andrew gelman reviews nicholas wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance in slate: The Paradox of Racism: Why the new book by the New York Times’ Nicholas Wade is both plausible and preposterous.**

it’s a rather bizarre review — as jayman (or jayman’s friend, rather) points out, the criticism seems to be an argument by analogy in which the problem with wade’s book is somehow connected to the fact that some people in the past had different (and terribly racist, of course) ideas about racial differences. or something.

gelman doesn’t seem to like any of this theorizing about possible biologically-based racial differences because the theories or hypotheses keep changing. uuuhhhhh…isn’t that what’s supposed to happen in science? people formulate theories and then test them — try to falsify them — and if those theories are found to be false, formulate new theories. right?

gelman writes:

“Wade is clearly intelligent and thoughtful, and his book is informed by the latest research in genetics. His explanations seem to me simultaneously plausible and preposterous: plausible in that they snap into place to explain the world as it currently is, preposterous in that I think if he were writing in other time periods, he could come up with similarly plausible, but completely different, stories.

so? so what? so people (including scientists) develop theories based on the information they have available to them. [edit: i mean the cumulative information which they have available to them to date.] is this a surprise to anyone? how else should we humans work out theories? peer into the future with crystal balls? jump into a tardis?

nicholas wade is one of the last people on the planet that anybody should criticize about theories and theory building. i am one hundred percent certain that if/when science demonstrates that there are absolutely no or even insignificant genetic differences connected to behavioral patterns between races, he would be the first to announce it from the rooftops and admit that the theories he’s presented in this book are wrong. why am i one hundred percent certain about that? because wade has already written about how no one should be wedded to their scientific theories (“Theories”, actually, with a capital “T”):

“Evolution All Around”
Published: October 8, 2009

“…There is one point on which I believe Dawkins gets tripped up by his zeal. To refute the creationists, who like to dismiss evolution as ‘just a theory,’ he keeps insisting that evolution is an undeniable fact. A moment’s reflection reveals the problem: We don’t speak of Darwin’s fact of evolution. So is evolution a fact or a theory…?

“Dawkins is aware that evolution is commonly called a theory but deems ‘theory’ too wishy-washy a term because it connotes the idea of hypothesis. Evolution, in Dawkins’s view, is a concept as bulletproof as a mathematical theorem, even though it can’t be proved by rigorous logical proofs. He seems to have little appreciation for the cognitive structure of science. Philosophers of science, who are the arbiters of such issues, say science consists largely of facts, laws and theories. The facts are the facts, the laws summarize the regularities in the facts, and the theories explain the laws. Evolution can fall into only one of these categories, and it’s a theory.

“Other systems of thought, like religion, are founded on immutable dogma, whereas science changes to accommodate new knowledge. So what part of science is it that changes during intellectual revolutions? Not the facts, one hopes, or the laws. It’s the highest-level elements in the cognitive structure — the theories — that are sacrificed when fundamental change is needed. Ptolemaic theory yielded when astronomers found that Copernicus’s better explained the observations; Newton’s theory of gravitation turned out to be a special case of Einstein’s.

If a theory by nature is liable to change, it cannot be considered absolutely true. A theory, however strongly you believe in it, inherently holds a small question mark. The minute you erase the question mark, you’ve got yourself a dogma.

“Since the theory of evolution explains and is in turn supported by all the known facts of biology, it can be regarded as seriously robust. There’s no present reason to think it has any flaws. But when we learn how life evolved on other planets, evolution could turn out to be a special case of some more general theory.

nicholas wade fully understands how theorizing and theories — and Theories — work in science. not so sure about andrew gelman.

and then there’s this:

“Wade does not characterize himself as a racist, writing, ‘no one has the right or reason to assert superiority over a person of a different race.’ But I characterize his book as racist based on the dictionary definition: per *Merriam-Webster*, ‘a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.’ Wade’s repeated comments about creativity, intelligence, tribalism, and so forth seem to me to represent views of superiority and inferiority.”

well that’s just a fancy way of saying DATS RACISS! afaict. sheesh.

yes, an individual or a group of individuals may be superior to others in certain traits such as creativity or intelligence or athletic ability or whatever, but that doesn’t necessarily make them superior to others *overall*. and it’s extremely unlikely that any one individual/group is superior to all others in all traits, so no population is the most superioriestest of all.

just because gelman apparently can’t hold those two thoughts in his head at the same time doesn’t mean that nicholas wade can’t. i certainly can.

again, i say: sheesh.

**an earlier title of gelman’s article which still appears in the title bar of the browser (the typically navy band all the way at the top of your browser) and the article’s url perhaps offer some extra hints as to gelman’s opinion (or somebody at slate’s opinion) of wade’s book: “Troublesome inheritance critique: Nicholas Wade’s dated assumptions about race, genes, and culture.”

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