The Agenda

On Stephen Jay Gould

Paleoanthropologist and prolific blogger John Hawks has a fascinating discussion of new revelations, published by Jason Lewis and colleagues in PLoS Biology, concerning Stephen Jay Gould’s celebrated takedown of Samuel Morton’s data on skull volumes. The Lewis paper is, in effect, a takedown of Gould’s takedown, and it raises serious ethical questions about one of the last century’s most admired public intellectuals. Hawks is outraged, and rightly so:

Gould used the well-documented work of a long-dead man to make an argument that unconscious bias is widespread in science. He posed as a concerned critic, but thereby cast doubt on the validity of the scientific enterprise. He picked volume measurement and tabulation of averages as his target, making it seem as if the simplest and most objective observations — the Junior High-level science methods — were themselves subject to all-encompassing cultural biases. His paper and book are very widely read and cited by people who will never examine the primary evidence. Gould owed us a responsible reading and trustworthy reporting on that evidence. In its place, he made up fictional stories, never directly examined the evidence himself, and misreported Morton’s numbers.

This stuff really ticks me off. I don’t think that Gould’s errors can be written off as “unconscious bias”. Reading back over his 1978 article, I cannot believe that Science published it.

Gould has had a profound influence on how educated Americans think about a wide range of questions regarding human origins, racial differences, and much else. Until I started reading the work of Armand Leroi, I accepted Gould’s work uncritically. One hopes that this paper will force a critical reexamination.

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