Archive for July 17th, 2011

July 17, 2011

Reification: just because a thing has a name, doesn’t mean it is a thing

by James Thorniley

Science does not rely on investigators being unbiased “automatons.” Instead, it relies on methods that limit the ability of the investigator’s admittedly inevitable biases to skew the results.

So says a paper by J. E. Lewis et al in which they claim Steven Jay Gould was wrong when he said early 19th century craniometrist Samuel George Morton “finagled” his data to match his own racist preconceptions. They had another look at the data, and actually remeasured some of Morton’s skulls, and claim that Morton’s reported results actually fit his racial bias less than a fully accurate study would have.

Depressingly a number of modern day internet racists seem picked up on the headline message “Gould was wrong” and assumed that means the paper supports racial theories about intelligence or other differences. The paper doesn’t support any such ideas, and that’s not the subject of this post. It’s just worth pointing that out.

What this paper is about is whether scientists’ personal biases influence the results they get. This isn’t about whether Morton was “right” in a scientific sense, because everyone agrees he wasn’t. It’s about whether he made the right conclusions based on the evidence available to him. It’s a historical question – modern anthropology has essentially nothing to do with this.

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