Monday, October 31, 2011

"Science Conservatively Defined"

Reflecting on how we came to name ourselves "AmericanScience" as HSS approaches, I noticed an interesting thing under our "About the FHSA" tab. The submission criteria for the Forum's Publication Prize are that the work be "on a topic in American Science ('American' loosely defined to include the western hemisphere, 'science' conservatively defined to exclude articles focusing on either the 'clinical and social history of medicine' or the 'history of technology')."

"American loosely defined," "science conservatively defined." On the one hand, these criteria are easy to understand (and justify). The looseness of the former accommodates work on Central and South America that has no other group identity in HSS; the rigidness of the latter prevents encroachment from those working on topics (medicine, technology) with their own associations, annual meetings, and opportunities for prizes elsewhere. Definitions reflect their institutions.

On the other hand, though, there's a sense in which this balance of loose and conservative definitions mirrors a wider phenomenon in the field. In the wake of the most dogmatic years of the "transnational turn" – during which one could pick a project for the very sake of its being transnational – there's still a strong emphasis (at least at Princeton) on dissolving national boundaries as one tracks ideas and practices across them. "Why only in X?" is a common query.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

AmericanScience Goes to Cleveland

AmericanScience will be all over the place at the jointly-held annual meetings of HSS/SHOT/4S in Cleveland next week. We're looking forward to meeting and talking with our readers! Let us know your ideas for topics, guest posts, interview suggestions, and general feedback. Here's where to find us:


HSS: 9:00 – 11:45 AM

Blossom (4th Floor)

"Costs and Benefits: Life Scientists and the Assessment of Wartime Technologies, from 1945 to the Vietnam War"

Chair and Commentator: Karen Rader, Virginia Commonwealth University

1. Environmental Consciousness in the Cold War: Radioecologists, Nuclear Technology, and the Atomic Age, *Rachel Rothschild, Yale University
2. Quickening Nature’s Pulse: Mutation Plant Breeding at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Jacob Darwin Hamblin, Oregon State University
3. The Atomic Farmer in his Gamma Garden: Agricultural Research at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, 1948-1955, Helen Curry, Yale University
4. The Area Should Be Treated as a Laboratory: Scientists, Controversy, and the Vietnam War, Sarah Bridger, California Polytechnic State University


4S: 8:30am - 10:00am

Crowne Plaza, Grand Ballroom - West

"Science and Commercial Culture: Competition, Cooperation and Assimilation"

Chair: Lukas Rieppel (Harvard University)

1. Publish When You Cannot Patent: Counterintuitive Relations Between
Early Modern Science and Commerce. Mario Biagioli (University of California, Davis)
2. Academies in the Press: The Structural Transformation of the Scientific Public. Alex Csiszar (Harvard University)
3. Vertical Integration and the Market for Vertebrate Fossils, 1890-1910. Lukas Rieppel (Harvard University)
4. Purity vs. Property? Entrepreneurship, War and Technoscience's Changing Identity. Graeme Gooday (University of Leeds), Stathis Arapostathis (University of Leeds)

Discussant: Bruno Strasser (Yale University)

HSS: 9:00-11:45 am

Holden (4th Floor)

"Floating Labs: Mobile Scientific Spaces and the Reconfiguration of Practice "

Chair and Commentator: Helen Rozwadowski, University of Connecticut, Avery Point

1. Scientists Under Pressure: The Scientific Practices of a Cold War Underwater Laboratory, Nellwyn Thomas, University of Pennsylvania
2. Ship as Instrument: The R/V Alpha Helix and Human Biological Research, 1966-1977, Joanna Radin, University of Pennsylvania
3. The Tale of Bathybius: Of Sea, Ships, and Urschleim, *Emma Zuroski, Cornell University
4. The Oceanic Feeling in Human Biology: The Voyage of the Zaca, 1934-35, Warwick Anderson, University of Sydney

HSS: 1:30-3:30 pm

Severance (4th Floor)

"Knowing Society"

Chair: Dan Bouk, Colgate University

1. Early Modern Social Analysis: Nicolas de Nicolay on the Ottoman Empire, Chandra Mukerji, University of California, San Diego
2. Lamarckism and the Constitution of Sociology, Snait B. Gissis, Tel-Aviv University
3. Observation in the Social Field in Mid-20th Century America, Mary S. Morgan, London School of Economics and University of Amsterdam
4. Habitats of Organized Science: Louis Guttman and the Israel Institute of Applied Social Research, Tal Arbel, Harvard University

SHOT: 2:00-3:30 pm

Marriott Salon C

"Hot & Cold: Manipulating & Disciplining Bodies with Technologies of Temperature"

Chair and Commentator: Jonathan Rees, Colorado State University

1. Joanna Radin*, "Shock of the Cold: Freezers and the Preservation of Bodily Extracts", University of Pennsylvania
2. Lisa Onaga, "A Silkworm for All Seasons," Cornell University
3. Deanna Day, "The 'Heart's Knowledge' of 'Walking Biological Computers:' How Domestic Thermometry Created a New Hybrid Subjectivity," University of Pennsylvania

HSS: 4:00-6:00 pm

Halle (4th Floor)

"Pragmatism and the History of Science: James, Dewey, and Mead"

Chair and Commentator: Francesca Bordogna, University of Notre Dame

1. The Wealth of Notions: The Evolutionary Epistemology of William James, *Henry M. Cowles, Princeton University
2. Dewey before James: Evolution and the Organic, 1875-1889, Trevor Pearce, University of Wisconsin, Madison
3. Reading What Was Spoken: Classroom Notes in our Understanding of George Herbert Mead, Daniel R. Huebner, University of Chicago


HSS: 10am - noon

Van Aken (4th Floor)

"Bodies, Colonies, and Stem Cells"

Chair: *Hallam Stevens, Harvard University
Commentator: Andrew Yang, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

1. Weismann's Authoritarian Cell State, Lukas Rieppel, Harvard University
2. Stem Cells and the Colonial Metaphor,*Hallam Stevens, Harvard University
3. Biological Kinds and Moral Categories in American Regulation of Human Embryo Research, Ben Hurlbut, Arizona State University

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Race and Violence in Occupied Oakland

Oakland Police Arresting a Protestor, from the NY Times website.

According to the NY Times and the Oakland Tribune, about 1,000 protesters clashed with Oakland police on Tuesday night.  The catalyst appears to have been a decision to clear members of “Occupy Oakland” from Frank Ogawa Plaza, where they had been camped out for some time.  What’s remarkable about this story is the level of violence that appears to have been involved.  The NY Times piece includes a number of graphic videos and photos of injuries that protestors sustained at the hands of riot police.  

This post is not about science, but there is a historical component to the story.  I was immediately struck watching these videos by how differently things played out in Oakland (and, also, Atlanta) than they have in New York, where the city has allowed members of “Occupy Wall Street” to remain in Zuccotti Park.  The New York Times makes an interesting point, which I’ll quote here: 

“At a late-night news conference, the city’s acting police chief, Howard Jordan, said officers needed to use tear gas after protesters threw rocks and bottles at them. The city has seen multiple clashes between protesters and the police in recent years, particularly in the aftermath of the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant III, a young, unarmed young black man, by a white transit officer.”

This suggests that one reason the police in Oakland have reacted so much more aggressively to protestors than those in New York is that Oakland is plagued by a higher level of racial tension.  This is very much in accordance with my own experience.  

I’ve spent time living in Brooklyn on several occasions over the past few years, as I was doing research for my dissertation at the American Museum of Natural History.  Last summer, I lived in the Bedford-Stuyvesant Neighborhood, near the border with Fort Greene and Clinton Hill.  These are historically African American neighborhoods that are currently undergoing gentrification.  I was really amazed at how remarkably little racial tension I experienced there.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a place that is so diverse and meaningfully integrated (which isn’t to say that none of the residents are angry about gentrification).  According to my brother, who lives in Oakland, my experience in New York represents a pretty stark contrast to the Bay Area.

I grew up just south of Chicago, and attended public school there.  During my senior year, I wrote a research paper on the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots, which exploded into extreme violence when riot police attempted to flush protesters out of their camps in Grant Park every evening.  Doing this research, I learned that other cities across America also had large groups of protest take over city parks.  However, Chicago experienced by far the worst violence.  As far as I could tell, the reason was that Chicago police were incredibly aggressive in the way they confronted protestors, using tear gas, clubs, and mace.  In contrast, other cities, including New York, responded to similar occupations by providing protestors with public washrooms, a source of running water, etc.   

Going through newspaper accounts from the late 1960s, the racial dimension of these events immediately became clear.  Chicago experienced a high level of racial tension during the 1960s, which often manifested itself as street violence.  After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis on April 4, 1968, a significant portion of city’s African American population took to the streets.  In response to unrest emanating from the city’s black neighborhoods, Mayor Richard M. Daley called in the Illinois National Guard, instituted a curfew, and reportedly gave orders "to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand . . . and . . . to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting any stores in our city.”  When large numbers of people descended upon the city to protest the Democratic National Convention later that summer, Daley insisted on enforcing the curfew in city parks and, predictably, violence exploded.

History, we are learning once again, always seems doomed to repeat itself.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Buzz on Google NGram Viewer

'Tis the season for conference presentations. A time when people are compelled to make grand statements and mobilize snappy visuals to back them up. In this short post I'm hoping to spark some conversation about one such resource: the Google Ngram Viewer.

For the uninitiated, the Ngram Viewer works like this: through a relatively simple user interface, you plug in one or more terms. With the click of a button, a graph pops up that tracks the frequency with which they appear in a wide range of books since 1800. C'mon, try it -- everyone's doing it. I mean, who doesn't crave quick answers to the question of 'zombies' versus 'vampires?':

But like sugar and caffeine -- two of my addictions -- the buzz wears off quickly, often leaving me more disoriented than before I imbibed.

In all seriousness, this is a tool that invites as many questions as it answers, especially when tracking concepts across different languages and cultures (although you can search in a range of other modern languages). I won't even get into the bigger issues of sampling and statistical modelling, but welcome comments on these aspects, as well.

Take an example from a recent workshop I attended on "Endangerment and it Consequences." It was exciting to be in a room with scholars from around the world, working in different cultural contexts across several centuries. However, this raised the inevitable question of terminology. In the final wrap-up, the Ngram viewer provided a provocative means of reinforcing our shared sense that "endangerment" was a timely topic; that the two days of attention had been worthwhile:

But, of course, this graphic could not tell us what the word meant or even how it has come to assume such currency. And it made it easy to forget that the ideas expressed by the English word "endangerment" might be expressed differently in other languages (or even within English, itself).

You get the point. For me, the initial buzz of "wow!" quickly gave way to a lull of "so what?" But a week later, I'm coming around to realizing that instruments like the Ngram Viewer present problems of knowledge as worthy of inquiry as concepts like "endangerment." This, I imagine, is an issue that those of you in the digital humanities are particularly well-situated to consider.

So, what I really want to know is: Have you used the Ngram Viewer in conjunction with your scholarly activities, teaching included? How? What do they tell you? What are the risks?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Moon Trees

A few weeks ago, Joanna joked that I should write a guest post on a subject she and I both find intriguing: moon trees. Even though I find myself joining AmericanScience as a regular contributor instead of a guest, and should probably begin a little more seriously, I find the topic too fun to pass on a chance to talk about it.

“Moon tree” usually refers to a tree grown from one of several hundred seeds that orbited the moon during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971. These were subsequently cultivated by the Forest Service and distributed across the country as seedlings. Many were planted in public spaces in celebration of the country’s bicentennial in 1976.

In one attempt to ascribe some meaning to these ceremonial "Bicentennial Moon Tree" plantings, President Ford connected them to American achievements, past and present: “This tree … is a living symbol of our spectacular human and scientific achievements. It is a fitting tribute to our national space program… May this young tree renew our deep-rooted faith in the ideals of our Founding Fathers."

Sponsored in part by the Forest Service, the tree plantings were also meant to “mark the contributions forests have made to our way of life.” So when the first planting of a bicentennial moon tree took place in Philadelphia’s Washington Square Park, both Apollo 14 astronaut Stuart Roosa and Woodsy the Owl presided.

Space flight. Founding ideals. Forest stewardship. That's a lot to ask of just one tree.

Having just heard a talk by Neil Maher of Rutgers/NJIT, whose work on the environmental history of the space race connects this history to many currents of American culture and politics in the 1960s and 70s, I know not to be too surprised by the mishmash of ideas represented in the bicentennial moon trees. Most obvious here is the entanglement of space exploration and environmentalism, i.e., the idea of “Honoring Earth’s Green World of Trees” with a plant that had come so near the barren, lifeless surface of the moon.

As I see it, the interesting aspect is less the potentially confusing symbolism and more that individual trees are rather transient tributes to these weighty subjects. As living symbols, they will by their very nature someday be dying symbols. The moon tree in Washington Square was taken down just a couple of weeks ago, apparently after nearly three years of being pretty much just a barren, lifeless trunk. Honoring Earth’s Green World of Trees, indeed.

So it seems like this idea went awry somewhere, right? Wrong. Wrong because “moon tree” now increasing applies to clones of the trees, or trees grown from seeds of the original trees. In 2009 NASA celebrated Earth Day by planting a second-generation moon tree at the National Arboretum. The Philadelphia tree has just been replaced with its own clone, a sapling sycamore. Apparently a few years ago you could even buy your own moon tree, derived from one of the original moon sycamores, direct from the American Forest’s Historic Trees program.

Which is why the moon trees are actually pretty brilliant: as living entities reproducible at minimal cost there is, theoretically, an infinite supply. Not only can the living symbol of the moon tree be made immortal, in a way, but it can also be widely distributed. We don't even have to go back to the moon!

NASA made a call for information about the location and condition of the bicentennial moon trees, old and new, just this year. The amount of publicity it has generated demonstrates that people are still pretty interested in these space-age artifacts. And, unlike moon rocks (which can get you into big trouble) or pieces of spacecraft (except when they fall from the sky), I bet it’s pretty easy to gather your own space-race memento from some of the moon trees.

In short, these organic monuments are a successful if unconventional reminder of an intensely technological accomplishment, and perhaps also of the Founding Fathers and the need to prevent forest fires. But it's not really because they call to mind a specific event in the history of spaceflight. It's because they feed on – and quite literally multiply through – the imaginative appeal of space exploration and popular interest in its material artifacts.

It kind of makes you rethink plaques and concrete slabs, doesn't it?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Carlo Ginzburg on the Historian's Craft

This week, the father of the modern microhistory and one of the godparents of modern cultural history in general spoke at the Institute for Advanced Study on the relationship between observers, actors, and language in the historian's craft.

Carlo Ginzburg will be familiar to most for his epoch-making 1976 study The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, which explains just what its title promises and is required reading in most history methods courses.

Connections to AmericanScience aren't immediately obvious, but the talk (a) dealt with some of the theoretical issues we've touched on before and (b) cast new light on how history borrowed from (sacked?) its cousin anthropology a half-century ago.

The title of his talk was "Our Words, and Theirs: A Reflection on the Historian’s Craft Today," and it began by noting what is both a blessing and a curse for history: that it is conducted in everyday language, in a vocabulary often shared with its actors.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Gould's fundamental miscalculation

[[Updated on 6 July 2012, to fix a few errors or poor phrasings in my original summary of Lewis et. al.'s paper, following on a productive and private discussion I had with one of the authors. My fixes are in brackets or indicated by strike-throughs.

I encourage historians of science to read this paper. As I wrote in my personal notes on it: “This is a fascinating paper—it makes Gould’s 'summer of 1977' look rather half-hearted and inexact.” And it turns out it was even more interesting than I thought: the authors find that the Morton did in fact mismeasure some of his skulls using his shot method (which Gould, and I, and many others) generally assumed to be accurate, but even those mismeasurements do not appear rooted in bias. I misread this conclusion and misrepresented it in my post.

But my post was never supposed to be a full review of Lewis et. al. --- I intended to talk about the state of the field in science studies and I continue to argue that while Lewis et. al. show here that proper measures can limit experimenter bias in measurement (which is important, and they do it well), the most interesting work in HOS and STS today is looking at the influence of culture on science in other places. Thus I still cannot agree with Lewis et. al.'s most sweeping conclusion at the end of their article.

For a shorter summary of their article, see this, from the New Scientist. It is a good summary and the authors lay out their points well. The last couple lines of the piece are the only place where they lose me: "Truth is hard, but it is sometimes obtainable despite even our strongest biases. What a marvellous thing, this science." That's a leap too far for a discussion of the Morton case. But the rest is well worth reading.

The original post, with corrections, follows:]]

I missed the boat with this post. It should have come in June. If normal blogosphere time standards prevailed, I would remain silent. But I have faith that we in the scholarly blogging community are perfectly happy to contemplate even that which is months old. So what happened last June?
Alas, poor Yorick!

Jason E. Lewis of Stanford's Anthropology Department (now Rutgers) and 5 colleagues from prominent institutions around the country published a refutation in PLoS Biology of Steven Jay Gould's famed Samuel George Morton indictment. The paper takes aim most directly at Gould's 1978 Science article (full text available, behind pay-wall), which made the case that "unconscious finagling" was the norm in science, in even such apparently objective activities as counting and measuring. It saves some space to refute Gould's broader version of this story as it appears in The Mismeasure of Man, a book I know much better and unabashedly love. Lewis et. al.'s cogent and convincing reassessment of Gould's study demands our attention, not only because it focuses on Gould (a FHSA fellow traveler, if not a member---I don't know if he ever belonged) and touches on a prominent figure in the history of science in America, but also for what it can tell us about the landscape of "science studies."

In the summer of 1977, Steven Jay Gould began working through Samuel George Morton's two monumental works of physical anthropology: Crania Americana and Crania Aegyptiaca. Both volumes teemed with measurements of skulls accumulated by Morton and his world-wide network of collectors and were illustrated in a truly lavish form with beautiful cranial illustrations (see an example above). Morton included in his works an extensive accounting of his measurements, alongside his conclusions, which used cranial capacity to lend greater weight to a five-part racial taxonomy and hierarchy. Morton adopted the racial categories of the German naturalist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, breaking his skulls into the broad categories of American, Caucasian, Ethiopian, Malay, and Mongolian. Measuring the skulls in his collection (which reached unprecedented proportions, especially in the vastness of its "American" contents), Morton demonstrated a different average cranial capacity for each class of skulls measured and concluded that "race" rather than climate or circumstance led to these physical differences. His findings further supported a racial ordering that placed Caucasians on top, Americans in the middle, and Ethiopians on the bottom.

Gould took advantage of Morton's commitment to objective principles and took a second look at all the data that Morton so assiduously collected and then published. Gould argued, in the end, that not only Morton's conclusions were faulty, but that his measurements and analysis were as well. Morton, according to Gould's recalculations, came to his averages by choosing (unconciously) subsamples to include or exclude in a manner that supported his case and by ignoring variables (like the sex or stature of a skull's original owner) that might otherwise explain differences in cranial capacity. Gould also took advantage of a sort of natural experiment in Morton's data to look at the place of bias in measurement. Morton measured one set of skulls twice: first with mustard seeds and later with lead shot. Seeds, as Morton himself realized, produced less reliable numbers---varying from measure to measure---than did shot. Morton, who cared about his methods, settled on shot for his final measures. When Gould looked at the seed measures and the shot measures, he found that the average seed measures were lower than the average shot measures for those who Morton considered lower in the hierarchy. Gould saw here evidence of how bias could work if scientists were not so careful as Morton to choose the best methods of measuring.

Gould also went a step further and played with Morton's data a bit. By thinking about the variables that Morton ignored (like sex) and adopting a different stance toward subsamples, Gould found that Morton's hierarchy dissolved into essential equality. (Well, it persisted, but the gaps became vanishingly small.)

Lewis et. al. set out to remeasure Morton's skulls (thereby going a step further than Gould) and again reconstruct Morton's numbers. They conclude: 1) Morton's skull measurements were quite accurate [but that even Morton's gold-standard shot measurements had errors which did not suggest bias, see my introductory note]; 2) his subsampling had fewer problems than the new methods that Gould introduced; and 3) his seed vs. shot measures only demonstrated bias on the levels of the mean, but were far more variable from skull to skull. The first conclusion ought not be surprising [although the finding of actual shot mismeasuring is surprising, see my introductory note]. Even Gould accepted Morton's shot measurements as essentially reliable [which it turns out was a reasonable assumption, but not a perfectly correct one, see my introductory note]. The second and third are surprising and important. You can judge for yourselves, but I am convinced by the authors' arguments and their data. Gould made some crucial errors in his subsampling analysis and, as the authors show, the charges of finagling he leveled against Morton did not always make sense. I am particularly sad to see the death of the seed-to-shot natural experiment, but I accept the authors' claims that the sort of bias Gould proposed should show itself more consistently from skull to skull--not just at the level of the mean. If Morton patted the seed a bit tighter in his Caucasian skulls and looser in American skulls, he would have done that to some degree for all (or even most) Caucasian and American skulls.

The authors seem most concerned with refuting Gould's conclusion that scientists inevitably finagle. They pay little attention to the bigger picture that Gould presents in Mismeasure, beyond a sentence wherein they admit that they themselves no longer believe scientific evidence supports the idea that racial categories explain much of anything  [explain that modern biological anthropology shows no connection between "race" and skull size, see my introductory note. Lewis and DeGusta put it better in the New Scientist: "Furthermore, the generally small cranial capacity differences within humans do not correlate with intelligence or much else other than hat size." ]. They adopt a strict stance toward their data and criticize Gould for making so many suppositions. They refuse, for instance, to consider the idea that sex might have played a role in Morton's skull averages, because they have no objective way of sexing Morton's skulls.  In the end, they reject Gould's revised and equalized cranial capacities as barely founded speculation. I think their objective purity might be getting the better of them here. They don't prove Gould['s revisions to be necessarily wrong, although they poke plenty of serious holes in them, see my introductory note. (It's important to note that poking holes in this line of reasoning from Gould in no way lends support to the idea that skull size supports claims of racial difference in reality, as the authors would surely agree.)]. They prove we cannot prove Gould right, and therefore reject the entire enterprise.

Lewis et. al. want us to reconsider Morton as a hero of objective science ["find that Morton's initial reputation as the objectivist of his era was well-deserved"]. They laud his methods and his commitment to publishing all his data. In fairness, Gould offered similar praise. In his Science piece, he called on his colleagues to "cultivate, as Morton did, the habit of presenting candidly all our information and procedure, so that others can assess what we, in our blindness, cannot." (505) But Lewis et. al. go a step farther. Morton, it seems, did no (or very little) wrong. [As stated in my introduction: the authors do not claim that Morton was perfect. They in fact show that Morton mismeasured some skulls. I regret the original error on my part.] When measurement errors appear [otherwise], they belong [authors leave it to Morton to blame] to his untrustworthy assistant---although the authors have no way of knowing this to be true, beyond Morton's claim that he had a bad assistant. (I can't believe they would let Gould get away with a similar assumption.) In contrast, Gould, they argue, offers a "stronger example of bias influencing results."(5) I am not quite sure what to make of the clear moral distinctions being drawn between Morton and Gould. The paper is clearly dedicated to proving that bias can be limited by proper scientific methods. Such a claim would seem to make the scientist behind the measurements less important. Yet Lewis et. al. behave as if proving Morton to have the right values and to be a particularly competent measurer is very important. The proper scientific method, it seems, requires a certain kind of scientific self. The man and his values still matter. And yet...

The authors clearly relish refuting Gould's critique. The Morton case study, they write "has served for 30 years as a textbook example of scientific misconduct" and lent credibility to the idea that scientists are inevitably affected in all aspects of their work by their "cultural contexts." The authors note, with what reads to me like a sneer, that the cultural groundedness of science has "achieved substantial popularity in 'science studies.'"(5) Their article ends with a ringing confirmation of the scientific method: "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."(6)

Here I part paths with Lewis et. al.

They convinced me that Gould made two kinds of miscalculations. The first set of miscalculations involved his analysis of Morton's data--this was what Lewis et. al. wanted me to notice. The second miscalculation was more fundamental: Gould used Morton to speak to the ways that scientists' humanity and cultural bounds can interfere with their measurements. That was never the best case to make. As these authors show and Gould suggested, appropriate methods can limit the ways in which the observer can interfere in a measurement. Objectivity can be approached asymptotically if you design the investigation right.

But what is the cost of objectivity? In Lewis et. al.'s case, giving priority to objectivity meant discounting the plausible assumptions that Gould used to refute racial orderings. It also meant privileging Morton's accurate measurements of cranial capacity, without any justification for why anyone should care to measure such a thing. Lewis et. al. defended Morton's measurements, but in doing so they end up overlooking a much more important set of "bounds and blinders of cultural contexts." Gould made a version of the same error. By focusing on the scientist measuring, we miss all of the intellectual baggage carried by the choice of measurements in the first place.

Two historians of science--operating near to "science studies," if not in it--point us in a better direction for thinking about Morton (and objectivity) than either Gould or Lewis. These studies point in the direction where "science studies" has been going and they make clear that culture still matters.

First, consider John Carson's "Minding Matter/Mattering Mind: Knowledge and the Subject in Nineteenth-Century Psychology." (1999) For Carson, what matters about Morton is the assumption that measuring cranial capacities mattered--that it could speak to questions of racial or species difference and ultimately allow for assessing minds. As Carson puts it, "Morton's research helped to codify a pattern of investigation that would flourish until the end of the century....the analyzing and ordering of races or groups, achieved through an investigative strategy centered around the fashioning of anonymity and its translation into numerical quantities that could be easily arrayed into linear hierarchies and aligned with mental attributes."(358) By stripping away the particularity of the skulls and defining them only by their internal capacity, Morton made it possible to group, average, and rank skulls and thereby tied those skulls to racial distinctions and orderings.

Ann Fabian, in her wonderful new book The Skull Collectors, pays even more attention to what gets lost when skulls become numbers in a table. In a few fascinating cases where the evidence allows her to do so, Fabian painstakingly traces Morton's skulls (and those held by his successors) back to their original possessors. In one such case, she considers a skull collected by the US Exploring Expedition. In fact, the Ex. Ex. collected a person: Veidovi, a Fijian elite taken captive in retaliation for an earlier assault on American traders. I cannot do Fabian's story justice here. But she concludes the chapter on his skull with a characteristic worry. If we take Veidovi only as a skull that fits into Morton's taxonomic scheme, he comes across in black and white as a racially pure Fijian. Yet the rest of Fabian's story suggests that racial purity had little to do with early nineteenth century Fiji: a cosmopolitan place caught up in an earlier globalized era. Throughout her book, Fabian rejects simple characterizations of Morton as a racist. She fears rightly that such characterizations have prevented scholars from interrogating Morton's collections and collecting practices more carefully and thus ignored the wealth of fascinating cultural assumptions underlying Morton's entire enterprise. Lewis et. al. assure us that they no longer [reject] accept scientific racism and then feel free to move on to vindicating Morton's measurements as culture-free. But Fabian demonstrates that Morton's skulls, his questions, and his methods cannot be extricated from their historical time and place.

[Note: At least one of Lewis' gang found Fabian's book and was not pleased. See the review-of-sorts by David DeGusta (apparently Lewis' former mentor; also it seems that Lewis and Fabian are neighbors at Rutgers). I have to remain uncommitted on DeGusta's biggest contention--that Morton never really cared about establishing a hierarchy and did not think bigger brains were better in general--until I can re-read Morton more carefully.[[I now disagree with him on this, after further reading.]] But I don't buy DeGusta's contention that Crania Americana posed no aid to slavery's proponents or that Morton's idea of replacing Blumenbach's "races" with "families" evidenced a concern for "diversity." In both cases, DeGusta undervalues the power of a polygenist position. Morton's families would have increased the number of separately created human races/species. But any evidence that some humans were created apart from other humans gave slavery's proponents all they wanted: proof of a fundamental difference that could justify fundamentally different treatment.
Clearly, DeGusta is concerned that Fabian wants to destroy the basis for his discipline (physical anthropology), which explains why he wants historians to think more critically about the invasions of privacy they regularly practice. I accept that physical anthropology has value. A few historians have joined forces with anthropologists to give historical voice to people who have no historical records (for instance). The medical analysis of old bones offers particularly valuable opportunities here. I also accept DeGusta's call for historical self-critique.
Yet I don't think Fabian is so dangerous to DeGusta as he fears. And I also think Fabian has much more to offer the anthropologists than they currently accept.]