A number of prominent science authors who research in the field of human genetics, including the BBC's Adam Rutherford, have supported a new blogpost by Ewan Birney. Its purpose is ostensibly as an "explainer" aimed at allaying public fears about a relationship between genetic research and contemporary scientific racism. The post is intended, they say; "to provide an accessible guide for scientists, journalists, and the general public for understanding, criticising and pushing back against" "pseudoscientific" links between genetic research, human intelligence and race. The authors have disseminated the post, and discussed it widely, via social media.
There are many things which may be said about the post, and plenty of folk are doing so elsewhere on social media. Here are some thoughts.
- The blogpost includes so much unreferenced 'science', often expressed parenthetically and in convoluted terms, that its value as an 'explainer' is limited. And while it may be reasonable to accept the lack of academic references in an 'explainer', there are cruxes here - such as the un-evidenced claim that IQs are primarily a consequence of environment - which while certainly plausible surely require references to research literature. In truth, the post looks more like a 'persuader' on the contentious parts.
- The authors evade the problem at the core of their argument. This is that the IQ testing they support (footnote) consistently produces outcomes which claim to show that people who self-define as black are significantly less intelligent than people who self-define as white, the famous/infamous 'Bell Curve'.
- This being so: If, as the authors say, IQ scores predict many educational and occupational outcomes, then the use of IQ scores in pubic policy produces racialised outcomes. The predictive value the authors claim for IQ testing means that this is true even if environment is as important as they claim (plausibly, but on closer analysis they look less confident about this point).
- The authors seek to draw a clear distinction between science and policy. They also seek to portray scholars making racial and predictive claims using genetic research as 'pseudoscientists'. However, they refer to Professor Robert Plomin, who elsewhere argues for policy measures including the compulsory DNA testing of all 4 year olds followed by regular IQ testing in order to inform 'personalised learning plans'. If they also accept the validity of IQ testing (see 2, 3) then the risk of racialised outcomes should be obvious to them.
- The authors include peer-reviewed papers in their description of pseudo-science. There's plenty of room for debate there, but it is hard to see how this charge can reasonably be levelled in a blogpost article which contains no references nor declarations of personal interest.
- At root, contemporary scientific racism presents as an epistemological problem as much as anything else. It cannot be fixed by scientists simply insisting their work has no racial implications.
Footnote: "an IQ score..is a valid and measurable trait..[and] does an excellent job of correlating with, and predicting, many educational, occupational, and health-related outcomes".