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Historical and Philosophical Perspectives

Historical and Philosophical Perspectives The Historical and Philosophical Perspectives series provides professional historians and philosophers of science with a forum to reflect on topical issues in contemporary biology.

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The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias

  • Jason E. Lewis mail,

    lewisjas@stanford.edu

    Affiliation: Department of Anthropology, Stanford University, Stanford, California, United States of America

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  • David DeGusta,

    Affiliation: Paleoanthropology Institute, Oakland, California, United States of America

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  • Marc R. Meyer,

    Affiliation: Department of Anthropology, Chaffey College, Rancho Cucamonga, California, United States of America

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  • Janet M. Monge,

    Affiliation: Department of Anthropology and Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America

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  • Alan E. Mann,

    Affiliation: Department of Anthropology, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, United States of America

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  • Ralph L. Holloway

    Affiliation: Department of Anthropology, Columbia University, New York, New York, United States of America

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  • Published: June 07, 2011
  • DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001071

Reader Comments (6)

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What about the authors' own a priori views?

Posted by epetro on 15 Jun 2011 at 20:40 GMT

Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't the experimental design assume that the authors themselves don't have any a priori views that might influence their own measurements? (In other words, racism existed in the 19th century, but doesn't anymore?) Were any attempts made to blind the data (for example, labeling the skulls with a code instead of a country of origin, and then having someone else make the measurement: not foolproof, but at least a start)? If not, then it seems to me that this study doesn't prove that Morton's a priori views didn't influence his measurements, just that if they did, the influence is reproducible (which, I think, is not so far-fetched: racism is a structure, not just one individual's views).

No competing interests declared.

RE: What about the authors' own a priori views?

DeGusta replied to epetro on 16 Jun 2011 at 07:28 GMT

Our experimental design did, in fact, include multiple safeguards to minimize the opportunity for bias to impact our measurements, as described in detail in our Supplemental Text S2, Materials and Methods. The method was designed so that the measurer was blind to what volumes were being produced, so they could not have matched Morton's value even if they tried. I believe that settles your concern.

But for the sake of completeness, I'll mention that we measured every skull three times, and our measurement error is uniformly extremely low (average of 0.35%, see Supplemental Dataset S2 for all values). So the bias you hypothesize would have had to have been almost perfectly consistent across three separate rounds of measurement.

Furthermore, your suggestion that we might have the same racial biases as Morton is indeed far-fetched, not to mention offensive. It could be rebutted at length in many ways, but here's just one. Many of Morton's ethnic categories are unrecognizable to most Westerners today, because the way people categorize groups changes over time. For example, have you heard of Midianiates, Amboynese, Kanakas, or Hovahs (to name just four of many)? Yet you suggest that we would not only be familiar with these groups, but would somehow have the exact same bias for/against them as Morton did over 150 years ago? Far-fetched is putting it mildly.

No competing interests declared.