Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Dumb and dumber: An open letter to William Saletan

The debate on genetically-determined intelligence differences amongst racial groups is nothing new. However, it got a fresh spark recently when renowned scientist and Nobel Laureate Jim Watson made some irresponsible comments on the issue and brought his remarkable career to an unfitting end. Watson has subsequently apologized unreservedly and clarified that there is no scientific evidence to support the notion that any racial group was inferior or superior to another in intelligence. But that didn’t stop much of the journalistic and blogger(istic?) reaction, and people have written passionately on each side of the issue.

A couple of weeks ago, William Saletan wrote a 3-part article on race and intelligence on Slate.com that was an exemplar of how to use dubious data and faulty logic to arrive at incorrect conclusions and then unleash that dangerously flawed material on the general public. There has been a lot of reaction to Saletan’s article too, and I think several people have done a good job at pointing out the numerous problems with it. (Saletan followed this up by writing a piece called ‘Regrets’ which I will come to in a minute). For those wanting a general summary of the issue and responses to Saletan, this OpEd piece by Richard Nisbett in the 12/09/2007 NY Times, and this piece by Stephen Metcalf also of Slate should be useful.

I’m not going into a detailed deconstruction of every point in Saletan’s writings---I’ll just touch on a couple of key ones as they provide a good framework to discuss intelligence itself and peoples’ prejudices in that regard. There is also the issue of journalistic integrity and responsibility---areas in which I think Saletan was very remiss--- and I’d like to address that too. So here goes....

Dear William Saletan,

I noticed that you have posted an interesting piece titled ‘Regrets’ as an afterword to your essays on race and intelligence. In some ways, ‘Regrets’ is more annoying than your original articles, as you mainly use it as an attempt to sanitize your original stance, rather than actually re-consider or retract your irresponsible claims.

You started ‘Regrets’ with the line “Last week, I wrote about the possibility of genetic IQ differences among races”. That sentence is, at the very least, a misrepresentation because you wrote (at least initially) about the possibility of genetic intelligence differences among races. As for IQ differences, you represented them to be very real, existent along racial lines and genetically determined. Then, based on this IQ argument, you concluded that there were indeed genetically determined intelligence differences between races.

Anyway, you continue ‘Regrets’ with “But my attempts to characterize the evidence beyond that, even with caveats such as "partial," "preliminary," and "prima facie," have backfired. I outlined the evidence primarily to illustrate the limits of the genetic hypothesis. If it turns out to be true, it will be in a less threatening form than you might imagine. As to whether it's true, you'll have to judge the evidence for yourself. Every responsible scholar I know says we should wait many years before drawing conclusions.” Well that sounds nice and reasonable. And it sounds like you simply raised some possibilities and you’re being persecuted for it.

Too bad for you, that’s just not true. I’ll give you two examples from your own article. In part three, you write, “Intermarriage is closing the gap. To the extent that IQ differences are genetic, the surest way to eliminate them is to reunite the human genome. This is already happening, including in my own family.” You know, I didn’t realize that the “Some of my best friends are black” card comes in a platinum “Some of my best relatives are married to blacks” version. I bet it gets you exclusive access to Bigotry Mart outlets and Condescension Lounges at airports all over the world. I am overcome with envy. But anyway, please be sure to let your ‘differently IQed’ family member know, over a special holiday meal perhaps, how much you are doing for the intelligence of his/her race. Being of an inferior IQ race, there is the possibility that he/she is not smart enough to appreciate it otherwise, you know? Don’t thank me, buddy; just doing what I can.

And then there is the grand concluding paragraph of your 3-part article: “Don't tell me those Nigerian babies aren't cognitively disadvantaged. Don't tell me it isn't genetic. Don't tell me it's God's will. And in the age of genetic modification, don't tell me we can't do anything about it. No, we are not created equal. But we are endowed by our Creator with the ideal of equality, and the intelligence to finish the job.” That’s a pretty definitive statement, dude. There doesn’t appear to be any ifs, ands, buts or maybes about it. Not only have you concluded by this point that some races of humans are less intelligent than others, you have the solution for it too---genetic engineering! It is quite remarkable really---You looped effortlessly around any attempt to meaningfully define intelligence, did a triple-lutz over the biases of IQ testing and then had the guts to go for the mind-boggling eugenics-twist landing, all while skating on thin ice! Braaaa-vvvo!!

Setting aside the absurdity of your belief that we possess either

(i) the detailed (or even fundamental) understanding of cognitive processes and their biochemical and genetic workings to begin to tinker with them at an engineering level or

(ii) the technical know-how and ability to “finish the job” on anything by genetic manipulation of humans, let alone an overwhelmingly complex trait such as intelligence,

and assuming for a ridiculous moment that we could do it, then, how would you “finish the job”? What would you ‘fix’ intelligence to? What is the Saletan-ian paragon of intelligence? Is it merely altitude on the IQ scale? I hope not, because from what we know about IQ testing, equating IQ scores to intelligence could be a lot like equating truthiness to truth. But whatever that paragon may be, while you are at it don’t forget one more thing. There are these enzymes called DNA polymerases that have this pesky feature of making occasional mistakes while replicating our DNA. These errors, of course, result in genetic variations. So while you are taking the trouble to ‘finish the job’ of equalizing human intelligence across the races to the Saletan-ian paragon, please also be sure to fix the DNA polymerase genes such that those enzymes doesn’t make errors any more. You are, after all, striving to raise the human race from Homo sapiens to Homo genous, or maybe even Homo genius I guess. By fixing the polymerase genes you can try to keep nature from stupidly undoing over time what you would have taken great pains to do for humankind.

The problem with intelligence is that we cannot even define it comprehensively. Accomplished scholars find it difficult to come to consensus on a meaningful and encompassing definition of intelligence. It is easy to come up with working definitions such as scores on tests, success in school or college, success in amassing wealth, professional achievement and so on. But those are, in the larger scheme of things, poor definitions that rely on subjective and ever-changing frames of reference. Those definitions are always temporally fettered, not timeless. And this has been the basis of my problem with those who attempt to quantify differences in intelligence---how can one presume to precisely measure that which one cannot even adequately define?

So let us consider something pretty much everyone can agree on--- that one of the fundamental parameters of intelligence is the ability to learn. Based on this criterion alone, I think we have enough evidence over the course of our history to conclude that ------DRUM ROLL PLEASE---- as a race, a species, a collective, humans are not really very intelligent. Homo sapiens may be quite the misnomer for us----sure we have produced individuals who are sapient, but as a collective we keep proving ourselves to be anything but sapient. Just take the example of violence. We still remain one of the few animal species that willfully and wantonly kills its own. I’m sure that people will proffer many reasons/rationalizations for killing, but these don’t matter. The fact remains that we, as a species, continue to deliberately kill depressingly large numbers of our own. And this trend seems to show little signs of significant decline with time. This fundamental approach to solving societal and global problems---that mass violence is an option---has not changed over millenia. And this is not restricted to any race, culture or country---- virtually every branch of the human race has a rich history of barbarism and cruelty towards other humans. At the same time, even a cursory glance at our documented history should be sufficient to teach us that violence rarely effects lasting change or progress. Lasting change has always come from education and willful choice, not oppression and forced regulation. But the human race still refuses either to learn from, or to effectively apply any progressive lessons that may have been learned from, history. So whether by willful ignorance or cognitive dissonance, we still repeat the mistakes of our past. Perversely though, as a species, we do seem to draw on history to remember and propagate much of the prejudiced behavior that many of our ancestors practiced. Often we call this tradition. Somehow, all this doesn’t seem very intelligent.

Sometimes I wonder whether humans are so far down the cosmic scale of intelligence, if there is such a thing, that any cognitive differences amongst us may laughably insignificant. Let me illustrate this thought with an analogy---Let’s there is a place in which the average wealth is $50000 give or take a $1000. Let’s also say that there is a small isolated village in that place where the average wealth is $100 give or take $10. Now, if a villager with $105 claims to be superior to a villager with $95, how meaningful is it in the larger scheme of things? I think sometimes that on a cosmic frame of intelligence we humans may be like those villagers, quibbling furiously over possible differences that are, in the larger context, meaningless.

This is not to say that the human race has not produced sapient individuals; We have our famous examples such as Darwin, daVinci, Galileo, Gandhi, and so on. But we have also produced millions of lesser known such individuals, who constantly learn and apply progressive lessons. There are today (as there have been in the past) millions of humans who reach out to other humans, often putting themselves and their progeny at a relative disadvantage, because they realize that if true prosperity does not reach every human being on earth it will eventually be available to none. We fail repeatedly as a species, because we refuse to learn from such people. They, by the way, are called liberal thinkers.

Which brings me to my final point: Of all the terrible things you wrote, William Saletan, the most egregious one was the ‘liberal creationism’ straw-man argument, wherein you posit that “All men are not created equal” and blame the liberals for not coming to grips with this notion. Congrats, by the way, for thereby joining the ranks of accomplished verbal defecators such as Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza etc.

Seriously dude, you’re sounding pretty silly with that crack at liberals. Of course all humans are not born equal. In fact I’d be shocked if, in the entire history of human existence, any two humans have been born truly equal. But liberals know that we are all different and, what’s more, they are comfortable with it. Liberals are people who embrace diversity, remember? Liberals are people who do not enforce their values and morality on others, remember? Liberals truly understand that the only hope for civilized society is to guarantee each one of us equal rights; this understanding is grounded in the realization that we are all unequal and that we need to learn to live with our inequalities and differences. Liberals don’t have a problem with the notion that no two humans are equal----they accept it without judgment. Liberals do have a problem, however, with the suggestion that the differences amongst us in such complex traits as intelligence will neatly package themselves along racial lines--- because such a suggestion is not only unsubstantiated but indeed countered by all that we know.

Conservative thinking, on the other hand, shrilly demands conformity. Conservative thinking resists diversity and denies individuals the basic freedom to be different. Conservatives believe that every one is created equal and assume therefore that everyone should be able to live by a common set of rules and values----which just happen to be their rules and values. Conservative thought says, “How can they not conform to my world view? Dammit, there must be something wrong with them!” It is such conservative thinking that primes the mind to jump hastily on any information that may appear to substantiate one’s prejudices. This may explain why you didn’t pause to ponder why something you cited as evidence was a fairly isolated piece of work that failed to blossom into a field of corroborated study. Maybe if you had paused to ponder that, you may have done the background work in time to realize that the study you cited was flawed, agenda-driven and authored by a person with obvious white supremacist ties. That would have saved you the one apology you did make in ‘Regrets’.

A. Moustache.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

On not winning the Nobel Prize---Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature. So you figure she can write. And man, can she write. Here’s the text of Doris Lessing’s Nobel Lecture from last week (I came upon this via 3QuarksDaily and The Guardian, so thanks to them).

I think she doesn’t completely credit the internet with the power that it has to inform. But maybe she means that, like TV, we will end up using it as a toy of mass distraction rather than as powerful information tool.

The lecture is a bit long but it makes for beautiful reading. It never ceases to amaze me how great writers can paint such vivid pictures so effortlessly with words. But it goes beyond the technique and art of writing. The greatest writers are great philosophers. They have the ability to take all the sorrow, injustice and tragedy in the human experience and distill from it simple yet quintessential truths about the human spirit. Then, of course, they communicate it to us in such beautiful ways.

Take the time to read it. If you stick with it to the end, you will be rewarded.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

A DNA-Driven World---J. Craig Venter

From 'The 32nd Richard Dimbleby Lecture
Delivered by J. Craig Venter, BBC One, December 4, 2007'

"There are also science intensive schools that are trying alternative teaching methods. One such school in Virginia is teaching students to be more like scientists - to use inquiry-based learning and encouraging them to do experiments they designed themselves rather than age-old text book experiments and lessons heavy on memorization. These students are learning what I learned on my own while doing research as an advanced university student : that there is no greater intellectual joy than asking seemingly simple questions about life, then designing an experiment to find answers and uncovering a never before known discovery. We need generations of children who are grounded in reality and who learn evidenced-based decision making as a life-long philosophy. Teaching science as evidence-based decision making could have a profound impact on the pace of future discoveries and inventions. Simply asking what is the evidence behind any claim is a marked contrast to approaching life only upon a faith-based system.

Fostering such scientific literacy is crucial, because we and our planet are facing problems that, I believe, can only be solved by scientific advancement."

The entire article is a bit long, but it is a quick (and, I think, a must) read.