I got a long email from one of the authors of the skull measuring study and I want to make some clarifications to my previous post. It seems that I was not as clear and thorough as I could have been in my argument.
First, my sincere apologies to all physical anthropologists and other researchers who routinely measure skulls that I may have offended with my off-hand comments. I did not intend to cast doubt on a whole field, and I am aware that there are lots of reasons to look at skulls besides comparing cranial capacity of different races, many of them very valuable to medicine and understanding human evolutionary history.
I also do concur with other bloggers that the paper was very straightforward in its methodology and writing and I found it very easy to read despite cringing every time I read the word “objectivist.” I do not doubt that the authors’ work was carried out objectively, showing that the original measurements were accurate. Indeed, I think it is important that criticisms of the actually old-timey and racist skull measurements are empirically accurate, and I think it is valuable to question Stephen Jay Gould’s analysis of the actual numbers. When I ask “how can anyone make objective measurements on categories that are inherently not objective?” I did not mean that one could not objectively judge previous work and already existing labels. I do not think that this objectivity translates back to Morton, however, and I think the authors could have been clearer on this point. Morton categorized people in a way that is not objective, so any measurements he made, however accurate, do not necessarily give an objective picture of what different populations are like.
So perhaps this is the deeper point. Even if Morton was correct in his measurements, these measurements don’t mean anything objective about races, in the 1840’s or today. I am deeply upset (as the authors should be) by how I have seen their very straightforward paper interpreted in places like blog comments, where many people seem to be making the leap between cranial capacity and intelligence. I know that blog comments aren’t necessarily an accurate picture of anything, but many people will likely interpret this result as objective, scientific proof that not only are racial categories stable entities on which it is possible to make measurements, but that these measurements can be linked to things like average intelligence. I believe that the authors are not actually racists, and could have been clearer in making these points so that their paper would not be interpreted as objective support for racially biased beliefs.
While measurements can be made free of bias according to scientific methods, the social realities of different people and the subjectivity of drawing racial circles around a continuously varying population of humans makes it very difficult for these measurements to be interpreted in an objective way free from social factors that may include bias. Scientists like Gould understood this, however flawed his numbers, and I believe that there can be a common ground where we don’t have to misrepresent data in order to understand this crucial point.