Genetics is the truther conspiracy of racial inequality

After reading Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s New Yorker profile of Paige Harden (discussing her new book, The Genetic Lottery), but before reading her book, I went back and re-read the piece Harden wrote with Eric Turkheimer and Richard Nisbett in Vox about Charles Murray’s appearance on Sam Harris’s podcast, and listened to her follow-up conversation with Harris about it (subscription required, but they give it to you free if you ask).

In the conversation between Harris and Harden, something Harris said made me think that the genetic explanation for race differences in what they’re calling “outcomes,” such as educational attainment, intelligence, or other phenotypic “complex behavior traits” is like a truther conspiracy theory for people like Harris and Charles Murray. Any time they think they have poked a hole in the “racism explains everything” worldview, they believe it’s evidence for genetics.

Harden takes positions that are at odds with the viewpoint of many sociologists. She believes intelligence is measurable, and heritable (people get it from their parents), and has important causal effects on people’s lives. But she doesn’t believe that explains why Whites score higher than some other groups on IQ tests. In the interview, Harden had patiently explained that in the absence of evidence of group differences in genetics — which there is not — you can’t assume the direction of as-yet undiscovered genetic differences, even when you have group differences in phenotypes and evidence of heritability at the individual level. She said:

“It’s a really, really, really basic statistical point, which is that if you know the direction of the association within a group, you don’t know anything about whether that plays out between groups, not even in the sign of that direction…. It could be that Africans are at a genetic advantage for cognitive ability that’s been swamped by environmental risks and adversity. … That’s labeled the ecological fallacy, that’s like a basic statistical point. … We have no information, no default, about what is the relationship between differences in genetic ancestry and the causes of these cognition differences that we see on average, between groups. And in the absence of any data, and really good data, the only priors we have are informed by what? So that’s why I think the prior that there is a genetic difference, and what is more that it works in this particular direction, is not informed by the science.”

Murray and Harris can’t see this, or refuse to. They keep “defaulting” to the assumption that because traits like intelligence are somewhat heritable at the individual level, and there are group differences in the observed traits (“outcomes”) — therefore group differences are at least partly the result of genetics. It’s just a matter of time till we find out. Harris responds:

“My default assumption here … for the hundred things we care about in a person, given how much we are learning about the role that genes play in making us who we are, physically, and psychologically … we will find that genes are involved for virtually everything, to some degree. And in many cases it will be the difference that really makes most of the difference, and this is true for individuals, and we will find it true for groups.”

When he says it’s an assumption, and he won’t change it regardless of the lack of evidence, there’s no point in arguing. He’s not talking about science. I would make stronger arguments against the enterprise itself — the idea of trying to find genetic group differences to explain inequality between groups — than she did in the interview, but in any event Harden is clear that Murray and Harris are wrong on this point, as many others have explained as well. (Of course, the existence of meaningful genetic differences between ancestral populations in complex behavioral traits like intelligence is itself purely speculative. Variations evolve at random and might end up sticking if they provide a survival advantage, like lack of skin pigmentation, but it’s not likely humanity was divided up into different populations where some groups were selected for intelligence and others weren’t — unlike skin pigmentation, intelligence is handy for everyone.) Anyway, that’s all backstory to the quote below. Harris keeps saying his real concern is with intellectual honesty and the perils of cancel culture. And he says this:

“The real question is what is the cause of all these disparities. The real problem politically, at the moment, is when you’re talking about White-Black differences in American society, differences in outcome, differences in, you know, inner-city crime, differences in wealth inequality, all of it – anything that people could care about – the only acceptable answer in many quarters, to account for these differences, is White racism, or systemic racism, right, institutional racism. Some holdover effect from slavery and Jim Crow. And a failure to see it that way, just reflexively, is synonymous with being a racist, or being unaware of the depth of racism. White fragility – we’re having this conversation at the moment when the best selling book in the country is White Fragility, right. So to be doubtful that White racism accounts for all of these disparities – you know, White racism, again, in the year 2020, not to be in any doubt about the ugly history of racism in American, to be in doubt about whether racism explains the number of shootings we’re going to see in Chicago this weekend – and the fact that I can predict with something like 100 percent certainty that most of those shootings will be Black-on-Black crime, right, is it White racism that explains that? To have doubt about that will cast you as a malevolent imbecile in many, many quarters, now, and you risk reputational destruction. And the only safe space is to say, ‘Of course it’s White racism, that’s the problem we gotta solve.’ And that is such a stultifying and frankly dishonest place to be, intellectually, at the moment, and it’s closing down conversation on dozens of important topics, and it puts us in a position, insofar as we’re fighting from this trench, right, we’re all just hunkered down against all possible future insights, in this spot, it is deeply unstable, because we will find out things – differences among groups, again now speaking widely about all human difference, among all groups – and differences among individuals, that are simply not amenable to a politically correct analysis, and, again, there’s this inconvenient fact that we have these differences between Asians and Whites, right, so if White racism accounts for every possible difference between Whites and Blacks in society, is there a pro-Asian racism that’s account for the fact that Whites are performing so badly on IQ tests? That’s hard to argue for.”

You have to love how he goes from “dozens” of questions, and “all human difference, among all groups” straight to violence and IQ. But the whole rant is the tell that it’s a truther-style conspiracy theory. When a 9/11 truther finds any discrepancy or incomplete element in the official explanation for the 9/11 attacks — like something about the melting point of steel, or a missing document or garbled radio transmission — they assume it’s evidence the CIA did it. See! How can you believe them?! This is what I’m telling you! In fact, any complex scientific story will have potential discrepancies and inadequacies yet to be explained (“science is not designed for proving absolute negatives”). But those things are not evidence for a particular different theory — unless they really are. Once they plant the idea of their counternarrative, any weakness in the accepted story becomes evidence for their side. So, if “Asians” do better on IQ tests than Whites do, and if Black people kill each other in Chicago, facts that supposedly undermine the “White racism causes everything” story, it’s basically evidence that Blacks are genetically inferior — probably or maybe, blah, blah, blah racism — and you just can’t admit it.

Just in case you were wondering whether people who make this kind of assumption are thinking scientifically, they’re not. That’s a thought I had after some reading and listening. I think I’ll read her book.

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