The Mismeasure of Man

cover of The Mismeasure of Man
Just because someone measured something doesn’t make it science

My notes on: Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. Revised edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
[An installment of the “Read Me” Project]

The Mismeasure of Man ended up on the “read me” shelf because our daughter had to write a research paper in English her first semester in college, in which she took a position on a scholarly controversy. She is interested in education, so she wanted to find a scholarly controversy that had something to do with education. And she had to have at least two print resources. So I suggested “standardized testing” – as in, it should or should not be used, it does or does not accomplish anything worthwhile, etc. “You could use The Mismeasure of Man. And The Bell Curve. Those are print resources. And they’re scholarly. At least, they are written by scholars. And they’re famous. Your teacher will have heard of them.” Not that I had read them myself. Our daughter took me up on this suggestion. So, I said, “hey, let me read them when you’re done.” She obligingly threw the books at me.

I have been seeing and reading about The Mismeasure of Man for several decades. When I hadn’t read it, I’d known it as the definitive, more or less popular, challenge to the historical use of quantitative research to “prove scientifically” that different groups of human beings are more inferior than others. Like women. Or Slavs, or Jews, or Africans. Now that I have read it, I understand it a little differently.

The Mismeasure of Man does challenge, in a more or less accessible way, what it takes to be the more significant historical efforts to demonstrate scientifically that some human groups are less intelligent (and, often, more criminal) than others. It does challenge the racist and classist theories that are the deep foundations of these “scientific” enterprises. But the real argument Gould is making is that a lot passes for “science” that has nothing to do with learning – that is, changing our minds – or the production of knowledge – that is, revealing truths and dispelling falsehoods. What we need to be on guard against, in ourselves as well as in our experts, is the ease with which we turn what “everyone knows” into “proven fact.” Quantitative methods can aid and abet this enterprise as well as any others. Because questioning what “everyone knows perfectly well” is hard. And “sophisticated” methods and the use of numbers in addition to words are no guarantee that we aren’t simply accepting nonsense as wisdom.

Gould’s tale is full of lousy theory tested by statistical methods that returned reasonably encouraging results – certainly when interpreted by the theorists who had set up the tests. And by lousy, I mean theory that today would be laughably at odds with things we know (or perhaps I need to say, think we know at this point) about the nature of the human brain, human genetics, human learning – things people used to think were simple and governed by a handful of variables, things people now understand to be vastly more complex than the theorists Gould studies ever imagined. No one these days would think that by measuring the size of a person’s cranium and some other physical features we could tell a person’s propensity towards “criminality.” We’d be looking for the candid camera. Broca was completely serious.

So a hundred years from now, maybe, people will have a similar reaction to the idea that we can measure a person’s “intelligence” and have that measurement mean something. As if “intelligence” is a thing, a single thing, a thing that can be measured and assigned a single number. And what for Gould is the further fundamental error of the would-be scientific enterprise he critiques, as if that thing is something people are born with, by which they can be ranked in a linear hierarchy, and that is for all practical purposes unchangeable. All of these ideas, he points out, are not “findings,” but assumptions. But they are assumptions that can generate findings in which to shelter.

The demonstration that experts with profound assumptions can conduct studies and present findings that support those assumptions, and in fact can hardly fail to do so, is for me the most disturbing feature of Gould’s disturbing book. Because who does not make assumptions? Who does not live with assumptions? Gould’s study happens to be about the way assumptions about the innate superiority of white people and upper class people fed into the design of research and the interpretation of research results so as to confirm the plausibility of that assumption, and to disqualify information (anomalies, outliers, methodological concerns, etc.) that could have challenged it. But what else could it have been about, with much the same conclusion: even for acknowledged experts, it is hard to see past one’s own organizing assumptions about the world.

Reading this book has made me want to be much more wary of statements like “there is a scholarly consensus that …” Especially when I say it myself.

Gould’s book presents itself as a popular text, but it isn’t as easy to read as, say, the newspaper. Getting through his sometimes dense prose takes concentration. And patience. Gould writes on the chatty and winky side – as if all his readers will enjoy his personal anecdotes and get his jokes and share his tastes and gasp in shock and outrage at all the same places. He’s probably right about that last bit, actually, because The Mismeasure of Man by now has a reputation of its own, a political identity. So it seems likely that readers who wouldn’t be outraged on principle by the idea of proving scientifically that some groups of people are more inferior than others would know better than to read this book. And readers who share Gould’s outrage with the very idea probably do gasp on cue.

As a result, there were stretches in reading this book that felt more like work than pleasure. On the whole, however, the work felt worth it.

More on the “Read Me” Project

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