In a typically eloquent post on trying to understand those whose beliefs we deem abhorrent, Ta-Nehisi Coates takes an unnecessary swipe at creationists: “Recognizing our world is filled with creationists, liars, charlatans and necromancers, we should not live for them.”
I’ve noticed his antipathy to creationists and intelligent design before (e.g. here, here and here). On one hand it’s quite strange. TNC’s writing is almost always clear and well-reasoned. But in this case I’m not at all sure what he’s trying to say. Is it that we should think of creationists as we do liars and charlatans? Or perhaps creationists are liars and charlatans? Given that creationism denotes a specific set of beliefs about Earth and human history, and liars and charlatans are simply bad people, I’m really not sure what the comparison is meant to show.
Sadly, TNC’s attitude is all too common. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the word creationist used as a general pejorative, as a substitute for the intellectually careless and morally corrupt. I also can’t count the number of times I’ve heard creationists compared to Holocaust deniers, which TNC also does here. But is that really a useful comparison?
Denying evolution means you deny a very complicated scientific theory whose findings span several hundred million years, has exactly zero practical impact on your daily life (quick: when’s the last time you actually used the theory of evolution?), and may directly contradict your deeply-held religious beliefs. Denying the Holocaust means you to believe it’s okay to kill Jews.
Branding creationists as Holocaust deniers allows us to avoid trying to understand some 40% of our fellow citizens. Many practicing scientists, after all, are creationists. Many, many more are skeptical of evolution. Are they all liars and charlatans? Evangelicals (most of whom are either creationists or intelligent-design proponents) are increasingly active in both environmental stewardship and social justice. Should we treat them as we do Holocaust deniers?
A conflict exists only if you wrongly assume that creationism is a window into someone’s intellectual and moral character. If you wrongly assume that rejecting evolution is akin to rejecting the Holocaust. But they are not at all the same.
What’s even more dispiriting about TNC’s attitude is that it contradicts so much of his other work. More than any other writer that I’ve read, TNC has wrestled with how we portray the dignity and humanity of individual black Americans: “I would have us depicted in all our rancid splendor–boastful and marvelous, rhythmic and self-interested, dumb, clear, hateful, and, on occasion, brave.” Shouldn’t we extend creationists the same courtesy? I’ve personally known many creationists, and I assure you they too can be marvelous, rhythmic and self-interested. And yet most of us (TNC is not special here) are content to paint in broad brush strokes. To assert that a belief in creationism makes one a creationist, thereby defining the sum total of their existence and obliterating everything else about them.
It might be more helpful to think of evolution as simply another discrete, technical subject where people use trust as a proxy for detailed investigation, something TNC himself does for health-care and cap-and-trade. There’s actually a lot of research on the importance of trust in scientific controversies, and I’ve very briefly touched on the theme in the past. Now I may be wrong, but I suspect that like me, TNC largely relies on trust when it comes to evolution. We both probably cannot explain the difference between punctuated equilibrium and gradualism, or the debate over the Cambrian explosion.
None of this means that creationists’ beliefs are correct. But since we all often substitute trust for reason and evidence, it does mean that they are not necessarily ignorant, stupid or evil.
There are ultimately many people out there who deserve our scorn. There are actual liars, charlatans and necromancers who should be criticized, publicly and harshly. But we must be careful at whom we direct such diatribes. Crude generalizations are not only unfair, they distract us from the important task of determining who really deserves our condemnation. There’s no evidence that creationists as a group should be included and we should try to avoid it.
On Wednesday I went to a panel on science education at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It was a fascinating exchange. To highlight just one point, Andrew Rotherham discussed how the recent focus on competition from China and India echoes previous concerns with the Soviets and Japanese. Then as now, a narrow focus on science education risks misdiagnosing the problem and supporting false solutions.
We currently use an incentives-based approach to an alleged shortage of scientists. That is, we offer scholarships and forgive student loans to entice people into technical careers. Rotherham argues that such policies simply reward people for choices they would have made anyway. We end up fiddling at the margins rather than confronting the real issue. The main problem isn’t a lack of incentives for a few rich white kids. It’s that most poor and minority kids are so woefully unprepared to make the choice. No amount of incentives will help them pass multivariate calculus if they can’t do basic algebra. To quote an article Rotherham co-wrote a few years ago:
Unless we believe that a substantial number of such students are failing to choose science careers for want of proper inducements, many of the scarce resources devoted to new scholarship programs may well reward people of means for choices they would have made anyway. In fact, the richest untapped source of future talent will likely be found in our underserved cities and among low-income and minority students who are failing to receive a good education in our public schools. A college scholarship is worthless unless you graduate from high school, but only about half of America’s minority students even finish high school on time.
Likewise, few students can handle college-level science without first completing a high-quality secondary math and science curriculum, but many disadvantaged students attend high schools that don’t even offer those classes or where the courses are often taught by teachers who do not know the material themselves. Consequently, minority students who do reach 12th-grade lag behind their white peers by four grade levels, on average, on national tests of reading and math.
As a result, the best long-run strategy for boosting America’s global economic standing isn’t giving more students a reason to choose careers in science. It’s giving more students the ability to choose careers in science. Without expanding the pool of well-prepared students who can take advantage of them, no amount of scholarships will make a difference.
All of this has got me wondering. Science organizations themselves are the ones often pushing these incentive-based policies. We also do nothing to temper the sky-is-falling-rhetoric about the threats from India and China even though the facts aren’t straightforward and more nuance is needed.
Given that poor minorities most benefit from education reform and are most hurt from misplaced attention, are we unintentionally screwing over poor black people by focusing on incentive-based policies? It’s a distinct possibility that our rhetoric distracts from a broader education reform agenda. As I’ve argued before, it may be that the public voice of science negatively impacts race in America.
I know I’m being a bit provocative here. In this case I’m not really convinced our actions really have that much of an impact (although I’m more convinced in this one). Education reform is and will be a major national issue, and one that scientists usually support. Scientists clamoring for more scholarships will not change the situation and most of us are happy about that. That said, I do think we should be more hesitant about promoting the need for more scientists and these incentives-based policies. I’d need several to articulate all the reasons we should be more circumspect. But even the slightest chance that we divert resources from the poorest Americans should make us pause and think.
Let me expand on something I wrote in my last post:
There’s something about scientists’ training that makes us believe we’re all qualified to speak for “science.” I would never consider speaking authoritatively on condensed matter physics even though I’ve taken a few classes in the subject. Yet in the past I have waxed eloquently about “science.” And the funny thing is that people (especially non-scientists) take me seriously. But if I’m not qualified to speak about all areas of physics, how on earth am I qualified to speak for science?
It sounds harsh, but I think that arrogance is really the best way to describe this attitude. All scientists somehow assert the right to speak for science even though they are experts in only a single area. Simply put, scientists are arrogant. Those of you who’ve spent time in academia are probably wondering why I waste time stating something so obvious. We’re used to interacting with people with big egos. But I think there’s something a bit different operating here.
Faculty at big research universities are usually the best of the best. They’ve had incredibly successful careers and there’s a degree of arrogance that goes along with it. It’s not much different from people in other fields. But consider anyone who is or has been in a science PhD program. These people are generally not arrogant or overconfident. In most cases, I think they exude humility and restraint. And yet all of us believe that we’re qualified to speak for “science.”
I said this before, but modern science is HUGE. There are millions of people and hundreds of billions of dollars involved. On top of that, science has become even more specialized. I didn’t completely understand what all my labmates worked on even though we all studied space physics. The combination of greater size with greater specialization means that your average scientists knows a very, very, very small portion of science. When it was limited to a handful of wealthy, white, Christian males, perhaps “science” and “scientists” were coherent ideas. But I don’t think they still are.
Right now your average scientist knows as much about science as an average athlete knows about sports. Michael Jordan was rarely, if ever, asked to comment about all of sports. Everyone recognized that his skill at basketball didn’t transfer to swimming or track-and-field. I suspect that he knew of his own limitations in this regard. This type of humility doesn’t happen with scientists. My friends and I all believed we knew enough to debate whether “science” was value-free. We were so confident we didn’t bother looking at the evidence! More than anything else, this is what I can’t really wrap my head around. When it comes to speaking about “science”, most scientists are pretty unscientific. I know I’ve been guilty in the past.
Somewhere along the way us scientists have cultivated this false confidence in our knowledge. I know it’s probably a stretch, but I think it might be similar to institutional racism. As I understand the concept, racism can be inflicted even if people are well-meaning. (See Racism without Racists by Bonilla-Silva.*) Society and institutions may be perpetuate racism even if individuals aren’t racist.
Somewhat along those lines, I think that science portrays an arrogance despite humility of individual scientists. It’s not a perfect analogy because I think that the scientists themselves are arrogant. But it’s a highly contextualized arrogance. I wouldn’t call my friends arrogant even though they all arrogantly speak for all of science. Maybe the institution of science engenders arrogance in otherwise humble people? I’m not sure…I’ll have to flesh this idea out some more. Right now I’m pretty sure I’m rambling and making no sense.
*I feel I should say that I haven’t actually read that book. But I thank my friend Sapna for the recommendation.
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.
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.
I’m sick of writing about creationism and intelligent-design. So I’m going to switch to another favorite topic of mine: black people. To be more precise, I’ve always been fascinated by race relations in America. For better and for worse, in America this issue is mostly framed in terms of white and black people. And since I’m also fascinated by science, what I meant to say is henceforth the bulk of my literary endeavors will focus on the myriad intersections of science and race in the American social order. Whew! It’s funny how precision can make your writing wordier and less entertaining. I’ll make sure to avoid it in the future.
I used to volunteer at a low-income school in East Palo Alto, and a friend recently asked me what “impact” my outreach had. I’ve discussed that issue a lot over the years, and I’ve always been uncomfortable with the question.
First off, I feel that there’s an implicit (explicit?) assumption that outreach efforts must ultimately be justified in some concrete long-term outcome. We’re either contributing to scientific literacy, or increasing the presence of underrepresented minorities, or improving U.S. competitiveness. I’m largely sympathetic to these goals, and especially the second. And of course if The Science Bus were receiving some government grant, we’d have to ensure that public funds are being used appropriately. But should a group of grad students volunteering a few hours a week be held to the same standard?
I think there’s an understandable tendency to try and find greater meaning in actions like these. To make ourselves seem more important than we actually are. It’s a tendency that should be avoided. We end up conceptualizing childhood as merely a vessel that brings children to adulthood rather than a period of life important in its own right.* It’s especially easy to fall into this trap with the poor black and Hispanic kids that I worked with. Oh, those poor black children! We must do something to give them a better chance!
Again, I’m largely sympathetic to such sentiments. But we shouldn’t forget that us yuppy white and Asian kids–which unfortunately describes most American scientists–often did things just because they were, well, fun. We had no problem enjoying life in the moment without caring about the future. We shouldn’t assume poor people are any different just because they are poor.
So what was the impact of my volunteering? Well considering that I only spent a couple hours every week at the school, and the same kids didn’t always show up, and that they had several other after-school activities, and they usually had a dedicated science teacher…I’d guess that that my efforts probably had almost no long-term impact. In the grand scheme of things, my work was probably drowned out by all the other factors in their lives. I also suspect that lots of outreach is like this.
I do know, however, that for the short time we hung out every week, the kids had a lot of fun. And that’s impact enough for me.
* I shamelessly plagiarized this phrasing from the first chapter of Project 2061.