Tuesday, 4 May 2010

What You Can't Say in Harvard

Paul Graham  is one of my new favourite authors, and What You Can't Say is one of my favourite among his essays*. He discusses the idea that there are almost certainly several things which happen to be true, but which we can't refer to in polite society. I want to write about recent example of the sort of topic that appears to be taboo in modern western academia. To quote Graham:
What can't we say? One way to find these ideas is simply to look at things people do say, and get in trouble for.
That seems like a perfect introduction for this story which, if it weren't true, would strike me as utterly implausible. A Harvard Law student wrote a perfectly reasonable email to a friend, about six months ago, in which she stated that she could not "absolutely rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent." She was roundly condemned by the Harvard Black Law Students Association, and the Dean of Harvard Law.

Now... I'm going to take a risk and say that I can't 'absolutely rule out' the possibility that African Americans are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent than non-African Americans either (although Stephanie Grace is much better informed on this topic than I am).  Presumably, though, there is no a priori reason to assume that the intelligence of the two groups is the same - African Americans, for example, are clearly genetically predisposed to run faster (I'll give anyone 50-1 on a white man winning Olympic gold before 2020!), why should intelligence have a smaller genetic component than running speed? 
What is much more disturbing is the reaction from the Dean of Harvard Law:
I am writing this morning to address an email message in which one of our students suggested that black people are genetically inferior to white people.
Firstly, she doesn't appear to have read the email in question. The student actually suggested that she wasn't convinced either way by the evidence. Secondly, and more worryingly, the Dean of Harvard Law is equating 'more intelligent' with 'superior'. She seems to be worryingly close to implying that *if* it turned out that black people were genetically predisposed to be less intelligent than white people (which is it at least a logical possibility) then this would somehow vindicate racism. And even closer to implying that stupid people (who definitely *do* exist) are somehow less worthy than intelligent people.

It is very dangerous to attach moral weight to issues of scientific fact. There is always the danger that you might be wrong.This is an issue that Pinker comes back to again and again - there are a list of supposedly morally charged issues of scientific fact in the preface to "What's your Dangerous Idea?" If you are wrong about any of these issues, are you willing to bite the moral bullet?

Does the Dean of Harvard Law really believe that racism is wrong because race differences in intelligence are negligible? Or does she believe it is wrong because a person's worth isn't related to their intelligence, or any other trait they may have, but a fundamental part of being human?

This might just turn out to be another one of those cases where reality is the Least Convenient Possible World. I'm willing to countenance that possibility and still condemn racism. So is Stephanie Grace (I'm charitably assuming her apology is a political necessity, rather than a genuine retraction of her commitment to scientific integrity). Is Dean Minow? 

* Although Why Nerds are Unpopular has some important insights, and contains several ideas which make you go 'I wish I'd thought of that first' - or, more precisely, that 'I wish I'd managed to formulate so clearly first': 
It's important for nerds to realize, too, that school is not life. School is a strange, artificial thing, half sterile and half feral. It's all-encompassing, like life, but it isn't the real thing. It's only temporary, and if you look, you can see beyond it even while you're still in it.

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