25 October 2007

One of those questions...

Ever since James Watson made his comments about race and intelligence, just over a week ago, I've been wanting to write something ... but not been able to figure out what.

This morning I received an email from a friend. This friend is one I know well enough to be confident that the question is honest, with no hidden baggage or agenda - or, at least, none consciously intended. His concern is a valid one, a million miles from Watson's and, ironically given Watson's status in the field, more scientific.

Below is my reply; I've brought it in here as a ready made post. All I've added is colour coding for the original questions to which I'm responding.

A couple of times in the past 10 years or so a scientist/researcher has either accidentally or purposely suggested that research indicates that there may be a difference in intellect (cognitive ability, etc.) between various races. Needless to say, this has been met with a lot of heat, cries of racism and so forth.

On this occasion, of course, you're thinking of James Watson? You're right ... this is a fraught question on conflicting matters of principle. Before dealing with the specific, I'll address my personal positions on the general.

FG Question 1: do I believe that science should be fearlessly honest and consider every issue dispassionately?

FG Answer 1: yes, I do. If I look at some data, I should never give a false analysis.

FG Question 2: are there areas of knowledge which, if I discovered them, I would if possibly bury again without mentioning them to anyone?

FG Answer 2: Yes, there are.

FG Question 3: Are there areas of data which I would refuse to examine, on moral grounds?

FG Answer 3: Yes, there are, although in some cases I might examine them if somebody else had already done so and opened the can of worms.

So... to your own questions. I'll try to answer them directly first, and then fudge them afterwards.

1) Isn't it reasonable to believe that just as there are physical differences (beyond skin color) for races, that there might also be differences in cognitive ability and so forth? I mean, why one and not the other?

In scientific principle: yes, it's a reasonable question. In practice, however (and more on this below), not a question which science can answer, at least in the present state of knowledge - and the asking of it is therefore a sociopolitical, not a scientific, act.

2) If research does indicate that is the case, should scientists keep it under wraps because of the way that information might be used (e.g., white supremacy, etc.)? In other words, should the scientist be in the position of weighing the social consequences of research or should he or she simply collect the data, present it, and then let the chips fall where they may?

Modifying your tense to make it more provisional: if research DID (not "does") indicate such - then, again in scientific principle, yes. But research does not and, at least in the present state of knowledge, cannot indicate it. (Again, more below.)

3) Do social pressures of one type or another keep scientists from sharing research that might be controversial?

Almost certainly yes. We live (and practice research) in a social world, not a scientific one. Different researchers will respond differently to different pressures - career, funding, morality, social background, and so on.

4) If the answer to 3 is "yes" then how do we ever trust "scientific data" on key issues? Are we only hearing from those whose opinions are welcomed with open arms and not hearing from those who fear to introduce controversial issues for fear of losing grant money, future grant money, reputation, book deals, etc?

Good and important question. The answer, in principle at least, is "critical thinking" ... we can only trust that which we can and do constantly question, weigh, compare and contrast across different sources. In reality, human beings are fatally addicted to established religions (not, please note, religion itself: but the established version of it which demands unquestioning acceptance of received authority) and science is the latest version. It's a case of that old line attributed to Jefferson: "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance" ... it applies to the intellect as well as the body and soul. A rougher but equally true answer is that real science is not, and cannot ever be, the pure intellectual domain to which it must always aspire.

OK ... now to the reasons why this issue of race and intelligence is a sociopolitical question and not a scientific one.

Firstly, there is no generally agreed objective definition of what "intelligence" (or "intellect") actually is. It's one of those words where we all know what we mean by it, but cannot pin it down to a precise, testable and mutually acceptable spec. So called "intelligence tests" actually measure only particular traits which some group are prepared to accept as evidence of some limited aspect(s) or other of intelligence. Our classifications of intelligence are, when you did into them, subjectively observer centred intuitive judgements.

Secondly, much the same (though perhaps with slightly less force) can be said about "race". Although it is possible to make general divisions of different kinds, our classifications of racial type are subjective ones based on external appearance and don't translate well into objective equivalents.

Thirdly, regardless of the partial definition of intelligence we choose, there is no known genetic marker for it.

I could go on (fourthly, fifthly ... umpteenthly...) but that'll do.

What it boils down to is that, in our present state of knowledge, research claiming to link intelligence and race must, by definition, be faulty.

If, in the future, it ever becomes possible to universally and without dissent define both intelligence and race ... at that point, the moral issues over whether to investigate linkage between them may become live ones. I hope that, by then, we will have grown up enough to no longer want to do it. Until then, to assertions of linkage are bad science playing into the hands of social prejudice.

Sternberg et al published an article[1] in AmPsych a couple of years ago which may interest you. Here's the abstract:

In this article, the authors argue that the overwhelming portion of the literature on intelligence, race, and genetics is based on folk taxonomies rather than scientific analysis. They suggest that because theorists of intelligence disagree as to what it is, any consideration of its relationships to other constructs must be tentative at best. They further argue that race is a social construction with no scientific definition. Thus, studies of the relationship between race and other constructs may serve social ends but cannot serve scientific ends. No gene has yet been conclusively linked to intelligence, so attempts to provide a compelling genetic link of race to intelligence are not feasible at this time. The authors also show that heritability, a behaviorgenetic concept, is inadequate in regard to providing such a link.

1. Sternberg, R.J., E.L. Grigorenko, and K.K. Kidd, Intelligence, Race, and Genetics. American Psychologist, 2005. 60(1): p. 46-59. [Electronically available from http://www.apa.org/journals/releases/amp60146.pdf, referenced 25 October 2007]

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