Way back in my 20’s I was active in a Pentecostal Church. I was talking to a friend one day, and he made disparaging remarks about Evolution. I was not happy with my responses to his comments, and felt motivated to read up on Evolution and the scientific basis for it. Having been a physics major, I accepted Evolution as true, but didn’t know enough about to really do much in the way of defense. Especially when my friend gave me some of the Creationist books. I could tell that their answers weren’t really scientific, but I didn’t have enough knowledge to go beyond “that just doesn’t smell right.”
Since I knew that he had been called as a witness at a Scopes-like trial involving giving equal time to Creationism in high school science, I chose to read Stephen Jay Gould. He wrote well and I gobbled up many of his books. I felt a debt of gratitude to him for the knowledge and information I gleaned from his writing.
So I read all of Gould’s books up to “Wonderful Life.” Then I couldn’t help noticing the criticisms of his interpretations – especially from the scientists he lauded for doing such amazing work in analyzing the fossils in the Burgess Shale. And as I read more about Gould, his run-ins with E. O. Wilson, I just felt my respect for him diminish. He spoke in platitudes about respect and trying to free scientific inquiry from cultural biases, but appeared to be deeply mired in the politics of academic science, with the goal of quashing the views of those he disagreed with. And then Daniel Dennett’s book “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” even further reduced my esteem for Gould.
Now comes a paper suggesting that Gould was guilty of slandering a 19th century scientist, Samuel George Morton, with charges of data manipulation to fit what Gould labeled as “racist” theories. The paper (here) closes with the statement
Morton’s methods were sound, and our analysis shows that they prevented Morton’s biases from significantly impacting his results. The Morton case, rather than illustrating the ubiquity of bias, instead shows the ability of science to escape the bounds and blinders of cultural contexts.
Would that Gould had risen to that standard himself.