Friday, March 03, 2023

In 2018 Saletan Watched Watson Die On The Race And IQ Hill And Chose The Better Part Of Valor

Slate |  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. The piece resurfaced Sam Harris’ year-old Waking Up podcast interview with Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, and launched a Twitter debate between Harris and Vox’s Ezra Klein. Klein then responded to Harris and Reich in Vox, Harris fired back, and Andrew Sullivan went after Klein. Two weeks ago, Klein and Harris released a two-hour podcast in which they fruitlessly continued their dispute.

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 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.

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 na├»ve, 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.

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