Jonah Lehrer continued his assault on inflated anthropology – our term for overly optimistic understandings of human nature – in The Wall Street Journal last week, with an excellent little article on scientific bias, “When We See What We Want.” He takes Stephen Jay Gould’s landmark 1981 repudiation proto-Eugenicist Samuel Morton, and “craniometry” in general, as his case in point. While Gould may have been correct in regard to Morton’s racist conclusions, he may have been demonstrating some bias of his own when it came to Morton’s data. That is, he was more right than he knew about our propensity for mismeasurement – even he could not escape the tractor beam of self-justification. Lehrer’s closing paragraph is particularly good, and might even contain some ecclesiological significance, of both the endorsing and cautionary kind. Or maybe, having never liked Gould very much, I’m just seeing what I want…!
A new study by a team of anthropologists led by Jason Lewis of Stanford has reanalyzed Morton’s data, measuring more than 300 of the skulls used in the original research. To their surprise, the anthropologists discovered that the overwhelming majority of Morton’s skull data was accurate. Although they strongly criticize Morton’s racial theories, and note that variations in skull size are largely determined by climate (not by genetics or innate intelligence), they conclude that he did not fudge the facts.
How, then, did Mr. Gould come to his harsh conclusion? According to the anthropologists, Mr. Gould was guilty of the very same flaw he saw in Morton. By reanalyzing Mr. Gould’s own analysis, they demonstrate that he cherry-picked data sets, misused statistics and ignored inconvenient samples. As the scientists note, “Ironically, Gould’s own analysis of Morton is likely the stronger example of a bias influencing results.”
The larger lesson of the Gould-Morton affair is that bias is everywhere, that many of our studies are shot through with unconscious errors and subtle prejudices. To Paul Simon, we see what we want to see and disregard the rest.
In recent years, it’s become clearer that these psychological shortcomings are a serious societal problem. Because we believe we’re impervious to bias—we’re blind to our own blind spots—we assume that our judgment isn’t affected by financial incentives or personal opinions. But we’re wrong…
What this depressing research demonstrates is that the only way to get objective data is to have institutions that assume objectivity doesn’t exist. It’s not enough to force scientists and doctors to declare conflicts of interest, because our biases seep in anyway. Rather, we need to do a better job of funding truly independent studies and approaching with extra skepticism those that are not. We should also encourage researchers to make their raw data public, as Samuel Morton did, so that others can check it. As Stephen Jay Gould proved all too well, men are inveterate mismeasurers.