Historical Examples of Scientific Cheating: The Mismeasure of Man

Chapter one of the book entitled The Mismeasure of Man discuss various issues related to the concept called biological determinism. According to Gould (1996) biological determinism is a belief that races, classes, and sexes are biologically determined. This concept tries to justify that “social and economic differences between human groups” are inheritable, inborn, and that “people at the bottom of the social economic ladder are constructed by poor materials i.e. poor brains, bad genes, or whatever”. In addition, the author caution against an over-reliance on data collected by socially biased scientists to justify the existence of biological determinism. He argued that scientists are subjected to an undue influence by their own culture. Therefore, whatever scientific truth the scientists tries to seek, how they go about collecting data, and how they go about interpreting the data–is somewhat influenced by their social and cultural prejudices. Overall, objectivity and truth are highly influenced by societal norms and cultural context.

Several scientists in the history of science have cheated in one way or another. I will mention some of them in the following paragraphs.
The first instance of scientific cheating either intentionally or unintentionally mentioned in the book was by Cyril Burt who documented fabricated data compiled by a nonexistent Ms. Conway on IQ of identical twins (Gould, 1996, p. 52 &59). The second scientific cheating mentioned in the book was by Goddard who altered photographs of the Kallikaks to suggest mental retardation. According to Gould (1996), Goddard’s fraud was mainly caused by social prejudice and clearly demonstrates a conscious attempt to falsify data to fit societal expectations. The two examples of historical scientific cheating are all mentioned the first chapter of the book.

In chapter two, the author discusses the craniometrical theory—“the first biological theory supported by an extensive amount of falsely collected and interpreted data in favor of biological determinism (Gould, 1996, p. 63). The cultural and political milieu of the eighteen and nineteen century hugely influenced the views on race. In this era most people believed on racial ranking “with Indians below whites and blacks below everybody else” (Gould, 1996, p.63). Within this context, two groups existed in the western world, the so called hard-liner who believed that blacks were inferior. In their views this was justification enough for blacks’ enslavement and colonization. The other group, the so called the soft-liners supported the views that blacks were inferior, however they were in favor of people’s right to freedom despite their societal prejudice against blacks.

Another instance of scientific cheating was that done by Etiene Serres, a famous French medical anatomist who collected data on the distances between the navel and penis during human development–from childhood to adulthood. He found out that the navel migration was longer for whites than in blacks. He therefore concluded that backs were inferior to whites. Based on the data, he came up with the theory of recapitulation—“the idea that higher creatures repeat the adult stages of lower animals during their own growth—suggesting that blacks are still in the babe stage and Chinese were at the juvenile stage ” (Gould, 1996, p. 72). In addition, Charles White, an English surgeon used craniometrical data to support the idea of polygeny—origin from many sources—in his 1799 book called the Account of Regular Gradation in Man. He abandoned Bufoni’s definition of species based on interbreeding resulting to viable offspring and rallied on the idea that climate influenced racial differences” (Guild, 1996, p. 73).

Louse Agassiz was another scientist who spent a lot of time as a spokesman for the polygenic theory. He never generated any data to support his claims on the theory. I think he was either pressured by his colleagues at Harvard or his encounter with blacks in America made him abandon his biblical orthodox of a single Adam in favor of many Adams—one for each race.

Other scientists who intentionally cooked the book to advance the societal norm of black inferiority in the western hemisphere are Samuel George Morton and S.A. Cartwright. Cartwright Identified two diseases for black slaves, 1) drapetomania—“the insane desire for slaves to run away” and 2) dysesthesia, “a disease of inadequate breathing”. He used the two diseases as criterion for keeping slaves into permanent enslavement. Lastly but not least, Morton painstakingly collected skulls to measure brain volumes. He collected craniometrical data from skulls of whites, blacks, Indians and Mongolians. He found that the brain sizes were highest for whites and smallest for blacks hence justifying the ranking of the races. Conversely, he had major flaws on how he collected the data—“procedural omission, subjectivity directed to prior prejudice, inconsistencies and criteria shifting and a lot of miscalculations” to making data fit his predetermined notion that black were inferior to all the races (Gould, 1996).

Gould, S. J. (1996). The mismeasure of man. New York. United States: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd.

One thought on “Historical Examples of Scientific Cheating: The Mismeasure of Man

  1. Its like you read my thoughts! You appear to know a lot about this,
    like you wrote the ebook in it or something. I think that you can do
    with some p.c. to drive the message home a little bit, however other than that, this
    is fantastic blog. A great read. I’ll certainly be back.


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