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Debunking as Positive Science

Reflections in Honor of the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man

Richard York teaches sociology at the University of Oregon. His research interests include the global environmental crisis and the philosophy, history, and sociology of science. He is coeditor of the Sage journal Organization & Environment. Brett Clark is a frequent contributor to Monthly Review and a graduate student in sociology at the University of Oregon.

The physicist Alan Sokal laid a trap for postmodernists and anti-science scholars on the academic left when he submitted his article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” to Social Text, a left-leaning cultural studies journal. The trap sprang when the journal unwittingly published the article in its 1996 spring/summer issue. The article was intended to parody the type of scholarship that has become common in some sectors of the academy, which substitutes word-play and sophistry for reason and evidence. Sokal purposefully included in his article a variety of false statements, illogical arguments, incomprehensible sentences, and absurd, unsupported assertions, including the claim that there was in effect no real world and all of science was merely a social construction. He submitted the article to test whether the editors of Social Text had any serious intellectual standards. They failed the test, and the scandal that ensued has become legend.1

It is sad to say, but nonetheless true, that some scholars on the academic left have renounced materialism and strayed into a postmodern wonderland in which there is no objective reality and any one factual claim is as good as the next. Such scholars deserve the criticism to which they have been subjected, and one can’t blame Sokal, a leftist himself who taught mathematics at the National University of Nicaragua under the Sandinista government, for exposing them as intellectual frauds. However, one of the misconceptions that has emerged out of the Sokal affair is that the left is dominated by anti-intellectualism, and by implication, that the right is the defender of reason. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Marx had a deep intellectual commitment to the Enlightenment, and his historical materialism is fundamentally opposed to the hollow banter and mystical nonsense that Sokal and others have criticized. Marx recognized that science serves as a means to gain a greater understanding of the world. However, he also saw that social relations and conditions of production under capitalism bind science. In “The Civil War in France” Marx indicates that part of revolutionary struggle and the work of a new society is to “convert science from an instrument of class rule into a popular force” and to transform scientists “into free agents of thought.” Although some on the left veered toward philosophical idealism as the twentieth century unfolded, Marxists engaged in the movement have generally remained steadfastly materialist/realist. Critical materialism (or critical realism) has been maintained and advanced by many radical intellectuals, including scientists and other thinkers who have written for Monthly Review, such as Noam Chomsky, Albert Einstein, Richard Levins, Richard Lewontin, Philip Morrison, and the current and former MR editors. In fact, Monthly Review Press published In Defense of History: Marxism and the Postmodern Agenda, edited by Ellen Meiksins Wood (then coeditor of MR) and John Bellamy Foster (current coeditor of MR), around the same time as the Sokal scandal was in full swing, and the essays in that volume leveled many of the same criticisms of postmodernism that were made by Sokal and his supporters.

It is, therefore, a sad irony that the left has been identified as having anti-scientific leanings. The right, to a large extent, is based on an anti-scientific foundation. This is most apparent in the silliness peddled by Christian fundamentalists, such as the oxymoronically named “creation science” and its progeny the “intelligent-design” thesis. Bourgeois ideology has long focused on mystical and obscurantist doctrines that deny materialism and reason. In his criticisms of science in the service of the ruling class, Marx was not advocating basing our assessments of factual claims about the social and natural world on ideology, but quite the opposite. Marx was well aware of human fallibility, and, like Francis Bacon and other scholars who laid the foundations for modern scientific thought, he argued that to overcome this fallibility we must explicitly recognize the social and psychological factors that inevitably distort our perceptions of the objective world. However, unlike bourgeois scientists, Marx pointed to the influence of our social position on our perception of reality and the ability of those in power to distort our understanding of social and natural phenomena. Marx noted in The German Ideology, “the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” Marx was advocating that in order to be more objective, we must see through the ideological blinders imposed on us by capitalist society. In this vein, radical intellectuals who are faithful to Marx’s vision do not mandate that scientific theories conform to our politics, but insist contrarily, that we be ever vigilant to recognize the imprint of politics (typically that of the ruling class) on scientific theories and endeavor to see the world clearly in spite of the distortions imposed by our social context.

In the finest tradition of Marx, the late Stephen Jay Gould, paleontologist, evolutionary theorist, and dialectical scientist, one-quarter century ago, in 1981, published the first edition of the landmark book, The Mismeasure of Man.2 Gould provides a devastating critique of the right-wing (pseudo-) science of classifying individuals on a one-dimensional scale of supposed inherent intellectual worth. Ironically, the revised edition of this work was published the same year as Sokal’s article in Social Text, with additional essays debunking Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve. It thus demonstrated the continuing importance of a critical science committed to realism, objectivity, and reason, countering rightist ideology thinly disguised as science.

The power of Gould’s analysis lies in his focus on particulars. Rather than attempt a grand critique of all “scientific” efforts aimed at justifying social inequalities, Gould performs a well-reasoned assessment of the errors underlying a specific set of theories and empirical claims. As Gould writes in the introduction to the revised edition, “The Mismeasure of Man treats one particular form of quantified claim about the ranking of human groups: the argument that intelligence can be meaningfully abstracted as a single number capable of ranking all people on a linear scale of intrinsic and unalterable mental worth” (20); it “is a critique of a specific theory of intelligence often supported by particular interpretation of a certain style of mental testing: the theory of unitary, genetically based, unchangeable intelligence” (40). This approach is emblematic of Gould’s style: He does not attempt to tackle the great questions head on in an abstract and general way, but, instead, sneaks up on these questions by a careful analysis of the details of particular cases—here examining the work of the historical originators of this form of biological determinism.

His tight focus makes his critique all the more devastating, leaving the research tradition behind such works as The Bell Curve in shambles. In the process of critique, he also illustrates the power of leftist science properly applied. He does not start by denying factual claims because of a distaste for their political implications. Rather, recognizing that factual claims must be tackled based on reason and evidence, not ideology, he undertakes an analysis of the reasoning underlying specific claims about the nature of human inequality and the evidence used to support such claims. In this way, he allows the insights of the critical tradition to alert him to instances of ruling-class ideology embedded in scientific theories, but he does not expect left ideology to dictate the answers to empirical questions. Gould recognizes that our ideological commitments and intellectual allegiances alert us to questions that need to be asked, but they do not provide the answers to these questions. Only reasoned analysis can do that.

Here we provide a brief review of some of the key lessons of The Mismeasure of Man about how the ideas of the ruling elite become embedded in scientific theories that are then used to legitimate prevailing social inequalities, and how to look for the telltale signs of the dogma of the dominant class in supposedly objective research. The most blatant manner in which the elite sculpt research findings to conform to their ideology is by the purposeful fabrication of data, a task made all the easier by the fact that academia is dominated by people from socially privileged backgrounds. But, as Gould demonstrates, the insidious influence of reactionary ideology permeates work in a number of ways.

Although flagrant academic dishonesty is presumably uncommon, one of the foundational studies used to support the claim that intelligence is highly heritable and that the social environment has little influence on the abilities of individuals is based on manufactured data. Gould retells the widely known story of Sir Cyril Burt (1883-1971), an influential British educational psychologist, who reported analyses of the IQs of fifty-three pairs of identical twins separated at birth and reared apart. His analyses found a high correlation between the IQ scores of the twins, and this provided the basis for his widely touted claim that IQ was not much influenced by the environment. In fact, Arthur Jensen, in his notorious 1969 article in the Harvard Educational Review, used Burt’s analyses to support his argument that differences in intelligence between whites and blacks in the United States were innate and ineradicable. As the investigations by Princeton psychologist Leon Kamin and the medical correspondent for the London Sunday Times, Oliver Gillie, revealed in the 1970s, Burt not only fabricated his data, he manufactured two “collaborators.”

Of course, purposeful dishonesty is the most obvious manner in which to manipulate research to support a political agenda. More interesting, and presumably more common, are distortions that emerge from the unconscious bias of researchers. Once again, this type of manipulation of research findings serves to perpetuate the ideology of the ruling class because research is often conducted by scientists that pander to the social elite. An interesting example of such bias comes from Samuel George Morton, a nineteenth-century practitioner of craniometry—the specialty that focuses on measuring human skulls. Morton claimed that his study of differences across race in cranial capacity showed that whites have larger brains than people of other races, particularly those of African ancestry. This naturally fit well with the view that whites were ordained to rule over other races and served to justify slavery and other institutions of racial inequality.

Gould, recognizing the potential for unconscious bias in the analysis of data, did not take Morton’s reported statistics at face value, but rather chose to reanalyze the raw data (which Morton faithfully published) himself. Gould notes that

Morton’s [statistical] summaries are a patchwork of fudging and finagling in the clear interest of controlling a priori convictions. Yet—and this is the most intriguing aspect of the case—I find no evidence of conscious fraud; indeed, had Morton been a conscious fudger, he would not have published his data so openly. (54, original edition)

In brief, Gould found Morton’s distortions fell into four general categories. First, “Morton often chose to include or delete large subsamples [within racial groups] in order to match group averages with prior expectations” (68). Second, Morton would measure cranial volume by filling skulls with seed, and then pouring out the seed and measuring its volume. Seed, however, can be packed to differing densities, so that measurement has a subjective element—i.e., the measurer (Morton in this case) decides when a skull is full and the seed is packed to the “correct” density. Subsequent re-measurement of the same skulls that Morton measured using lead shot, which cannot be packed, instead of seed showed Morton systematically underestimated the volumes of the skulls of non-whites relative to those of whites.

Third, Morton failed to perform what would seem to be obvious procedural corrections for differences in sex or stature across samples. Brain size is most meaningful not in an absolute sense, but relative to body size—i.e., people with large bodies have, on average, large brains relative to people with small bodies, although intellectual abilities do not appear to be related to body size. Controlling for gender is highly important because women have, on average, smaller bodies than men and, therefore, smaller brains (although no smaller relative to body size). Morton never controlled for differences in gender composition or average stature across samples, and thus his findings of differences in cranial size across racial groups to a large extent reflect differences in gender composition and body size across groups in his sample. For example, “Morton used an all-female sample of three Hottentots to support the stupidity of blacks, and an all-male sample of Englishmen to assert the superiority of whites” (68).

Fourth, Gould found that in all the instances of miscalculations and apparently accidental omissions made by Morton, the results favored the inflation of cranial size estimates for whites and the deflation of cranial size estimates for non-whites. Gould, once again, notes that he found no evidence of purposeful fraud: “All I can discern is an a priori conviction about racial ranking so powerful that it directed his tabulations along preestablished lines” (69). Gould’s careful reanalysis of the original data provides powerful evidence of how scientists can sculpt data to fit their a priori convictions without intentionally committing fraud.

In a similar case, Robert Bennett Bean, a Virginia physician following in the craniometric tradition who was active at the beginning of the twentieth century, studied the brains of cadavers. He identified the key indicator of intellectual ability as the ratio of the genu, the front part of the corpus callosum, to the splenium, the back part. He argued that whites were superior to blacks and men to women in intellectual ability based on his finding of relatively larger genu in whites and men. The fact that he focused on this criterion, rather than the more traditional brain size preferred by other craniometrists, is striking. “The reason for this neglect [of brain size],” Gould explains, “lies buried in an addendum: black and white brains did not differ in overall size” (79). Thus Bean sought an alternative avenue for explaining inequalities.

Bean also made measurement errors reminiscent of those made by Morton. Bean’s mentor at Johns Hopkins, Franklin P. Mall, became suspicious of Bean’s data because it was simply too good. He repeated Bean’s work and found quite different results. Mall attempted to be more objective by making his measurements of brains before he knew the race of the person from which each had come (Bean knew the race of the person from which each brain had come before he measured it). In his study, Mall found no clear difference between the brains of whites and blacks or between those of men and women. Furthermore, he examined 18 brains (10 whites, 8 blacks) from the sample Bean had studied and found that Bean’s measure of the genu was larger than his in the case of seven whites, but only one black, and that Bean’s measure of the splenium was larger than his for seven out of the eight brains of blacks. Bean’s biased expectation had clearly influenced his measurements, thus allowing him to construct a finding of differences between the brains of blacks and whites and men and women where likely none existed.

As the reactionary scientists failed to establish valid biophysical explanations for social inequality by measuring skulls both on the outside (using calipers and rulers) and the inside (using mustard seed and lead shot), they moved into the realm of measuring “the content of brains by intelligence testing” (23, revised edition). It is here that the error that perhaps receives the bulk of Gould’s attention is to be found: reification—the process of treating as a real entity something that is in fact an abstract concept. Cyril Burt and current advocates of the notion that intelligence is literally a one-dimensional feature of the brain that is measurable by psychometric tests are guilty of reifying their own constructions. Those guilty of reifying IQ argue that there is a general underlying intellectual ability in each of us, g, that is measured reasonably well by IQ tests, in spite of the evidence suggesting that g is a product of the tests themselves, a statistical creation, not a genuine mental attribute.

In an unflinchingly rational manner, Gould devastates this “IQ as indicator of general intelligence” interpretation by showing it to be a creation of the statistical procedures used and the a priori convictions of the researchers. The general intelligence factor emerges from factor analysis of a variety of mental tests. Factor analysis is a statistical procedure that attempts to explain the covariance among variables (various mental tests in this case) by extracting one or a few factors that can account for the observed inter-correlations (individuals’ scores on different tests tend to be positively correlated with one another—i.e., people who do well on one type of test tend to do well on other types). IQ proponents have long argued that only one factor is necessary to explain observed correlations among a variety of mental tests, which they take to indicate the existence of a general intelligence that is an actual characteristic of the brain. However, as Gould explains, factor analysis does not work magic; it is entirely based on the observed correlations among tests. The belief that a factor extracted via factor analysis is a real entity is based on the heroic assumption that the variables under analysis (performance on various mental tests in this case) are connected by an underlying causal regime (stemming from a feature of the brain). This assumption is not and cannot be established by statistical methods alone and is only valid to the extent that correlation is indicative of causation. Although determining correlation is necessary for establishing a causal relationship among variables, it is not sufficient. Factor analysis alone simply cannot adjudicate the matter of causality, nor establish whether a factor corresponds with a real entity.

Gould points to the work of L. L. Thurstone in the first half of the twentieth century that unveiled the error of equating a factor extracted via factor analysis with an actual characteristic. Thurstone showed that the types of mental tests included in the factor analysis greatly affected the results of the analysis. Furthermore, he illustrated that several different factors could be extracted from the same data depending on how they were analyzed, and that there was no objective reason to prefer the assertion that a single mental ability underlay performance on a variety of tests to the assertion that multiple and distinct abilities were the determinants of test performance. It is, of course, also important to recognize that none of these types of tests and statistical analyses served to establish whether intellectual ability was primarily innate or the product of social privilege.

The most general error of the biological determinist research that Gould reviews centers on the proclivity of scholars to interpret ambiguous evidence in a manner that confirms their prior convictions. This is a more general error than that represented by the miscalculations of Morton, the fabrications of Burt, and even the reification of factor analysts. We are faced with a complex world where there is no single clear and unambiguous piece of evidence that can answer many of our most pressing questions and resolve our intellectual disputes. In these circumstances, researchers are forced to survey a breadth of information and attempt to reach a reasoned conclusion. However, given the complexity and ambiguity inherent in such circumstances, even well intentioned researchers are prone to searching out evidence that supports their prior beliefs, neglecting evidence that contradicts them, and interpreting ambiguous information in their own favor. Gould provides several fascinating examples of this phenomenon from the history of biological determinist mental testers.

In particular, there are examples of the application of ad hoc explanations and special pleading by researchers to maintain their preferred theories when evidence contradicts their expectations. This has often involved shifting the data to be examined as theories change so that while the specific grounds on which claims for inequality were based become discredited the general conclusions remain unchanged (e.g., those belonging to the dominant class, race, and/or gender are superior to everyone else).

The work of Paul Broca, perhaps the most renowned craniometrist, and his followers illustrates well the reliance on ad hoc explanations to preserve a preferred view in the face of contradictory evidence. As Gould explains, Broca made efforts to measure the brains of eminent men after their deaths, expecting that the most renowned men would have brains much larger than average. Although some of these candidates did have large brains, others had merely average-sized brains, and some even had brains strikingly below average. Undeterred, Broca relied on a variety of tactics to explain away “anomalous” findings. In some cases he argued that although a particular brain of an eminent man may have been average or smaller than average it was especially convoluted, which he took to be an indication of intellectual ability. In other cases he argued variously that the subjects had died very old, and their brains had thus degenerated, the brain was poorly preserved, or the person in question was of small stature and, thus, had a respectably sized brain for his body. (Of course, none of these types of special pleading were applied to excuse a small or average brain size of a person who Broca had not a priori judged superior.) Perhaps the most peculiar tactic, when all else failed, was to argue that men of great achievements who had small brains must not have been so great after all!

The story of the recapitulationist theory of evolution provides a striking example of scholars picking and choosing among which pieces of evidence to focus on so as to fit the facts to their preconceived notions. German Zoologist Ernst Haeckel, an early convert to Darwinism, but with his own idiosyncratic take on evolutionary theory, developed the position that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,”—i.e., as individuals develop from an embryo to an adult (ontogeny) they go through all of the stages of adult form from their evolutionary history (phylogeny)—a now discredited view that was much in vogue at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. This theory assumed there was a progressive nature to evolution, where “advances” were made by speeding up early stages of development and adding on new stages. Based on this view, adults of less “advanced” races were expected to be similar to children of more “advanced” races. For example, E. D. Cope, a well-known American paleontologist and supporter of this view, identified four inferior groups: women, non-whites, whites of lower social class, and white southern Europeans. Supporters of this position claimed a variety of anatomical and physiological characteristics that marked the adults of these supposedly inferior groups as being like white male children of northern European ancestry.

The theory of recapitulation collapsed by the end of the second decade of the twentieth century. Following this, the Dutch anatomist Louis Bolk developed a theory of exactly the opposite view of development. He proposed that humans had diverged from apes not by speeding up developmental processes, but slowing them down, so that juvenile traits of ancestors become the adult traits of descendants—a phenomenon referred to as neoteny (“holding on to youth”). He noted that adult humans have many features in common with juvenile apes, including a large brain relative to body size. After decades of supposedly objective scientific work proclaiming that “inferior” groups such as non-whites were childlike, with this new theory and its implication that more childlike was more advanced in mind,

Bolk reached into his anatomical grab-bag and extracted some traits indicating a greater departure for black adults from the advantageous proportions of childhood. Led by these new facts to an old and comfortable conclusion, Bolk proclaimed…: “The white race appears to be the most progressive, as being the most retarded.” (121, original edition)

Here we see most clearly the smoking gun of ideology imposed on the world. When theory suggested that being childlike was a mark of inferiority, oppressed groups of people were identified as being childlike based on supposedly objective analysis. However, when a new theory emerged that suggested that being childlike indicated superiority, new data was found to support the contention that the dominant social group was the most childlike.

It is fascinating that among the many efforts to establish inherent differences across race, gender, and class in mental ability, the indicators of intellectual ability that have been utilized never have been established actually to measure an innate and immutable intellectual ability. As Gould notes, not only has it still to this day not been firmly established that races systematically differ in average cranial size, there is little evidence that cranial size is even especially related to intelligence within a species, with the exception of extreme cases where the brain fails to develop properly. The degree to which IQ measures an innate ability remains highly contested, and the extent to which it is heritable is still not firmly established. In fact, as Gould’s close colleague Richard C. Lewontin points out in Biology as Ideology, all existing studies of twins reared apart have methodological flaws that undermine their conclusions (e.g., separated twins are often raised by close relatives, so that twin pairs frequently share similar socio-economic and cultural circumstances). It is remarkable, then, that the base assumptions behind much of biologically deterministic research—e.g., cranial size corresponds to intellectual ability, IQ measures a real and innate property of the mind—go unquestioned and are merely asserted as true without sufficient supporting evidence.

What is remarkable about The Mismeasure of Man is that it provided a definitive critique of the reasoning behind The Bell Curve thirteen years before the latter was published. As Gould remarked, “The critique of biological determinism [is] both timeless and timely,” and it is of utmost importance given how biological determinism is used “as a social weapon” (26–27, revised edition). The recurrence of biological determinist arguments is a sociopolitical manifestation related to periods of “political retrenchment and destruction of social generosity” (28, revised edition).

The revised edition of The Mismeasure of Man, published in 1996, extended the original by including essays that explicitly critique The Bell Curve. Gould shows how Herrnstein and Murray committed virtually all of the same errors of reasoning committed by earlier biological determinists that the original edition of The Mismeasure of Man debunked. As Gould explains with razor sharpness, Herrnstein and Murray accept without thoughtful reflection that IQ tests measure a singular, one-dimensional intelligence that is highly heritable and largely immutable, although the balance of existing evidence does not support this view. They then march ahead, with this dubious presumption unquestioned, to argue that IQ is a key factor determining where individuals end up in society, that it therefore varies across social classes due strictly to merit driven stratification, that blacks are typically on the lower rungs of society because they have on average lower IQs than whites and other races, and that all of these “facts” taken together indicate that social programs aimed at improving the lot of the poor are a waste of effort, since the poor occupy their social position due to their inherently inferior intellects. All of these dubious claims are supposedly established by a highly selective reading of existing evidence, where findings suggesting interpretations counter to their own—e.g., IQ is influenced by social position, therefore lower IQs among the underprivileged are the effect, not the cause, of inequality—are ignored; by wild speculation in the absence of appropriate evidence; and by reifying IQ in the same unthinking manner as their biological determinist predecessors.

It would be hard for any sensible person, even if she or he be unsympathetic to the left, after seriously considering Gould’s critique, to accept The Bell Curve as representing anything but a politically motivated effort to interpret ambiguous evidence so as to support an a priori preferred position, in spite of the fact that much of the evidence cries out for an opposite interpretation. The Bell Curve is perhaps one of the best examples in recent times of right-wing ideology dishonestly presented as objective science. Eternal vigilance and scientific investigation are necessary to disarm the ruling class of their ideological weapons and scupper their attempts to justify social inequality.

One of the most important lessons we can learn from Gould is that we should neither reject the ideal of seeking objective knowledge of the world nor assume that scientists operate in an objective manner, conveying the truths of nature unsullied by social preconceptions. Although none of us can be truly objective, we can strive toward this ideal by recognizing our own preconceptions and engaging in thoughtful, reflexive self-critique. In this, we become embedded in a process of confronting the world and our own biases, as well as those of other people. Gould closes the original edition with an argument that debunking can serve as positive science. We can learn a great deal from studying where researchers go wrong. The dialectic of argument and counter-argument is central to the advancement of knowledge. Since the scientific establishment remains dominated by those sympathetic to the concerns of the economic elite, debunking flawed research should be a central part of the left’s intellectual agenda. Radicals should not slip into the anti-intellectualism that Sokal exposed—intellectual dishonesty and fashionable nonsense in service of a just cause are dishonest and nonsense nonetheless. The rejection of reason will only serve to undermine the ability of the left to speak truth to power. We will be best served by sticking to the intellectual roots established by Marx, where socialism stands for a commitment to reason and fights the vapid dogma and pernicious ideology endlessly pedaled by the right. Gould’s work serves as an example of how the light of reason can lay bare the false claims of those who wish to perpetuate injustice and inequality and can lead us to a better understanding of the material world in which we live and struggle.


Notes

  1. The Sokal affair, including the original article and many of the subsequent comments on it by a variety of scholars, is recounted in The Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook the Academy, edited by the editors of Lingua Franca, the publication in which the hoax was first revealed. Sokal and Jean Bricmont published Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science, which serves to debunk much of the gibberish that counts as scholarship in some sectors of the academy. Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, published in 1994, in part inspired Sokal to perform his hoax. Gross and Levitt deserve credit for rightly criticizing some anti-science scholars, but, unfortunately, present only a partial truth, in that they fail to seriously acknowledge the strong anti-science tendencies of the right and the long tradition on the left of commitment to reason.
  2. It is worth noting that Gould recognized the potentially sexist nature of using the term “Man” to refer to all people. He notes “My title parodies Protagoras’s famous aphorism about all people, and also notes the reality of a truly sexist past that regarded males as standards for humanity and therefore tended to mismeasure men, while ignoring women” (20, revised edition).
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