Day By Day

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Great Debate Commences

Here we go -- the dam has been breached. Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams, writing in Nature, argue for scientific research into the relationships among race, gender, and intelligence. Read their argument here.

Steven Rose, however, argues that no good can come of such research here.

In a followup editorial Nature tries to compromise these two positions and in doing so lapses into incoherence. On one hand the editors recognize the subjectivity of scientific inquiry:
Scientists have beliefs about what is right and wrong, just like everyone else. And try as they may to put them to one side — some try hard, some not so much — those beliefs will influence the way they do science, and the questions they ask and fail to ask. The scientific enterprise as a whole has to pay particular heed to the risk that preconceptions will creep in whenever what is being said about human nature has political or social implications.
But then they turn around and make the absurd argument that scientists, and they alone, can set aside their interests and maintain an inclusive and objective perspective:
Science tries to place no trust in authority; to some extent, society has to. Science tries to define its membership on the basis of inclusion, rather than exclusion; work on altruism suggests, worryingly, that communities more normally need an outgroup to form against. Science insists on the value of truth even when it is inconvenient or harmful; most people's beliefs tend to reinforce their self-interest.
Read it here.

Again I invoke Light's Law: "There is no such thing as disinterested authority". Scientists' claim to superhuman objectivity is absurd and, need I mention, self-serving.

I sympathize with the editors of Nature. They are in an extremely difficult position. On one hand their self-image as fearless and objective truth-seekers requires that they explore fully the implications of recent evolutionary and genomic research. On the other they are technocratic elitists, convinced that such information is far too dangerous to be disseminated to the general population, who lack the superhuman abilities of scientists to transcend their biases. They are also forced to recognize that in many ways liberal ideology is profoundly anti-science, perhaps more so than the positions advanced by their boogymen, the religious conservatives.

The tension between the constraints imposed by liberal ideology and their self-serving understanding of the unique role of the scientific enterprise must be extremely painful, made even more so by the necessity, forced on them by the implications of the current argument, of confronting the truth about themselves -- that they are not the paragons of objectivity they claim to be. Looking honestly into the mirror is never an easy thing to do, but the current argument holds the potential to force scientists to at long last confront their humanity.