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I recently re-read Steven Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, a fascinating history and critique of attempts to quantify human intelligence, starting with craniometry in the 18th and 19th century, through the development of IQ tests in the 20th century. He provides evidence that those early scientistis doing the tests were heavily influenced by their expected (racist) conclusions, so that their sample selection, their methods for measuring, and their interpretation of the results were all influenced by their bias that whites were the most intelligent "race" and blacks the least intelligent. Gould also argued that the biases were so apparent, it was clear that the scientists were not aware of their own biases and made no attempt to disguise them. These were intelligent men who were not patently wicked, but rather whose science reflected the norms of society in which they lived.

So... Neither I, nor my generation of scientists, are any more intelligent or less prone to bias than the scientists Gould wrote about. While I do not believe I am racist or sexist, surely I am unconciously influenced by my own biases.... What are they? Well, one bias is surely that "HealthBridge does good work". I imagine that most NGO staff have similar biases about their own organization - It helps give us the energy to keep doing good work. And despite all attempts at objectivity, that must bias our research.

For scientific publications, authors are required to state if they have any "conflicts of interest" and most often no conflicts of interest are stated. But of course the conflicts of interest are there even if not stated. For a recent publication, we submitted to the journal the following for conflict of interest:

The first author has been a consultant to [the NGO] and the other authors are, or were during the implementation of [the project], staff of [the NGO]. The authors acknowledge that [the NGO]’s reputation and fund-raising potential may be improved through the publication of this paper and hence there is a risk of conflict of interest. … The authors have strived to maintain their objectivity and present the results in a transparent manner, but acknowledge that conflict of interest remains.

The editors did not print this but maybe the should have. Maybe such conflicts of interest should always be stated. Perhaps "mismeasurement" is inevitable, but we should be aware of and state our biases.

Regretably and, perhaps, inevitably, Gould was not without bias in his writing either. A recent re-analysis of the craniometric data and Gould's treatment of it, shows that the original data were properly measured without apparent bias: "[O]ur results falsify Gould's hypothesis that Morton manipulated his data to conform with his a priori views. The data on cranial capacity gathered by Morton are generally reliable, and he reported them fully." and, distressingly for Gould fans, "Ironically, Gould's own analysis of Morton is likely the stronger example of a bias influencing results".

While disturbing, the re-analysis does end on a positive note, that I think I will pin above my desk:

"Science does not rely on investigators being unbiased “automatons.” Instead, it relies on methods that limit the ability of the investigator's admittedly inevitable biases to skew the results. 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."