Thursday, November 06, 2014

A Debunker Debunked

The late Stephen Jay Gould was both an evolutionary biologist and a popular essayist. In the book The Mismeasure of Man he argued that scientists unconsciously manipulate their data to fit their preexisting prejudices. As evidence he cited the work of Samuel George Morton, a 19th century physical anthropologist who assembled a large collection of skulls from many parts of the world and measured their cranial capacity in an attempt to answer questions about racial differences. According to Gould, Morton skewed his data in various ways to fit his racial beliefs.

I have just read an article by a group of modern anthropologists who went over Morton's data and remeasured many of the skulls that Morton measured—something Gould did not do. The authors concluded that most of Gould's criticisms were poorly supported or falsified. The errors that Gould reported in Morton's analysis resulted from errors by Gould, not by Morton. Morton did make some mistakes in his work, but they were in the opposite direction from his biases. Thus, for example:
Morton’s three most over-measured skulls are an Egyptian Copt that Morton considered "Negro" (+12%), a Seminole (+8%) and a "Native African Negro" (+7%).
The obvious conclusion, not stated by the authors of the article, is that Gould's central claim was correct. Scientists sometimes bias their work to fit their preconceptions. As Gould demonstrated by doing so.

The article fit a conclusion that I long ago reached about Gould on other evidence—that he misrepresented the work of people he disagreed with, taking advantage of the fact that since he was a widely read popular essayist and they were not, most of his readers would never read either the work he was attacking or any response that the authors might make. In this case he took further advantage of the fact that the man he was slandering was no longer alive to reply. 

For evidence in another case, here is a response to Gould by Tooby and Cosmides. And here is a perceptive comment on Gould by someone with whom, on other subjects, I often disagree.


Shaddox said...

I'm reminded of a similar (supposedly true) story told by Richard Feynman about some physical measurement that, according to the accepted value in the scientific literature, increased slowly but steadily over a period of several years. Feynman's explanation was that the first widely published and accepted value was considerably too low due to a measurement error, but was performed by reputable and generally competent researchers.

Subsequent attempts by other researchers to repeat the experiment yielded more accurate (and thus higher) values, but those experiments were either not made public (because the later researchers believed they must have been mistaken) or not widely published and accepted (because most people in the scientific community believed they must have been mistaken).

However, the accepted value did still creep upwards, because experiments which showed a small increase could be published and accepted. After all, of course the original researchers could have made a small mistake, and measuring equipment and methodologies do improve. Once the new slightly higher value was widely accepted, again the scientific community could accept another slight increase.

Lawrence Kesteloot said...

Right, from Cargo Cult Science (search for "electron").

Anonymous said...

Some more:



Less Wrong:

David R. Henderson said...

David, When you say “Gould’s central claim was correct,” do you mean “Morton’s central claim was correct?"

Anonymous said...

"David, When you say “Gould’s central claim was correct,” do you mean “Morton’s central claim was correct?" "

I think he means Gould's central claim is correct, since Gould's claim was that a scientist's bias can lead him to make the wrong conclusion, and Gould's own bias lead him to make the wrong conclusion about Morton's work, thus introducing an error to his own work. Ie, he proved himself right, but not in the way he intended.


Maurizio said...

You might be interested in Daniel Dennett's "Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking" which analyzes the argument strategies employed by Gould.

Carl Edman said...

The NYT's Nicholas Wade touches on the same Morton/Gould controversy in A Troublesome Inheritance and reaches the same conclusion as Prof. Friedman.

Roger said...

This is old news, but the striking part is the continued success of the book. It got scathing reviews from experts when it came out, and Gould was confronted with re-measurements of the skulls when he was alive to respond. He did not, and the book sold tens of millions of copies. It is one of the best-selling science books ever written. It is probably still required reading in hundreds of college courses.

Christopher said...

I remember the fuss kicked up by Krugman's critique of Gould. Indeed, another high-profile popularize entered the fray, Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Taleb sides with Gould over Krugman in his 2012 book, Antifragile, for a reason I find persuasive. Here's the gist of it:

"For instance, in an article 'Why Intellectuals Don’t Understand
Comparative Advantage' (Krugman, 1998), Paul Krugman, who fails to understand the concept himself, as this essay and his technical work show him to be completely innocent of tail events and risk management, makes fun of other intellectuals such as S. J. Gould who understand tail events albeit intuitively rather than
analytically. (Clearly one cannot talk about returns and gains without discounting
these benefits by the offsetting risks.) The article shows Krugman falling into the
critical and dangerous mistake of confusing function of average and average of function."

RKN said...


Gould had likely forgotten more about biology than Dennett ever knew. Same probably goes for Krugman. The supposed spandrel controversy as voiced by Dennett in fact convinced me to learn more about what Gould had really said about it. Which in turn led me to more closely consider the work of Lewontin and others.

Power Child said...


So basically, you find all the debunked debunkers and subscribe to what they say simply because they were more authorized to say it than some of the people opposing them? Perhaps you do this as a way to make an ironic, hipstery statement:

"All the people who've been soundly proved wrong--Gould, Lewontin, others--I've decided were actually right, because I'm the only one cool enough to really understand what they were saying."

RKN said...


No; and I think only the most disingenuous reading would conclude that :-)

Let me ask you...You don't find it deliciously ironic that a non-evolutionary biologist -- indeed no kind of biologist at all -- sets himself in the longest chapter of his philosophical treatise to disabuse impressionable consumers of evolutionary biology? Consumers, he claims, who have been misled (he may argue downright bamboozled) by the writings of a real, widely- (arguably not universally-) respected evolutionary biologist?

Because I do.

This is not to say I think SJ Gould was always inerrant, I don't. And, especially if he is a reader of this blog, I want to say I mean no disrespect toward Dr. Dennett -- he's clearly a smart man and a good writer. But if I, as an amateur philosopher, say, were to write a book chapter criticizing certain of Dr. Dennett's philosophical views as being out of the mainstream, well, I would expect to have my legitimate critics: "Dude's not even a real philosopher. Why should I believe him?"

Oh, and for what it's worth -- I'm too old to be a hipster.

David Friedman said...

1. It's worth following the link to Tooby and Cosmides' response to Gould. I've read their book and was favorably impressed.

2. I encountered Gould once, when I attended a talk he gave about the Burgess Shale. His basic claim was that the fossils were evidence against the idea that evolution selected superior designs, since the fossils representing species that had later descendants were no better designed than the fossils representing species that did not.

I asked a question. The fossils were only casts of bodies. In at least one case, by Gould's account, they were not sure which end of the animal was the head. No information on internal structure, biochemistry, behavior, ecology, ... . If some species were superior designs, how could one hope to tell?

He brushed the question off with something along the lines of "we evolutionary biologists can tell such things." My conclusion was that he was a fraud, making an argument he could not defend and relying on claims of superior status to cover the fact that he was doing so.

Many years later, looking at something on Wikipedia, I learned that later evolutionary biologists had concluded that Gould's interpretation of the fossils was wrong—I no longer remember the details.

Mike said...

The fellow at the blog "Pleiotropy" seems to think Gould still had some merit, despite being flawed. I was intrigued by that, as I had the impression Gould was more or less not taken seriously by evolutionary scientists.

CC said...

Hold on... Krugman disputed Gould, and Taleb disputed Krugman's claims? On what grounds? I couldn't understand the Taleb excerpt out of context.

martin said...

According to this article Gould was right after all:

(I have not read it myself (yet))

Anonymous said...

1351Arthur Jensen on how Gould distorted his own work in MoM:

Paul Power said...

Gould appeared in an episode of The Simpsons and IIRC did not come well out of it. I could never come to a conclusion as to whether the writers were against him or else were using his character to make a point I disagreed with. Could anyone provide any enlightenment? Thanks

Jack PQ said...

Either Krugman or Larry Summers once wrote that it should be self-evident that the most famous scientists cannot be very good scientists, because if they are spending their time writing pop books for the masses, they are not conducting cutting-edge research. So the Goulds, Hawkings, Tysons, etc are famous to the masses but non-players in the serious scientific debate. Two points then:
(1.) What about Feynman? He seems to be the exception. Or did he become well known *after* his good research years were over?
(2.) I wonder if Krugman (or Summers) realizes this describes them now as well. Both are well known to the masses, but neither has done any serious research in a long time.

Lawrence Kesteloot said...

Jack: I don't think Feynman wrote any books. I think all his books are transcriptions of interviews with him, so they may not have taken much of his time.

Also, regarding the statement from Krugman/Summers, I might agree that you can't be a scientist who makes huge contributions to science, but you can be a good scientist in the sense of understanding it really well. It's possible, for example, that Dawkins understands it really well and Gould did not, despite them both being popularizers.

David Friedman said...

Both Keynes and my father made sizable contributions to economics, as well as being prominent, so those would be two more exceptions. Both of those cases, unlike Krugman, involved continuing academic work by someone who had become a prominent public figure and written things directed at the general public.

Carl Edman said...

@Lawrence Kesteloot

Feynman wrote at least two, very good, popular, autobiographical books ("Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" and "What Do You Care What Other People Think?"). It has been a a while since I read either but, while it is conceivable that they were ghostwritten from interviews, neither of them has that format or another indication of such; nor have I ever heard it alleged.

In addition, Feynman of course also wrote the Feynman Lectures--still in my opinion the best introduction to university-level physics for bright students--but they may fall into neither the popular nor the scholarly categories.

Lawrence Kesteloot said...

@Carl Edman

Both "Surely You're Joking" and "What Do You Care" say "as told to Ralph Leighton" in the intro. Leighton recorded Feynman telling these stories and transcribed and edited them.

The "Lectures" books were transcriptions from his lectures. (From the preface: "These are the lecture in physics that I gave last year...")

Basically, I think Feynman was happy to see these books published, but didn't spend a lot of energy writing them or trying to become popular.

Carl Edman said...

@Lawrence Kesteloot

Thank you for the correction. While I frequently think on the stories told in the books, I have not read them in a quarter century and my copies appear to be buried somewhere in a pile of book boxes.