Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Neanderthal science

I just listened to all of a two-hour discussion between journalist Ezra Klein and professional atheist Sam Harris, about Harris’s defense of the right-wing policy entrepreneur (as Matthew Yglesias has described him) Charles Murray, famous for his racist application of intelligence research to public policy, most famously in a notorious chapter of his book The Bell Curve. Klein pushes back effectively against Harris’s self-serving martyrdom — Harris, not unreasonably, identifies with the suffering of a wealthy and famous purveyor of quack science whose livelihood is ever-so-slightly harmed by public criticism* — but he doesn’t sufficiently engage, I think, with Harris’s contention that he is promoting the values of real science. Unfortunately, the “mainstream social science” that Harris and Murray are promoting exists only in secret messages from “reputable scientists in my inbox, who have totally taken my side in this, but who are too afraid to say so publicly”. Harris doesn’t allow for a second that there is any good-faith argument on the other side. Anyone who disagrees is merely trying to shut down scientific progress, or simply confusing scientific truth with do-gooding wishful thinking.

The truth of the matter is, Murray and other brave seekers of truth are doing the opposite of helping to clarify reality. They are wading into a swamp of confusion, and pulling out some especially stinky slime that they can hurl at disfavoured groups.

As much as Harris tries to promote Murray as a pure-hearted “content-of-our-character” anti-racist individualist, as long as “race” exists as a social factor affecting people’s self-image, the communities they belong to, and the way they are perceived by others, it remains a potent social force. When demographers argue that “race” isn’t “real”, they are saying that racial categories don’t separate natural clusters by genetic or physical traits. When Murray says, let’s stop talking about race, let’s talk about individual genetic endowments, he is saying that racial groupings have no causal effect on their own, but only label clusters whose difference arise from deep physical causes — wrong on both sides.They say, science can’t advance if we are incapable of honestly discussing the important issues. But here’s the thing: From a scientific perspective, the important conceptual developments are rarely the ones that make headlines, much less controversial and offensive headlines. Harris himself says he doesn’t care about differences in intelligence between racial groups. So who does care? We can do all kinds of research on the genetics of IQ without once mentioning race. Sure, if we were having a rancorous political dispute over educational attainment between black and white Americans, and we were stymied because there just doesn’t seem to be any discernable difference between the cultural and socioeconomic situation of black and white children, and there was no residue of racial discrimination that black people (or white people) were exposed to, then you would be able to do the experiment to discover whether maybe the residual difference could be explained by some differences in distribution of genes, so that maybe you should stop fighting about it — or maybe it would inspire some genetic therapy or just some nutritional supplements that would boost the disadvantaged group. Needless to say, we’re not there yet. We’re not stuck for possible social levers for trying to shift the current disadvantage of black people. So why is a possible difference in genetic endowment between groups an interesting question? Why would anyone want to pick this out as something to highlight, knowing how hard it is to interpret these results, how little actual significance these particular conclusions about racial differences actually have, and how offensive they are to people whose families have been insulted and disparaged for centuries?

Which brings me to Neanderthal science. Harris brings up this example for how PC culture threatens to stifle science:

I think it was three years ago, or four years ago. I think it was 2014 where there were some, there were reports about Neanderthal DNA. I think it’s David Reich whose op-ed in the New York Times kicked off our latest skirmish, I think it’s based on his work. It was found that most human beings are walking around with around 2.7 percent Neanderthal DNA. At the time, but it was found that the only people who don’t have Neanderthal DNA are black people, people who directly descend with some isolation from Africa, from the rest of the human community.

At the time I tweeted, this is now 2014, I tweeted, “Attention all racists, you are right. We are special, or whites are special. We’re part Neanderthal. Blacks are just human.” It just was a trolling of the world’s racists.

Now the fact that I tweeted that should give you as a journalist some indication of what I think about white supremacy. But what if the data had broken the other way? What if the only people on Earth, who were part neanderthal, were black? What then? What would have happened to anyone who reported those data? What would’ve, would that have been an example of trafficking in the most deeply harmful tropes? It’s just pure good luck it broke the other way. And yet, this is the kind of thing that will keep coming at us. This is the problem that you appear to be unprepared for, okay? It’s a problem that you, in the face of which you appear to be willing to believe people who are not speaking with real integrity about data, because it serves political ends. You appear to be willing to help destroy people’s reputation who take the other side of these conversations.

The problem is this: We know that we will discover things about populations that can appear invidious and appear politically inconvenient. And we don’t know when we will discover them.

Now, this is pretty weird. There’s literally no way conceivably that Neanderthals — a European subspecies — could have “broken the other way”, and turned out to be associated with African populations. I’ll take his word for it that ignorant racists would associate Neanderthals with black people, but shouldn’t that just serve as a reminder of how science has been misused for centuries to create a story of white supremacy?

And maybe if you have some really good scientific analysis of human genetics, and one possible interpretation of it could fit into the racist narrative that black people are incorrigible — or the opposite — maybe you just forgo the headline and bury it, leave the point unmade, and let the data speak for themselves, if only because so many smart people in the past have gotten burned making similar generalisations that seemed perfectly sensible at the time, but which now look merely pernicious.

* Or, as Harris puts it, “I came to think that he was probably the most unfairly maligned person in my lifetime”. So roll over lyingterror-promoting antisemite Edward Said, not to mention communist traitor pervert plagiarist Martin Luther King (whose overlap with Harris’s lifetime was, admittedly, small).

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