Samuel George Morton, an early American anthropologist. He fudged his data to suit his preconceived ideas on race, according to Stephen Jay Gould. It later turned out that Gould was the fudger.
Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) is still seen as a great evolutionary biologist, if not one of the greatest. Yet the years since his death have steadily tarnished his memory. This is especially so for his best known book, The Mismeasure of Man, which focused on an early American anthropologist, Samuel George Morton (1799-1851). In this book and in an earlier Science article, Gould showed how Morton had fudged his measurements of a collection of skulls to make Europeans seem bigger-brained than Africans.
Gould didn’t re-measure any of the skulls. He reanalyzed Morton’s data … and in the process did far more fudging than Morton had ever done. When a team of physical anthropologists, headed by Jason E. Lewis, located and re-measured half of the skulls, they found only a few randomly distributed errors in the original measurements. Morton had in fact tended to overestimate African skull size (Lewis et al., 2011).
Interestingly, the same conclusion had been reached almost a quarter-century earlier by John S. Michael, a senior at Macalester College in Minnesota. This discovery has been recounted on John’s blog:
I re-measured the Morton skulls in 1986 as part of my undergraduate thesis, which was limited in scope and conducted without the rigor of graduate research. Nonetheless, I determined that my measurements more or less matched Morton’s, and so I described his overall results to be “reasonably accurate.” (Michael, 2013a)
Troubled by his finding, he got in touch with Gould:
In 1986, I mailed my results to Gould, who requested we meet after he gave a lecture in May at the University of Minnesota. Our meeting lasted perhaps five minutes. He told me that I “missed the point,” and abruptly ended the conversation, ignoring me and instead speaking to the man next to him. My recollection is that he did not say goodbye, so I simply walked away. […] After I published my paper in 1988, I sent Gould a copy but got no response. When I wrote him again, he replied that he had lost it and requested another copy, which I sent. I never heard back from him.
Sometime later, Gould gave a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania, after which he was asked a question about my paper. His response was simply that he would not discuss it, and he did not. Gould never mentioned my paper in any of his prolific writings. In 2011, Lewis wrote that, “were Gould still alive, we expect he would have mounted a defense of his analysis of Morton.” Soon after that, Prothero noted, “I’m sure if Steve were alive, he would be able to counter these accusations in his own inimitable way.” And yet these two statements conflict with the fact that Gould actually had two opportunities to counter such accusations, and instead chose to silently disengage. (Michael, 2013b)
Although John Michael’s paper appeared in Current Anthropology, a leading journal in its field, the response was largely silence (Michael, 1988). As recently as five years ago, a science historian had only this to say:
Gould’s interpretation of Samuel George Morton’s cranial data have been questioned by John S. Michael, who, as an undergraduate student at Macalester College, re-measured the skulls as part of an honors project (Michael, 1988). It is not entirely evident that one should prefer the measurements of an undergraduate to those of a professional paleontologist whose own specialist work included some very meticulous measurements of fossil snails. (Kitcher, 2004)
Some people were more supportive, but they were the wrong kind:
Because my findings refuted the writings of Gould, a left-leaning anti-racist Jew, I was celebrated in hate-filled white supremacist web pages, such as davidduke.com and stormfront.org. My work was grossly misquoted in a series of papers by J. Philippe Rushton, a proponent of eugenics from University of Western Ontario. In 2002, he served as the president of the Pioneer Fund, which the Southern Law Poverty Center designated as a “White Nationalist” group because it continues to fund the study of “breeding superior human beings that was discredited by various Nazi atrocities.” I have written this paper in part to document my strong displeasure that my work was used to promote eugenics or racist ideology, which I in no way support. (Michael, 2013a)
Yes, supporters can be as problematic as detractors. But a scientific finding is not invalidated because its supporters are the wrong kind of people. It stands or falls on its own merits. Also, the Southern Law Poverty Center is hardly an impartial source.
John Michael was ultimately vindicated when the Lewis et al. paper came out two years ago. Yet, even then, he never got the credit he deserved, as may be seen in a Nature editorial that raised the possibility of an improper relationship between Lewis’ research team and the University of Pennsylvania:
Of course, Lewis and his colleagues have their own motivations. Several in the group have an association with the University of Pennsylvania, and have an interest in seeing the valuable but understudied skull collection freed from the stigma of bias (Anon, 2011)
No evidence is provided for this curious accusation. In any case, Gould’s fudging had originally been revealed by someone from another university and from another state. But who remembers?
John Michael found himself in an unequal battle. As a graduate student he was challenging not only an Ivy League professor but also a leading antiracist crusader. It didn’t really matter whether Gould was telling the truth or not. There was something bigger at stake—the war on racism. And that war had to be won.
John indeed “missed the point.” By insisting too much on truth, he was being at best naïve and at worst a willing accomplice of racism—by far a greater evil than falsehood. This was how many well-meaning people saw things in the late 20th century.
Anon. (2011). Mismeasure for mismeasure, Nature, 474, 419.
Gould S.J. (1981). The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
Gould, S.J. (1978). Morton’s ranking of races by cranial capacity: unconscious manipulation of data may be a scientific norm, Science, 200, 503–509.
Kitcher, P. (2004). Evolutionary Theory and the Social Uses of Biology, Biology and Philosophy, 19, 13-14.
Lewis, J.E., D. DeGusta, M.R. Meyer, J.M. Monge, A.E. Mann, and R.L. Holloway. (2011). The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias, PLoS Biology, 9(6) e1001071
Michael, J.S. (2013a). Stephen Jay Gould and Samuel George Morton: A Personal Commentary, June 7, Michael1988.com
Michael, J.S. (2013b). Stephen Jay Gould and Samuel George Morton: A Personal Commentary, Part 4, June. 14, Michael1988.com
Michael, J.S. (1988). A new look at Morton’s craniological research, Current Anthropology, 29, 349–354.