In my last post I talked about the hysterical response amongst academics to Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance. I argued that his thesis – that genetic differences between the races could explain much of their differential success – wasn’t trivially wrong. I also pointed out a number of common misconceptions people have about evolution that pertain to the question.
My point wasn’t really about race itself – but rather that many of the erroneous responses to Wade came from academic biologists, who frankly ought to know better. The three evolutionary misconceptions I mentioned are common knowledge to professional biologists, and so when you hear a biologist using those misconceptions to attack Wade or other “race realists” there are two possibilities as to what is going on:
- The biologist is able to selectively forget about scientific reality when it suits his/her politics, or
- The biologist is willfully misrepresenting the state of the science to bolster a political claim.
Neither of these possibilities is good! Let’s consider each of them in turn.
Let’s call scientists who are guilty of the first explanation Number Ones. I suspect Number Ones are more abundant than Number Twos, and if we have to assign to them a crime, I suppose we would call it hypocrisy. Why? Because Number Ones are committing exactly the same sin they despise in the science-rejecting segment of the non-academic American population.
I’ve touched on this phenomenon in an earlier blog that tried to parse why so many Americans don’t believe in evolution. Us academics are all so shocked – SHOCKED! – when people choose to ignore our mounds and mounds of irrefutable evidence that evolution is real. How dare they prefer their comfortable superstitions in the face of our HOLY DATA? And yet, Number Ones commit the same sin when faced with the possibility that the cherished precepts of Modern Western Liberality might not capiche with the data.
How much of a problem are Number Ones? Well, hypocrites aren’t dangerous, I guess. They’re not criminals, public menaces, or psychopaths. They’re just assholes. I don’t want to be accused of writing apologias for fundamentalist Flat-Earthers while simultaneously excoriating my colleagues who act the same way. No, all these people are guilty of good old-fashioned assholism and nothing else. The name-calling, the logical fallacies, the absolutely pig-headed refusal to hear one’s opponent’s arguments – Number Ones are like peas in a pod with the Creationists.
Of course, all that says is that Number Ones are human, and that scientists are vulnerable to the same pathologies of ego as everyone else. Those who master egoistic impulses and attain a level of dispassioned objectivity are to be deeply respected; but those who lag behind – well, what can you do?
In contrast, Number Twos, who intentionally misrepresent data, are much more problematic. The intentional misuse of data to obfuscate or outright lie is perhaps the greatest sin a scientist can commit. Our whole profession depends on the reliability of the literature and the pronouncements of our colleagues. Remember that every piece of new science builds on the work that came before! And if that pre-existing work was corrupted, then a cascade of error ensues that doesn’t end until the original lie is uncovered, and even then it’s not a sure thing:
“… the process of scrubbing the literature to remove the influence of a serial offender can be very lengthy. For example, a problem was noted in 2000 with the research output of the Japanese anesthesiologist Yoshitaka Fujii, whose data showed an abnormal absence of variability in the side effects of medication… More recent follow-up suggests that Fujii’s publications, which still had not been retracted at the time this database was assembled, may involve extensive fraud… Subsequent to when this database was assembled, the Canadian Journal of Anesthesia retracted 17 fraudulent papers by Fujii which had been published in that journal and indicated that a further 17 articles were ‘indeterminate’ for fraud… it is noteworthy that it has taken more than a decade for the investigation of Fujii’s work to proceed from suspicion to retraction.” (Steen, Casadevall, and Fang, 2013, PLoS ONE)
Am I being too dire in my condemnation of the Number Twos? No fucking way. First, corruption of the literature is already a serious problem even without the influence of politics. The academic world is a nightmare of competition and cutthroat scrabbling for scarce research dollars and tenure-track positions. It frankly requires constant vigilance and monk-like devotion to the Data Gods to keep people from constantly fudging results to shoehorn their latest research into high-profile “prestige journals” like Nature, Science, and Cell. Consider this:
“…on average, about 2% of scientists admitted to have fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once… and up to one-third admitted a variety of other questionable research practices including “dropping data points based on a gut feeling”, and “changing the design, methodology or results of a study in response to pressures from a funding source”. In surveys asking about the behaviour of colleagues, fabrication, falsification and modification had been observed, on average, by over 14% of respondents, and other questionable practices by up to 72%.” (Fanelli 2009)
So let’s be clear: that astonishing rate is caused just by the desire to move ahead in one’s career. We’re not even talking politics here. So one might ask, is there any evidence that scientists falsify the literature for political purposes?
Funny you should ask. In fact, one of the most famous of all biologists did just that. One could be forgiven for describing Stephen Jay Gould as the Carl Sagan of the evolutionary biology world: a great communicator of the arcane. There can be no question that Gould’s hypotheses have stimulated minds to think about evolution in new and exciting ways, and to question established evolutionary paradigms, for decades. Probably the greatest accolade I’ve gotten in my short career was from a reviewer who compared my Black Queen Hypothesis to Gould’s classic Spandrels of San Marcos paper. And the fascinating argument between Gould and Simon Conway Morris over the lessons of the Burgess Shale fossils – which I first discovered taking Invertebrate Zoology from Joe Dirnberger at Kennesaw State University in North Georgia – might be the reason I drifted farther and farther from fish farming into the fever swamp of evolutionary theory.
But for all of Gould’s contributions, he flat-out fucking lied about race research. Because he was a true-blue lefty, and it just couldn’t be the case that genetics, and not the vile bourgeoisie, was responsible for at least some of the differential success of some human lineages over others. And in the process of lying, he falsely denigrated the work of another scientist, Samuel George Morton, who conveniently wasn’t alive to defend himself against charges of pernicious racism. Just to top everything off, Gould did this in a book, The Mismeasure of Man, which has sold bajillions of copies and is still read and enjoyed by happily ignorant leftists to this day. Without, I might add, the big fat “Retraction” stamp across the cover it so richly deserves.
The fact that I know Number Twos exist is a serious problem for me. I’m annoyed by hypocrisy, but political lying is an affront to everything I believe in. It pisses on science, on the principles of liberty at the heart of what I believe it means to be an American, on simple human decency and collegiality. My observation of the world of “race realism” is that it’s a robust, debate-filled community where people are open to data and alternative hypotheses – quite the opposite of what one would expect from a bunch of racists just trying to prop up their prejudices. Consider this well-researched article (critical of the “strong racial IQ” hypothesis) from Ron Unz in The American Conservative or Razib Khan’s gestalt examination of SNP data to determine if there are real biological differences between continent-scale races.
Maybe the critics of race realism, rather than being Number Twos themselves, simply assume their bête noires are Number Twos. But is this justified? As far as I can tell, neither the two examples above nor Wade are engaging in solipsistic intellectual demagoguery. These are honest attempts to make sense of data and to understand the extant world. Their critics should respond with the same measured, fact-driven demeanor. Unless you’ve got credible evidence that Steve Sailer has burned a cross in somebody’s yard, you should take him at his word that he’s basing his beliefs on solid data and deal with his arguments like you would any other scientist. And if leftist scientists can’t achieve this level of political objectivity, how the hell can I not worry about the provenance of articles like this that directly challenge my own work? Indeed, climate change research, with its hard-to-understand predictions so vital to current policy, depends deeply on the public’s ability to trust the veracity of scientists.
Number Twos are a pox on society. Any scientist willing to sacrifice the principles of the profession for political ends is, frankly, a monster. I have this romantic notion that scientists are supposed to be some sort of secular priesthood for the modern world – unimpeachable sources of knowledge, role models, curators of the legacy of the past and shepherds of a brighter future. It’s not hyperbole that I’ve used words like “sin” and “hypocrisy” in this post; I feel that my profession, particularly its academic wing, is looked to by an increasingly skeptical and atheistic human population for the sorts of answers for which they used to turn to the Church. Given that, being a Number Two is roughly the same as being a priest who rapes altar boys: not only is the Number Two betraying the trust of a few individuals, but he/she is hacking at the foundations of Science itself, raining the stones of the temple ceiling onto Past and Future alike. Every instance of scientific chicanery that drips down to the world of normal people hurts the credibility of the entire profession, to the detriment of the entire human species.
Lesson, then: don’t be a Number Two.