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.”
Reading the Latest Article on Race Differences in Intelligence
Race Difference in Intelligence (RDI) researchers have been trying to prove their case since World War I when psychologists administered intelligence tests to those entering the Army. It won’t surprise you to learn that one outcome of this mass testing was the blustery assurance among psychologists that at last we had definitive proof of differences in intelligence between the races. However, the case soon fell apart and RDI researchers, the honest ones at least, issued embarrassed recantations. Most famous of these was Carl Brigham who wrote in 1930:
This review has summarized some of the more recent test findings which show that comparative studies of various national and racial groups may not be made with existing tests, and which show, in particular, that one of the most pretentious of these comparative racial studies-the writer’s own-was without foundation.
Brigham was merely echoing many other researchers who realized that intelligence tests could never really prove that white people are smarter than black people and not much could be done about it. For the past century, however, a few RDI researchers always lumbered on, promising that, any day now, we are right on the brink, success is just around the corner, just fifteen more minutes!, and we will have proof that most of the racial gap in IQ owes to genetics.
The latest entry into the jam-tomorrow-never-jam-today of RDI researchers is this piece by philosopher Nathan Cofnas who assures us that “In a very short time” we will know that black people are just generally dumber than white people (I paraphrase here, but that is what he means) . It is never a good sign when an article comes with a warning label as this one did. The editors claimed their decision was “based on criteria of philosophical and scientific merit, rather than ideological conformity.” One wonders what merit the editors found in the article since it has none of these promised virtues.
A scientist first called me a “postmodernist” way back in the nineteen-hundreds. In 1996, not yet a PhD, I was presenting a paper on the role of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) the organization that provided important resources for the social scientists who served as expert witnesses and helped draft briefs for the NAACP-Legal Defense and Education Fund (NAACP-LDF) in the litigation that led to Brown v. Board of Education. I traced the twists and turns the social scientists took when drafting the famous “Social Science Appendix” to the Supreme Court that argued that the very act of segregation guaranteed unequal facilities. This was my dissertation topic and eventually became my first book. I no longer remember my exact argument in my presentation and the paper itself was lost in some long-forgotten WordPerfect 4.2 file, but I tried to describe how the social scientists struggled with the charge that they were advocates, not objective scientists and how the language of the various drafts of the brief reflected that.
In the audience was one of those expert witnesses and one of the signatories of the brief: M. Brewster Smith. Smith was one of two living people who had testified and signed the brief still living (Jerome Bruner was the other). During the Q&A after my talk Smith stood up and accused me of writing “postmodern history” since all this talk about “objectivity” was misguided. We were just trying to tell the truth, he explained. I tried to explain that I was no postmodernist, I had heard the term and didn’t really understand it. I was simply looking at the various drafts of the Appendix (which I found in the papers of Kenneth B. Clark at the Library of Congress) and noting how they made sure they were, indeed, “telling the truth.” I thought that it was obvious that Truth doesn’t speak on its own, it is is expressed by people, argued for by people, and accepted or rejected by people. The interesting question for me was how these scientists, in this case, argued for the truth of racial segregation’s harms.
The charge of “postmodernism” is now a fairly common charge that some scientists make against any history of science that does not conform to the world as they imagine it. In reality, most charges of “postmodernism” are simply refusals to engage in evidence and argument.