Reading Report

No real reviews here, but a short list on what I’ve been reading this Summer, and how I generally feel about the books or articles.  What have you been reading?  Anything I should know about?  Let me know in the comments.

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The Role of Metrics in Racist Science

**Trigger Warning for those who find the predatory collection and scientific examination of human remains disturbing.**

Stephen J. Gould’s enormously influential book, The Mismeasure of Man, took on the most influential examples of racist science, ranging from IQ tests to phrenology. In this excellent book, he demolished the racist preconceptions of such science, and demonstrated convincingly that these pseudoscientific measures of racial intelligence (how big is cranial capacity, what’s the shape of the skull, etc.) were not only wrong in the details, but far more importantly, useless in proving their points: that intelligence is influenced by racial inheritance.

With the current rise in extreme right-wing, racialist ideology in the United States, and its increasing acceptance and popularity in the mass media, some academics have predictably joined the bandwagon, and are attempting to recuperate some of the most egregious examples of racist science.  Murray and Herrnstein tried this with IQ tests back in the 90s with their wildly popular and now debunked book The Bell Curve. Even stranger, these current academics are attempting to recuperate the work of Samuel G. Morton, grand head-collector of the racist science.

In earlier work of mine on the collection of Native American remains by museums and private collectors, I had an opportunity to examine an original edition of Morton’s Crania Americana, which included a hand-written note from Morton, encouraging the recipient of the book to collect as many Indian skulls as he could get his hands on, for Morton’s collection.

The report in question is “The mismeasure of science: Stephen J. Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias.” published by PLoS Biology.  In this article, funded by the University of Philadelphia, whose museum houses Morton’s collection, the curators and physical anthropologists, almost all of whom currently work for the university or have a significant connection to it, remeasured the skulls in Morton’s collection.

Ignoring for a moment that these skulls should not be in this collection, but be repatriated to their descendants, their argument is both interesting and facile.  Having re-measured the skulls, they determine that Morton’s measurements were indeed correct.  They acknowledge that Morton was a racist, but argue that his measurements and science were sound, that Gould was the hostage of his own ‘anti-racist ideology’ (a strange phrase, that), and that his book should be repudiated.

Hogwash. I accept that Gould’s measurements may have been inaccurate, but that’s really neither here nor there: the larger point is that these measurements are understood to not have a relationship to intelligence.  The seemingly sympathetic statements made by these folks, including Janet Monge in the video below, are loaded with assertions and implications that ought to disturb not only other ‘anti-racist ideologists (like myself), but also scientists and teachers who would like to help people distinguish between evidence and conclusions.

There’s so much to say about this, but I’ll attempt to let this be enough.

In watching this, I *almost* feel sorry for Monge, who is standing in the front here, trying to defend racist conclusions from irrelevant metrics without sounding like a racist.  On the other hand, like Murray and Herrnstein’s best-seller The Bell Curve, the article has received enormously positive responses from academics and non-academics alike.

Now that it has apparently been shown that all non-African peoples are partially descended from Neanderthals, I wonder if the racists will adjust their positions, so that neanderthals will suddenly start to appear somehow smarter and more superior than full homo sapiens sapiens.


Science And Religion Dispatch: Round 1, Plus Amy Bishop

I recently posted about SciFi writer Peter Watts, who I’ve begun to appreciate a great deal. He shares my obsession with science and what it means to be ‘human,’ or even ‘conscious.’ Unlike me, however, he’s actually a scientist. In a recent post on his blog, entitled “The Neurology of Transcendence,” he summarizes what appears to be a very important neurology study (conducted on willing patients dying of brain cancer).

In that study, the surgical removal of specific neurons in a specific part of the brain (go read the article, please) resulted in a sense of increased ‘spirituality,’ and a relative lack of awareness of self in space, leading to a sense of what I might call ‘cosmic feeling.’ The images below are ganked directly from Watts’ page, entirely without permission.

It’s an elegant little study, and another carpet-tack in the casket-lining of the supernatural — yet still we tread so very lightly to avoid giving offence, to reassure the world that we sit atop some pinnacle. “We’re dealing with a complex phenomenon that’s close to the essence of being human,”neurojock Salvatore Aglioti tells Scientific American, as though we’re the only species on the planet whose brain has a subroutine for keeping track of body parts. “They need to be very careful how they word things as they proceed,” warns one of the comments on the same page, “there are people who will take great offense otherwise. It’s going to be important to make clear the FEELING may be biologically based, and make NO comment on the stimuli leading to the feeling.” Even Urgesi et al refer to spirituality, in their introduction, as “a view of the human condition in transcendent contexts and in relation to unseen realities/supernatural agents” (italics mine). Continue reading


David Brooks Knows Nothing About Buddhism

So says this person over at Tower of Dabble, responding to an atrocious little piece of crepulence from Mr. Brooks, published over at the New York Times. The piece is called “The Neural Buddhists,” but appears to be a very poorly considered rant against the ongoing materialism of scientists. I’m not exactly certain what Mr. Brooks proposes scientists replace their commitments to materialism, empiricism, and confirmation with, but I am certain he has some similarly obnoxious theory about it.

He mentions Buddhism twice but I have no idea why. My guess is that he knows as little about Buddhism as he does about evolution or neuroscience. I think maybe he read a page of the Dancing Wu Li Masters while investigating California latte sippers in 1987 and he thinks he now understands Buddhism.

I have again wasted a lot of words saying what could be said in very few:

I’ll let you go see what the short version is for yourself. Tower of Dabble‘s summary caught my eye for two reasons: first, she or he does an excellent job of showing how Brooks’ use of Dawkins’ scientific work, The Selfish Gene, completely misses the point and project of that work, and that he appears to be using Buddhism as some sort of slam at scientific atheists. Are all Buddhists scientific materialists? I have misunderstood everything, apparently.