William Saletan in SLATE: "Stop Talking About Race and IQ"
April 27, 2018, 10:01 PM
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In Slate, veteran William Saletan writes:

POLITICS


Stop Talking About Race and IQ
Take it from someone who did.

By WILLIAM SALETAN

APRIL 27, 20181:42 PM

The race-and-IQ debate is back. The latest round started a few weeks ago when Harvard geneticist David Reich wrote a New York Times op-ed in defense of race as a biological fact. …

I’ve watched this debate for more than a decade. It’s the same wreck, over and over. A person with a taste for puncturing taboos learns about racial gaps in IQ scores and the idea that they might be genetic. He writes or speaks about it, credulously or unreflectively. Every part of his argument is attacked: the validity of IQ, the claim that it’s substantially heritable, and the idea that races can be biologically distinguished. The offender is denounced as racist when he thinks he’s just defending science against political correctness.

I’ve noticed the opposite phenomenon more often: a person with, ironically, a very high opinion of his own IQ sets out to prove the racist white trash morons wrong by exploding the entire concept of intelligence and/or race. Then after awhile, he notices that his credulous and unreflective arguments aren’t sweeping his opponents before him. So he loses interest and does something else. After awhile a new champion of the conventional wisdom arises and the cycle repeats.

I know what it’s like to be this person because, 11 years ago, I was that person. I saw a comment from Nobel laureate James Watson about the black-white IQ gap, read some journal articles about it, and bought in. That was a mistake. Having made that mistake, I’m in no position to throw stones at Sullivan, Harris, or anyone else. But I am in a position to speak to these people as someone who understands where they’re coming from. I believe I can change their thinking, because I’ve changed mine, and I’m here to make that case to them. And I hope those of you who find this whole subject vile will bear with me as I do.

Here’s my advice: You can talk about the genetics of race. You can talk about the genetics of intelligence. But stop implying they’re the same thing. Connecting intelligence to race adds nothing useful. It overextends the science you’re defending, and it engulfs the whole debate in moral flames.

I’m not asking anyone to deny science. What I’m asking for is clarity. The genetics of race and the genetics of intelligence are two different fields of research. In his piece in the Times, Reich wrote about prostate cancer risk, a context in which there’s clear evidence of a genetic pattern related to ancestry. (Black men with African ancestry in a specific DNA region have a higher prostate cancer risk than do black men with European ancestry in that region.) Reich steered around intelligence where, despite racial and ethnic gaps in test scores, no such pattern has been established.

You know, vast amounts of DNA data are in various pipelines right now.

Genome scanning has undergone a fall in price that makes computer chips during the good old days of Moore’s Law seem like Old Masters.

I’m just sayin’ …

It’s also fine to discuss the genetics of IQ—there’s a serious line of scientific inquiry around that subject—and whether intelligence, in any population, is an inherited social advantage. We tend to worry that talk of heritability will lead to eugenics. But it’s also worth noting that, to the extent that IQ, like wealth, is inherited and concentrated through assortative mating, it can stratify society and undermine cohesion. That’s what much of The Bell Curve was about.

The trouble starts when people who write or talk about the heritability of intelligence extend this idea to comparisons between racial and ethnic groups. Some people do this maliciously; others don’t. You can call the latter group naïve, credulous, or obtuse to prejudice. But they might be open to persuasion, and that’s my aim here. For them, the chain of thought might go something like this: Intelligence is partly genetic, and race is partly genetic. So maybe racial differences on intelligence tests can be explained, in part, by genetics.

There are two scientific problems with making this kind of inference. The first is that bringing race into the genetic conversation obscures the causal analysis. Genes might play no role in racial gaps on IQ tests. But suppose they did: To that extent, what would be the point of talking about race?

Why can’t your racist scientists be like the Obama Administration and never bring up the topic of race? Oh … ok, well I guess the Obama Administration did mention the topic of race all the time, but that was solely in the context of blaming white people, like those evil white racist teachers in Minnesota who were disciplining black students three times as often as white students.

But the Obama Administration wasn’t being racist, it was just pointing out all the infinite ways in white White People Are Bad. Since we know from Science that everybody is genetically identical, then any statistical patterns showing blacks behaving badly is simply scientific proof of white racism.

Some white kids, some black kids, and some Asian kids would have certain genes that marginally favor intelligence. Others wouldn’t. It’s still the genes, not race, that would matter.

This is a rare point of consensus in the IQ debate. In his interview with Harris, Murray notes that in The Bell Curve, race was a crude proxy for genetics. Since the book’s publication in 1994, our ability to assess genetic differences has come a long way. Today, scientists are evaluating thousands of genes that correlate with small increments in IQ. “The blurriness of race is noise in the signal,” Murray tells Harris. “It’s going to obscure … genetic differences in IQ.”

“Race science,” the old idea that race is a biologically causal trait, may live on as an ideology of hate.

For example, noted Ideologue of Hate David Reich, the Harvard geneticist, recently published an entire book documenting the racial prehistory of the world.

But as an academic matter, it’s been discredited. We now know that genes flow between populations as they do between families, blurring racial categories and reshuffling human diversity.

For example, David Reich’s own genes are a mishmash of black, Thai, Chinese, American Indian, and European. Oh, wait, sorry, that’s Tiger Woods. Reich himself says he didn’t bother scanning his own genes because he’s sure he’s got pretty much the same genes as other Ashkenazis.

Genetic patterns can be found within groups, as in the case of prostate cancer. But even then, as Ian Holmes notes in the Atlantic, the patterns correlate with ancestry or population, not race.

Yes, but race correlates ancestry or population, in fact to such a high degree that the three words are pretty close to synonyms. Reich was able to use self-identified race from boxes checked by medical patients to find certain gene variants from West Africa that make African-Americans more prone to prostate cancer.

Can somebody point out some examples used by white progressives to illustrate important real world distinctions between the words?

When you finally get white liberals to offer examples of what they mean by these pronunciations, they mean that some African-Americans shouldn’t be called black because they have a lot white ancestry. (They also like to imagine that Republican voting whites in the South also have a touch of the tarbrush, those losers!)

Not surprisingly, white intellectuals haven’t had much success with this line of argument in persuading people who self-identify as African American to stop doing that and to celebrate instead the diversity of their ancestry. In fact, these arguments are almost never aimed at blacks, who tend to be proud of being black and who enjoy being blacked. Instead, these arguments are intended to befuddle fellow whites.

When you drag race into the IQ conversation, you bring heat, not light.

We need to go back to talking about cool Science ideas like White Privilege and Unbearable Whiteness.

The second problem with extending genetic theories of IQ to race is that it confounds the science of heritability. …

It’s one thing to theorize about race and genes to assist in disease prevention, diagnosis, or treatment, as Reich has done. But before you seize on his essay to explain racial gaps in employment, ask yourself: Given the dubiousness of linking racial genetics to IQ, what would my words accomplish? Would they contribute to prejudice? Would they be used to blame communities for their own poverty? Would I be provoking thought, or would I be offering whites an excuse not to think about the social and economic causes of inequality?

We need less discourse in Slate about hocus-pocus like IQ and genetics, and more about genuine Scientific facts like Invisible Backpacks!


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