Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Thursday, April 26, 2007


Off for a bit in pursuit of a question I thought I had left behind 30 years ago, courtesy of MassMarrier.

At this point I have penetrated the maze of news articles on the world's tallest Dutch and all that therein was. As usual, that got quite circular, what with news story quoting news story augmented by columnists quoting news stories. It was beginning to resemble journalistic spin-the-bottle until I Googled the two actual academics quoted in the stories, and picked up the trail of the monographs on which the news stories rest, however lightly.

Having a librarian wife has its advantages, and I should presently have copies in English translation.

Why this interest? I was heavily involved in stature studies from the historian's perspective after graduate school, so I've dipped in the pool before. So much of what I read in the recent Dutch stories struck such familiar chords that I've been motivated to play scholar again. The academic view is one advantage I have over the journalists, columnists, activists, and Dutch public officials blowing their own horn.

The other is that I don't take politics with my science, any more than I take religion with my science. It's bad for your teeth because if your political enthusiasms get ahead of the data, you may wind up with a foot in your mouth.

So far I've only seen the abstracts of the monographs. Those alone tell me for certain that the historical background of the current data was badly misrepresented in the news articles. For example, the Dutch were short-er 60 years ago than today, but no source ever claimed they were the short-est in Europe, then or at any time. That was poetic excess introduced by someone in the journalistic scrum. And, as I recall, Americans were never the tallest people in the world, save in their own conceit. I may get to that in the later piece.

The abstracts suggest that my learned colleagues overlooked as much evidence as they admitted. Unfortunately, physical anthropologists have a habit of doing that. They are also overfond of averages. Next time you squeeze awkwardly into an airline seat, you can thank the physical anthropologists who calculated the average width of the airline passenger posterior (I am not making that up).

Now that I have made my biases clear, I mean to poke around and let some of theirs out to air. This will be no monograph, just a peer review of sorts that looks for the weak points in the argument.

I'll offer only one hint where this may go. The otherwise snarky and data-poor International Herald Tribune piece from the news pile does grasp why the unusual height of five percent of the Dutch population matters so godawful much to Americans ( and it has chiefly been Americans writing the news stories about the business). It was that dimension of the question that got me into stature distribution studies in the first place: the place of the issue in the social mythology of progressive cultures.