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A Mini-Lesson



Analysis of
Essay by Stephen Jay Gould

Nature of Science

Social Context

We now have a textbook for students on the nature of science. It's intended to replace, or supplement, the inadequate first chapter of your text. It's designed to coordinate and help sequence several of the nature of science (NOS) lessons on the ENSI site. It is targeted to students in any science class, grades 7-10 (or beyond). It helps to satisfy virtually all the new NOS standards in NGSS and Common Core. If you've used any of ENSI's NOS lessons, you already know how powerful they are. This new book addresses most of the common misconceptions about NOS. It also provides information about the differences between good science, poor science, and pseudoscience. It offers clues for recognizing those differences, and opportunities to practice using those clues. "What's this magic book I've been waiting for all my life?" It's called Science Surprises: Exploring the Nature of Science. "Tell me more - like where can I see this book?" Say no more. It's available as an eBook, published with Smashwords. Click Here to get more information and a link to sample (and purchase) the new eBook Science Surprises.


Essay by Stephen Jay Gould, dealing with bias in science, is read and discussed with class. Specific discussion questions are provided to help in this enterprise.


1. Human values deeply influence science (its terminology, the questions asked, and the criteria for choosing among theories).

2. Bias can be found in scientific studies.

3. Recognizing this, science incorporates procedures intended to eliminate (or at least reduce) the influence of natural biases we all have. One of these is the requirement for publication and the process of critical peer-review for all such publications. (See also Teaching Strategy #5, below).


Handout copies of essay by Stephen Jay Gould: "Women's Brains" (as is, or modified, perhaps with some of his more obscure terms and references explained). See list of References below.
[If this is not readily available to you, contact the webmaster, requesting a copy of the article be mailed to you. Meanwhile, be sure to seriously consider adding some of Gould's publications to your own or your school's, library.]

Discussion Questions

Key to Discussion Questions (and Teacher Notes): end of lesson


 (see end of lesson for the formatted handouts).

Copies of essay by Stephen Jay Gould (as is, or modified)

Discussion Questions (end of lesson)


Because this lesson provides an excellent opportunity to understand important elements of the Nature of Science , be sure to read our General Background Information, with our Rationale and our Approach, and tips for Presenting the lessons for maximum effect and Dispelling some of the popular myths about science.

In any of the discussions expected with the class, select a few key items (important concepts) that lend themselves to interpretation, and introduce class to the Think-Pair-Share (TPS) routine dealing with those items. This is how "Active Learning" is done.

1. In the context of exploring the elements of modern science, it is very important for students to experience at least one example of bias in science.

2. At some point in your unit on the nature of science, hand out copies of the essay, along with the discussion questions. Reading can begin in class and be continued as a homework assignment. You might want to caution the class to withhold final impressions until they have read the entire article. You might also caution them not to worry too much about the unfamiliar terms and literary references they may encounter.... just try to get the essential ideas presented.

3. Next day, be sure to discuss the essay with your class. Be alert for other examples of bias in science; share them with your class, and share them with the webmaster of this site, too! (He will add them to this lesson).

4. See the "Notes for the Teacher" on the KEY page for additional suggestions.

5. Finally, be sure to point out the various ways science makes every effort to counter the influence of bias in its findings:
- a. See Concept #3 above;
- b. Encourages other scientists to repeat studies, especially if bias or other validity factors are suspected;
- c. Uses objective data, quantifiable wherever possible. As the article attests, even this is no guarantee, but it helps.


Read this interesting - and ironic - article about the recent claim that S.J. Gould was significantly biased himself in his conclusions that 19th centuray scientist S. G. Morton's work (with his measurements of about a thousand skulls from people of different races) was influenced by his (Morton's) racial biases:

Scientists Measure the Accuracy of a Racism Claim
By NICHOLAS WADE, June 13, 2011, NY Times, Science Section
In a 1981 book, “The Mismeasure of Man,” the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould asserted that Morton, believing that brain size was a measure of intelligence, had subconsciously manipulated the brain volumes of European, Asian and African skulls to favor his bias that Europeans had larger brains and Africans smaller ones.

But now physical anthropologists at the University of Pennsylvania, which owns Morton’s collection, have remeasured the skulls, and in an article that does little to burnish Dr. Gould’s reputation as a scholar, they conclude that almost every detail of his analysis is wrong.

“Our results resolve this historical controversy, demonstrating that Morton did not manipulate his data to support his preconceptions, contra Gould,” they write in the current PLoS Biology.

Confirmation Bias in Science (click on title).
Here is an interesting (and perhaps an easier-to-read) article that describes two examples of confirmation bias: N-Rays, and Water Memories (homeopathic remedies). This is written by a practicing scientist (physicist), who also touches on the importance of double-blind experiments where judgment and opinions are involved in the experimental results. This is a common feature of many pseudosciences, where double-blind tests are either not done, or done poorly.

The author also shares his own experience with a new scientific idea, how he (and his team) built a theoretical model of the process, spending most of their time trying to destroy that idea (testing it), and how it was presented to other scientists. Even so, other scientists resisted and critiqued the idea. As a result, his idea became stronger. This is an excellent example of how science is done (as told by a scientist).

This process of critical thinking (science) is applied to the claims of climate-change deniers. But once those claims are clearly shown to be false, scientists move on, while the deniers choose to ignore those findings.

If you use this article, have your students answer and discuss the Discussion Questions that go with it. If you want the key to those 24 questions, contact the webmaster using your school email address.

Therapeutic Touch:
Investigating Bias. (Click title to see the lesson). This investigation engages students in testing for the “placebo effect” in friends and family. Their results are discussed in the classroom.


Gould, Stephen Jay. "Women's Brains" in The Panda's Thumb. ©1980
W.W. Norton. Pages 152-159.

Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. ©1996 W.W Norton
Contains a number of similar examples of bias in science. Very interesting reading.


Some of the ideas in this lesson may have been adapted from earlier, unacknowledged sources without our knowledge. If the reader believes this to be the case, please let us know, and appropriate corrections will be made. Thanks.

1. Original Source: ENSI sessions (author unknown)

2. Edited / Revised for website by L. Flammer 4/00

by Stephen J. Gould in "The Panda's Thumb" 1980 (pp 152-159)


DIRECTIONS: Read the article, and answer all questions on a separate sheet, in ink.
CAUTION: Be sure to read the entire article before forming your own opinions.

1. (Read pp. 152-155) What is the general point that Gould is presenting in the first 4 pages?

2. What is the general evidence on which that conclusion is based?

3. What is the gender of all the researchers producing those data and conclusions?

4. (Read 156-159) What weaknesses or problems with those data and their interpretation does Gould point out?

5. a) Name the one woman anthropologist mentioned who studied the subject of this essay. b) What did she find after proper correction of Broca's data? c) What were her conclusions from that finding?

6. What conclusion does Gould reach about the central issue?

7. Make a general statement about the role of bias and assumptions in the collecting, processing, and interpretation of data in scientific studies.

8. What other kinds of bias can you think of that might influence observations and interpretations in science?

9. Describe your initial feelings (about the subject, the author, etc.) after reading the first 4 pages.

10. Describe your feeling after finishing the entire article.



1. Women have smaller brains than men, and therefore are less intelligent.

2 Measurements of brain weights and volumes, of both men and women.

3. Male

4. a) very small sample sizes; b) measurements uncorrected for body height, build, age, cause of death;
c) influenced by a priori assumptions that women were not as intelligent as men

5. a) Maria Montessori; b) Women had slightly larger brains than men; c) Women were intellectually superior....men had prevailed due to physical force.... "Since technology has abolished force as an instrument of power, the era of women may soon be upon us."

6. The whole enterprise of setting a biological value upon groups is... irrelevant and highly injurious.

7. This essay describes an example in which bias and assumptions have clearly influenced even the "objective" collecting, processing, and interpretation of data in a scientific study. This was an example of sexual bias, by both men and women.

8. Race, nationality, age, sexual orientation, religion, philosophy, political leanings, vested interests (income, reputation, job position, previously published positions, etc.), values, beliefs, experience......

9. [Student impressions]

10. [Student impressions]



Notes for the teacher

1. What kinds of reactions do you think this article would produce in your class?

2. Do you think your students could read and understand the essential ideas in this essay? If not, is there any way you could make it easier? To what extent did the literary references and unfamiliar terms detract from the general understanding? [This might be an interesting question to ask in your discussion of the essay.]

3. You might want to provide a glossary of some of the more obscure terms and references if you think they get in the way of the desired understanding.
For example:
-------George Eliot: pen name of well-known woman English fiction writer of the Victorian Age (1819-1880)
-------invidious (discriminatory)

4. Alternatively, you could scan or re-type the article, and leave out the more obscure literary references and terms, or replace the terms with more familiar synonyms and explain briefly in context the references. In either case, be sure to indicate this in your reference to the author and source as "Modified from...."

5. Are you aware of any other articles, perhaps a little easier for students to read, in which bias clearly plays a role in influencing the work of scientists? [If so, please share them with the webmaster].


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