Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Political uncorrectness revisited

In a recent New Scientist issue, Robert I Sternberg, the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and professor of psychology at Tufts University defends the attacks on James Watson. The opening statement of his comment is
RECEIVING the Nobel prize does not necessarily stop great scientists making foolish statements. William Shockley won a Nobel for his work on transistors, but nevertheless managed to spend the latter years of his career making racist comments and even writing about the mental inferiority of black Africans.
Last week, James Watson, co-recipient of a Nobel prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA, made blatantly racist comments regarding the supposed mental inferiority of black Africans. The response has been swift. His comments were widely condemned and he was suspended from his post at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Unlike Shockley, Watson later apologised for his remarks.
But what of the research in this area? Does the condemnation of Watson's words stem from solid science or from political correctness?

The goal of the comment is, I guess, not just another attack on Watson. It is to show that
The problems with our understanding of intelligence and race show that the criticism being levelled at Watson is based on science rather than political correctness.

The two arguments used are our problems with race as a socially constructed concept, not a biological one. It derives from people's desire to classify. The second argument is our poor understanding of intelligence. Thus talking about racial differences in intelligence is doubly suspect, and thus unscientific.

But let me compare this with the statement of Watson and then apply a bit of logic (still, I guess, a part of science). The offensive statement of Watson, as far as i was able to track it, was:
I am inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa because all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really.

Now, even professor Sternberg admits in his comment that there are differences in measured values of mental capabilities between various `groups'
The tests as they stand show some differences between various groups of children. The size of the differences and what groups do best in the tests depend on what is tested. For example, with various collaborators I have found that analytical tests of the kind traditionally used to measure so-called general abilities tend to favour Americans of European and Asian origin, while tests of creative and practical thinking show quite different patterns. On a test of oral storytelling, for example, Native Americans outperform other groups.

So there are differences. Whether the concept of race is well defined or poorly is beside the point - there is quite a lot to discuss on the subject. But to be able to absorb science based solutions to the problems of great social importance requires exactly such analytical capabilities, which even Sternberg admits might be real.

But let's assume, contrary to the cited findings, that there are no genetic differences in analytical intelligence between `groups of different origin'. That it is all due to upbringing and education. Certainly this component of the differences would be of great importance when we compare the US and African societies. But does it change the message of Watson even by an iota? Shouldn't we reconsider our social policies? After all, we do adjust the way we present things to different people on a daily basis, the best universally accepted example being the gradual way science is introduced in schools. And there are no cries of horror that we treat seven year olds as having different analytical capabilities than university students. No accusations of `childism'.

So, even if all the difference is intelligence shown by inhabitants of Africa are due to environment, is it not even a stronger reason to adjust our social policies? In most places all the schooling their kids receive is practical thinking and oral storytelling: tribal tradition (including the inter tribal violence) and handling a Kalashnikov. This certainly does not help in understanding, for example, the complex issues of environment protection and economic growth in harmony with Nature. Yet, even in the countries where situation is better and real schools are accessible, there are voices to get rid of the Eurocolonialist science. For example for replacing mathematics with `ethnomathematics'. And as far as I have been able to track it down, this new science still has to produce any significant result apart from the fancy name. As a result of such mistreatment `the poor would get poorer'. Ant this is hardly the result we all desire.

In this context, the call of Watson to adjust our policies to reality of a different situation, whatever the reason of the difference, is hardly racist. I argue that the attacks out of political correctness, not science. That the race and intelligence are complex and multivalued notions does not inhibit any knowledge about them. And logical reasoning is still a part of science. So lets stop acting out of the gut feelings and perhaps consider the issue logically.

1 comment:

Wanderer in the country of blindfolded said...

Political correctness rules OK!
In the Letters column, New Scientist (17 Nov 2007) decided to publish three comments on the Watson affair. The first does not only `expose' the hollowness of the claims of any racial differences, but moreover accuses Watson of ignoring the fact that the state of Africa is due to the western nations, having for a long time systematically plundered the whole continent, making it hard for the independent nations to get started there at all.
Living in Poland, which has been systematically plundered by our noble neighbours for centuries I thnk I can spot a difference.