The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias
Jason E. Lewis1*, David DeGusta2, Marc R. Meyer3, Janet M. Monge4, Alan E. Mann5, Ralph L. Holloway6
1 Department of Anthropology, Stanford University, Stanford, California, United States of America, 2 Paleoanthropology Institute, Oakland, California, United States of America, 3 Department of Anthropology, Chaffey College, Rancho Cucamonga, California, United States of America, 4 Department of Anthropology and Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America, 5 Department of Anthropology, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, United States of America, 6 Department of Anthropology, Columbia University, New York, New York, United States of America
Citation: Lewis JE, DeGusta D, Meyer MR, Monge JM, Mann AE, et al. (2011) The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias. PLoS Biol 9(6): e1001071. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001071
Published: June 7, 2011
Copyright: © 2011 Lewis et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Funding: This research was funded by the University of Pennsylvania University Research Foundation and the Nassau Research Fund. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
Abbreviations: in3, cubic inches
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Stephen Jay Gould, the prominent evolutionary biologist and science historian, argued that “unconscious manipulation of data may be a scientific norm” because “scientists are human beings rooted in cultural contexts, not automatons directed toward external truth” , a view now popular in social studies of science –. In support of his argument Gould presented the case of Samuel George Morton, a 19th-century physician and physical anthropologist famous for his measurements of human skulls. Morton was considered the objectivist of his era, but Gould reanalyzed Morton's data and in his prize-winning book The Mismeasure of Man  argued that Morton skewed his data to fit his preconceptions about human variation. Morton is now viewed as a canonical example of scientific misconduct. But did Morton really fudge his data? Are studies of human variation inevitably biased, as per Gould, or are objective accounts attainable, as Morton attempted? We investigated these questions by remeasuring Morton's skulls and reexamining both Morton's and Gould's analyses. Our results resolve this historical controversy, demonstrating that Morton did not manipulate data to support his preconceptions, contra Gould. In fact, the Morton case provides an example of how the scientific method can shield results from cultural biases.