Monday, October 22, 2007

The Bell Curve Again

It keeps coming back: every few years somebody revives the argument about whether there are significant differences in intelligence across races. This time it’s James Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning co-discoverer of DNA, who has ignited the usual firestorm by saying that Africans are less intelligent than the rest of us.
Or something like that. Here’s the crux of what he actually said in an interview with the Sunday Times Magazine:
“...all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really.”

...and then:
“There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”
The reaction was fast: Watson was fired from his administrative position at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory a couple of days after the interview, and a spokesman for a British human rights group said: “[Watson’s statement] amounts to fueling bigotry and we would like it to be looked at for grounds of legal complaint.”
At the same time, other people were accusing Watson’s critics of political correctness, suppression of free discussion, and a refusal to consider evidence which goes against orthodox notions. Do they have a point? Watson’s statement was an empirical claim, which presumably can be tested for its truth value. Should he lose his job, or even be prosecuted, because it makes a claim most of us are reluctant to admit could be true?
Not many of us are conversant with the relevant science, and it often seems to boil down to conflicting claims. “...geneticists, psychologists, neuroscientists and educationalists have rebutted [the claims of scientific racism] many times over,” said biologist Steven Rose in The New Statesman. Meanwhile, a respondent using the name Caledonia in a discussion on the Pharyngula science blog confidently states: “People who are actually familiar with the basics of psychometric testing also know that various ethnic subpopulations score differently on the scale of large groups. And yes, attempts have been made to account for these differences, and obvious things like SES and nutrition can't account for all of them.”
Who’s right? How are we to make sense of all this? Most of us find racist views repellent. We’d love to think that there’s no scientific basis for racist views. But is that just wishful thinking? What about that nagging voice that says that if we are really open-minded we have at least to consider evidence that things might not be as we’d wish? Well, a few random thoughts come to mind right away: No, people shouldn’t be prosecuted for offering unpopular opinions. They shouldn’t lose their jobs merely for making claims about matters of fact, even if those facts are unpalatable (and still in question). There is a whiff of censorship in the reaction to Watson’s statement. The reaction lends credence to those who claim that liberals enforce an orthodoxy of thought in the media and society at large.
But other random thoughts occur as well: Why do people keep bringing this up? What is the utility of a claim like this in the first place? If Watson (or Charles Murray of Bell Curve fame) is correct, the statistical distribution of intelligence (the infamous “bell curve”) for people of African descent is shifted to the left of the bell curve for people of European descent. In other words, the average intelligence of the first group is lower than that of the second. Well, my first observation is that the shift is fairly slight, no matter how you plot it: a whole lot of black people are still smarter than a whole lot of white people. But more importantly, the amount of information about any given individual conveyed by the bell curve is exactly zero. There is no way of telling where any given individual lies on that curve except to test that person individually. In other words, if we are treating people as individuals, which is what we should be doing as a matter of profound and unshakable principle in this country, the curve is useless. It is a curiosity at best.
So why are some people still doing research on this? There seems to be a fairly broad consensus in biology that the notion of race is not biologically significant. (See a good discussion of this at And the notion of intelligence is pretty fuzzy, too. The Mensa quiz doesn’t quite nail it, I’m afraid. There are different types of intelligence, and intelligence isn’t graven in stone even within one person’s lifetime. It seems to me that the idea of racial differences in intelligence presumes a firmer idea of both race and intelligence than is actually warranted.
But just for the sake of argument, let’s concede that the categories and the differences are real: my response is still, “So what?” Plain old waspy Americans like me are supposedly on average less intelligent than Asians or Ashkenazi Jews. Am I worried? No, as long as I’m hired, fired, stroked, chewed out, rewarded, punished, prosecuted, acquitted, scorned, respected, hated or loved on the basis of my behavior as an individual, and not on the basis of my membership in a group, whatever the statistics about that group. That, the insurance of equality before the law and institutional fairness to individuals, is the central problem, the central struggle of American society or any other society. The question of which group is more intelligent on average is simply and utterly irrelevant.
So while it’s wrong to try to censor science, there’s nothing wrong with questioning a research program. I’m just wondering why this particular research program still appeals to people.
An abashed James Watson apologized for his remarks a few days after the controversy broke, saying he was “mortified”. Here’s an interesting question: Why didn't he stick to his guns?

Sam Reaves

Monday, October 15, 2007

Talking Turkey

Congress is threatening to pass a resolution proclaiming that the slaughter of a million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks was genocide. Offended, the modern Turks are up in arms, saying they may retaliate by refusing to allow the U.S. to funnel supplies through Turkey to Iraq. In addition, the Turks are peeved with us because PKK rebels based in our Kurdish protectorate in Iraq keep coming over the border to kill people and blow things up. The Turks are threatening to go into Iraq to do something about it. Turkish-American relations are a trifle on the tense side these days.
The Turks don’t have a good press in this country; when we think of the Turks most of us think of Jose Ferrer’s creepy Turkish colonel in Lawrence of Arabia or the nightmare jail in Midnight Express. And there are lots of Armenian-Americans who know the history because they heard it from elderly relatives who survived the horror. But bad press or not, I have to say the Turks have a couple of legitimate beefs here.
First of all, what is Congress doing wasting its time with resolutions like this? Which Congressional committee was it that produced this? The House Committee in Charge of Lecturing Other Countries About Their Past Crimes, was it? I guess we should be grateful Congress has solved all our problems so they can move on to Monday-morning quarterbacking other countries’ histories.
But wasn’t the death of a million Armenians genocide? Well, I wasn’t there. All I have to go on are the various historical sources. Some of them call it genocide, some of them don’t. Who cares what they call it? It seems fairly clear that it was a horrific slaughter of a defenseless population by a backward despotism. If you want to call it genocide, call it genocide. If the Turks don’t like that, they’ll argue with you. But it’s a historical argument, or maybe just a semantic argument. There’s no reason to turn it into a political argument. The debate is similar to the one about what happened to the Native Americans. Call that genocide, and a lot of patriotic Americans will get hot under the collar. The point is that the debate is best left to the historians, not the politicians. Imagine what would happen if the French parliament passed a resolution declaring what happened to the Cherokees genocide. You might well agree with them—but a lot of people wouldn’t, and the ensuing political dust-up would be pointless. You’d wonder whether the French parliament didn’t have anything better to do.
The House resolution is essentially a piece of mischief. If it’s not an underhanded way of undermining our campaign in Iraq (that’s the cynical view, and I’d hate to think it’s true), it’s certainly grandstanding to oblige some influential constituents of Nancy Pelosi. The proper purpose of a legislature is to pass the laws required for the functioning of our institutions and exercise oversight of the other branches of government. Somebody please explain to me how this resolution furthers any of that.
As for the PKK, they’re on our list of terrorist organizations, as well as the EU’s. They have carried out assassinations and bombings across Turkey, and if I were Turkish, I’d be peeved, too, by their ability to find safe haven in Iraq. We should make clear to the Iraqi Kurds that in exchange for our gift of their country to them, they are to exercise some responsibility and rein in the PKK.
None of the above is to take Turkey off the hook for any of its sins. Turkey has stupidly and stubbornly repressed Kurdish language and culture, and the Turkish army’s counter-insurgency campaign in southeast Turkey has been at times criminally brutal. Turkey is an imperfect democracy living under the constant threat of military intervention and nationalist extremism. But it is a working democracy which has shown signs of reform and liberalization, much more so than any other Muslim country, and as the best hope of demonstrating that Islam and democracy can co-exist, its legitimate interests deserve our support. The House resolution, whatever its truth value, is empty symbolism and thus a piece of irrelevant foolishness, and Turkey deserves what influence we can exert to prevent murderous attacks coming across its border from our Kurdish client state.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Torture? Not us...

President Bush says we don’t torture people. Nobody believes him. Well, I suppose some people do. But they have adopted a definition of torture (no organ failure, no torture) so restrictive as to be meaningless. And handing prisoners over to other countries that practice torture without restraint makes the whole denial thing a joke.
So what’s the problem with torture, anyway? This is the security of our country we’re talking about, isn’t it? Doesn’t the end justify the means here? We’re talking about harsh treatment of a few murderous fanatics in order to prevent a mass slaughter of innocents. What wouldn’t be justified?
I’m willing to take a hard look at the question. I don’t want another September 11th any more than you do. And those who say that torture never works are simply wrong. The French army used torture quite effectively to break up the FLN networks responsible for the bombing campaign in Algiers in 1957. Was it justified there? Can it ever be justified?
There are some hard issues here. Let’s think first about the ends and means thing. The best discussion of ends and means I know of is in a footnote to Chapter 9 of Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper raises three questions to ask about any claim that a good end justifies a bad means: (1) Will the means in fact lead to the end? (2) Can we realistically assess which is the lesser of two evils? (3) Will the means itself create new ongoing problems?
Our response to the first question is a matter of intellectual humility. Millennia of experience with unintended consequences ought to make us skeptical of easy claims here. The seemingly clear cases like the French campaign in Algiers are very limited in scope: Massu’s paratroops crushed that particular network, but the larger war was lost anyway, and along with it the prestige of the French army. How many lives were saved? Impossible to answer. Some, almost certainly, in the short run. But how many French lives were lost subsequently to increased Algerian bitterness and opposition? The calculus gets pretty tough. Torture does not win friends, even if it can accomplish immediate tactical goals.
As for the second question, the non-fatal suffering, however intense, of a handful of al-Qaeda operatives set against the lives of large numbers of Americans in a hypothetical rerun of 9/11 is fairly easy, as assessments go. But it gets harder if we think about an ongoing policy of torture or physical pressure or whatever you choose to call it over a period of years. This leads to the third question. What are the long-term effects? Moral authority is a real asset in a world where the great majority of governments are distinguished by ruthless cynicism. It is an intangible asset, which may appear insignificant when set against the very real danger of mass murder. But in the long run the attitudes of people around the world, their desire to do business with us and listen to our entreaties and respect our interests and safeguard the travelers we send out around the world, is materially affected by our moral standing. And the longer we maintain a policy that allows torture, especially if we continue to be dishonest about it, the more that standing suffers.
The only possible justification for torture is on a strictly utilitarian calculus in which the act of torture would prevent a significantly greater evil in a direct and unambiguous way. But utilitarian arguments, overruling what Robert Nozick called “side constraints”, are valid only in emergency situations. The ticking-bomb scenario favored by torture’s apologists might qualify, but those scenarios are mercifully rare. In a true ticking-bomb scenario, all bets are off, and I would hope that any U.S. personnel in a position to defuse the bomb would do what is necessary. But that’s a far cry from institutionalizing torture in the long-term fight against Islamic fascism. We shouldn’t go there. It creates more problems than it solves. It de-legitimizes our power and manufactures enemies. It throws the moral authority we like to claim out the window. President Bush should take the steps necessary to insure that when he says we don’t torture people, he’s telling the truth.
Sam Reaves