Science as Politics Occasionally Contaminated by Reason or Truth, but Only Inadvertently
October 20, 2007
[Oh, damn. I was gonna take a month off from my destined burden of social irresponsibility, but about 500 letters said I should continue my pernicious ravings, and made me feel humble, and this Watson business made me feel mouthy, so...damn.]
Just now we are busily frying James Watson of DNA fame. It seems that he has stated the unstatable, which of course one mustn’t. In an interview with the Sunday Times, he said that he was 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." Which is exactly what the testing says.
He further said that he hoped that everyone was equal, but added: "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true." Live in Washington for a bit.
Almost as bad, his views are also reflected in a new book, Avoid Boring People, in which he writes: "A priori, there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so."
At which point all hell broke loose.
For example, FAS—the Federation of American Scientists—weighed in with, “The scientific enterprise is based on the promotion and proof of new ideas through evidence, however controversial, but Dr. Watson chose to use his unique stature to promote personal prejudices that are racist, vicious and unsupported by science.” This is boilerplate hysteria. In all likelihood, whoever wrote it didn’t believe it. If you have a case, you make it. If you don’t, you call names.
The important question is whether Watson is a racist or merely observant—that is, whether what he says is true. A fact cannot be racist. The question of what racial differences exist and why falls into the domain of science—of genetics, psychometrics, and anthropology, which is almost science. It seems to me that if FAS thinks Watson wrong, a public debate on the merits would give the organization a chance to demonstrate his errors. I know where to find quite a few very credentialed scientists who might have the courage to accept the challenge. I suggest a written and unedited debate on a public website. If Watson’s remarks are unsupported by the evidence, surely FAS would be happy to demonstrate as much. No?
Not a chance. They would get eaten, and they know it.
Now, science. Watson’s idea, that different environments select for different traits, is the central idea of the theory of evolution. To doubt that humans evolved differently in response to different environmental pressures is to doubt evolution in its entirely. This, I think, few at FAS will do.
All right: Will anyone give me one scientific reason why separated groups of people should not have evolved different levels of intelligence? Groups differ in hair color, color of skin, shape of eyes, ratios of various long bones to others, biochemistry, and brain size. Give me one reason why all groups must be precisely identical in intelligence. Just one reason, and Watson’s argument fails. I’m waiting.
No one doubts, as long as blacks (or women) are not involved, that differences in intelligence can exist between subspecies, which is what the races are. No one will take exception if I say that Border Collies are smarter than pit bulls, or that they have been genetically selected for intelligence. Nor will anyone suggest that the difference is cultural, or that breeds of dogs are “social constructs,” or that Border Collies do not exist because intermediate breeds do.
Further—note this carefully, please—so far as I know, neither FAS nor other guardians of PC really object to the idea that genetic differences in intelligence exist between human groups. Recently Charles Murray, writing in Commentary magazine, suggested that the phenomenal overrepresentation of Jews in affairs intellectual is due to superior intelligence, that the superiority may be genetic, and that evolution may be the reason. (Persecution over centuries selected for those bright enough to survive.) Whether this is true can be debated. My point is that no one objected to the genetic explanation. In particular, Murray was not accused of racism or banished from polite society.
Saying that Jews are smarter is equally as racist as saying that blacks aren’t. Why is it that one statement arouses fury whereas the other doesn’t?
The reason, I suspect, is the My-God-now-what? factor. Almost everyone outside of academe, and I’ll guess many more within than will admit it, know that Watson is right. The evidence is overwhelming and the research careful, as anyone knows who looks into it. Blue-collar people, in constant contact with blacks, know it. School teachers know it. The police know it. Federal workers sitting next to affirmative-action hires know it. Reporters know it. Blacks know it.
But if we admit it, then—My God, what now? Current policy is to avoid the question. Television and welfare (affirmative action is welfare) maintain an uneasy calm. Journalistic suppression of discussion helps. Few see the vast, miserable, hopeless black sections of the cities. Few want to see. All is evasion. That lump in your armpit seems to be growing. Better think about something else….
Some people fear (I suspect) that, if the truth were admitted, nut jobs would call for the reinstitution of apartheid or some such. No doubt they would. The more profoundly disturbing question is what should policy then be? Oh my God, what now? As long as we pretend that racism causes the many and inescapable disparities, we can avoid that looming horror: What now?
What we have now works, barely. A city burns from time to time, yes. Blacks are angry, whites are angry, but we totter on. The problem is that by maintaining a system based on pretense, we make impossible the discovery of a better approach. Denying that a difficulty exists seldom solves it. We cannot muddle through, since “through” implies something on the other side. There is nothing there.
The reasonable thing would be to say, “This is how things are. How can we best respond so as to produce the least misery for all concerned?” Instead we lie, to ourselves and each other, try to legislate biological differences out of existence, play “Gotcha!” when someone inadvertently speaks the truth, and dog-pack him till he squirms and wets the rug and apologizes, which Watson did, and nothing changes, or will.