Sunday, May 02, 2010

Assuming Genetic Racial Inferiority in the Absence of Evidence

Maybe I'm not giving Ann Althouse a fair shake, being as I don't regularly read her blog and when I follow a link it's usually to some of her more absurd proclamations (like "OMG, that feminist has boobies"), but it seems like every time I stumble across one of her posts... calling it "inane" would be to lavish it with undue praise. The latest case in point, her defense of the statement, "I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent".

Althouse's argument is, in effect, an argument in the alternative. First, "I don't see how that comment can be interpreted to mean that, as a group, African Americans are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent than other racial groups, maybe it means the opposite," and second, "Even if the speaker did mean that African Americans are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent, maybe she meant it as a compliment." The first defense is inconsistent with the plain language of the email under discussion; the second defense is, well, pathetic.

Althouse argues that it's unfair to characterize a refusal to rule out the possibility that African Americans, "on average, [are] genetically predisposed to be less intelligent" as suggesting that "black people are genetically inferior to white people" because the speaker was not saying that was the case, instead simply refusing to rule out the possibility. Althouse glosses over the fact that the speaker was defending her prior position, was unable to present any evidence to support her genetic theories, and instead engaged in a cheap rhetorical trick - reversing the burden of proof - to in effect argue that she was entitled to her beliefs until somebody proved them wrong. ("I would just like some scientific data to disprove the genetic position, and it is often hard given difficult to quantify cultural aspects.")

Althouse argues that we don't have the full context of the conversation. That's true. The person who leaked the email, whose identity as far as I know remains unknown, provided only the one email and we have to infer what else might have been said. As I understand the back story, the person who leaked this email got into some sort of dispute with the speaker and, six months after-the-fact, decided to try to damage her career - pretty deplorable. But Althouse's pretense that we can't know what position the speaker was taking - that she could have been "criticized by someone else for ruling out the possibility" that "African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent", is a demonstration of either willful or inept misreading of the email.
I don’t think it is that controversial of an opinion to say I think it is at least possible that African Americans are less intelligent on a genetic level, and I didn’t mean to shy away from that opinion at dinner.... I would just like some scientific data to disprove the genetic position, and it is often hard given difficult to quantify cultural aspects.
Althouse follows up with an attack on the law school dean who spoke against the statement, first speculating on where the dean falls on the "nature vs. nurture" debate, then adding:
But consider Minow's other interpretive leap — that to be less intelligent is to be inferior. Why isn't that an even more outrageous statement than what the student [name omitted] said?
Well, let's go back to the statement at issue:
This suggests to me that some part of intelligence is genetic, just like identical twins raised apart tend to have very similar IQs and just like I think my babies will be geniuses and beautiful individuals whether I raise them or give them to an orphanage in Nigeria.
Althouse can read that passage and truly remain confused on the question of whether the speaker believed high intelligence to be a positive attribute and low intelligence a negative?

In what might be a form of anticipatory self-defense, Althouse argues the case that less intelligent people might not be "inferior". First she presents a quote from Brave New World, in which sleeping children are programmed to believe that they should be happy to be "Betas" because they don't have to work as hard as Alphas and are better than Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons... that is, the children are being programmed to accept their situation in life, in what amounts to a caste system.
“They’ll have that repeated forty or fifty times more before they wake; then again on Thursday, and again on Saturday. A hundred and twenty times three times a week for thirty months. After which they go on to a more advanced lesson.”
Althouse argues, "Betas don't think they're inferior! They are less intelligent though." Um... yeah, Ann - they accept their lot in life after their brainwashing sessions are complete. Althouse would probably have been better served by quoting J.K. Rowling's "sorting hat" story from the first Harry Potter book, because at least there it's a conscious wish to be something other than a "Ravenclaw".

Althouse next tries to save herself by quoting conservative satirist P.J. O'Rourke. Like him or hate him, I am not sure that it's possible to see O'Rourke perform without recognizing that he's an intelligent man - and that he knows it. When he writes something like, "I’m sure up at Harvard, over at the New York Times, and inside the White House they think we just envy their smarts," he's not saying it's good to be stupid - he's playing up to his audience with the caricature that "left wing elites" condescend to them and think they're stupid. Having won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to attended Johns Hopkins, even if with a non-scientific major, O'Rourke has little room outside of his satire to make fun of Harvard graduates as thinking themselves smart - the distinction from his fellow Johns Hopkins alums would be what?

But more to the point, the issue is not whether O'Rourke thinks of it as being good to be a C student... good, I would have to presume, for other people... With all due respect to O'Rourke's quip,
The Mayflower was full of C students. Their idea was that, given freedom, responsibility, rule of law and some elbow room, the average, the middling, and the mediocre could create the richest, most powerful country ever.
Even if we were to assume O'Rourke to have meant that as an expression of historical fact, by the time of our nation's independence the founding fathers had a very clear sense of a natural aristocracy, with any number of checks and balances imposed in the Constitution to make sure that the nation's "C students" didn't take over. Although she appears to take no offense, herself, I'll assume that Althouse has read enough of the Constitution to understand why, more than two centuries later, assertions that African Americans are inferior to whites might continue to rub many other people the wrong way. Really - Althouse thinks, "Maybe she meant it as a compliment" is a viable defense?

Further, it's again obvious from the comment on its face that the speaker views intelligence as a positive attribute. What other inference would Althouse have us draw from the assertion, "I think my babies will be geniuses and beautiful individuals" - bad is good, up is down, and she hopes that her children will be burdened by beauty and genius?

Then there's the inevitable question, why is Althouse attempting to defend the statement? Even if we assume the first defense to be in good faith, based upon a clumsy or inept reading of the contentious email, why the "It's not bad to be less intelligent" defense? Does she imagine that people offended by the original statement will read her defense and say, "Maybe the speaker thought her statement was a compliment" or "Whether or not there's a genetic component, we shouldn't see the comment as insulting because being less intelligent is a good thing"? Seriously?

Were Althouse to think about the issue of IQ and race, it might occur to her first that the value of the claim that race correlates with intelligence is of minimal benefit, because there is no valid dispute that a randomly selected African American may be more intelligent - even vastly more intelligent - than a randomly selected person of a different race, the Harvard student who authored the email or, dare I suggest, Professor Althouse herself. Second, there's no clear definition of what it means to be African American. Do we apply the "one drop" rule, in which case the assertion becomes that the genetic influence of that one drop is so profound that it impairs the intelligence of the recipient and his descendants for untold generations? If not, why doesn't intelligence more closely associated with skin color - does it need to be explained that African Americans are not uniform in color?

And wow, to assume that the genes for skin color and intelligence are somehow linked? Scientists, ranging from absolute hacks to the sincerely misguided, have spent generations pursuing dead-ends such as phrenology or other "scientific" measures of the human body in order to try to find "objective" evidence of the biological superiority or inferiority of one ethnic group or another. Need I post a Nazi illustration of the "Jewish Nose" for it to click where this brand of scientific racism can lead? Althouse finds it in some way defensible for somebody who has no evidence of her own to offer to resurrect those discarded notions while rejecting their attempt at objective measure, and simply arguing that the key correlate to genetically superior intellect is African skin pigmentation (but not the genes that lead to dark skin in other ethnic groups)?

There's an intrinsic element of racism in the assumption, based upon "personal experience", that a particular ethnic group is "less intelligent" than another - and, as she waits for her assumptions to be disproved by others, that's all the author of the email has to offer. It's a natural human tendency, but it's not even close to scientific, to see somebody from our own ethnic group struggle with a problem and attribute their struggle to something extrinsic - education level, their upbringing, etc. - while attributing the same struggle by an ethnic minority to something intrinsic - their genes. People have to train themselves, or be trained, to consider such factors as sample size and their own biases. The author of the email gives no indication of how intelligence should be measured or what measure she has applied, beyond her own assumptions, in her determination that it's possible for African Americans, on the whole, to be genetically programmed to be less intelligent.

Further, recent scientific research indicates that aspects of intelligence, even of the structure of the brain, that many have believed to be innate or fixed are in fact far more flexible than we've previously thought. Meanwhile we have identified genes that govern hair color, eye color, skin color... and there's no indication that any of them correlate to intelligence - let alone define "race".

It's interesting that although Althouse finds it horrible that people have assumed, based upon the plain language of the controversial email, that its author believes that African Americans are, on the whole, less intelligent, she plays a game with the statement of the dean who responded to the statement,
It's possible — possible! — that Minow thinks that everyone less intelligent than her is inferior, but for reasons having only to do with nurture. This must be an interesting subject for her, because she's the daughter of a highly successful man, Newton Minow (the FCC chairman who called TV a "vast wasteland"). Does she trace her high intelligence only to environmental factors?
It's also possible - possible! - that Dean Minow believes that there is a genetic component to intelligence, but not one that correlates with race. It's also possible that she recognizes the huge amount of interracial mixing in the African American community and, particularly in light of the aforementioned "one drop rule", finds the notion of a genetically based "African American" race to be absurd.

Althouse links with approval to "neoneocon" who writes,
As for me, I don’t happen to think that African Americans are genetically inferior in this arena. But I do think that banning speculation and/or research into the question is both intellectually dishonest and an affront to liberty.
We can start by noting that unlike Althouse, neoneocon had no trouble recognizing the remarks for what they were - an assertion of racial inferiority. But wait a second. Scientists are researching genes as they relate to physical appearance. Scientists are also researching genes that may be linked to intelligence, however defined. There's nothing scientific about assuming something to be the case in the absence of evidence. When you say something along the lines of, "I don't have any evidence to support my position, but until you show me proof to the contrary I'm absolutely not going to rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on the whole, genetically programmed to be less intelligent," the problem is not that you're suggesting that an answer could be reached through research.

Althouse is correct in this statement,
There is a difference between "suggesting" something is true and conceding that you don't have a basis for excluding the possibility that something is true.
For example, there is a difference between saying "Professor Althouse is an idiot" and saying "I don't have a basis for excluding the possibility that Professor Althouse is an idiot." Yet I suspect that if Professor Althouse were to hear that second statement from her peers, or to overhear it in a conversation between students, she would take offense. (I don't want to be presumptuous - I'll leave open the possibility that she would shrug and think to herself something along the lines of, "Maybe they only know me from my 'BoobGate' posts.")

1 comment:

  1. You're catching a distinction that the defenders of the comment, those attempting to strip it of its innate racism, are overlooking: the statement was not a call for scientific research. There would be ambiguity in a statement like, "I wish some scientists would finally prove or disprove the idea that African Americans are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent." But if you state that you will adhere to your belief that such a genetic predisposition exists unless and until your peers disprove it, the ambiguity vanishes.

    I acknowledge, for lack of a better word, the effort of the handful of researchers, lay and occasionally scientifically educated, who want to "prove" that African Americans are less intelligent than other races. But we're not talking about somebody who asked her friends, "How would you respond to the authors of The Bell Curve?"

    I wonder how the defenders of the comment would feel if the author had instead argued that, unless scientists proved otherwise, based upon her personal observations she would continue to assume that African Americans as a group are genetically programmed to be better singers or better dancers than other racial groups. Would that also be defended as a fair matter for scientific debate? Would they acknowledge the history under which such claims were used to belittle African American achievement - "white people work hard to sing, dance, play sports; black people are born with their talent." Would they be confused about the mindset of somebody who refused to dismiss the idea that, on the whole, African American achievement is based in genes "unless somebody proves otherwise"?