Mismeasure for mismeasure.

  • Published 2011 in Nature


It is impossible to libel the dead, but equally impossible for them to defend themselves. That alone is reason for caution when it comes to questioning the work of scientists who are no longer with us. Such questions have grown into a fascinating cottage industry, with reports and papers taking issue with historical research, sometimes centuries after the fact. Notable examples include the 1978 critique by Gerald Holton, a physicist and historian at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, of data selection in the reporting of the electric charge on oil droplets by Nobel-prizewinning physicist Robert Millikan in 1913; and historian Richard Westfall’s 1973 exposure of mathematical fudging by Isaac Newton in the seventeenth century. Sometimes, such critiques are themselves questioned, such as in 2007, when Harvard biologist Daniel Hartl and Daniel Fairbanks, a biologist at Utah Valley University in Orem, came to the defence of Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, who was criticized by British statistician Ronald Fisher in 1936 over data that demonstrated genetic inheritance patterns in pea plants just a little too neatly. This month sees the latest episode: an assault on the work of US evolutionary biologist and celebrated author Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002. Although the critique leaves the majority of Gould’s work unscathed, it carries a special sting because it deconstructs a posthumous attack that Gould launched on nineteenth-century physician Samuel Morton. In a 1978 paper (S. J. Gould Science 200, 503–509; 1978) and in his 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man, Gould argued that Morton’s measurements of the cranial capacity of hundreds of skulls from worldwide populations, reported in works published between 1839 and 1849, were unconsciously biased, by what he claimed was the physician’s prejudice that caucasians were more intelligent, and therefore would have larger skulls. As Gould was canny enough to realize, a charge of unconscious bias sticks faster in science than one of fraud.

DOI: 10.1038/474419a

Cite this paper

@article{2011MismeasureFM, title={Mismeasure for mismeasure.}, author={}, journal={Nature}, year={2011}, volume={474 7352}, pages={419} }