Katheryn Paige Harden’s new book, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality hovers between a plea and a demand that social scientists incorporate behavior genetics into their research. Unfortunately, the book is based on a series of false assumptions about the social sciences that undercut the book’s central thesis.
Social scientists, Harden warns, “have been trained to view the results of behavior genetics with fear and loathing” (p. 277). Indeed, they are guilty of committing a violent crime:
The tacit collusion in some areas of the social sciences to ignore genetic differences…is wrong. It is wrong in the way that robbing banks is wrong. It is stealing. It’s stealing people’s time when researchers work to churn out critically flawed scientific papers, and other researchers chase false leads that go no where. It’s stealing people’s money when taxpayers and private foundations support policies premised on the shakiest of causal foundations. Failing to take genetics seriously is a scientific practice that pervasively undermines our stated goal of understanding society so that we can improve it. (p. 186)
Well, anyone accusing their colleagues of being the moral equivalent of a stick-up artist must have good grounds to do so. Moreover, they must come from a research tradition that has never been guilty of “churning out critically flawed scientific papers!” Unfortunately, Harden misrepresents the fields the criticizes. She shifts standards of evidence to suit her pre-conceived goals. Most importantly, she fails to show that behavior genetics is at all relevant for the values and policies she endorses.
I promise this will be short, but I need to keep track of the long line of falsehoods and omissions surrounding the Hsu controversy (background here). Apparently the right wing thinks repeating the same story over and over makes it more true. They are wrong, their account is nothing but “pedigreed bunk.”
The true story of Hsu controversy is disappearing.
“In the fullness of time” Steve Hsu assures the listeners on a recent podcast (more about the podcast below) Michigan State University President Stanley asking for and accepting his resignation, “will really looking like irrational mob stupidity causing an action, a hasty action by the administration” (17:30) . No one knows if he’s right or not but as a historian who has researched and written about many similar controversies I suspect Hsu could not be more wrong. The aftermath of the Hsu controversy is playing out in the exact same way dozens of other similar controversies have played out. This post is to point out the moves of what is more-or-less a ritualistic dance. As they said on Battlestar Galactica, “All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again.”
(More on the podcast below. For background on this controversy, see here. For information about his resignation as Michigan State’s Vice-President for Research see here).
There are two common threads I’ve discovered in my historical work on race and science. First, the line between establishment scientists and right-wing racists is very, very thin and establishment scientists far too often think that their status of “scientist” can protect them from being used by unsavory political actors. Sometimes, as in the case of Jensen (see here or here) the scientist just blunders along and helps some of the most noxious political agendas imaginable. Other times supposedly establishment scientists simply parrot the arguments of the racist right–who knows if they realize they are doing so or not? (see here or here). .
The second thread is that both establishment scientists and the racist right try desperately to control how specific events and controversies are remembered. The narrative is pretty standard: Brave scientists seeking the truth about racial differences in an objective and apolitical manner are hysterically attacked by lefty ideologues, or more recently, “postmodernists,” who, to use a phrase I just now made up, “can’t handle the truth!” (see here or here).
As a historian it is fascinating to see this entirely predictable narrative unfold in real time in the Hsu controversy. Let’s explore both threads in this controversy.
Arthur Jensen’s works simply recapitulated racist stereotypes of the 19th century.
For the last four decades of his career psychologist Arthur Jensen (1922-2012), was the most visible and vocal proponent for the claim that African Americans were genetically less intelligent than white people. He and many of his supporters trumpeted his statistical proficiency as proof he was simply an objective scientist asking hard questions and discovering uncomfortable truths. He continually claimed he was asking factual questions and not giving any policy recommendations.
That last bit is utter nonsense. Throughout his long career, Jensen warned about stupid Black people outbreeding smart white people. In his famous 1969 article he wrote:
Certain census statistics suggest that there might be forces at work which could create and widen the genetic aspect of the average difference in ability between the Negro and white populations in the United States, with the possible consequence that the improvement of educational facilities and increasing equality of opportunity will have a decreasing probability of producing equal achievement or continuing gains in the Negro population’s ability to compete on equal terms…..Is there a danger that current welfare policies, unaided by eugenic foresight, could lead to the genetic enslavement of a substantial segment of our population? The possible consequences of our failure seriously to study these questions may well be viewed by future generations as our society’s greatest injustice to Negro Americans. (p. 95)
Look out white Americans! Racial inferiors are putting your civilization at risk! Two years before his 1969 article, Jensen made this quite clear. He endorsed discouraging or preventing people of lower intelligence from reproducing, what is thought of as negative eugenics rather than trying to encourage smart people to reproduce, which would be postitive eugenics:
A lowering [of IQ] by as much as one standard deviation would probably make civilization impossible.
The reasonable answer I believe, is to think at present only in terms of negative eugenics rather than in terms of positive eugenics. That is to say, there are probably traits which have no conceivable survival value and which all humane persons would agree are human misfortunes which should be prevented if at all possible.
Jensen’s dysgenic nightmare was shared by the racist right of American politics, a fact that his admirers always chose to ignore. Hence, when the psychological journal Intelligence proclaimed Arthur Jensen, “A King Among Men” (seriously?), both American Renaissanceand Vdare eagerly agreed with Jensen’s ascension to the throne.
Part Three: When a Paper Doesn’t Take Its Own Thesis Seriously
I’ll end this series with the paper with which I have the longest history – Jonathan (“Jonny”) Anomaly’s 2017 “Race Research and the Ethics of Belief.” I was one of the Very Mean ReviewersTM that Anomaly wrote a blog post about, and yes, in my review I suggested that the paper was unpublishable. Clearly I was wrong, as it made its way into print in more or less the same form that I originally read. But pace Anomaly’s interpretation, my main complaint about the paper, as a reviewer, had little to do with the paper’s (weak) defense of hereditarianism (though my scorn for Nicholas Wade’s shoddy defense of scientific racism was openly and forcefully expressed in my review). Rather, my main complaint was focused on what I viewed as the paper’s more or less entirely incoherent argument structure.
I’ll note at the outset that some readers may find this account to be, as John Jackson put it, a little bit “inside baseball.” The gap between what the paper purports to do, and what it actually goes, is stark, but making sense of what the paper purports to do does get us a bit into actual philosophy (that isn’t even about race).
Part II. A paper about policy that doesn’t engage with policy
Cofnas’s recent piece,1published in journal Philosophical Psychology, is problematic for a different reason than Winegard, Winegard, and Anomaly – it simply fails to do what it claims. The very title of the paper “Research on group differences in intelligence: A defense of free inquiry,” points towards its absurdity. As many people immediately pointed out, research on group differences in intelligence has been pursued and published regularly, and there are no limits on “free inquiry” around it.2 At least, no more so than there are limits on “inquiry” surrounding climate change skepticism or claims about the dangers of routine childhood vaccinations. In each case, what there is, instead, is a broad consensus among experts who actually engage with research of the relevant kind that the claims being made are too often wildly ill-supported (often already having been shown to be wrong), and the implications drawn by supporters on the basis of these ill-supported claims are often far too strong. When researchers argue that reasonable people of goodwill should not pursue bad research that purports to support certain kinds of conclusions about group differences in intelligence, or certain kinds of conclusions about anthropogenic climate change, or certain kinds of conclusions about the safety of vaccine, they are not arguing against “free inquiry,” but rather in favor of not pursuing grossly irresponsible research.
In this series of blogposts, I discuss three relatively recent papers that, in one way or another, defend the so-called hereditarian hypothesis – the claim that genetic differences between human populations identified as ‘races’ are causally responsible for realized differences in cognitive abilities as measured by I.Q. test-taking ability, in a straightforward way via developmental effects on e.g. neurobiology (rather than through e.g. racism and the legacies of racism associated with racial ascriptions). But my main point in these posts is not to engage directly with the arguments put forward in defense of that hypothesis; these have been confronted many times before, and found seriously wanting. Rather, my goal is to think more about the structure and stated aims of those papers, and the ways in which the papers fail to take seriously their responsibility to honestly present their own arguments, and to honestly engage with the relevant literature.