Some Thoughts on Research

This story has been going on for a few days:

James D. Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel prize for deciphering the double-helix of DNA, apologized “unreservedly” yesterday for comments reported this week suggesting that black people, over all, are not as intelligent as whites.

In an interview published Sunday in The Times of London, Dr. Watson is quoted as saying that while “there are many people of color who are very talented,” he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa.”

“All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.

In a statement given to The Associated Press yesterday, Dr. Watson said, “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. There is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

I’m not going to comment on my opinion about Watson’s original statement, except to say that I doubt there have testing that takes into account all the factors that matter in education, such as nourishment and culture. I do note that being brilliant in one area doesn’t prevent one from being a complete ass in other fields, and that I can think of at least one Nobel laureate in physics who was convinced Black people were inferior.

I’m a data kinda guy. Its what I do on a regular basis, its what puts cat food in the cats’ bowls, and pays the rest of the bills. Even as a hobby, I like data… posts in my Comparing Presidents series take a very long time to write relative to other posts, and I tend to manage to put them out at the rate of one a week, on average. (Some weeks more, some weeks, like last week, none.)

And yet… I keep thinking back to something my father, who as a physics is himself a data kinda guy, once told me. He was trying to explain to me how semi-conductors work… so John Bardeen eventually came up in the conversation, which led to William Shockley.

And then my father said: “There are some things that its best for society not to measure and not to know.”

And I thought of that a few years back when there were the various studies purporting to show that Ashkenazi Jews score higher on IQ tests, on average, than other social groups. (Disclosure… I’m an Ashkenazi Jew, for what that’s worth.) Obviously, there are idiots among Ashkenazi Jews – I can introduce you to some of my relatives if you don’t believe it – but according to these studies, on average, Jews do better on these tests.

And here’s the problem… if Jews do better – if that’s true, then… some groups do worse. History shows it hasn’t taken a whole lot to justify, to allow, to encourage and even to demand the abhorrent treatment – from slavery to genocide – of certain groups. Usually that’s been in the context of the group being perceived as inferior – using Black people as slaves was OK, you see, because everyone knew they weren’t entirely as human as White people. The Holocaust in Germany was because Jews were bringing down the Aryan race – they may have been perceived as inferior in some ways, but superior in enough others to be thought of as a threat. But these examples are everywhere… racism is everywhere. The Japanese haven’t thought much of non-Japanese, the Arabian peninsula has been cleansed (and kept that way) for over a thousand years, in Africa different tribes have been wiped out on a regular basis, etc.

So it doesn’t take much. And throughout history, charlatans and cranks have been enlisted to show whatever it is that had to be shown for the public to understand the need for the abhorrent treatment that was meted out. Now, intelligence is a multi-faceted trait. And there are all sorts of differences of all sorts of traits between various groups. Which means that even if, on average all groups are “equally intelligent” – whatever that means – there’s plenty of room for those who will justify what they wish to justify. And there are, of course, three added flies in the ointment… The first is that evolution doesn’t seem to produce individuals or population groups that are identical, and the second, which grows out of that, is that individuals are not average – the world’s fastest sloth may not be able to keep up with the world’s slowest gazelle, but a faster than average German shepherd might be able to run with greyhounds. The third… school children who are told they are inferior… perform worse. Convince a whole generation of kids from group X that they are inferior, and the one outlier, and there are always outliers, who would have changed the world won’t.

So… in this context (I’d like to ignore other contexts for this post) – is this an area that it is in the best interest of society as a whole to pursue? If not, could/should such a thing be discouraged? On the other hand, can it even be something good for us to know, and how?