Within the sphere of writing for a living, I don’t know that there is any trade more socially useful than science journalist.
Most of what scientists do is difficult for a lay person to follow. There are also issues out in the borderlands of current understanding where scientists themselves hold different opinions. Explaining what is completely understood, and fairly presenting the contending ideas about what is incompletely understood, are important services to civilization.
At the receiving end, the science journalist faces formidable obstacles. Most people couldn’t care less about science. Why should they? Our own specialized work, our human relationships, sport, music, gossip, TV dramas, national politics … These things fill our lives and our minds.
“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”
[A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle.]
As numerous writers have pointed out, we are not anyway mentally well-equipped to appreciate science.
Science is a new factor in human existence that goes against the grain of our egocentric mind … Based on the heretical belief in an external world that can’t be known intuitively, science replaced speculation and faith with reason and observation.
[Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science, by Alan Cromer (1993).]
If you grow up as a child with a keen interest in science, you quickly learn that you are an oddity. Egocentric and social concerns drive most human activity. Curiosity about how the world is put together is a minority taste.
That external world does exist, though, and it tends to have the last word. Organized societies need the best available understanding of it, spread as widely as possible, if they are to make good policy. Getting some scientific understanding out into the arena of public discussion is therefore noble and important work.
That’s been my approach to Nicholas Wade and his new book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, that has been creating a minor kerfuffle this past few days.
I did my own review of A Troublesome Inheritance here on VDARE.com back in March. (Mine was I think the second review to appear, after Jared Taylor’s.) More recently, I posted a review of reviews on VDARE.com.
More reviews have appeared since then: this post is a wrap-up of commentary on some of these later reviews. For full tracking of all reviews, see the Occam’s Razor and hbd* chick websites. Some of the reviews—for example H. Allen Orr in the New York Review of Books—are studiedly disapproving, but overall the level of vitriol is less than I expected, certainly less the hysteria occasioned by The Bell Curve.
The longest review I’ve seen—7,000 words, though that includes many extracts from the book—is by James Thompson, a British academic psychologist (apparently emeritus) not previously known to me, on his own blog, Psychological Comments.
Thompson’s review is judicious and mostly positive:
This is a good book, and it may seem churlish, given the flak Wade may get for saying things that are demonstrably true, to point out that it could have been even better. He is doing his best not to frighten his readers, brought up to assume that any interest in genetics will lead them into racial wars …
Thompson’s own outlook is rigorously empirical, yielding nothing to the mob. Here and there he chides Wade for “trying too hard not to scare the horses”:
[Quoting Wade] “A higher IQ score doesn’t make East Asians morally superior to other races.” In fact, that is an empirical question. Rindermann found that higher IQ countries (not just East Asian ones) tended to be more moral, less corrupt, more humane and more liberal in their approach to human freedoms. One can certainly argue that intelligence does not guarantee morality, but that is a different point.
Even on Dissident Right sites like VDARE.com, where we write frankly about race differences and their consequences for society, we tend to tread carefully around the “s” word. Sure, we say, races have different statistical profiles on behavior, intelligence, and personality, but “different” doesn’t mean “better.” Every race excels at something!
This is a bit disingenuous—a sort of HBD cant, really. Once you start quantifying human traits, inferior/superior judgments come irresistibly to mind.
I think I came as close to the dread topic as any of us ever does when I remarked, a couple of years ago, apropos of dictionary definitions of “racism” that:
You can make an argument that “inherently superior” is nonsensical in the case of the human personality, which has many, many more than one dimension. Superior on which trait?
Most of us know what is meant, though. The trait for which superiority is being asserted is a collective one: the capability for generating societies that are materially and creatively progressive—for generating civilizations.
Thompson is even bolder than that:
How about “superior in any absolute sense”? Can that notion be firmly rejected as a matter of principle, and be unassailable by science? It is pretty clear that European Jews are brighter than Europeans and brighter than East Asians, so it seems very likely that they are intellectually superior in an absolute sense. We can compare them on other measures as well: crime rates, social involvement, charitable giving and so on. I think they would come out pretty well, and even higher if we were to include joke telling. They may well be superior in an absolute sense, and to have achieved that by the very careful choice of marriage partners over many generations. If true, they are superior and worth emulating.
Except, of course, in the 100-meter race …
Of course. Unfortunately the ability to sprint, however widespread it may be in some group while being sparse in another, does not cash out as anything civilizationally consequential; while the abilities to reason, to persuade, to co-operate, to calculate, to defer gratification—yes, perhaps even the ability to tell jokes—do.
This whole subtopic needs more of an airing than it has so far gotten. Honesty is the best policy, and the HBD-nik who tells me he can contemplate issues of human trait variation, and group differences in the quality of human capital, without the merest flicker of a thought about superiority tainting his mind, is not being honest.
In my opinion.
Of course we should give thanks that we live under a social regime that regards all as equal under the law. May it always be so! And of course it is absurd to say that a person two standard deviations above another person in intelligence, conscientiousness, or muscular strength is morally the better of the two persons: he might be a psychopath while the other is a saint.
And of course an Australian aborigine skilled at locating snake eggs in the desert is much better fitted to that environment than I would be. From the point of view of Darwinian fitness for that habitat, he is indisputably better than me.
But very few of us live in the Gibson Desert. Most of us live in History. Where group characteristics are concerned, a group with a mean IQ of 100 will make a more impressive historical showing than one with mean 70. And if you tell me you can ponder that fact without entertaining any notion of superiority, I’m afraid I will call you a liar.
In the same bold spirit, Thompson tweaks Wade for arguing that opposition to racism is now so entrenched that there is no danger of scientific discoveries in the field inspiring racial persecutions.
That may be the case, says Thompson.
However, Wade misses the main point: freedom means that you should be able to find out what is true because finding the truth is intrinsically better than being mistaken … Knowledge can be used to do bad things. The scientific ideal is that we should push on with discovery nonetheless, making sure that our results are presented soberly, with due reference to error terms and limitations. We must be clear that knowledge has risks, but that ignorance is worse.
Statements like that, endorsing the clear spirit of scientific enquiry and the disinterested quest for truth, always win my heart. There are several of them in Wade’s book—I quoted one in my review—and they redeem it from the author’s occasionally excessive concern that he might be scaring the horses.
Only slightly shorter in aggregate than Thompson’s piece, but with a lower proportion of matter to art, are the five postings by political scientist Larry Arnhart (one, two, three, four, five) on his Darwinian Conservatism blog.
The most interesting passage in Arnhart’s commentary occurs in the third posting, where he catches Wade in a contradiction.
The point at issue is: What is the grounding of liberal values? It can’t be in cold scientific fact, says Wade, because
Science is about what is, not what ought to be. Its shifting sands do not support values, so it is foolish to place them there.
But, Arnhart points out, Wade also says that
Human nature is essentially the same worldwide … People being so similar, no one has the right or reason to assert superiority over a person of different race.
That derives an ethical “ought” from a scientific “is,” contradicting Wade’s previous assertion that this can’t be done.
It’s a fair cop. Wade might plead in his defense that he can win over more readers to appreciation of the scientific facts by pointing out that those facts harmonize with our ethical preferences even though there is no need for them to; and that if the price of those readers’ souls is a mild contradiction, he’s getting souls at bargain rates.
All right. But I’d have preferred logical consistency.
Arnhart himself seems sympathetic to the notion that “ought” can be derived from “is”:
As I have argued in some previous posts, there is a Darwinian logic against slavery and for the classical liberal principle of equal liberty that runs through [Abraham] Lincoln’s reasoning as well as Charles Darwin’s own opposition to slavery. Slavery is a form of social parasitism, and human beings are naturally evolved to detect and resist parasitic exploitation.
That seems to me a stretch, given the near-universality of slavery in human history. (And, I think, prehistory: it wasn’t all “primitive communism.”)
I think Wade got it right the first time: Science is “cold” and value-free. The universe doesn’t care what we think or want. In any case, as Wade says elsewhere, to ground our ethics in scientific facts makes them hostage to discoveries that might modify or even overturn those facts.
Scientific American magazine ran, on its blog, a very fair review by chemist Ashutosh Jogalekar [Email him]. In refreshing contrast to the negative reviews, this one appeals to the spirit of keen young researchers in the human sciences.
If I have a criticism of the book it is that in his efforts to cover extensive ground, Wade sometimes gives short shrift to research on interesting topics like oxytocin and hormonal influences. But what he does make clear is that the research opportunities in the field are definitely exciting, and scientists should not have to tiptoe around these topics for political reasons.
These are new fields of inquiry! We know very little! Wade is doing a preliminary survey of the territory. Load up the wagon trains—let’s get exploring!
This cool breeze of curiosity and excitement stands out all the more against vituperative defenders of Social Science orthodoxy like Jonathan Marks [The Genes Made Us Do It | The new pseudoscience of racial difference, In These Times, May 12, 2014] who sounds, by comparison with Jogalekar, like Grandpa Zeke sputtering about how that Wright Brothers contraption will never fly.
I’m always glad to see something sensible in Scientific American. I regard it as an old friend. That magazine made a great impression on my youthful imagination. I can still conjure up the cover of the first issue I bought, the one for January 1960.
Even back then, though, I thought it odd that an American magazine should run so many articles hostile to American public policy. Wasn’t it a good thing for America to have lots of ICBMs, since the Russians had them and would obviously use them? The magazine thought not.
Knowing the magazine of old, I found it hard to believe that the collars and sleeves at Sci-Am would let Jogalekar’s friendly review of such a shamelessly heterodox book stand unrebutted. So after reading the review, I waited for the other shoe to drop.
It duly dropped. Anthropologist Eric Michael Johnson countered Jogalekar’s review with one of his own, also on the Sci-Am blog. At least I think it’s his own: a strong alternative possibility is that it was produced by a piece of proprietary software coded up for the purpose at the Southern Poverty Law Center ($PLC to VDARE.com).
Not to leave us in suspense about his intentions, Johnson heads up his piece with a drawing of three Klansmen in robes and hoods—although, for reasons I don’t understand, the head of one has been replaced by that of a non-human hominid (an orangutan, I think).
Then off we go:
Wade does not say Caucasians are better per se, merely better adapted (because of their genes) to the modern economic institutions that Western society has created, and which now dominate the world’s economy and culture. [On the Origin of White Power, May 21, 2014]
Well, maybe they are and maybe they aren’t. How about we try to find out? It certainly looks as though there is something here that needs explaining, doesn’t it?
Banish those sinful thoughts! We all know why backward regions are backward, and it is nothing whatever to do with population genetics! Bite your tongue, Mr. Wade!
In both Africa and the Middle East, therefore, the “failure to develop modern institutions” must [i.e. according to Wade] have a deeper explanation than centuries of colonialism, a post-World War II economic model centered in Europe and the US, Western support for regional dictators, degradation of the local resource base, limited access to quality education, poor sanitation, lack of a public health system, inequality, patriarchy, or differences in culture, religion, history, economics, law, and geography.
“Centuries of colonialism”? If you include the Ottoman Turks as colonialists you can make a case for the MENA (Middle East, North Africa) region; but the Ottoman touch was light and never penetrated far into Saudi Arabia or Sudan.
European colonialism, however, was a fleeting thing. As historian Jan Morris has noted, there must have been Nigerians alive to see the British flag lowered in 1960 who had seen it first raised (over the whole country) in 1900. French rule over Lebanon lasted barely twenty years; French rule over Syria didn’t make it through a decade. How are those places doing?
In contrast, the British ruled Hong Kong for 150 years. How are they doing?
There is something here to be explained. But, according to Sci-Am blogger Johnson,
Wade doesn’t consider any of these other factors.
Actually Wade does: on religion, for example, see pp. 125-6. He only wants to tell us that
- population genetics is a factor; that
- we need to include it in our explanatory schemas; that
- to turn our faces resolutely against doing so is obscurantist; and that
- persons like Eric Michael Johnson, who promote this obscurantism, are inspired not by open-minded curiosity and a desire to uncover scientific truth, but by political ideology.
Johnson gives over a fair chunk of his review—335 of his 3,200 words, plus a graph—to an attack on Wade’s interpretation of economic historian Gregory Clark’s data on the fertility of England’s upper classes. The blogger Pseudoerasmus demolishes Johnson’s argument here (with a response from Johnson in the comments).
Still, quantitative argument isn’t really where Johnson’s heart is. When you are defending the citadel of Orthodoxy, emotionally-loaded rhetoric is the way to go. Guilt by association, for example:
“Wade says in this book many of the things I’ve been saying for the last 40 years of my life,” said David Duke, the white nationalist politician and former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, on his radio program on May 12, 2014. [Link in original].
David Duke likes the book! How telling is that!
While we’re on the subject, Duke believes (I think) that the earth is round.
I had the fleeting idea that I might send a copy of Eric Michael Johnson’s next book to Kim Jong Un in hopes of getting some positive reaction, thereby discrediting it. Then I reflected that given Mr. Johnson’s political leanings, he would probably be thrilled to get an endorsement from the Great Successor.
There are references to other heretics, too.
John Derbyshire, a self-described white supremacist and former columnist for the National Review, wrote triumphantly, “Wade’s calm, brave assault on the enemy’s lines will likely be repulsed, but not without enemy losses, making the next assault more likely to break through.” [Link in original].
Predicting a failed assault doesn’t seem to me to be very triumphant, but let that pass.
Contra Mr. Johnson, I am quite sure I have never described myself as a “white supremacist.” This is, however, the buzz-phrase currently in favor among heresy-hunters, ever since it dawned on them—it only took a couple of decades—that their previous choice, the word “racist,” was too general. Any person of any color might be racist. Even a black person might be racist … OMG! Better switch to something more explicitly anti-white.
So here we are with “white supremacist.”
True, I did pass the following remarks once in a VDARE.com column:
White supremacy, in the sense of a society in which key decisions are made by white Europeans, is one of the better arrangements History has come up with. There have of course been some blots on the record, but I don`t see how it can be denied that net-net, white Europeans have made a better job of running fair and stable societies than has any other group.
I still don’t see how it can be denied. Perhaps Mr. Johnson could enlighten me.
Much more probably he would just prefer to continue hissing White supremacist! White supremacist!
Email Eric Michael Johnson to ask.
But if youth is a season of open-minded curiosity and hunger for truth, it is also a time when one has hostages to fortune. Following Eric Michael Johnson’s long anathema, thirtysomething Ashutosh Jogalekar hastened to put himself right with the Cathedral.
At the foot of his review Jogalekar has now added the following partial grovel.
Update: My fellow Sci Am blogger Eric Michael Johnson has a characteristically thoughtful and well-written review of the book. I happen to disagree with Eric on the value of the book—and think that on one important level the debate is about the value of speculation in science—but I appreciate his take on it. It’s also a pity – although hardly surprising—that unabashed racists, white supremacists and creationists are using the book to support their ideas. Not the first time that a controversial work was hijacked by people on the extremist fringe. This would also be an appropriate time to point out that any comment catering to this fringe will be immediately deleted and the commenter banned.
My emphasis. So much for free inquiry.
(Jogalekar hasn’t been reading the reviews with very close attention. Creationists hate Wade’s book, thus confirming what some of us have long suspected: that the creationist movement is objectively a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cultural Marxism.)
So science journalism, as can be seen, is not all beer and skittles. It is, though, as I began by saying, important and socially useful work.
A mild and scholarly man with a distinguished career record in that useful field has written a book arguing that the role of human biology in large human affairs has been neglected for ideological reasons, and ought to be given its proper place.
That this should cause any fuss at all, makes Wade’s case. That it should bring forth the kind of spitting vituperation—pictures of Klansmen in robes!—of an Eric Michael Johnson or a Jonathan Marks, is a sorry testimony to the condition of the human sciences in our time.
As James Thompson said in the passage I quoted above: “Knowledge has risks, but … ignorance is worse.”
“In our time and place,” I should have said. I shall be interested to see whether the Chinese translation, when it appears, carries over Wade’s apologetic title.
John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. ) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His most recent book, published by VDARE.com com is FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle).His writings are archived at JohnDerbyshire.com.
Readers who wish to donate (tax deductible) funds specifically earmarked for John Derbyshire`s writings at VDARE.com can do so here.