Do scientists unintentionally screw over black people?

Part of the controversy over The Bell Curve and James Watson was the idea it must mean something if there were a genetic basis for the black-white IQ gap.  We couldn’t just ignore this fact like we do much of science.  Surely a putative link between race, genes and IQ has more significance than, say, the existence of the radiation belts.  (Sorry, I had to toss in some space physics!)  Herrnstein, Murray and Watson themselves used these alleged facts as the basis for social policy recommendations.

The main problem with this analysis is that it’s, well, wrong.  As James Heckman persuasively showed in a dense article in Reason, social policy is ultimately decided on cost-benefit analysis:

It is striking that the authors do not discuss the costs and benefits of various interventions. It is in these terms that public policy discussions regarding skill-enhancement programs are usually conducted. The authors seek to short-circuit all of the hard work required to make credible cost-benefit calculations by claiming that there is a genetic basis for skill differences. 

But estimates of a genetic component of skills are irrelevant to the requisite cost-benefit analysis unless it can be established that all differences are genetic. No one, including the authors, claims that this is so.  [Emphasis added–PK]

So even if we scientifically proved that some portion of the IQ gap can be attributed to genetics, those facts would not help us decide whether the government should fund pre-school.  What does help are data showing a 7:1 return on investment and principled reasons on, e.g., the role of government.  But however you make the case, genetics really has no role.  At least in this case, science narrowly defined is most definitely not the basis of policy.

None of this negates the idea that we should try to dispel the sloppy science.  It is important to explain what is and isn’t known about race and IQ.  It is important to explain that science may never be able to determine the link (read towards the end of Metcalf).  But it is also important to explain that in this case we can better understand the controversy by ignoring the science.

As I’ve argued before, scientists often place science at the center of decision-making.  The pattern holds up here.  Herrnstein et al. argued that the science of race and IQ implies early childhood education is a waste of time, while others disputed those narrow claims.  But it’s crucial to note that scientists did not stress that the issue is not about science and framing it as such is is wrong.  Not wrong in an ethical or moral sense.  And not wrong in the sense that people shouldn’t exaggerate their importance.  It’s wrong for purely empirical reasons:  some policies are not decided on the basis of science.

Which finally brings me to the title of this blog post.  Since science is in fact irrelevant to some decisions, are there negative consequences for pretending otherwise? Did scientists inadvertently foster negative racial attitudes by opposing The Bell Curve without also pointing out its irrelevance for social policy?  I admit that I’m making a very convoluted argument.  But bear with me while I try flesh it out.

There are four key points.  First, this dispute centered on the science of genetics.  Second, this approach is empirically false.  The argument should have been about cost-benefit and government’s role in society.   Third (and for the umpteenth time!), scientists’ sole response to Herrnstein, Murray and Watson was to attack the scientific basis of their arguments.   We made it sound like Herrnstein et al. would have a point if only their science were correct.  Fourth, given how technical the issue is, it’s inevitable that some people were not convinced by our rebuttals.

These facts lead me to believe that the inappropriate public framing decreased support for redistributive social policy.  That is, some people who initially things like supported universal child care changed their opinion precisely because of the prominence given to Bell Curve type arguments. I’m not sure how to test this idea.  But if I’m even partially correct, it appears that how we frame science might have reduced enthusiasm for policies that most help poor black and Hispanic Americans.  In short, how we speak about science may unintentionally screw over poor black people.

Finally, there’s a very good chance this very long post that will be read by no one.  Nevertheless, I’d be interested in what my (non-existent) readers think.  There’s a non-trivial chance I’m spectacularly wrong and it’d be great to hear why and how.


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