Lessons in Science and Culture

John Nernst at Everything Studies provides a long and thoughtful analysis of a discussion of a dangerous idea: A Deep Dive into the Harris-Klein Controversy. I think it’s worth a comment here as well.

As a neuroscientist and reader of all of these public personalities (Charles Murray, Sam Harris and Ezra Klein), I’ve followed the discussion race and IQ over the years. We know that intelligence, like many other traits like height or cardiovascular risk are in part inherited and influenced strongly by environment. Professionally, I’m interested in the heritability of complex traits like psychiatric disorders and neurodegenerative diseases. The measured differences in IQ between groups falls squarely in this category of heritable traits where an effect can be measured, but the individual genes responsible have remained elusive.

I’m going to side with Erza Klein who in essence argues that there are scientific subjects where it is a social good to politely avoid discussion. One can learn about human population genetics, even with regard to cognitive neuroscience without entering into an arena where the science is used for the purpose of perpetuating racial stereotypes and promoting racist agendas of prejudice. That the data has a social context that cannot be ignored.

Sam Harris, on the other side of the argument, has taken on the mantle of defender of free scientific discourse. He takes the position that no legitimate scientific subject should be off limits for discussion based on social objections. His view seems to be that is that there is no negative value to free and open discussion of data. He was upset, as was I, at Murray’s treatment at Middlebury College and invited Murray onto his podcast. Sam was said by some to be promoting a racist agenda by promoting discussion of the heritability of IQ in the context of race.

In fact, Ezra Klein joined the conversation after his website Vox published a critique of the podcast portraying Harris as falling for Murray’s pseudoscience. But that’s nothing new really; Murray surfaces and his discussion of differences in IQ between populations is denounced.

As one who knows the science and have looked at the data, it bothers me like it bothers Harris that the data itself is attacked. Even if Murray’s reasons for looking at group differences is to further his social agenda, the data on group differences is not really suprising. Group differences for lots of complex inherited traits are to be expected, so why would intelligence be any different than height? And the genes responsible for complex traits are being explored, whether its height, body mass index or risk for neurodegenerative disease. Blue eyes or red hair, we have access to genomic and phenotypic data that is being analyzed. The question is whether looking at racial differences in IQ is itself racist.

I’ve surprised myself by siding with Klein in this case. His explanation of the background is here and his discussion after his conversation directly with Harris is here. Klein convincingly makes the argument that social context cannot be ignored in favor of some rationalist ideal of scientific discourse. Because we’re human, we bring our cultural suppositions to every discussion, every framing of every problem. Culture is fundamental to perception, so while data is indifferent to our thought, the interpretation of data can never be free of perceptual bias. Race, like every category we create with language, is a cultural construct. It happens to be loaded with evil, destructive context and thus is best avoided if possible, unless we’re discussing the legacy of slavery in the United States, which I think is Klein’s ultimate point.

Since these discussions are so loaded with historical and social baggage, they inevitably become social conversations, not scientific ones. Constructive social conversations are useful. Pointless defense of data is not useful; we should be talking about what can be done to overcome those social evils. No matter how much Sam would like us to be rational and data driven, people don’t operate that way. I see this flaw, incidentally, in his struggle with how to formulate his ethics. He argues with the simple truth that humans are born with basic ethics wired in just like basic language ability is wired in. We then get a cultural overlay on the receptive wiring that dictate much of how we perceive the world.

Way back when, almost 20 years ago, I named this blog “On Deciding . . . Better” based on my belief that deciding better was possible, but not easy. In the 20 years that have passed I’ve learned just how hard it is to improve and how much real work it takes. Work by us as individuals and work by us in groups and as societies.

Leave a Comment