Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Nostalgic recycle: Axe-grinding Social Scientists

So, I haven’t really posted much lately – I’ve been busy, traveling, working etc. I decided that if my friends are going to continue visiting even when I’m dormant, however, I ought to put something out, in the spirit of being a good host and all. So, as I’m glancing through my laptop hard drive, I thought I’d throw a post or two up I was proud of. Here’s a blast from the past I wrote in response to this top-post by hiztoria. Just for a nostalgic diversion.

If science is one of the languages of racism, can we counter racism using only the language of ethics?

Scientists, knowingly or unwittingly, have provided empirical support for racist attitudes since undertaking the study of individual differences. From time to time, we look back and deconstruct the assumptions that led to those conclusions. Does brain size correlate with IQ? Well, yes it does. Does this make people with bigger heads invariably smarter? No, it certainly does not. The impact evolution has had on our brains relates to surface area, which has been magnified both by a larger head and by deepening of the sulci. Men tend to have bigger heads than women. We know, however, that men are not more intelligent than women in any meaningful sense at all. Tall people tend to have bigger heads, too. If the association were that strong, all our NBA players would be Mensa candidates, wouldn't they?

We cannot even agree on what IQ is, or how it is best measured. Cognitive psychologists have long debated a multiple-factor model of intelligence versus a single factor model (g). In either case, however, we are attempting to infer potential from a set of learned skills. Does individual experience impact a person's performance on an IQ test? Of course, just as cultural influences impact every person's unique set of individual experiences.

In a pragmatic sense, psychologists both recognize this and accept it; IQ is intended to predict academic performance. The academic environment is also culture-bound, and any attempt to accurately predict performance there will involve some preferential assessment of skills that generalize to that culture. Nowhere is this more evident than in the inflation of IQ scores across generations (which, coincidentally, keeps a lot of psychometricians busily employed norming new tests versions). People are not becoming, magically, more intelligent at all. We are, however, becoming more facile with abstract and symbolic tasks through everyday practice. These are the tasks you find on an IQ test. These are also the tasks we encounter with much greater frequency in our modern world, compared to our forebears.

I believe it is human nature for people to promote their own strengths, and by association, the strengths of groups they belong to. This is probably as deeply rooted as the drive to compete for scarce resources. We look to our own, first. It's naïve to believe that scientists will stop being blinded by their own biases, and stop finding flawed empirical justifications for these. Egalitarian idealists should continue in their efforts to debunk not the differences themselves, but the faulty reasoning that involves the interpretation of these differences. It was only 60 years ago that there was an institutional test that discriminated against people who weren't exposed to commercial advertising ("What's 99 and 44/100% pure?"). It made sense at the time [still does, actually, if you believe that cognitive priming is what constitutes "g." The assumption just doesn't take differential exposure into account. A pure measure of priming would involve an utterly novel task across everyone measured. Good luck coming up with that!]

But I think you're mistaken when you say "idealistic notions of human equality are not to be found in science." Science, in the sense that it involves data collection and analysis, is supposed to be blind to relative assignment of worth. Without science, all that's left is moral reasoning (which, in this case, seems preferable) and heuristic biases based on individual observations (which is the most primary rationalization for bigotry). Heuristic biases appear to be an aspect of human nature, and I'm afraid that no amount of wishful thinking will alter this. Without idealistic science, how would we form rational arguments that conflict with conclusions based on individual observation?

While I agree with your sentiment, I disagree with your conclusion. Even you say that "…it's human nature which drives toward group identity/divisions, culture being just the instantiated demarcation of that drive." While we can rail against the unfairness of human nature, it is unwise to act as though our nature were different. So long as there are observable differences between people that can demarcate groups, and so long as there are inequities in resources, we will have people jockeying to forward their interests above that of others. It's the idealistic social scientists that are trying to instill a sense of larger community and deconstruct those self-perpetuating barriers that maintain racism (or classism, or any of the other constructs people with resources invent or perpetuate to justify the status quo). They are the missionaries of your humanistic faith. I like to consider myself one of them.

But you're right, in that deconstruction of justifications for prejudice will not be enough, in the end, to combat unequal distribution of resources and institutionalized exploitation. Our nature is full of other characteristics we consider undesirable in this cultural context, though they could (arguably) be desirable in others. We quell these, utilizing our capacity for flexibility and adaptation to find preferable alternatives, despite their underlying presence. Perhaps we should start looking at the factors that are perpetuating the competitive atmosphere that allows this less desirable aspect of human nature to flourish (competition over cooperation). And that, I'm afraid, will have to be done by axe-grinding, idealistic social scientists.

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