemic in science, since scientists are human beings rooted in cultural contexts, not automatons directed toward external truth''. This view has since achieved substantial popularity in ''science studies''. But our results falsify Gould's hypothesis that Morton manipulated his data to conform with his a priori views. The data on cranial capacity gathered by Morton are generally reliable, and he reported them fully. Overall, we find that Morton's initial reputation as the objectivist of his era was well-deserved.

 

60

55 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:33 AM
New Comment

Villains do exist in this world. So do heroes, although they're a lot rarer. That villains have good sides, or heroes have flaws, does not change this point. And yes, Gould is a bad guy. Not Voldemort, but still someone whose scientific works contain lies and misdirections and mis-implications subtle enough that I would consider it to be a foolishly overconfident risk to try to read them.

Villains do exist in this world. So do heroes, although they're a lot rarer.

Though I think that this is a really important counterpoint.

I once tried reading a book of some of Gould's essays... the parts I read were mostly just boring and I didn't bother to finish it.

I like many of his essays. In any case, he doesn't discuss this or the evolution thing in many of them, so it's fairly irrelevant.

"The Mismeasure of Man" is mostly only good for showing how political correctness messes up people's ability to think.

In cases of this type, it's an error akin to relativism. "Suzy is wrong, therefore I should kill her" does a lot of damage, so people start thinking "Nobody is ever wrong". "Members of outgroup X have negative traits, therefore they're subhuman" does a lot of damage, so people start thinking "Members of outgroup X can't have negative traits". It's best to stay on the object level and prove "This group's average brain volume is 95% of that group's" rather than saying "political correctness", for the same reason proving particular facts is more effective than getting into "What is truth?".

In other cases, like changing the color of garbage bags from black to orange, it's fear of being thought evil and thereby losing status, and attempt to get status by chiding others. This has absolutely nothing to do with the group you're trying to defend, so it leads to white people telling other white people "This is offensive to black people!" while all black people are saying "But we're not offended!" and getting ignored. The phrase "political correctness" used to be useful in those cases.

In yet other cases, shouting "political correctness" is just applying a phrase with negative connotations to people who don't want you to lynch your neighbor.

Would you care to be more specific?

As far as I know, the most thorough criticism of TMOM back in the early eighties was published by Arthur Jensen. Whatever you think about Jensen's own theories, his criticism of Gould is pretty damning, and it should be mandatory reading for anyone who has read TMOM. (Gould was invited to reply by the journal that published Jensen's review, but apparently he never did.) For other prominent criticisms of the book, see e.g. the 1983 review by Bernard Davis (Gould's reply here) or the 1995 retrospective review by John Carroll.

Also, the propagandistic rather than scientific quality of TMOM is especially evident from the fact that Gould republished it 15 years later without a single change in response to the criticisms the first edition received, nor even in response to the relevant scientific developments that occurred in the meantime. (He just tacked on his review of The Bell Curve as an appendix to the original text.)

Well, the whole book is awful.

I read it over a decade, though, and have no plans to revisit it. Update: missing "ago".

[-][anonymous]10y 5

I read it over a decade, though, and have no plans to revisit it.

That's pretty slow. :)

[-][anonymous]10y 0

Actually, I'd say it's a good example of how a passionate ideologue who is at the same time very smart and a great writer can produce an extremely biased propagandistic work that nevertheless looks admirably objective and reasonable to a casual reader. Certainly, the book deserves a place among the most skillfully crafted works of ideological propaganda in history. This is especially evident when you compare it with similarly slanted but much cruder and more obviously propagandistic works by Gould's less talented co-ideologues (most notably Not in Our Genes by Lewontin et al.).

[-][anonymous]10y 17

Haha. Humans.

I laugh at us too GLaDOS. Sometimes, I have to so I don't cry.

I regard humans as incongruent as well, albeit without crying.

Sometimes I'd really rather be a dolphin, y'know? They're quite intelligent, and aren't about to destroy the world by accident. Or maybe a bonobo.

Kinda speciesist, don'tcha think? People in the modern world in large part have learned to be illogical, but it isn't an inherent quality; in fact, some would argue that the current low level of rational capacity is very difficult to maintain. If people were inherently irrational, why can everyone learn mathematics, why can children sometimes disagree with their parents, and why was a prerequisite for degeneration into the current American political system that 7 corporations should own all major media outlets?

[-][anonymous]9y 3

I didn't down vote this but considering you seem to be new I feel I should explain why it was down voted and probably rightly so.

Currently the consensus on this site and among experts is that humans are inherently irrational on many things. Evolution hacked our brains together and the reasoning part of the brain always having the best possible map of reality was not an end in itself. Search for mention of evolutionary psychology you'll quickly run into examples, though speculation about the evolutionary origins of said features or from our perspective flaws are often poorly founded.

Besides the older sequences the recent one by Kaj Sotala on Robert Kurzban's book might be a good place to start reading.

In reevaluating Morton and Gould, we do not dispute that racist views were unfortunately common in 19th-century science or that bias has inappropriately influenced research in some cases. Furthermore, studies have demonstrated that modern human variation is generally continuous, rather than discrete or ''racial,'' and that most variation in modern humans is within, rather than between, populations. In particular, cranial capacity variation in human populations appears to be largely a function of climate, so, for example, the full range of average capacities is seen in Native American groups, as they historically occupied the full range of latitudes, say the study authors.

I likewise do not dispute the colour orange has no clear discrete border to the colour red, and that indeed both are a social construct. This seems an implicit appeal to Lewontin's fallacy. Though in this case it seems almost like a half-hearted ritual denunciation put there as safety precaution because they are criticising the, in debates oft cited, saint Gould.

When thinking about the climate and cranial capacity connection the most likley explanations seems to be simply that cold clime, all else being equal, requires, more smarts, but please note that it is also possible that cranial capacities vary due to the problem of temperature regulation of the brain (the relationship between surface and volume matters in this sort of thinking).

Mr Johnson, sir, there you are! The lab boys have been looking for you. They say they've figured out where the missing personality core got to!

When thinking about the climate and cranial capacity connection the most likley explanations seems to be simply that cold clime, all else being equal, requires, more smarts, but please note that it is also possible that cranial capacities vary due to the problem of temperature regulation of the brain (the relationship between surface and volume matters in this sort of thinking).

Another alternative explanation that has surfaced (paper) is that both bigger eyes and bigger brains developed in order to deal with the low light condition. Commentary on the study, by Peter Frost:

The logjam seems to have broken. On the heels of Lewis et al. (2011), we now have another paper on variation in brain size among human populations, this time by Pearce and Dunbar (2011).

Brains vary in size by latitude, being bigger at higher latitudes and smaller at lower ones. This variation seems to reflect an adaptation to climate. But just how, exactly, does climate relate to brain size? How direct or indirect is the relationship?

Pearce and Dunbar (2011) argue that bigger brains are an adaptation to lower levels of ambient light. Specifically, dimmer light requires larger eyes, which in turn require larger visual cortices in the brain. Using 73 adult crania from populations located at different latitudes, the two authors found that both eyeball size and brain size correlate positively with latitude. The correlation was stronger with eyeball size, an indication that this factor was driving the increase in brain size.

How credible is this explanation? First of all, visual cortex size was not directly measured. The authors inferred that this brain area was responsible for the increase in total cranial capacity. Obviously, they couldn’t have done otherwise. They were measuring skulls, not intact brains.

But there’s another problem—one in the realm of logic. A lot of things correlate with latitude: pigmentation, mating systems, rules of descent, degree of paternal investment, and so on. If one of them correlates more strongly with latitude than the others, does it therefore cause the others? Not at all. It may be closer than the others to this shared cause, but it doesn’t necessarily lie on the same causal chain as the others.

In other words, the level of ambient light does not produce a single cascade of consequences, with eyeball size being the first consequence. There are probably many different cascades.

To date, the best map of human variation in brain size is the one by Beals et al. (1984) (see previous post). If dimness of light is the main determinant, brain size should be highest in northwestern Europe, northern British Columbia, the Alaskan panhandle, and western Greenland. These regions combine high latitudes with generally overcast skies. Yet they are not the regions where humans have the biggest brains. Instead, brain size is at its highest among humans from the northern fringe of Arctic Asia and from northeastern Arctic Canada. These regions are, if anything, less overcast than average. They often have high levels of ambient light because of reflection from snow and ice.

The jury is still out on this question. I suspect, however, that the following three factors probably explain variation in brain size with latitude.

  1. Among hunter-gatherers, hunting distance increases with latitude because there are fewer game animals per square kilometer (Hoffecker, 2002, pp. 8-9). Hunters must therefore store larger amounts of spatiotemporal information (landmarks, previous hunting itineraries, mental simulations of possible movements by game animals over space and time). This factor might explain why brains have grown smaller since the advent of agriculture.

  2. The seasonal cycle matters more at higher latitudes. As a result, northern hunter-gatherers, and northern agriculturalists even more so, must plan ahead for the next season (or even for the season after the next one).

  3. Women gather less food at higher latitudes and almost none in the Arctic. They are thus free to specialize in other tasks, such as garment making, food processing, and shelter building. This “family workshop” creates opportunities for greater technological complexity, which in turn increases selection for greater cognitive performance.

I suspect bigger brains provide not so much greater intelligence as greater ability to store information. As such, they nonetheless pre-adapted northern hunter-gatherers for later advances in cultural evolution.

What I find surprising is that human eyes size increases further from the equator, this is something I think I've never heard of before.

Temperature regulation aspects might rate more highly as an influencing factor than one would think. Large bodies (and probably the head in particular) would be more resistant to hypothermia, whereas small bodies would be more resistant to heat-stroke.

Regardless of why, animals definitely do become larger further north and the brain size seems to follow the body size quite closely without much impact on intelligence. I don't know if arctic animals are quite on the scaling line. They do seem a bit smarter.

(The point of this comment is just to disentangle theory from observation.)

Regardless of why, animals definitely do become larger further north and the brain size seems to follow the body size quite closely without much impact on intelligence. I don't know if arctic animals are quite on the scaling line. They do seem a bit smarter.

If I'm reading this right, the brain-to-body mass ratio dosen't change?

I was not claiming that. That is the thing I said I don't know: "I don't know if arctic animals are quite on the scaling line." This is a precise question about data is that has been collected. I just don't know what the data says. I'm not sure what I meant by "quite." When animals diverge from the scaling line, like primates, corvids, and dolphins, they move to parallel scaling line, not far from the main line.

Incidentally, the scaling line is not a constant brain to body mass ratio, but that the brain mass is a constant multiple of the 3/4th power of the body mass.

Ok than you for clearing that up (up vote), I hope you didn't mind me asking since I wasn't sure if I understood the comment properly or not. :)

See now, this layman couldn't tell from Wikipedia why Edwards' critique actually contradicts what the intro calls the main point of Lewontin. Edit: I mean the section on Lewontin's argument.

It would seem very odd if a sufficiently knowledgeable geneticist couldn't tell a person's natural skin color from their genes with near 100% reliability. Melanin clearly has a strong genetic component, as do other physical features that correlate with melanin. We want to know if it correlates with any interesting genetic differences.

Melanin clearly has a strong genetic component, as do other physical features that correlate with melanin. We want to know if it correlates with any interesting genetic differences.

Well, rather obviously it correlates with all sorts of things: not having red hair, or blue eyes, or blond hair, or straight hair, not being an Ashkenazi Jew, and not being able to digest milk. What would you find "interesting", though?

[-][anonymous]10y 6

Reminds me somewhat of the study that took another look at some of the work of Franz Boas. It was first brought to my attention by Nicholas Wade's article about it in the NYT:

Dr. Jantz said that Boas ''was intent on showing that the scientific racism of the day had no basis, but he did have to shade his data some to make it work that way.''

Very intent apparently.

Abstract of the 2002 study:

In 1912, Franz Boas published a study demonstrating the plastic nature of the human body in response to changes in the environment. The results of this study have been cited for the past 90 years as evidence of cranial plasticity. These findings, however, have never been critiqued thoroughly for their statistical and biological validity. This study presents a reassessment of Boas' data within a modern statistical and quantitative genetic framework. The data used here consist of head and face measurements on over 8,000 individuals of various European ethnic groups. By using pedigree information contained in Boas' data, narrow sense heritabilities are estimated by the method of maximum likelihood. In addition, a series of t tests and regression analyses are performed to determine the statistical validity of Boas' original findings on differentiation between American and European-born children and the prolonged effect of the environment on cranial form. Results indicate the relatively high genetic component of the head and face diameters despite the environmental differences during development. Results point to very small and insignificant differences between European- and American-born offspring, and no effect of exposure to the American environment on the cranial index in children. These results contradict Boas' original findings and demonstrate that they may no longer be used to support arguments of plasticity in cranial morphology.

That does interest me. Why did people citing Boas think it made sense to talk about "the American environment"? Even the USA had 48 states by the end of February 1912.

From the OP:

the full range of average capacities is seen in Native American groups, as they historically occupied the full range of latitudes, say the study authors.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

That does interest me. Why did people citing Boas think it made sense to talk about "the American environment"? Even the USA had 48 states by the end of February 1912.

Think of it as a category like "developed world".

At the same time, some other anthropologists dispute Sparks & Jantz's conclusion that Boas was incorrect. From the abstract of the paper I'm linking:

In two recent articles, we and another set of researchers independently reanalyzed data from Franz Boas’s classic study of immigrants and their descendants. Whereas we confirm Boas’s overarching conclusion regarding the plasticity of cranial form, Corey Sparks and Richard Jantz argue that Boas was incorrect. Here we attempt to reconcile these apparently incompatible conclusions. We first address methodological differences between our reanalyses and suggest that (1) Sparks and Jantz posed a different set of questions than we did, and (2) their results are largely consistent with our own. We then discuss our differing understandings of Boas’s original argument and of the concept of cranial plasticity. In particular, we argue that Sparks and Jantz attribute to Boas a position he explicitly rejected. When we clarify Boas’s position and place the immigrant study in historical context, Sparks and Jantz’s renalysis supports our conclusion that, on the whole, Boas got it right.

''unconscious or dimly perceived finagling is probably endemic in science, since scientists are human beings rooted in cultural contexts, not automatons directed toward external truth''

Somehow this post has actually increased my confidence in Gould's claim here.

Further reading suggests Gould is not representative of scientists. My confidence has gone back down.

This happens frequently, and we don't see these questions resolved because the scientific method is far from bulletproof. Doubtless many of our modern ideas will be proven incorrect by the next generation; others will learn to make more accurate predictions using more advanced analysis; some paradigms will seem ludicrous in rhetrospect (as some models which were accepted only decades ago seem today). Just how frequently such an obvious problem happens, for the same reasons this case went unnoticed, it is very difficult to estimate.