Thursday, September 24, 2020

Science. the left, and genetic academic ability

I am a "scientist" both by profession (I'm minimally qualified to publish in the social sciences) and by philosophical inclination. I think science, broadly defined, is not only the best but the only way to anything that looks even remotely like truth.

I'm not stupid. I know that science is not just a philosophy but a social activity, and prone to the same biases and bullshit as every other social activity. Scientists can be just as racist, sexist, and classist as anyone else. As individuals scientists can hold onto their cherished biases in the face of evidence just as fervently as the most conservative priest. I don't think that if someone has a Ph.D. and slaps the "science" label on something, it is therefore God's Own Truth... or even a little bit true.

But, as a philosophy, as a methodology, as a social practice, I think science, and scientists, have a least a chance of stumbling onto the truth, a chance that no other social practice has. And when some individual scientist makes a mistake, however egregious, we can correct the mistake... using science. And science does, at least in the long run, actually privilege some statements as truth, or at as least moving us closer to the truth.

I'm also a moral subjectivist. I don't think there are any moral truths, precisely because we can't use science to decide moral questions. If the evidence contradicts a moral statement, too bad for the evidence: science is about how the world is, but morality is about the world isn't and what we want it to become. The observation that people can and do murder each other contradicts the statement that people cannot murder each other, but does nothing to contradict the statement that people shouldn't (in some broad sense) murder each other.

Just like any other progressive or socialist, I become incensed when reactionaries ignore or contradict scientific truth just because they don't like it. 

No, COVID-19 really is infectious, whether you like it or not; it really is an order of magnitude more deadly than the flu, whether you like it or not. To be honest, I don't like that COVID-19 is infectious and deadly, but there it is.

No, the Earth really is becoming warmer because of human activity, and the Earth will soon become at best inhospitable and at worse uninhabitable, whether you like it or not.

No, life really did evolve over hundreds of millions or billions of years, whether you like it or not.

No, Black people really are just as smart as white people; women are just as smart as men, gay people just as pro-social as straight people, etc. I happen to like those truths, but that doesn't matter: they're really true regardless of whether I like it or not. And if someone else doesn't like those truths, well, they're free to dislike them, but they're still true.

And we know all the above because science, not because it is somehow "morally superior" to believe any of the above.

But I become just as incensed when progressives or socialists ignore or contradict scientific truth just because they don't like it.

There are a lot of rhetorical moves one can make against any scientific truth. Scientific truths are never known with certainty. Scientific truths are always underdetermined by observation. Science is always theory-laden and dependent on preconceptions. Scientists might always have made a mistake, forgotten this important factor, missed that causal pathway.

Fine. If some philosopher wants to argue that science has given us some nifty gadgets but does not move us one iota closer to any interesting truth about the world, just because science is uncertain, underdetermined, theory-laden, possibly in error, well, that's hardly philosophically disreputable. But I think such a philosopher should be consistent: they should reject arguments from science for positions they like just as vehemently as they reject them for positions they dislike.

I don't think Nathan J. Robinson is that kind of radical skeptic. But when he comes across an idea he doesn't like, he trots out the same anti-science rhetorical moves that I think (hope!) he would vehemently denounce from a reactionary.

Robinson takes exception to Fredrik deBoer's recent book, The Cult of Smart. Robinson quotes deBoer's own summary:

The existence and power of genetic dispositions in academic ability have been demonstrated by literally hundreds of high-quality studies that replicate each other and that find again and again that genetic influence can explain .5 – .8 of the variation in educational metrics within the population.

I'm probably qualified to evaluate this claim, but I'm honestly too lazy to do so. There are plenty of people whose job it is to evaluate this kind of claim and who could do a much better job than I ever could. But it is certainly possible to contest this claim on scientific grounds, and if the science doesn't hold up, too bad for deBoer and genetic academic ability. We'll never be certain, but if we don't abandon science on this topic, we'll be a lot more confident about the answer in twenty years.

Robinson, however, does everything but contest this claim on scientific grounds. Instead, he constructs an elaborate screed that is nothing more than the idea that he doesn't want there to be genetic academic ability, the idea of genetic academic ability is morally reprehensible, therefore there cannot be any such thing.

Maybe that's a good strategy, at least for Robinson. Maybe abandoning scientific reasoning will bring about the kind of world that Robinson wants, and hey, use what works, n'est ce pas?

But I don't want any kind of world that abandons scientific reasoning. And Robinson's science denialism is as repugnant to me as climate change denialism, and has destroyed the credibility I had for Current Affairs as thoroughly as Doug Henwood destroyed my credibility for Jacobin.


  1. And science has the advantage that since it aint "HOLY SCRIPTURE" that even if some bigoted ahole says 'Blacks are inferior' the science will eventually be seen as bigoted by other science and just plain associating with blacks to show the bigoted scientist's science was just plain wrong...wakefield comes to mind.
    In religion this never happens, as a new sect of religion is formed rather than the truth changing anything.
    So yes science is the best way to know!

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  3. I wonder what your thoughts are on Robinson's other point in his piece, namely that we don't really know a person's potential without bending over backwards in order to help them achieve it. It sounds a bit like just the sort of whining that we on "the left" are long accused for, and yet I must say that this point resonates with my experience.

    Sure, differences in academic achievement as measured by current practice displays a strong genetic correlation, but are we sure that we're training as many engineers as we possibly can? It just seems like a much better approach to education in general than the current regime.

    I don't really see how this point is at odds with deBoer's point about forgoing an "equality of outcome" model either. Perhaps Robinson is just presenting a false controversy in order to get a few more clicks?

  4. I wonder what your thoughts are on Robinson's other point in his piece, namely that we don't really know a person's potential without bending over backwards in order to help them achieve it.

    I don't have a firm opinion on that.

    Much depends on what one means by "potential"; as an economist, I see the cost of reaching some quantity to be as important as the maximum quantity that can be achieved at any cost. Is it worth it to use up a ten times more educational resources into making one person an engineer than it would be for another person, even if the first could, with the extra resources, be a good engineer?

    In any event, deBoer goes through a lot of science (which I didn't study carefully); if Robinson wanted to make the case that we can't measure potential, then he would have to hit the science.

    [A]re we sure that we're training as many engineers as we possibly can?

    Well, I don't know that we want to train as many as we can; we should be training as many as we want, given that more engineers means fewer doctors, teachers, etc.

    deBoer's point resonates with me precisely because I'm an economist. Regardless of other problems (which are admittedly severe), I think it's important to look at efficiency and opportunity cost, and differences in ability have an effect.

    Perhaps Robinson is just presenting a false controversy in order to get a few more clicks?

    I'm quite hesitant to impute such base and trivial motives to him. I think the left is just as capable to deny science on sincerely held moral grounds.


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