Gould on Morton, Redux: What can the debate reveal about the limits of data?

Abstract

Lewis et al. (2011) attempted to restore the reputation of Samuel George Morton, a 19th century physician who reported on the skull sizes of different folk-races. Whereas Gould (1978) claimed that Morton's conclusions were invalid because they reflected unconscious bias, Lewis et al. alleged that Morton's findings were, in fact, supported, and Gould's analysis biased. We take strong exception to Lewis et al.’s thesis that Morton was “right.” We maintain that Gould was right to reject Morton's analysis as inappropriate and misleading, but wrong to believe that a more appropriate analysis was available. Lewis et al. fail to recognize that there is, given the dataset available, no appropriate way to answer any of the plausibly interesting questions about the “populations” in question (which in many cases are not populations in any biologically meaningful sense). We challenge the premise shared by both Gould and Lewis et al. that Morton's confused data can be used to draw any meaningful conclusions. This, we argue, reveals the importance of properly focusing on the questions asked, rather than more narrowly on the data gathered.

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Jonathan Kaplan
Oregon State University

Citations of this work

The Mind, the Lab, and the Field: Three Kinds of Populations in Scientific Practice.Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther, Ryan Giordano, Michael D. Edge & Rasmus Nielsen - 2015 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 52:12-21.

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