Wednesday, 14 May 2014

She Blinded Me with Science


Foolishness back in the US of A is in the news again.

No, I'm not talking about the increasing pace with which the country is turning into a banana republic (pace the revelation that the son of Vice President Biden - who, despite being a Yale Law School grad was so dull that he three times failed the Delaware bar exam, benefiting from a rules change allowing him a fourth and finally successful bite at the legal apple - has been appointed to the board of directors of one of the largest energy holding companies in Ukraine).

I'm talking about the nearly schizophrenic relationship the country has with "science."  

The way the "teams" typically line up on either side of the ball has the progressives taking ostentatiously "pro-science" positions, attacking conservatives as being anti-scientific dunces who believe that the flat earth was cooked up in a bath tub six days ago.  Just recently, many of my more liberal friends were crowing about the most recent take down of a climate change "denier" by Bill Nye "the Science Guy" on some obscure noisemaking show on HBO.

Nye is the go-to guy for those who want to engage in an exercise in fishing with dynamite, looking to embarass the religious or those who think that the best solutions to the challenges climate change presents might not involve Al Gore enriching himself or other political patronage.

Nye is a smart guy, and generally performs a public service by trying to highlight to Americans the value of science and promoting interest in it.

He's not, however, a "scientist," despite what the barking dogs at Mother Jones or the clowinsh Bill Maher would have you believe.  He has a BS in mechanical engineering, but largely his career has been as an entertainer.  He wears a bow tie, but then again, so did Colonel Sanders, so that's not too strong a set of bona fides. 

In short, Nye has less science education than I do, and I am not scientist.

The allegiance to science changes quickly when other nettlesome topics arise.  Most recently, a former science writer for the New York Times called Nicholas Wade has just had published a book entitled A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History.

The book follows to a degree in the footsteps of the work of Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein from twenty years ago. The arguments presented revolve around the role of genetics and various human characteristics: behaviour, intelligence, personality.  

The reaction from the left has been as fierce as it has it has been predictable.  And, to say the least, hardly what one could call "scientific."  

In 1994, when The Bell Curve was published - and argued inter alia that intelligence was significantly correlated with genetics (people with 'smart' parents tended to be 'smart' and vice versa) - the reaction was even more fierce.  Leading the intellectual Charge of the Light Brigade was subsequently disgraced paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, whose argument at the time more or less amounted to "intelligence cannot be genetic because it just can't."  Gould has by now more or less been unmasked as a charlatan as a scientist.

My somewhat tongue in cheek description of Gould's point is not a terrible exaggeration of Gould's argument.  At the time, the human genome project, with GWAS and other genetic advances were then in their infancy.  In twenty years, the science has improved.  The "intelligence" gene has not been isolated - likely a simplification, as the science now indicates that it is likely that there is a strong genetic component, but one that relies on multiple genetic combinations - but it is getting closer.  

Wade's book provides an very good, top-level review of human bio-diversity, historically and currently.  One would think that people who describe themselves as defenders of the scientific faith would treat the work appropriately.

Think again.

Here is the comment of blogger P Z Myers, a tenured professor at a public university in Minnesota, with actual degrees and publications in evolutionary biology.  Myers is not nobody - his blog has been listed in Nature magazine as one of the top science-based blogs on the web, and he has an asteroid named in his honour:
I considered reading his (Wade's) book, just to tear it up, but I don’t think it’s worth the effort
How scientific.  He spends several hundred pages on his blog attacking Wade, but does not once address a single point. In summary: I considered reading a science-based book not to ascertain if it was true or false, but as a way of attacking the author, but I was either too lazy or too afraid of what I might find that I didn't bother.

As a disclaimer, I don't know for a fact that intelligence or behaviour have a genetic component.  There is very strong empirical evidence that it so, and that evidence is moving in a direction that must be disquieting to those who hold a contrary position.  Gould has been revealed to have misrepresented and massaged his research.  The conclusions of 40 years ago by Richard Lewontin on which much of the counter-arguments were based have been shown by Richard Dawkins and E O Wilson to be demonstrably false.

Thus, the arguments one hears against the possibility are becoming increasingly shrill.  The equivalent of a child putting his fingers in his ears and shreiking "na na na na."

That intelligence may be at the least partially heritable (like height, weight) is in and of itself, unremarkable.  The main bugbear of what Wade (and others - Wilson and Arthur Jensen before him) raise is the uncomfortable possibility that, if intelligence is partially heritable, and human beings overwhelmingly select mates, either because of geographic proximity or cultural pressures, who are of more or less a similar ethnic background as themselves, that there may over time have developed group differences among the various ethnies of the world.

THAT has political ramifications.

The fallout has been a full-throated attempt by the left not just to control the debate, but to silence it.  Those who, as blogger Steve Sailer says dare to "notice" things are immediately faced with professional and social pressures that are intense.  Witness the very public defenestration of a previously unknown analyst Jason Richwine who, in his dissertation at Harvard, analysed data that showed differences in IQ between arriving Latino immigrants and the general US population.  Richwine's thesis met the fate of most - sitting, untouched, on a dusty shelf for years until it became politically necessary to attack him.  I suspect that Richwine will now find it practically impossible to find work in a mainstream research outfit having been tried and convicted of so heinous a thought crime.

Again, I don't know for a fact that there are population differences among the races in intelligence.  But I also do not know for a fact that there aren't, and I allow for the possibility that there are.  Guys like Gould, Lewontin, Myers, and other self-described or even actual scientists will not.

As a thought exercise, instead of intelligence, suppose we think about something much less politically freighted.  Performance in short distance running.  According to Wikipedia, 76 different men (and they are all men) have run 100m in less than 10 seconds.  Exactly one of those (Christophe LeMaitre) has been of European extraction.  Despite being the largest region in the world by population, it has never - not once - been accomplished by someone whose ancestry arose in Asia.

Of the world records in all running events less than 1000m, every single one is held by a man of west African descent (Sebastian Coe's 30 year old record in the 800m fell 1997).  Wikipedia has a list of top performances by year for the past 50 years.  The last European to have the fastest time in the 100m was 1979.  I suspect that in 2016 - like 2012 - every single finalist in the mens' 100m will be from the same west African origins.

In this case, this does not of course prove that there is a genetic component to sprinting, but it certainly indicates a possibility.  Does anyone really, if being honest, suspect that heritage is totally unrelated to sprinting?

The only reason that people deny that there may be similar relationships between genes and intelligence is because of politics, not science.  It's helpful to keep this in mind the next time a left-wing blowhard starts in about his or her "belief" in science.



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