'Blueprint' - The stealthy return of Scientific Racism?

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"Blueprint: How DNA makes us who we are" - by Kings College, London's Professor Robert Plomin, is due out on 4 October. Publisher Penguin Allen Lane is in the UK giving review copies only to people who will give the book a particular kind of uncritical, 'gee whizz science' write-up. It has refused The Conversation and other publications a copy. 'Nature' has one, though, and it has published a savage review. This post does not seek to review the book, but instead to provide a broad background to its publication using only factual references and low-risk inferences.

The reason for the coyness on Allen Lane's part, and the ferocity of the Nature reviewer, is that Professor Plomin's previous publications and statements include an endorsement of the notion that black people are on average genetically predisposed to be considerably less intelligent than white people (one standard deviation, or 15 IQ points). Also, that poor people are similarly on average predisposed to be less intelligent that their better-offs. There's plenty which can be done through education and other policies, he says, but societal stratification and the existence of racial inequality reflect genetic make-up. These are ideas which he has both confirmed and built on over the years.

Readers will recognise these notions from Herrnstein and Murray's 1994 book; "The Bell Curve", and a quarter of a century before that the well-known 1969 paper on the subject by Professor Arthur Jensen. Professor Plomin is closely professionally associated with all these authors, and signed a public letter supporting the 'mainstream science' behind their assertions. Plomin's work so far, and apparently as continued in The Blueprint, reintroduces Bell Curve/Jensen notions of intelligence to a mainstream audience for the genome age.

Professor Plomin is best known for having run King's twins study since he left the United States the year The Bell Curve was published. Since the mapping of the human genome, his team has concentrated upon identifying, though Genome Wide Association Studies (GWASs), the function upon human phenotypic traits of tiny snippets of DNA information known as Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms. His most notable recent proposals have been that all pre-school children should be DNA tested, with the results used to inform 'personalised learning plans'. Since he believes that the DNA tests will show black people to be on average less intelligent that white people, his plan would, assuming his science were correct, racialise education by creating racial patterns in provision. There would naturally be predictable socio-economic patterns too.

At the core of Plomin's thinking is Professor Charles Spearman's notion of 'g', or 'general intelligence' as a function of a series of correlations noted by him in the early 20th century. General intelligence and related intelligence theory recognises psychometric IQ testing as measure intelligence, notes high heredity of intelligence through the passing-on of genes, and argues that 'g' is a powerful predictor of a range of individual outcomes including educational achievement and socio-economic status. It supports the idea of environmental impact on a person's development, but only as constrained by genetic inheritance.

Naturally, there's much resistance to and criticism of Plomin's ideas. Some comes from other psychologists and behavioural geneticists who feel Plomin goes beyond the evidence available. The most fierce criticism, though, comes from social scientists such as Professor David Gillborn who argue that Plomin is reintroducing by stealth a 'scientific racism' long since discarded by society and most scholars.

This post will not seek to summarise the arguments - this will come after the Blueprint's publication. At root, however,  it is clear that Plomin is a world-renowned behavioural geneticist, his team at Kings is funded by research grants associated with him totalling £30m, and that he is widely-supported in his use of 'g' by very many scientists in his field. Spearman's 'g' has endured many attempts to break it over the last century and yet it remains, according to experts in the field, a powerful tool. It may be reasonably said to remain orthodox intelligence theory.

In the other corner, alongside arguments against the validity of 'g', there are perhaps more powerful views about what may be epistemological weaknesses in Plomin's thinking. For example, scientists have accepted for decades that knowledge claims must take social constructions into account. The UK and the University, race too, are social constructions. Whereas Plomin appears to exemplify a trend amongst some scientists to deny ideas of social construction and return to a more positivistic application of science. Plomin's style, certainly, is to tell us that he is simply a 'truth seeker' and that the truths he exposes must inevitably be operationalised as public policy. He seems on weaker ground with these arguments, notably because he is not a public policy scholar and his work shows little or no evidence of relevant policy, educational literature or epistemological treatment.

Public policy has, again for decades, been rooted in a series of socially-constructed assumptions about human equality; not least, racial equality. However, Plomin's arguments, for example in his last book celebrating the role of 'g' in Education, 'G is for genes', amount to a proposal that we accept that genetic intelligence inferiority in the average black or impoverished child is simply a truth and adjust education policy accordingly. This is an explosive notion which most people today find deeply offensive, of course. And while scientists ague that research should not be affected by people taking offence, much of what Plomin proposes are matters of public policy, where public perceptions are of great importance.

This post began with a reference to Blueprint's publisher being reluctant to present the book for review. This reflects the style of the launch of The Bell Curve and is perhaps a natural strategy for a publisher publishing a work of this sort. But it will be interesting to see if the UK and US media treatment this week and next reflect the 'gee whizz science' aspect of the book, as the publishers likely hope, or instead look at the deeper knowledge claims and policy messages.

In respect of the latter, Professor Gillborn (above) has noted that Plomin's works seek to stress the high science while suppressing the underlying ideology. This extends to often not actually mentioning race at all, as with 'G is for genes' and, apparently, with 'Blueprint'. This appears to reflect 'lessons learned' from the public opprobrium received by similarly-minded colleagues of Plomin's such as Professor Richard Lynn, also a renowned intelligence scholar, who has chosen the more direct option of accepting the charge of scientific racism.

In addition, Gillborn notes, Plomin often deploys extensive artifice in his non-academic work. For example, he appears to make broad statements confirming the importance of environment designed to be used for 'softer' use in the media, while arguing the opposite in terms of detail and general thrust. He makes extensive references to the individual to make his assumptions about groups more palatable. He uses 'determinism' to refer to 100% outcomes rather than to the strong tilting of certain variables against poor and black people. And he presents his opponents as rooted in emotion rather than his own undeniable science. In effect, Gillborn is accusing Plomin of dog-whistle science. His criticism reflects very closely Professor Jack Montgomery's criticism of the style and content of The Bell Curve (above).

We await the publication, and the pre-coverage in the media, with interest. But the early signs aren't good. Today, The Times has carried a five and a half thousand word interview with Professor Plomin, along with a chunk of the book. Numbers of mention of the word 'race' or 'racial' or 'black' or choose your own alternative?  None.



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