Should IQ and Race be studied and what is Lysenkoism anyway?

Dan MacArthur has started a big discussion on whether or not the relationship between IQ and race should be studied. Inspired by a pair of essays for and against the idea it has created a pretty healthy debate among the sciencebloggers including Razib with whom I will likely never agree on this issue. For the record, I’m on the side of those like Richard Nisbett (for a good review of his analysis of race and the black white divide see here PDF) that genetics are a poor explanation for the divide.

But this issue aside, why do I believe this is a still a bad idea to expend resources to evaluate the role of race and IQ? After all, that’s just what Nisbett has done in the paper cited above.

For one, the history is that studies of IQ and race are usually used to disparage whatever group in the society is looked down upon. Whether it is women, minorities, foreigners, or the poor, historically, such efforts tend to be sloppy and biased and result in findings that confirm the researchers’ biases. I think it takes a lot of hubris to assume we’re past these things, as even within the last decade we see studies of populations confirming these biases. Frankly I think when the question is actually asked correctly (as in the studies Nisbett cites) you find that the supposedly racial differences result from economic and cultural factors. As summarized by Nisbett:

Suppose we simply look at all the available evidence — the many different types of evidence and the dozens of different studies — on their face. The Scarr and Weinberg evidence is consistent with a large genetic contribution to the B/W IQ gap. But all of the other evidence is most consistent with a zero or near-zero genetic contribution to the gap. The skin color, facial feature, and blood group studies, the European heritage study, the study of World War II children fathered by black vs. white soldiers, the study of mixed-race children born either to black or to white mothers, the experiment assigning black children to black vs. white adoptive families, and the study of the orphanage with an enriched environment all suggest genetic equality between the races or very small genetic differences.

Further, I’m disturbed by the arguments that Ceci and Williams make in the “for” argument. First of all, they start by mentioning Lysenkoism:

The Soviet Union lost a generation of genetics research to the politicization of science when Trofim Lysenko, director of biology under Joseph Stalin, parlayed his rejection of Mendelian genetics into a powerful political scientific movement. By the late 1920s, Lysenko had denounced academics embracing Mendelian genetics, which some said undermined tenets of Soviet society. His efforts to extinguish ‘harmful’ scientific ideas ruined opponents’ careers and delayed scientific progress.

It is difficult to imagine this situation repeating today, when rival views feed the scientific process, and inquiry and debate trump orthodoxy. Yet the spectre of Lysenkoism lurks in current scientific discourse on gender, race and intelligence. Claims that sex- or race-based IQ gaps are partly genetic can offend entire groups, who feel that such work feeds hatred and discrimination. Pressure from professional organizations and university administrators can result in boycotting such research, and even in ending scientific careers.

Um, excuse me? Is anyone talking about anything remotely like the top-down dictation of scientific fact from a politburo as in Lysenkoism?

From 1934 to 1940, under Lysenko’s admonitions and with Stalin’s approval, many geneticists were executed (including Isaak Agol, Solomon Levit, Grigorii Levitskii, Georgii Karpechenko and Georgii Nadson) or sent to labor camps. The famous Soviet geneticist Nikolai Vavilov was arrested in 1940 and died in prison in 1943. Genetics was stigmatized as a ‘bourgeois science’ or ‘fascist science’ (because fascists — particularly the Nazis in Germany — embraced genetics and attempted to use it to justify their theories on eugenics and the master race, which culminated in Action T4). Some Soviet geneticists, however, survived and continued to work in genetics, dangerous as it was.

In 1948, genetics was officially declared “a bourgeois pseudoscience”; all geneticists were fired from work (some were also arrested), and all genetic research was discontinued. Nikita Khrushchev, who claimed to be an expert in agricultural science, also valued Lysenko as a great scientist, and the taboo on genetics continued (but all geneticists were released or rehabilitated posthumously). The ban was only waived in the mid 1960s.

Thus, Lysenkoism caused serious, long-term harm to Soviet biology. It represented a serious failure of the early Soviet leadership to find real solutions to agricultural problems, allowing their system to be hijacked by a charlatan — at the expense of many human lives. Lysenkoism also spread to China, where it continued long after it was eventually denounced by the Soviets.

It’s a little early in this argument to start screaming persecution and censorship. While you may get some heat for delving into such a heavily politicized field, that’s because there is a rich history of these types of studies fueling racial hatred and policies directed against groups society viewed as inferior. Surely they have some great examples of how a scientific dictator is oppressing individual researchers to back this up?

Consider two recent high-profile cases. In 2005, Harvard’s then-president Lawrence Summers suggested gender differences in intrinsic ability as one cause of the dearth of women in the top tier of science, rather than espousing the popular view that women’s under-representation results from biased hiring, discriminatory tenure practices and negative stereotypes. Summers’s insinuation of biologically-based sex differences in cognitive ability was radioactive, setting off debates on campuses and outpourings of editorials. Despite apologizing for reckless language — which his supporters felt research supported — he later resigned.

James Watson is the most illustrious scholar to have his career ended for reckless language. Watson’s downfall was his assertion that “all our social policies are based on the fact that [African] intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really”. Although he hoped everybody was equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true”. Watson instantly plunged from A-list Nobelist to outcast, and was suspended from his chancellorship of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Watson later clarified in a statement that he does not believe Africans to be genetically inferior, but this had little impact on the controversy.

Wow. The examples of the oppressed scientists are Summers and Watson. Summers clearly has been ostracized for his…wait, what? He’s what now? Director of the National Economic Counsel? How terrible. By the way, even if you believe the differences in IQ between men and women are real, it’s only been shown to be about 3-4 points difference. Knowing that most differences in achievement occur at the low end of the spectrum, and given this small difference, how does that account for the enormous disparity between men and women in the workforce? Could it be instead that women in this country couldn’t even vote until 90 years ago? Or that they faced institutionalized sexism for decades? That they still have a pay disparity for the same work? Or that men continue to be sexist pricks? Using Summers as an example of Lysenkoism is ridiculous. There is a lot of very good reasons his statement was just an example of sexist stupidity. The authors even cite some of them:

Regarding gender, no one now claims women are unable to excel at complex maths: 48% of US mathematics majors are female, and women earn higher maths grades than men throughout schooling5. The maths gender gap among the top 0.01% of students, which 30 years ago favoured males 13-to-1, now favours males only 2.8-to-1 (ref. 5). Some nation’s women (including those in Singapore and Japan) outscore US males on maths tests by an amount far larger than the gender gap within the United States5.

Calling this Lysenkoism is not just crying persection (Help! Help! I’m being oppressed), but dismissive of the very real obstacles women still face in the workforce (wait for my article about interviewing for residency and sexist interview questions sometime after I match). So, a guy cites an antiquated view about the role of sex in mathematical acheivement by the author’s own admission, and is roundly criticized, and this is…Lysenkoism?

And how about Watson? Was he just a simple academic caught blindsided in the spotlights of media attention making a simple statement of fact? Not freaking likely. Watson has a long reputation for sexism, and other curmudgeonly behaviors meant to elicit angry reactions in others. From the Nature editorial “Watson’s Folly”:

Watson certainly has a track record in making distasteful remarks. He has on many previous occasions voiced unpalatable views tinged with racism and sexism, ranging from a desire to see a world full of genetically engineered pretty girls to his belief that sex drive is related to skin colour. He has been largely indulged over the years, mostly in light of his towering achievement of 54 years ago in helping to deduce the structure of DNA, his ensuing Nobel prize, and his role in founding the Human Genome Project.

His latest outburst marks the point at which his views have finally been deemed beyond the pale. And rightly so — for one of the world’s most high-profile scientists to state such views demonstrates a sheer unacceptable offensiveness. Watson has apologized and retracted the outburst, claiming to have been “mortified” at the outcome of the interview although he did not deny its contents. He acknowledged that there is no evidence for what he claimed about racial differences in intelligence. But the damage has been done, lending succour and comfort to racists around the globe.

Even he realized this about his statement that Africans were inferior in IQ and he had finally crossed the line from barely tolerable old crank to screaming racist. I know of some other examples related from researchers who worked with him that would make your hair stand on end. But the “pro” authors think our angry reaction was just squelching a necessary debate:

Attacks on Watson and Summers extinguished discussion by making moral attributions about their presumed character flaws rather than debating facts. But character attacks lead to a one-party science that squelches divergent views.

Presumed character flaws? How about long standing ones? Based on multiple statements throughout time? I can’t speak for Summers, but Watson is famous for this crap. Is it impossible for us to say that some views are just plain reprehensible? As Watson eventually did about his own statements? This is decidedly not Lysenkoism. Merely the world being sick of despicable racist nonsense that has no basis in fact and being unwilling to continue to tolerate it from a cranky old man, Nobel or not.

Their conclusion:

When scientists are silenced by colleagues, administrators, editors and funders who think that simply asking certain questions is inappropriate, the process begins to resemble religion rather than science. Under such a regime, we risk losing a generation of desperately needed research.

I get what they’re saying. But, as one of the sciencebloggers writing about denialism and endless debates, there is an extreme of this generally good principle. That is endless debate and inaction from the tedious and unending input from cranks. There are views which are simply no longer valid, and you’ll notice, we discuss those that continue to put these forward, again and again, no matter what the evidence, no matter how many times they are corrected, no matter how much they have to alter reality in order to keep believing them. I don’t think crankery and denialism are involved in this argument, not close, but the appeal to endless discussion of settled scientific topics is not the way into my heart. Free speech goes both ways, and one of the things you get from free speech is the very understandable need for people to express to racists and sexists that their views are no longer tolerable in civilized society. This is not Lysenkoism, but a free society demonstrating it’s disgust with views that are disgusting. If this results in pressure for these guys to resign or think twice before they condemn an entire continent as mentally defective, well, that’s the whole point of complaining. Lysenkoism would be rounding up these guys and sending them to Siberia, or shooting them in the head. A note to the university president expressing dismay, or letters to the editor are not Lysenkoism. Further, it is not the issue here.

The issue is, as I think is nicely discussed in the con essay, that the history of these studies shows they are not particularly valuable, and usually, very harmful. The argument I would make is very similar to theirs:

Group comparisons of IQ are even more problematic. Attempts have been made to make ‘culture-fair’ or ‘culture-free’ tests, as if such a thing were possible, to allow comparisons of ‘g’ between people from very different societies. But IQ is clearly a flexible construct — as amply demonstrated by decisions in the 1930s and 1940s in the United States and Britain to ‘adjust’ test questions to equalize the scores of boys and girls, because in previous versions of the tests girls had scored higher. When Lev Vygotsky tested Russian peasants back in the 1930s, he found that answers that seemed logical to an urbanite were responded to quite differently, but with parallel logic, by the peasants.

As for ‘race’, the problem is whether it is a biologically, as opposed to socially, meaningful category. Among geneticists interested in differences in gene frequencies between populations, there is increasing consensus that the word obscures more than it reveals, and should be replaced by the concept of biogeographic ancestry, which makes possible the study of subpopulations for relevant genetic and phenotypic characteristics. There are some well-recognized, meaningful genetic differences between groups, for instance between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews in terms of their risk to Tay-Sachs disease, and the study of such differences may reveal important clues with respect, for instance, to disease propensity. But such groups are not normally considered socially distinct races for the purposes of studies of group differences in intelligence. Broad divisions between ‘white’ or ‘Caucasian’ and ‘black’ or ‘Asian’, the groups generally discussed in the context of the IQ debate, especially in the United States, hide genetically important subpopulation differences within these groups.

We’re not studying anything valuable when we do these studies as our assay is still too crude and our divisions somewhat pointless. And in the end, what would we do with the information, true or not, showing differences in racial intelligence? What good would it accomplish? And especially given the history of abuse, and the very real problem stereotype threat (as Ed Yong discussed recently) don’t these studies create more problems than they’re worth? Basically, we know when we tell people ahead of time they perform poorly, guess what they do? They perform worse! I have an idea, let’s see if we can generate science to make people feel bad about themselves! That sounds like a good use of our time.

So what do we gain from this research? Some nebulous “truth” according to the pro authors. But historically this has not been the case. Historically we get bigotry and bias. What do we stand to lose? Clearly, a great deal. There are more pressing priorities than sorting out which race or sex wins the IQ war.