Michael McGovern

Ph.D. Candidate, History of Science, Princeton University

2020 to 2021
Albert M. Greenfield Research Fellow

Just in Numbers? Statistics and Civil Rights in Postwar America

My dissertation shows how the pursuit of racial justice became entangled with concerns about scientific objectivity in the course of legal debates over the import of statistical evidence of discrimination that began in the 1960s. Focusing on the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s campaigns against employment discrimination and capital punishment, I draw on perspectives from the history of science to analyze the performance of objectivity in legal settings, the value-laden practices and material culture of criminological data, and the role of quantification in public discourse. As the range of permissible statistical evidence in civil rights cases narrowed, adversarial expertise and computer-driven statistical modeling made it easier to explain away racial disparities as errors of measurement—critiques that emerged alongside the constructivist historiography of science. Progressive uses of social science raised epistemological quandaries about the limitations of statistics as a vehicle for justice, ultimately shoring up political fault lines.