A Letter to Nathan Cofnas: Please Stop Misrepresenting my Research.

In February of 2015, my 1988 paper was cited in a paper by Nathan Cofnas, a professor with the Department of Philosophy, Lingnan University, Tuen Mun, Hong Kong. His paper, entitled “Science Is Not Always “Self-Correcting,”” was published in the Journal of the Association for Foundations of Science, Language and Cognition. The abstract to this paper reads:

“Some prominent scientists and philosophers have stated openly that moral and political considerations should influence whether we accept or promulgate scientific theories. This widespread view has significantly influenced the development, and public perception, of intelligence research. Theories related to group differences in intelligence are often rejected a priori on explicitly moral grounds. Thus the idea, frequently expressed by commentators on science, that science is “self-correcting”—that hypotheses are simply abandoned when they are undermined by empirical evidence—may not be correct in all contexts. In this paper, documentation spanning from the early 1970s to the present is collected, which reveals the influence of scientists’ moral and political commitments on the study of intelligence. It is suggested that misrepresenting findings in science to achieve desirable social goals will ultimately harm both science and society.”

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After reading this paper, I felt that Prof. Cofnas had misrepresented my 1988 research. And so, I sent the following letter to the magazine editor, but did not get a reply.

March 6, 2015

Diederik Aerts, Editor
Foundations of Science
Journal of the Association for Foundations of Science, Language and Cognition

Dear Mr. Aerts,

The February 2015 edition of your journal included a paper by Nathan Cofnas (Science is Not Always “Self-Correcting”) which referenced my 1988 article, “A New Look at Morton’s’ Research.” Unfortunately, Cofnas has misrepresented the conclusions of my paper to make it appear that my findings verified the craniological research and overall conclusions of Samuel George Morton. Although my re-measurements of the Morton collection of skull did indicate that Morton’s measuring technique generated data that was “reasonable accurate,” I also prominently noted that the way in which Morton classified human into races (as he defined the term race) was “meaningless.” Thus, Morton was measuring arbitrary subsets. As a result, his anthropometric research was pointless. Morton might as well have been accurately measuring the skulls of twenty-four categories of humans whose names began with different letters of the alphabet. I am dismayed that Cofnas has failed to mention the most important aspect of my research. It is only recently that I found out Cofnas’ colleague, Neven Sesardic also misrepresented my work in a similar way in his 2005 book Making Sense of Heritability.

I would also like to note that in Cofnas’s paper, he uncritically refers to “black” and “white” Americans. Both of these categories are arbitrary subsets. In the New World, most “blacks,” (a term with different meanings in different nations like Haiti and Brazil) are descended from both Europeans and Africans. Also, a substantial number of American whites, including myself, have some small African ancestry. American blacks and whites are genetically one creolized population which ranges from darker to lighter. Thus, Cofnas’s paper, which appears to endorse the statistical evaluation of arbitrary subsets, perpetuates the same arbitrary terminology as found in Morton’s flawed research; Stephen Jay Gould’s poorly executed 1978 critique of Morton’s research; and Sesardic’s somewhat excessive 2005 critique of Gould.

To reiterate, Morton’s research was flawed because he regarded races as distinct units of population, and failed to view human variation as a constantly evolving racial spectrum (one of many naturally occurring biological clines), in which there are gradual physical changes from one location to the next. Sadly, Gould, Sesardic, and now Cofnas have also made the same fundamental mistake, thus rendering their discussions of Morton’s research, invalid. Like other human talents, the ability to score well on an IQ test may or may not be influenced by genetic factors and so warrants investigation. However, using arbitrary subsets of human populations as part of that investigation is a wasted effort, just as Morton’s evaluation of internal cranial capacity was a wasted effort.

Sincerely,
John S. Michael

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Since I did not get a reply from the editor, I emailed a copy to Prof. Cofnas and a number of the board members of the journal that published his paper. On March 11, 2015, Prof. Confas then sent a reply in which he argued that he had not misrepresented my paper. (Note: After I posted the above letter and a summary of his response, Confnas contacted me on March 22, 2015 and requested I post his letter in full. Readers should be aware that Mr. Confas owns the copyright to his letter and has given me written permission it post it in this blog.)  Prof. Cofnas’s response letter read:

Dear Mr. Michael,

In “Science Is Not Always ‘Self-Correcting'” (in press at Foundations of Science), there are two sentences about your paper:

Michael (1988) actually did remeasure more than 20% of Morton’s skulls (the collection has been preserved), and found no evidence of bias on Morton’s part. Gould repeated his accusation against Morton in the revised edition of The Mismeasure of Man (1996) without mentioning Michael’s study.

In Michael (1988), you write:

Of the crania measured by Morton, 201 were randomly selected for remeasurement. (p. 351)

Contrary to Gould’s interpretation, I conclude that Morton’s research was conducted with integrity….He was attempting to understand racial variation and not, as Gould claims, trying to prove Caucasian racial or intellectual superiority. (p. 353)

Although Gould is mistaken in many of his assumptions about Morton and his work, he is correct in asserting that these tables are scientifically unsound. He fails, however, to mention the overriding reason for rejecting them, namely, Morton’s acceptance of the existence of race. Most anthropologists feel that there is too little evidence to conclude with certainty whether the concept of race is a biological reality or simply an artifact of classification (Weiss and Maruyama 1976:47). If race does not really exist, then Morton’s samples are meaningless…. (p. 353)

As you can clearly see, you make two claims in your (1988) paper: (1) Morton accurately measured the skulls; (2) the concept of race has no biological reality. (1) is an empirical finding. (2) is your opinion. In my FOS paper, I quote you in connection with (1). It is absurd to say that I “misrepresented the conclusions of [your] paper to make it appear that [your] findings verified the craniological research and overall conclusions of Samuel George Morton.” Even if you consider your assertion that race is “meaningless” to be the “most important aspect of [your] research,” it is not misrepresentation for me to cite your empirical claim without discussing an opinion that you express in the same paper.

If you want to submit an article on the biological unreality of race to FOS or any other journal, I suggest that you do more than simply point out that races (human groups–whatever you want to call them) overlap. Even Neven Sesardic and I know that.

Also, you write in your response to me that “the ability to score well on an IQ test may or may not be influenced by genetic factors and so warrants investigation.” If you submit this for publication, it is likely that referees will take issue with this statement. The influence of genetic factors on IQ has been investigated extensively (spoiler alert: there is a big influence).

Best wishes,
Nathan

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The way I see it, Cofnas chose to mention that Morton accurately measured skulls, which Cofnas regarded as an empirically derived finding. Cofnas then stated that he chose NOT to mention that I stated that the concept of race is biologically meaningless because, as Cofnas viewed it, such a concept was simply my personal opinion, and nothing more. I do not agree with him on this. Since I did cite Weiss and Maruyama (1976:47), no one can say that I was expressing my own opinion. One might disagree with Weiss and Maruyama, but to say that their findings are my personal opinion is not correct.

I then wrote the following response:

Prof. Cofnas,

The notion that human races exist as distinct biologically-valid units has been disproved by DNA studies. That observation is not my opinion. Although races do not exist, there is indeed clinal racial variation within humans, akin to the variation of ladybugs as documented by Dobzhansky long ago. I would propose that it is in fact YOUR OPINION that races exist as distinct units that have statistical significance. Clearly, you and I are not in agreement on this issue. Hopefully the editors of FOS will publish my letter so that their readers may judge whether your arguments are more convincing than mine.

By failing to present those aspects of my paper which you personally deem to be “my opinion,” you are in fact misrepresenting my paper. If my paper is, as you indicate in your last email, flawed by my “opinion,” then why quote it at all? Lewis et al. deemed my paper to be “uninformative,” which you fail to mention. At least they were consistent in their critique, which you were not. If you think that my paper is of value, then you should present all of my findings, and not just the ones with which you agree. You should note what you perceive to be its substantial flaws, as Lewis et al. rightly did. If you feel my paper is too flawed to be of value, then do not cite it at all.

You have indeed misrepresented my paper. As Gould did in so much of his research, you have cherry-picked only those findings that you personally deemed worthy of mention. In so doing, you have given the false impression that my paper as a whole supports your position. Hopefully, my letter will be published by FOS, so that it can be openly reviewed by the journal’s readers. If these readers come to regard my views as misinformed and naïve, so be it. At least they will get an honest representation of my views, and not your selectively-edited misrepresentation.

I would also argue that the word “empirical” should not be used to describe the measurements I made of the Morton Collection. I accurately measured the Morton skulls, as did Morton. However, the racial classifications he used (and the ones I used as well) were arbitrary subsets. I have never claimed otherwise. In summary, I do not regard measuring meaningless samples as an “empirical” endeavor, even if each measurement is reasonably accurate.

Lastly, as someone who is quite familiar with Morton’s writings and has worked with his arbitrarily-gathered skull collection, I would caution you to refrain from suggesting that Morton’s research was a useful contribution to science. He was an overt racist who endorsed the bogus theory of Arrested Development, a fact which Gould never mentioned. Morton’s publications were riddled with mathematical and factual errors, not just the few that Gould cherry-picked. Darwin even warned Lyell not to trust Morton’s research. Morton’s publications were fatally flawed by sloppy research, as were Gould’s. The tacit implication in your paper and the writings of Sesardic is that Morton was “right” and Gould was “wrong.” In reality, both were wrong.

Sincerely,

John S. Michael

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A FINAL THOUGHT: I doubt Prof Cofnas and I will ever agree on this issue. Since he is an academic, who publishes in journals, and I am not (and thus cannot realistically hope to publish in a journal), it is difficult for us to communicate. I write blogs, which are quickly posted, and sometime quickly refuted, while his works are more carefully considered over a period of years. Unfortunately for me, when my 1988 paper is misrepresented – as it has been in the past few decades – that misrepresentation spread quickly through the internet. The sad reality is that even if a journal were to publish a letter from me, few people would read it. So, in order for me to restore my tarnished on-line reputation, I have to act quickly.  I am not sure who has the upper hand; Cofnas with his slow but respectable journals, or me with my fast but non-peer reviewed internet blogs.  Regardless, this is the only media outlet I have, so I just have to make due.

4 thoughts on “A Letter to Nathan Cofnas: Please Stop Misrepresenting my Research.

  1. FYI: Nathan Cofnas is not, and never has been, a professor at Lingnan, or any other, university. He was a PhD student at Lingnan who left without completing his PhD. He was supervised by Sesardic.

  2. I think too much is being made (on both sides) about the question of whether race exists/doesn’t. The more relevant point is whether heritage groups (or even groups colloquially described as races) differ from one another on one or more socially significant traits. Pigmentation of heritage groups can differ (Scandinavians are lighter skinned typically than ethnic Italians)–but that can be considered a superficial difference (just skin deep). Can intelligence differ? Can impulse control differ? –If significant differences existed on these traits, few would consider such differences of little importance.

    Is there ever a point where a difference is large and significant enough to justify “race”? Probably “race” is a social construct, but ultimately so what? Again, the more important point is whether a group average trait difference exists to the degree that it is socially significant.

    Also: How would we talk about such differences (assuming they exist)? Do we ignore them? Shout them from the rooftop? Somewhere in between? (For the record, assuming they do exist, I would be for somewhere in between but way toward the ignore side–perhaps only discussed dispassionately in private person to person or by academics in journals or in academic-ky blogs like this.)

    • I agree that both sides go overboard. I would say that we should indeed discuss racial traits, and discuss them as a racial spectrum. Also, there are many form of intelligence, of which IQ is just one, and we should discuss that as well. The problem in the US is that what we call ‘race’ is actually caste. So in terms of social issues, we had a strict caste system (slave/black, free/white and non-citizen/red), and we are still left with the residue of that. In terms of biomedical research, we should recognize that a person does not have just one lineage (race), but is the product of many lineages (races). So instead of saying ‘what race do you belong to’ we should ask ‘what races belong to you’.

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