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Humorist and sage wit, Samuel Clemens – better known by his pen name, Mark Twain – once famously said, “There are three types of lies: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics.”
While one may chuckle at this fit of pique, he was making a valid observation. Too often statistical tools are misused to “prove” a predetermined conclusion. Alternatively, people will seize upon some subset of data and make improper suggestions while ignoring the larger set entirely. The statistical equivalent of the “Texas Sharpshooter” fallacy.
So it is with racist claims about genetics “proving” that blacks are inferior.
In the Beginning: Although it surely goes back much, much farther in history, let’s make our arbitrary starting point the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. People with racist tendencies will often cite the use of the words “favoured races” in the lengthy subtitle to his masterpiece.
But — and it's a big one — Darwin doesn’t discuss humans in that book, and “races” was used to describe groups within non-human species. Darwin was not a racist. He did not, unlike many of his contemporaries, think human “races” might be separate creations or subspecies. He was a staunch abolitionist, impressed and influenced by his friend and taxidermy tutor John Edmonstone** at Edinburgh, who was a freed black slave. (** see Citations)
However the true believers did have a champion in Darwin’s half-cousin, Francis Galton, who most certainly was a racist. He wrote that the Chinese were a race of geniuses, that “Negroes” were vastly inferior, that Hindoos (sic) were inferior in “strength and business habits” and that the “Arab is little more than an eater up of other men’s produce; he is a destroyer”.
Galton is a problematic figure, simultaneously a great scientist and a horrible person. Among his contributions to science, he invented statistical tools we still use today, and formalized biometrics on humans in new ways. He coined the phrase “nature versus nurture”, which has persistently blighted discussions of genetics, implying that these two factors are in conflict, when in fact they are in concert.
(It was Galton who gave us the word “eugenics”, too, an idea that didn’t carry the same poisonous stigma it does today. He was enthusiastic about improving the British “stock”, prompted by the lack of healthy recruits for the Boer war.)
Many prominent figures were influenced by Galton: Marie Stopes argued forcefully for the compulsory “sterilization of those unfit for parenthood”. Both Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill desired the neutering of the “feeble-minded”.
Genetics has a checkered past with regards to race. Even today, important figures from its history – notably James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix – express unsupportable racist views. The irony is that while Galton spawned a field with the intention of revealing essential racial differences between the peoples of the Earth, his legacy – human genetics – has shown he was wrong. Most modern geneticists are much less like Galton and more like Darwin.
We now know that the way some talk about racial differences has no scientific validity. There is no genetic basis that corresponds with any particular group of people, no essentialist DNA for black people or white people or anyone.
There are genetic characteristics that associate with certain populations, but none of these are exclusive, nor correspond uniquely to any one group that might fit a racial epithet. Regional adaptations are real, but these express differences within so-called races, not between them.
And so it goes. "Race" doesn’t exist, racism does.
Pop “Science” Racism
Every so often a “scientist” publishes a book that purports to “prove” some type of racial characteristics. I will examine two of these: The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994) by American psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein and Chares A. Murray. (Herrnstein died before the book was published) ; and A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History by Nicholas Wade.
THE BELL CURVE
This book has been popularly used by “race realists” to brand Blacks as intellectually inferior due to their race (genes).
From a Q&A article with co-author Charles Murray in 2014:(Questions are in Bold.)
It’s been 20 years since “The Bell Curve” was published. Which theses of the book do you think are the most relevant right now to American political and social life?
American political and social life today is pretty much one great big “Q.E.D.” for the two main theses of “The Bell Curve.” Those theses were, first, that changes in the economy over the course of the 20th century had made brains much more valuable in the job market; second, that from the 1950s onward, colleges had become much more efficient in finding cognitive talent wherever it was and shipping that talent off to the best colleges. We then documented all the ways in which cognitive ability is associated with important outcomes in life — everything from employment to crime to family structure to parenting styles. Put those all together, we said, and we’re looking at some serious problems down the road. Let me give you a passage to quote directly from the close of the book:
Predicting the course of society is chancy, but certain tendencies seem strong enough to worry about:
- An increasingly isolated cognitive elite.
- A merging of the cognitive elite with the affluent.
- A deteriorating quality of life for people at the bottom end of the cognitive distribution.
Unchecked, these trends will lead the U.S. toward something resembling a caste society, with the underclass mired ever more firmly at the bottom and the cognitive elite ever more firmly anchored at the top, restructuring the rules of society so that it becomes harder and harder for them to lose. (p. 509)
Remind you of anything you’ve noticed about the US recently? If you look at the first three chapters of the book I published in 2012, “Coming Apart,” you’ll find that they amount to an update of “The Bell Curve,” showing how the trends that we wrote about in the early 1990s had continued and in some cases intensified since 1994. I immodestly suggest that “The Bell Curve” was about as prescient as social science gets.
The flashpoint of the controversy about race and IQ was about genes. If you mention “The Bell Curve” to someone, they’re still likely to say “Wasn’t that the book that tried to prove blacks were genetically inferior to whites?” How do you respond to that?
Actually, Dick and I got that reaction even while we were working on the book. As soon as someone knew we were writing a book about IQ, the first thing they assumed was that it would focus on race, and the second thing they assumed was that we would be talking about genes. I think psychiatrists call that “projection.” Fifty years from now, I bet those claims about “The Bell Curve” will be used as a textbook case of the hysteria that has surrounded the possibility that black-white differences in IQ are genetic. Here is the paragraph in which Dick Herrnstein and I stated our conclusion:
If the reader is now convinced that either the genetic or environmental explanation has won out to the exclusion of the other, we have not done a sufficiently good job of presenting one side or the other. It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not yet justify an estimate. (p. 311)*
That’s it. The whole thing. The entire hateful Herrnstein-Murray pseudoscientific racist diatribe about the role of genes in creating the black-white IQ difference. We followed that paragraph with a couple pages explaining why it really doesn’t make any difference whether the differences are caused by genes or the environment. But nothing we wrote could have made any difference. The lesson, subsequently administered to James Watson of DNA fame, is that if you say it is likely that there is any genetic component to the black-white difference in test scores, the roof crashes in on you.”
What The Bell Curve actually says – rightly or wrongly – is that **in America** blacks tested lower at three different age levels (9, 13, and 17) than did whites. What it explicitly DENIES saying is that the difference is exclusively genetic or exclusively environmental. (I do not believe that anything is made of Asian test scores, perhaps due to insufficient data at the time.)
In fact what the authors are saying in the quote above is, basically, “We don’t know – evidence does not point one direction or the other.” So,
Non-scientists saw what they wanted to, cherry picking the parts that seemed to validate their own prejudices/fears and ignoring anything that might refute their positions. The arguments from actual scientists about methodology I am not qualified to remark on except to say the overwhelming majority of the reviews took exception to a great deal of the methodology involved.
It should be noted that Mr. Murray seems oblivious to the fact that racists have used the book EXACTLY the way the critics said it would be, and that he seems to exhibit the “Galileo Gambit” variety of the Association logical fallacy in regards to the critical reactions of other social scientists to the book, and points out how James Watson (co-discoverer of the DNA helix) was lambasted for HIS similar views .
Murray also puts forth the idea of eliminating ALL government “entitlements” to individuals INCLUDING SOCIAL SECURITY and replacing it with a universal guaranteed income from age 21 in this article as well as another book he published in 2006.
To me this seems like a topic for another paper, but the short observation is that this thinking would likely lead to a culture (while it lasted) similar to that on the generation spaceship in the movie WALL-E, where NO ONE did any work to speak of (in fact they could barely walk under their own power) – if the robots and computers couldn’t do it, it probably didn’t get done. Why work when you have a guaranteed income? Yet how many far left radicals demand just such a thing?
Genetics, race, and crime: An audience study exploring The Bell Curve and book reviews
Critical Studies in Media Communication Volume 18, Issue 1, 2001 (Extract)
This essay employs a qualitative and quantitative audience study to explore the reception of racially controversial books, such as The Bell Curve, and their dominantly negative reviews in the popular press. Findings do not support the hypothesis that reviews increase racism by recirculating racist views under cover of disapprobrium. Instead, responses suggest that audience members can incorporate components of both genetic and environmental accounts to their prior views.
Thus, relative acceptance of genetic vs. environmental accounts of human difference did not correlate with racist attitudes; rather those whites who had strong negative affect toward persons of other races appropriated both genetic and environmental accounts to bolster their racism, while both blacks and whites with more egalitarian attitudes were able to incorporate genetic accounts into their schemas.
We conclude that the agenda setting effects of the book and its reviews may have encouraged a less than ideal stasis point in the debate, focusing the debate on nature vs. nurture as causative agents for individuals rather than focusing on issues of individual vs. social responsibility. We suggest further exploration of the functioning of popular book reviews and of audience interpretations of popular reception of mass mediated arguments about race. (Emphases added).
A Troublesome Inheritance
Racism, the misuse of genetics and a huge scientific protest
A newer book on genes and race ignited a scientific protest
Do genes produce racial superiority? The scientific community says absolutely not.
“A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History” by former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade that asserts a genetic basis for certain human behaviors and distinguishes them by race. It’s been widely panned in book reviews, especially by experts in the fields of science and social science touched on by the work.
Reviewers cited scientific errors in the book, but typically aimed more directly at Wade’s conclusions.
The most newsworthy reaction to the book came from the genetic sciences community, in the form of an open letter signed by (at that time) 143 senior biologists and geneticists from around the world, decrying what they say is Wade’s “misappropriation of research from our field to support arguments about differences among human societies.”
They wrote: “Wade juxtaposes an incomplete and inaccurate account of our research on human genetic differences with speculation that recent natural selection has led to worldwide differences in I.Q. test results, political institutions and economic development. We reject Wade’s implication that our findings substantiate his guesswork. They do not.”
If there’s been a more thorough repudiation of a responsible publisher’s nonfiction work by experts in its field in recent years, we haven’t seen it. (The publisher is Penguin Press.)
The pushback against Wade’s book was important because it underscored what one might call a “troublesome” tendency in recent writing about genetics and inheritance that sociologists Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Lindee have labeled “the DNA mystique”: the elevation of DNA into the determining factor for the whole universe of human culture and behavior.
Any subject as poorly understood by the public as genetics is tailor-made for exploitation by corporate marketers. The firm 23andMe, is selling simple genetic tests to the mass market (and which has gotten itself in trouble with the Food and Drug Administration). “Do opposites really attract?” their ad asks. “A recent report from University of Colorado, Boulder shows that people are more likely to settle down with those who have similar genetics, not opposite.” This is the language of infomercials, not science.
Wade’s book followed a similar path, dressing up genetic determinism with a sober scientific patina. Experienced scientists say they aren’t fooled. As biologist H. Allen Orr accurately describes Wade’s thesis in a devastating deconstruction in The New York Review of Books:
“Certain people were predisposed genetically to behaviors and thus institutions that paved their way for their success, whether, say, economic (the West) or intellectual (the Jews). Other peoples, alas, had other genes.”
Wade’s technique can be gleaned from his treatment of Jewish accomplishments: “Jews have excelled not only in science but also in music (Mendelssohn, Mahler, Schoenberg), in painting (Pissarro, Modigliani, Rothko)….Jewish authors have won the Nobel Prize in Literature for writing in English, French, German, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Yiddish, and Hebrew. Such achievement requires an explanation, and the best and simplest is that Jews have adapted genetically to a way of life that requires higher than usual cognitive capacity.“ (Emphasis added.)
Orr writes, “Hard evidence for Wade’s thesis is nearly nonexistent.”
Commenters argued Wade’s approach is fundamentally racist, in that he purports to identify characteristics to account for the success of certain races or ethnic groups, and finds their source in those groups’ genes. The characteristics he identifies tend to be those of whites in general — and European whites more specifically.
Wade mounted a vigorous defense against these attacks. He contended that academics had been cowed, essentially by political pressure, from discussing the biological basis of race. “Academic researchers won’t touch the subject of human race for fear that their careers will be ruined,” he responded in the Huffington Post. “Only the most courageous will publicly declare that race has a biological basis.”(Note: Can everyone say “Galileo Gambit” ?)
That assertion was rejected by evolutionary biologists and other scientists. Discussion of human race isn’t shunned in academia, they say: it’s merely kept within the bounds of what is known and unknown. On race, researchers “say about all we can say,” in the words of UC Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen. Wade, Eisen says, “is trying not just to make it OK to voice racist theories about the origins of human phenotypic variation, he is yearning to give them the validity of science.”
Perhaps unwittingly, perhaps deliberately, Wade has blurred “the distinction between storytelling and science,” writes Eisen. Genetic science is still in an infancy in which what we don’t know vastly outweighs what we can say for sure. Combine that with the fraught issue of race, and you indeed have a troublesome stew.
From the article — Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times (Emphases added)
So, we are back to Mark Twain’s observation. In both of the books mentioned, statisticians howl at the faulty and/or outright dishonest use of statistical analysis to “prove” that which the data does not support. (Murray’s disclaimer not withstanding). My (now ex-) wife, who is familiar with statistics from her studies, agrees, but her explanations as to why are over the head of the average reader, and of absolutely no interest to those who already have their minds made up. Also, In refutation of the racist claims of the above, I include citations to Darwin’s Taxidermy teacher, without whom Darwin might never have written his magnum opus.
Data does nothing by itself. It just lies there. But the conscious, deliberate manipulation of that data to support pre-concieved conclusions is indeed a “damned lie.”
This article was originally researched and written in 2015. Since then particularly since 2020, It is interesting to see how the far left has used some of the same fallacies to declare all whites (and particularly white males) are inherently racist. And in the outright racism of a number of celebrities splattered across various media. (Leftist cancel culture, Don Lemon, I'm looking at you.)
If there IS a gene for racism, it affects all three major groups of human beings.
(see also: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/117884/nicholas-wades-troublesome-inheritance-new-scientific-racism for a more detailed review of the book.)
On John Edmonstone: