Politics and Science

Barely was the ink dry (pixels glowing, whatever) on  my having posted this to National Review Online:

Politics … corrupts the human sciences, suppressing research in areas where it’s feared results will crash up against what Bill Buckley called “the prevailing structure of taboos”:  widespread entrenched beliefs and emotions — in psychometry, for example, or population genetics.

… than my special issue of The Economist arrived, a survey of “the world in 2010.” The science section of the issue includes a piece by Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, title: “The Looming Crisis in Human Genetics.” After discussing the meager results from genome-wide association studies, Miller turns to the just-over-the-horizon promise of full genome sequencing. (The big comparative sequencing studies to date have dealt with samples typically only 0.03 percent of the genome in size.). Miller:

When sequencing costs drop within a few years below $1,500 per genome, researchers in Europe, China and India will start huge projects with vast sample sizes, sophisticated bioinformatics, diverse trait measures and detailed family structures. (American bioscience will prove too politically squeamish to fund such studies.) …

The trouble is, the resequencing data will reveal much more about human evolutionary history and ethnic differences than they will about disease genes. Once enough DNA is analysed around the world, science will have a panoramic view of human genetic variation across races, ethnicities, and regions. We will start reconstructing a detailed family tree that links all living humans …

We will also identify the many genes that create physical and mental differences across populations, and we will be able to estimate when those genes arose …

If the shift from GWAS to sequencing studies finds evidence of such politically awkward and morally perplexing facts, we can expect the usual range of ideological reactions, including nationalistic retro-racism from conservatives and outraged denial from blank-slate liberals. The few who really understand the genetics will gain a more enlightened, live-and-let-live recognition of the biodiversity within our extraordinary species — including a clearer view of likely comparative advantages between the world’s different economies.

The boldface there is mine. The “we” in subsequent sentences should actually be “they” since, Miller predicts (correctly, I think) that American scientists will be too “politically squeamish” to join in this tremendous exploration.

Perhaps we should just stop doing science altogether; or at least, hand over our bioscience labs to the Discovery Institute.

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6 Responses to Politics and Science

  1. Aaron says:

    The last quoted paragraph (“If the shift…”) is arrogant and condescending, and simplistic too. With a few exceptions, we shouldn’t take scientists too seriously when they speak outside of their fields of expertise, as Miller does in that last paragraph.

    Re Mr. Derbyshire’s comment, I don’t think it matters much whether the research is done in America or elsewhere. If this research turns out to strongly support the hereditarian hypothesis, then the news will have to be reported in America. It will become part of the public discourse. Liberals will still be able to justify their policies even after admitting the reality of genetic differences (“diversity” is already a practical step in that direction), but the right will have a new oppοrtunity to attack liberalism. The hereditarian theory of racial differences will move from American Renaissance to Fox News.

    White people will suddenly have an excuse to be race realists. The following is a logical tautology but is psychologically and rhetorically significant: If the races differ in important ways due to between-group genetic variation, then the races differ in important ways. Thus, the kind of genetic results predicted here would draw attention to obvious phenotypic differences which are currently unspoken, and sometimes unseen and unthought, because of ideology. These future genetic results may help to psychologically justify race realism, a race realism which is already justifiable today – and yesterday – by virtue of nonmalleable phenotypic differences between the races, whatever the cause.

    That said, the question of a genetic cause is extremely important in practice, as Michael Levin has argued contra Hernstein and Murray and others. (Levin by the way is an example of a philosopher who out-thinks the scientists on the implications of their own research.) Evidence of a genetic influence on racial differences could bring down one of the pillars of post-World War II liberalism: white guilt. Whites will be able to say, rightly or wrongly, “It’s not our fault, so quit complaining.”

    Anyway, that’s just my own simplistic prediction. Don’t take it too seriously.

  2. Bob_R says:

    I doubt that the “politically squeamish” will admit to themselves that the outcomes of such research are likely to make them uncomfortable. The situation will probably proceed much as in the case of psychometrics where research will proceed – if with less enthusiasm (and funding) than areas where the outcomes are to the liking of the funding class.

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  4. Jeeves says:

    Did Jonah respond to your NRO (Corner)reply? He’s usually above that kind of gotcha provocation, which he calls a “hockey puck.” Thank you for leaving a hockey stick protruding from a tight spot in his anatomy.

  5. D'oh! says:

    Of course, the I dunno, Genetic Scientists could just lie about it all,tell us the data say whatever they want them to say, then call us ‘creationists’ or something when we protest. Rationalize that.

  6. bfwebster says:

    Of course, when all this happens, absolutely no one will go back and admit that Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein actually did solid statistical work in “The Bell Curve”, as opposed to being crypto- (or not-so-crypto-) racists as the Left and the Media portrayed them. ..bruce..

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