Saturday, October 20, 2007

and they're stealing our women, as well

Highly amusing and highly predictable outrage over DNA pioneer James Watson's inflammatory remarks on his visit to Britain this week. Which is not to say that I think that he's right to say what he said, just that it's inherently amusing to see the liberal intelligentsia tying themselves up in knots about the whole thing.
[I am] inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa [because] all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really.
- putting it another way, he said, regarding the hope that everyone was equal:
...people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true.
That popping sound you hear is a big squirmy can of worms being opened. So: where to start? Well. What's Watson actually saying? Could it be that IQ testing reveals Africans score consistently lower than white Americans? Well, that's true. And what conclusions do we draw from this? That Africans are less intelligent than white Americans? That depends on what you mean by "intelligence". If you mean "the ability to pass IQ tests" then, yes, OK (the same tests also, interestingly, reveal that Asians score best of all). And to what do we attribute this discrepancy? Obvious environmental factors like upbringing, social factors, education, public health? That seems to be an acceptable conclusion to draw. Do we attribute it to a possible difference in genetic make-up between white Americans and Africans? That seems to be the point at which the racism alarm goes off all over the shop.

On the other hand, is it racist to claim that there is, say, a higher incidence of, say, Tay-Sachs Disease among Ashkenazi Jews, or of Gaucher's Disease among Norrbottnian Swedes? Or of, closer to home as regards this discussion, sickle-cell anaemia among sub-Saharan Africans? Because, in all cases, there is. And, in all cases, it's those bad old genes that are to blame.

The point is, there is no such thing as racism in science. This is what's so great about it. There is only truth; there are only hypotheses which turn out to be true, and hypotheses which turn out to be false. If it turned out that black Africans were genetically inclined to be less intelligent than white Americans, and there was conclusive scientific proof of this, we would be obliged to swallow it and adjust our worldview accordingly, regardless of the fact that, rather inconveniently, it happened to tally with what groups like the KKK were saying all along.

As it happens, no such evidence exists. And, to be fair, Watson didn't seem to be specifically saying that there was a genetic component to it, though the second part of his remarks seems less defensible. Not least because you need, in addition to defining "intelligence" a bit earlier, to define "black", and defining race in scientific terms is trickier than it might sound - the genetic lines don't match up to what you might call perceived ethnicity as closely as you might imagine.

Christ, I'm rambling a bit. I think what I'm saying is that Watson's remarks are profoundly stupid, but we should condemn him not for being racist (because I'm not sure that you can draw that conclusion from his remarks, tempting as it might be), but for being intellectually lazy and just wrong. That's a proper scientific judgment, right there.


The Black Rabbit said...

A very interesting post indeed bate.
I tend to agree with you about this.

However, your sentence or two below were a bit too sickly sweet for me, a bit evangelical.

"The point is, there is no such thing as racism in science. This is what's so great about it. There is only truth; there are only hypotheses which turn out to be true, and hypotheses which turn out to be false."

You would like to think so wouldn't you, and in the main, you'd be right. That said, there always has been bias in some aspects of science, and that isn't getting any better (just try to get your head around the different scientific opinions regarding Global Warming TM), Scientific bias has been around for 100s of years. Human nature. (as Gary Clail might shout down a megaphone).

There is mainly truth in science, but certainly NOT "only dee troot ma cheel-dren".

What is sometimes very pleasing about science is its humility and wisdom, ie the ability to know the limit of your own knowledge.
Apart from Dawko of course, but then again, he long since.... ..., nevermind.

electrichalibut said...

Yeah, let's not get into the Dawkins debate again. Unless you really want to of course.

I suppose (taking the global warming thing as an example) that the important thing is not to confuse science with scientists (note that I didn't say "there's no such thing as racism among scientists") - scientists are inherently creatures of bias and subjectivity, which is why the whole peer review structure exists.

People are, after all, inherently rubbish, as you know. Present company excepted of course.