16 May 2014

Review: The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould

Trade paperback, 423 pages
Published 1996 (originally 1981)
Acquired November 2011
Read November 2012
The Mismeasure of Man
by Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould takes on everyone who's ever tried to quantify human intelligence with a simple numerical value, be it measuring skull capacities or the Stanford-Binet "intelligence quotient." It's an illuminating look at how easy it is to blind yourself. It's a nuanced critique of objectivity from someone who (unlike many who critique objectivity) is sympathetic to the overall epistemology of science. As he states it, "I criticize the myth that science itself is an objective enterprise, done properly only when scientists can shuck the constraints of their culture and view the world as it really is" (53). His gist is that science will always be a culturally embedded enterprise, so rather than deny that fact, scientists should work to understand their biases, because, ideally, science can "be a powerful agent for questioning and even overturning the assumptions that nurture it" (55).

His discussion of Samuel George Morton, who measured over one thousand skulls in order to prove black mental inferiority, is fascinating (see pp. 83-104). Morton was an adherent to polygeny, the theory that the races of man have separate origins, which allows one to ethically endorse all sorts of racist practices. He fudged his analysis to prove his point, but could not have done so consciously, because he published his raw data along with his work, easily allowing anyone to discover the fudging. Whenever he miscalculated in favor of his own theories, he never double-checked, because he "knew" that he was right.

Gould shows how this kind of thing happens again and again-- but offers the promise that good science, well conducted, will root out this kind of bias, hopefully sooner rather than later. It's easy to laugh at some of the ridiculous judgments made in the name of "science"... until you realize that this kind of science has informed the slavery debate, immigration policy, school reform, and many other things with massively real consequences for real people. Hopefully we can console ourselves with the belief that most of these people probably would have been racists anyway (!); science was just a convenient crutch to lean on.

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