The neurobiologist Steven Rose argues in an essay in the Feb. 12 issue of Nature that there are certain hunches scientists should not follow—namely, those which have to do with the relationship between race, gender, and intelligence. In a paired essay, developmental psychologists Stephen Ceci and Wendy M. Williams argue for the pursuit of such research, even if it threatens to have dangerous and socially divisive implications.
The essays are available on-line only to subscribers to the journal (although the opinion forum where the pieces are discussed by readers is publicly accessible). So I’ll briefly outline the two arguments and explain why I think Ceci and Williams make a stronger case—and why I suspect that Rose means more than he says.
To meet the canons of scientific enquiry a research project must meet two criteria: first, are the questions that it asks well-founded?… And second, are they answerable with the theoretical and technical tools available?
Rose summarizes the sorry history of science that has sought to prove innate disparities in intelligence and abilities between men and women or between white Europeans and other races and ethnic groups. Such work has been used, over the past century, to justify oppression and deny equality to groups such scholars considered inferior. He also notes that such research has usually defined the groups under study using external characteristics (white, black) or socially-constructed labels (Aryan, African) that are largely meaningless in physiological and genetic terms. And he reminds his readers of the cultural biases of test-based measures of intelligence.
[T]he categories of intelligence, race, and gender are not definable within the framework required for natural scientific research.… They also fail the second criterion of being answerable: we lack the theoretical or technical tools to study them.
And he concludes:
In a society in which racism and sexism were absent, the questions of whether whites or men are more or less intelligent than blacks or women would not merely be meaningless—they would not even be asked The problem is not that knowledge of such group intelligence differences is too dangerous, but rather than there is no valid knowledge to be found in this area at all. It’s just ideology masquerading as science.
Ceci and Williams start off as one might expect—with Trofim Lysenko, the Stalinist scientist who set Soviet biology back by a generation, ruining many talented scientists in the process, in order ensure the ideological purity of his field. And they argue:
But hatred and discrimination do not result from allowing scientists to publish their findings, nor does censuring it stamp out hatred. Pernicious folk-theories of racial and gender inferiority predated scientific studies claiming genetic bases of racial differences in intelligence. Even if one does not support such work in the interests of free speech, it should be seen as supporting the scientific process of debate. Important scientific progress on these topics would never have been made without the incentive of disproving one’s critics.…
We think racial and gender differences in IQ are not innate but instead reflect environmental challenges. Although we endorse this view, plenty of scholars remain unpersuaded. Whereas our “politically correct” work garners us praise, speaking invitations, and book contracts, challengers are demeaned, ostracized, and occasionally threatened with tenure revocation.…
James Flynn, the foremost proponent of the environmental basis of intelligence, notes that when he first rebutted Jensen’s hereditarian claims 30 years ago, he never anticipated later breakthroughs that evolved from the debate. Without Jensen, he has written, “I would never have made any contribution to psychology.”…
In today’s world, subjective perceptions of scientists’ intent seem to determine a study’s acceptability—work is celebrated if perceived as elevating under-represented groups … but reviled if perceived as documenting sex and race differences in intelligence without a focus on interventions to eliminate them. Yet many future uses of knowledge cannot be anticipated: Flynn’s research has since been used to overturn death-row sentences for mentally-retarded, disproportionately black defendants, for example.
I’m instinctively sympathetic to Rose’s arguments. Science, both social and natural, has used to justify great crimes, and political, class, esthetic and social prejudices and perceptions inevitably color the work of all scholars. And like anyone who has tried to present cogent critiques of method and analysis of books like The Bell Curve to enthusiastic readers, I am sometimes frustrated by the ease with which even intelligent people rush to accept scholarly conclusions that appeal to their preconceptions, without bothering to read or consider opposing views.
But do we need to provide history with more examples of how preventing or discouraging research that goes against the scientific, cultural, religious, or political consensus in the end hampers society and prevents progress? By the same logic, funding should be denied to the skeptics of global warming because the scientific consensus runs overwhelmingly against them and the risks to humanity are so high.
Nature might also have sought out a better advocate for Rose’s position. Politically, Rose has, as a prominent advocate of an academic boycott against Israel, demonstrated his preference for sacrificing open academic discourse and debate on the altar of his political causes. While he’s done much fine scientific work, his record leads me to suspect that he favors political limitations on scientific research that go beyond the specific issue of race and intelligence.
Free inquiry, debate, and research at times leads to scientific and scholarly consensus on “facts” that are later disproved. And sometimes such “facts” can have deleterious social and political implications. But the same is true in every realm of human endeavor, and certainly in politics in a free society. I think that Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories is horribly dangerous to my country and I think the objective evidence weighs strongly in my favor. But that hardly gives me the right to squelch the opinions of those who disagree with me.
Good science is free science—even when it pursues lines of research that I find distasteful. The way to counter research that claims to prove that blacks or women are less intelligent than white men is to pursue research projects that seek to disprove those theories.