Thursday, October 18, 2007

Pharyngula Commenters Prove Immorality Not Sole Balliwick of the Religious

I do love Pharyngula's P.Z., but he attracts some real low-lifes to his site. Prime viewing: this thread.

In the post itself, P.Z. quotes Dr. Watson, the egomaniacal co-discoverer of the double helix:

Dr Watson told The Sunday Times that he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really". He said there was a natural desire that all human beings should be equal but "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true".

I'm not going to spend this thread analyzing Watson's comments, because they've been so soundly and easily trounced, and I have different fish to fry. Educated individuals should already have an idea of the scientific evidence rebuting Watson's idiotic remarks. For those who want crib notes, P.Z. has the proper reaction. To wit:

our wanting to see our particular ethnic or racial group as superior to all others is not enough to make it so. There seems to be no environment on earth (except, perhaps, the coddled womb of the upper middle class lifestyle) where the average human being can afford to dispense with intelligence — and that includes Africa — and even where populations have been isolated for ten thousand years at a time, as in North America and Australia, we don't see powers of reason decaying. And of course, Africa is not significantly geographically or genetically isolated at all.

However, as often happens on Pharyngula, when some of the commenters sniff out the potential for misrepresenting the results of biology to erase sociological factors and make sure everyone knows that white men really are the bestest (they can't help it! they were born that way!), the racist and sexist comments fly. In this case, the commentariat trots out some of the most distinctly aromatic blatantly racist arguments. A couple stinky examples:

John Smith: Why is it unreasonable to suggest that black people might be intellectually inferior? Why does PZ consider this ludicrous and easily dismissible?

The "everyone is equal" philosophy doesn't always bear itself out. You can't expect it to be a universal law. Maybe there is a significant intellectual disparity between some races. Who knows? Watson at least has a point.

PZ is continually proving himself a faith-head, PC-fundamentalist.


robotaholic: . To my knowledge there is no conclusive evidence that all humans regardless of race have the same potential for intelligence. I think intelligence can be measured and so can physical fitness. There is the possibility that he is correct. Until there is conclusive evidence that he is wrong, I don't think so many people should scorn him. Just like Richard Dawkins says about the nice comforting idea of going to heaven or having a soul- just because it is comforting -that doesn't make it *TRUE*...

Now, there are at least an equal number of defenders of actual truth (instead of, "hey, I can't help being your superior, my shiny alabaster skin just makes me that way" truth) over there, too.

Unfortunately, some of them utilize a well-intentioned racism in their arguments, like this fellow who doesn't know a lot about modern Africa:

True Bob: "You see a gazelle, a zebra and a giraffe at a watering hole. Which do you select to kill?"

"Which will provide you better food value; 20 grubs, 24 millipedes, or a cobra?"

I appreciate that this guy is standing up to the other people in the thread, and trying to point out -- in what he sees as a humorous fashion -- the drawbacks of a concept like IQ.

IQ, as commenters here are probably aware, is a construct that was developed in order to test developmentally delayed students and determine who would need extra help. The inventor of the IQ test warned that it should never be used to rank children of average or superior intelligence, which of course resulted in the immediate use of the test ot rank children of average and superior intelligence.

The concept of IQ -- [omitted claim] -- may be real, but it's not real in the way that we want to make it real. It's not separable from cultural factors, and it can't be measured on a single dimension or as a single number. In fact, it probably can't be measured at all. We can measure approximations of it, but we've known for a long time that our tests are skewed by cultural factors. As several commenters on the Pharyngula thread point out, differences in IQ between Africa and the United States can be explained by sociological factors. On the one hand, there's the inherent skew of the tests themselves. On the other, there are factors like poor nutrition which affect early childhood development -- including, some studies suggest, intelligence.

But let's look back at this guy's comment, which gets at some of those important things through a couple lines of humor. What tools does it use to uncover those things? What is the basis of its humor? True Bob wants us to re-examine an American view of intelligence, so he constructs what he thinks will be an African view of intelligence. To do so, he represents Africa as an untamed wild in which people hunt and gather at a susbstitence level. For the vast majority of Africans, this description is wholly inaccurate.

Africa doesn't look like the United States, but neither does it look like the primitive collection of mud huts and jungles that inhabit our collective, racist imagination. As an anthropology student, I took a class on People's of Africa in which our professor often brought in slides showing Africans going about their normal activities. I remember clearly one photograph of an African man riding a bike through a city, clusters of bananas tied to his bike, a monkey clinging to his handlebars. I remember laughing. It was funny.

The humor derived from the tension in my mind between what I thought Africa was (monkeys) and what I thought modern life was (a bike ride through the city). Seeing them together made me laugh; what are modern elements doing in "primitive" places? Over and over again, this dynamic was repeated. The whole class laughed.

As anthropology students, we knew that Africa doesn't exist in some kind of bizarre state of Joseph Campbell savagery. But the cultural imaging of Africa as something backwards, where you survive by bashing a snake on the head and bringing it home for your family to eat -- and where you don't use toilet paper or know what a factory is or wear cast-off American clothing -- is an incredibly strong cultural icon.

And we have this guy using it here, in order to debunk racist ideas. Because, even as he struggles against its inevitable conclusions, he's been suckered in by the powerful American myths about Africa. Our cultural mythology creates a false dichotomy, in which Africa and the west embody opposite traits. All that is primitive and savage is constructed as being African, while that which is modern and civilized is constructed as western. Of course, this is the same construction that's leading John Smith and robotaholic to their conclusions. Because if the west is all that which is civilized and modern, then of course intelligence belongs on our side of the border.

Therefore, blacks are stupid.

Certain groups of scientists and atheists seem prone to this particular racist narrative. Of course, part of it's just the pervasive racism in the society. But I think there are certain aspects of an emphasis on rationalism as the only and best way of knowing which contribute to the ease of adopting these narratives, even though they are demonstrably false and in actuality are the opposite of the science and rationality which the speaker claims to be pursuing.

First, an emphasis on rationalism tends to denigrate other ways of knowing. We see that with robotaholic, when he derides the belief that all human races are equal by writing it off as comforting. (He fails of course to acknowledge that his own desire to believe in the intellectual superiority of what is likely his own race is also comforting.) If rationalism is being posed as in opposition to ways of knowing things emotionally and spiritually, then it's easy for people to take a simplistic, dichotomous view of the world. Is the only evidence for God that he's comforting? I serve a realer, grittier truth that is not about comfort. There is no good. Is it comforting to believe women are equal? Well, then they serve a realer, grittier truth about that too -- never mind that they're suddenly going against the evidence. The feel of the thing (telling a hard truth) has substituted the reason for the thing (rebutting arguments backed by poor evidence).

More than that, I think the ideas that are posed by the oppression of women and non-whites (particularly blacks) are particularly appealing to white, male people who ally themselves with rationality and science. They want to claim logic. They want to claim civilization. These are things which traditional myths assign to them, by way of moving all the opposite traits onto women and non-whites (particularly blacks). Men are logical. Women are hysterical. Whites are civilized. Blacks are brutes.

When you've made the mantle of rationality a priority in your life, it must be very seductive to be able to claim it without having to exert any work. When cultural myths about women and black people are in effect, these white men get to grab their desired mantle without having to do anything. They need to be scientifically logical, and they get to be scientifically logical, because women are crazy and emotional. They need to be smart, and they get to be smart, because black people are stupid.

This is so important to them -- they are so insecure about whether they could measure up if the competition wasn't ruled out by a technical foul -- that they're willing to exchew actual rationality and actual science. The racism and sexism become more important than real rationality, because they provide an illusion of it.

Now, of course, P.Z.'s also got a following of people who aren't racist shitheads. There are women and people of color who can't claim rationality through sexist/racist arguments, because such arguments leave them on the wrong side of the fence. And there are women and men and white people and people of color who are secure enough in themselves that they're not afraid of what could happen if they don't get to special just by virtue of their genitals and skin.

And my, they're lovely. I'll leave it to one of the good guys to sum up a reasonable reaction to Watson's blathering:

Julian:Jeez, some of you folks are dunces. If there was no essential difference in the capacity to reason between us Moderns and Europeans in the Middle Ages, even those who lived in Russia, the sparsest, most inclimate, least fertile, most predator rich section of Europe, and we have an entire tradition of literature ecclesiastical, scientific, and personal to prove that lack of difference, then how can you honestly sit there and smugly assume that sub-saharan Africans, who by the way, live in an infinitely richer environment that Saharan or Mediterranean Africans, are stupider than everyone else? Bigotry, thats how.

I.Q. tests do a better job of exposing the inherent biases of those who write them than they do of registering the intelligence of the test taker; any psychologist can tell you that.

As to showing he is wrong, hundreds of studies have over the last 60 years. How many times do biologists, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, ethnologists, and historians have to win this argument before you damned racists will pack up your crap and admit you're wrong?!? And why does Watson's opinion on this even matter? If he's such an expert of genetics then he'd be well aware that, bereft of an environment which encourages the use of traits, traits are not expressed in a life form. Genetics could be, at best, a predictive science of predispositions, but never one of immutable determinations regarding skill and ability, yet this is precisely how he treats it in his comments. By doing so he does not contribute constructively to the debate, as some posters here seem to think, but merely exposes his own ignorance of the advances made in genetic sciences since his partially stolen discovery over half a century ago.

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