I listened to Sam Harris’ podcast with Ezra Klein yesterday. A long listen. My summary without the long backstory:
Ezra Klein is well informed concerning Charles Murray, and is very concerned about how suggesting differences in intelligence between races has affected social policy, particularly in the U.S.A. I think his point is well taken – racism has always come along with the justification that the science of the day showed inherent cognitive “superiority” and was used as a tool of oppression. This is well supported.
Sam Harris got into this by defending Charles Murray’s science in Murray’s book “The Bell Curve”, not his policy suggestions. Harris’ concern is that Klein is conflating Murray’s social policy with the data on I.Q. The data Murray used indicates a small difference in I.Q. among groups – Asians, Caucasians, those of African heritage. The differences, Murray suggests in one chapter of his book, could be attributable to both environment, and genetics.
Klein’s attitude is that the science could be wrong – particularly the genetic – or heritable – claim. The science has been wrong before. Harris’ response is that we know the older science was wrong because of better science now, and that ignoring the best science we have currently does not help. Social policy and science are separate issues that need to be addressed individually, before addressed together, for the sake of clarity.
My take: We know there are genetic differences between populations. They are often visible (skin color, adaptability to cold or heat – Inuit or Kenyan, for instance). All homo sapiens have a tribal history, and most tend to gravitate towards in-groups. These in-groups tend to polarize left and right politically to differentiate themselves. I don’t think ignoring real differences in individuals is helpful – if I’m working with a student with a certain capacity for range of motion in one joint, I don’t pre-judge what the “correct” or “standard” R.O.M. should be. That could be oppressive. I cannot and would not want to make claims about the R.O.M. of “older people” – because I’d be incorrect a lot of the time. The reasonable approach here is to assess the abilities of the individual, not the group.
Looking for genetic differences in populations does raise a red flag, particularly with the history we’ve had with racism. There is nothing in Klein or in Harris that suggests racism, and they both understand that – the concern is Murray’s motivation. The fact that this discussion is so incendiary speaks to the need for true conversation. Using identity politics as a wedge is understandable, but if we say that one group, race or sex – not one individual – doesn’t “get it”, then we are playing a bigoted card (for if the group doesn’t “get it” and we do… – then they must be deficient in some way as a group).
Could it be that we land on one side or the other of a discussion about differences in populations because of a genetic predisposition in some constituent of our thinking/feeling nature? That is a claim that, without testing its veracity, could become a belief – a religion, if you will. Any intuition – particularly ideas that may affect others – need to be falsifiable. The process of making sure the idea is right is Science. Scientists are as apt to make mistakes and have biases as anyone else – that is why the methods of science require peer review and replication of experiments.
Without the willingness to look at the data of any experiment as objectively as possible, we can’t move forward with more knowledge. Homo Sapiens (that’s all of us on the planet right now) successfully eradicated – by violence or by accident- all the other populations of sapien (and we had many cousins). That’s our heritage. Let’s try to stop.