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Race, genetic differences, and being careful what you wish for
November 11th, 2007 by Sam

Before conservatives jump too far on the bandwagon that Asians are the smartest, Europeans next, and Africans the dumbest (yes, I do listen to conservative talk radio and there was quite a bit of conversation about this when James Watson of DNA fame said his bit about this a few weeks ago), I’d suggest they 1) get the science right, and 2) consider the implications.

As reported in today’s New York Times,

“Nonscientists are already beginning to stitch together highly speculative conclusions about the historically charged subject of race and intelligence from the new biological data. Last month, a blogger in Manhattan described a recently published study that linked several snippets of DNA to high I.Q. An online genetic database used by medical researchers, he told readers, showed that two of the snippets were found more often in Europeans and Asians than in Africans.

No matter that the link between I.Q. and those particular bits of DNA was unconfirmed, or that other high I.Q. snippets are more common in Africans, or that hundreds or thousands of others may also affect intelligence, or that their combined influence might be dwarfed by environmental factors.

Conducting and discussing science about racial and gender differences will always be difficult, because everyone has a dog in this fight.  Just as I don’t trust chemical companies to do the research into the environmental impact of fertilizers, or the oil and coal industries to research whether climate change is even happening, let along human-caused; I am skeptical of research conducted by men or women about gender differences, or research done by Asians, Europeans, or Africans about the relative smartness of each.

Really.  I want aliens to buzz on down, do the research, present their findings, and then get out of Dodge.

Since that is unlikely to happen, we’re stuck with doing very careful research, reporting findings in context, and keeping us all honest.

And for those white conservatives who so freely state that they think Asians are smarter, and if they feel that way, Africans shouldn’t be upset that people say they are dumber – well, when China buys all our companies and starts making us repay the debt we owe them while repeating the fact that they deserve to live better because they are smarter – well, let’s just say I suspect those same white conservatives won’t be hummin’ the same tune….

UPDATE

Speaking of keeping us honest, be sure to read Steve’s comment below where he addresses the issue of Watson’s utter failure to be honest about the science.  An excerpt:

“[Watson has] not been honest about the data already in hand, and that to me is the one failing no serious scientist can let pass. I wish he would say he’d gotten the facts wrong, and then his apologies might lead to social changes that would give them some force. So far, he’s gone down another path: he’s made his initial remarks even worse by suggesting that data on the role of childhood experience, as shaped by nature versus nurture, are not yet in, and that when they will be in, we will know that one’s DNA is indeed one’s fate. But the facts are in, and the results are just the opposite. Watson is just wrong. And what’s alarming–shocking even–is that he ought to know he’s wrong.” The Nation, November 1, 2007

These comments were made by Dr. Robert Pollack, former Dean of Columbia University and mentee of Watson.  He goes on to say:

“Under the First Amendment, you can be any kind of nut case and babble your piece. But honesty is the cornerstone of empirical inquiry…. You don’t, you simply cannot, either ignore or make up facts. Watson has trashed that precept. Watson’s fame rests on his being a consummate icon of the scientific profession. But he tanked the clearest of data. This is as inexplicable as it is inexcusable.”

Kudos  to Steve for providing this link.


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