nicholas wade, theories, and racism

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”
By NICHOLAS WADE
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.”

(note: comments do not require an email. races of the world.)

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26 Comments

  1. “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?”

    NO, scientific theories are clearly supposed to conform to whatever is politically correct and socially acceptable to Slate/Jezebel/HuffPo writers at the time. Jeez, don’t they teach this stuff in school nowadays?

    Reply

  2. >so? so what? so people (including scientists) develop theories based on the information they have available to them. 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?

    I read that part more charitably. I think Gelman meant that he thought that Wade was overfitting the data – being too quick to attribute genetic causes to short-term fluctuations in nations’ fortunes. His thought experiment about a 1930s Wade talking about the genetic reasons for the warlike Japanese and decadent Chinese sounds like a valid criticism and it resonates with one of the small whispers of doubt I have echoing around my (thoroughly ~RACIST~ I assure you) brain about HBD. I’ll have to read the book to find out.

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  3. @ckp – “I read that part more charitably. I think Gelman meant that he thought that Wade was overfitting the data – being too quick to attribute genetic causes to short-term fluctuations in nations’ fortunes.”

    i don’t think so. gelman gives multiple examples of different theories people had or could’ve had about racial differences at different times. well, of course! at any given time people can only go by the information that they have available to them. of course someone in the 1950s would’ve developed a different theory about the lack of success of the south koreans vs. someone today, because the person in the 1950s couldn’t have known about what the future situation of the south koreans would be! and this would apply to any academic in any discipline: a sociobiologist in biology, an economist, a sociologist, an historian…. ALL of them in the 1950s would’ve been trying to account for the lack of success of the south koreans!

    point is, scientific theories about biologically-based differences between races or ethnic groups — or even individuals — will inevitably change as new data come to light.

    i really don’t get what gelman’s problem is with that.

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  4. Well, we’ve learned how the book is going to be attacked now. No surprises, really. Looks like it’s going to be a complete dismissal a la the treatment The Bell Curve received. :P

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  5. @jayman – “I guess I was more charitable to Gelman than most. ;)”

    i made the mistake(?) of rereading the piece multiple times, and the more times i read it, the more passive-aggressive it seemed to me. (*^_^*)

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  6. >of course someone in the 1950s would’ve developed a different theory about the lack of success of the south koreans vs. someone today, because the person in the 1950s couldn’t have known about what the future situation of the south koreans would be!

    Well that’s the thing, I’m not so sure such a hypothetical 1950s scientist would be in the right with that kind of reasoning, given what s/he knew of history up till that point. Put it this way – Gelman is saying that if people since say, 1890 had applied Wade’s genetic explanations for the fortunes of nations at each point, then we wouldn’t see the theories converging on anything. Their genetic theories would end up clinging to a rollercoaster of short-term fluctuations rather than being anywhere near consistent. Scientists change their hypotheses alright, but they should be in some sense cumulative.

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  7. @ckp – “Put it this way – Gelman is saying that if people since say, 1890 had applied Wade’s genetic explanations for the fortunes of nations at each point, then we wouldn’t see the theories converging on anything. Their genetic theories would end up clinging to a rollercoaster of short-term fluctuations rather than being anywhere near consistent. Scientists change their hypotheses alright, but they should be in some sense cumulative.

    obviously. i’m sure that’s what nicholas wade thinks scientists ought to do, and it’s what he himself has done in his book, afaics.

    nor did i get the impression that gelman thinks that geneticists or sociobiologists look ONLY at the current state of affairs in any given population and then base their theories on only that. if that’s what he believes, then he’s more off the mark than i thought!

    Reply

  8. “Put it this way – Gelman is saying that if people since say, 1890 had applied Wade’s genetic explanations for the fortunes of nations at each point, then we wouldn’t see the theories converging on anything.”

    We are working on a paper in which we show that a large chunk of the global variance in the 2014 “Social Progress Index” (50 some measures) and GDP (“the fortune of nations”) can be explained by 1800s cognitive ability. See here for the correlations between national cognitive ability from the 1800s, early 1900s, and 2000s. humanvarietiesdotorg.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/rmatlvah.png So, in short, you’re wrong. If someone in the 1800s applied a HBD perspective, they would have correctly predicted much about our current world.

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  9. I objected to Gelman’s blithe speculations of what Wade might possibly have said 50 or 100 years ago. He’s just making it up, here. I take the point” “yes this seems plausible to us now, but just look what would have seemed plausible to others, which we now would reject!” Yes, I agree. Plausibility is not sufficient. I don’t think Wade has ever relied on plausibility as a sufficient argument, nor have HBD writers in general. HBD commenters, sure. There are lots of those who try to spin “Well, I think” theories. So what?

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  10. Gelman says he knows of no reason why there could not be behavioural differences between races.

    If someone were to blame black dysfunction on white racism, according to Gelman it would be a legitimate question to ask if it might not have a genetic cause.

    If someone were to propose allowing mass immigration of foreign races into a country, according to Gelman it would be a legitimate question to ask if this might not change the behavioral profile of the people.

    What a despicable racist! This Gelman makes me sick!

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  11. All the reviewers are failing to distinguish between the chapters on genetics, which are based on hard data, and the later chapters based on inference from the phenotype, which Wade himself describes as speculative. Weirdly myopic.

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  12. I’ll echo the over-fitting argument aspect of Gelman’s point. Wade’s genetic difference among nations theory to modern history is a just-so story that could be applied to any set of circumstances, perceived (i.e. Chinese people aren’t creative) or real (i.e. earwax type is different across the global population). Wade’s theory also seems to require genetics to happen at time scales way faster than population genetics actually works. Indeed, these rapid time scales are on the order of magnitude at which cultures can change, not genes. Wade also seems to conflate national borders with genetic population borders, but this is clearly not accurate, either.

    In short, the Guns, Germs, and Steel argument of human history as dictated by geography seems more parsimonious than the Genetic Influences of Culture model that Wade supports.

    I’ll add that Wade’s science reporting for the Times is usually of high quality, and this book just…. is not.

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  13. @Takver. Most likely: combination of all factors. To discount genetics completely is as bad as saying they are the sole explanation. In fact, they’re interconnected. Environment drives evolution.

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  14. “ALL of them in the 1950s would’ve been trying to account for the lack of success of the south koreans!”

    South Korea was simply the more rural part of the peninsula, while North Korea had industrialized with spectacular rapidity under the Japanese: that’s why North Korean tanks had sliced through the outgunned South Korean army in July 1950. During the subsequent war, the U.S. dropped a colossal number of bombs on North Korean hydroelectric dams, bridges, railways, and factories. North Korea v. South Korea in 1950 was like Lower Michigan v. Upper Michigan. Nobody in 1950 went around developing elaborate theories about why Upper Michigan was un-industrialized, it was just out of the way and geographically less gifted compared to Lower Michigan. Same with the two halves of Korea.

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  15. Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. No one, I think, tries to account for North Korean poverty by genetics: it is clearly the result of terrible economic policies. However, the converse should be that South Korea’s wealth can be accounted for by good economic policies. The relative poverty of the South over against the North in 1950 also has non-genetic causes as Steve said, i.e. the Japanese spent more effort industrializing the North than the South. Following this, one then suspects that the relative wealth of today’s South Korea against Ghana surely has something to do with the different economic policies of the two countries: South Korea follows a capitalist model, while Ghana’s economy is more influenced by socialism (as are most sub-Saharan African countries). Does Wade’s book make any attempt to control for simple things like this, i.e. does he compare two countries with the same kinds of policies and natural resources but with different economic outcomes that can only plausibly be accounted for by genetics?

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  16. Look, nobody is saying that genetics is the only thing that matters with regard to economic development. Of course economic policies are important. Of course capitalism works better than socialism. Of course stupid politicains like Mao and Pol Pot can set a country back decades. But genetics ARE a factor, that’s all Wade is saying, and to all but closed mind blank slaters, that should be obvious.

    And I’m sorry, but ‘Guns, Germs and Steel” was cherry-picked garbage, and everyone knows it.

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  17. @Jonathan:

    “Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. No one, I think, tries to account for North Korean poverty by genetics: it is clearly the result of terrible economic policies.”

    I wish people would stop using North & South Korea as some bastion of pure environmental difference, because truth be told, there is nothing saying North and South Koreans are genetically identical (see Japan and China).

    “However, the converse should be that South Korea’s wealth can be accounted for by good economic policies. The relative poverty of the South over against the North in 1950 also has non-genetic causes as Steve said, i.e. the Japanese spent more effort industrializing the North than the South. Following this, one then suspects that the relative wealth of today’s South Korea against Ghana surely has something to do with the different economic policies of the two countries”

    Here’s the fallacy: to the extent that the differences between the two Koreas stem from differences in their regimes and economic structures (again, nothing saying that this accounts for all of their differences), all it establishes is that a certain genetic character (behavioral suite and intelligence) is a necessary but not sufficient prerequisite for a wealthy, high-functioning society. That doesn’t then mean that that has anything to do with all differences. Case in point, Botswana and the oil-rich Arab states.

    All of what you brought up is addressed here:

    Welcome Readers from Portugal! | JayMan’s Blog

    and here:

    “Racial Reality” Provides My 150th Post | JayMan’s Blog

    Reply

  18. Have you ever tried to think through just how the theory of evolution through selection actually could be wrong? It has some of the character of a tautology, or of a mathematical theorem, and is thus absolutely true, given the premises.

    The issue then perhaps becomes the extent to which it really is a helpful representation of the contingency of what we observe in the world.

    On the basis of five minutes thought:

    There could be unobservable aspects of our environment that confound the selective effects of the observed environment (EG A providential God, or a spiritual dimension of another sort.)

    Or perhaps environments (when more fully understood) might actually be so chaotic and dynamic that they cannot engender enough consistent selection to explain evolution in a useful way.

    One obvious place to look for these sorts of environment is in the human mind, and within human cultures. Creativity and intuition might in the end prove to be best and most fully understood as chaotic in this way and as occupying a dimension to which our access is somehow necessarily restricted.

    Or how else can Darwin be wrong, or incomplete?

    Reply

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