The real facts of scientific investigation

Stephen Jay Gould. Photo courtesy of notablebiography.com

Stephen Jay Gould. Photo courtesy of notablebiography.com

By John Lee

In “Women’s Brains,” Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould writes: “[S]cience is an inferential exercise, not a catalog of facts. Numbers, by themselves, specify nothing. All depends upon what you do with them.”

From the outset, this essay—one of Gould’s many articles published in his monthly column “This View of Life” in the Natural History magazine—seems to advocate for gender equality and appreciation for the female intellect. In it, Gould details the works of nineteenth-century scientist Paul Broca, who set out to prove that women biologically lack the capacity to match the intellectual levels of men by measuring the size of their brains. Though seemingly objective and unbiased, Gould’s choice of citations from Broca and his equally misinformed colleagues makes it clear that he finds little comfort in mixing misogyny with evolutionary biology.

However, Gould’s essay presents an underlying challenge that perhaps has a greater impact than even the already wide scope of sexism in the professional field. Towards the end of his piece, Gould quotes Maria Montessori, an anthropologist who revisited Broca’s analysis and argued that women actually hold intellectual superiority, while men only use physical force to prevail. Still, though Gould’s own research has led to the possibility of larger brain sizes in women, he denies Montessori’s conclusion just as irrefutably as he does Broca’s.

Consequently, the true purpose of Gould’s dissertation is not solely to advocate a reprisal against such patriarchal attitudes, but also to reveal the faulty nature of scientific inquiry and investigation as a larger body. This is the same reason why Gould emphasizes Broca’s fame in the scientific community for his accuracy and precision, and the same reason why Gould points out how Broca’s disciples carried on the argument to assume the same for men of black races: it is “irrelevant and highly injurious” to set some value, no matter how accurate or precise, upon a group commonly incapacitated by society.

Thus, the commonly accepted “scientific method” taught as a simple investigative mechanism even to elementary school students is revealed to be jeopardizing and, when used erroneously, illegitimate. What exactly makes a theory or postulate become a law? (That is, what exactly—other than one’s own partiality—turns fiction into fact?)

In the most extreme case of such injustices, one may examine the social implications of the Nazis’ “Aryan” race, the supposedly purest specimens out of all Nordic descendants. Accepting this as the undeniable truth, the Nazis set out to purge Europe of all who polluted their glorious image of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, straight-nosed demigod. Of course, neither Broca nor Montessori was suggesting men and women, respectively, should rise up to overthrow the opposite sex. Yet, neither did they manage to remain within the realm of quantitative, unbiased fact that constitutes the field of science.

In this way, the nature of scientific inquiry has become highly misunderstood—just as misinterpreted as the data Broca attempted to use to confirm female inferiority. Ignorant scientists formulate hypotheses, then “validate” these premises with the very assertions meant to be tested. Ignorant scientists forget that the goal of research is to prove that a fact is fact, rather than to wholly transform their fantasies into realities. If those same elementary school students grow up thinking that, with only some dogged determination and slight fabrication, science can manifest anything into actuality, humanity will eventually lean too far over the edge of the cliff.

That is a fact, and no amount of experiments can say otherwise.

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