An Intelligent Argument on Race?

Scholar makes argument in favor of race-based research into intelligence, but experts in that subfield say it's an unnecessary plea that doesn't square with scientific realities.

January 23, 2020
 
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The journal Philosophical Psychology is taking flak for publishing an article in defense of race-based science on intelligence. The publication’s editors anticipated blowback, writing an accompanying note as to why they approved the piece by Nathan Cofnas, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Oxford. But some critics of the article say that the editors’ note raises as many questions as it attempts to pre-empt, and they want a formal response to their concerns.

Cofnas’s paper “disingenuously argues that the best explanation of differences in IQ scores between racial and ethnic groups is genetics,” reads a petition posted by Mark Alfano, associate professor of philosophy at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and associate professor of philosophy at Macquarie University. In so doing, Cofnas “completely neglects the role played by environmental injustice,” such as documented racial disparities in exposure to lead, housing segregation and other factors.

Calling on the editorial team of Philosophical Psychology to answer in some meaningful way -- perhaps via resignations -- Alfano wrote that philosophers and other scholars should boycott the journal in the interim. The fact that Cofnas’s paper was ever approved shows a fundamental breakdown in the editorial process that must be addressed, he argues.

“If the editors and referees at Philosophical Psychology had competently reviewed the paper, they would have noticed this glaring error and insisted on revisions (or simply rejected the paper),” Alfano wrote. “Instead, it was accepted and published alongside an editors' note defending the decision to publish that refers to the value of free speech and free inquiry.”

While “we also support free speech and free inquiry,” the petition says, “free inquiry should be guided by norms of accuracy and expertise. Indeed, that is the point of academic peer-review.”

In their journal note, editors Cees van Leeuwen, professor of psychology and education sciences at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, and Mitchell Herschbach, lecturer in philosophy at California State University at Northridge, responded at length to the three main criticisms they foresaw: Cofnas’s hereditarian stance that IQ differences between racial groups may be the result of genetics; his flying leap of an assumption that neuroscience and genetics will be unified within “several years”; and his inclusion of highly contested empirical evidence on race and intelligence -- including the work of Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.

Van Leeuwen and Herschbach weigh each point but determine that none disqualifies the paper for publication. As to Cofnas’s fundamental argument that race and IQ may be linked, for example, the editors wrote that many researchers “argue that everyday racial groupings have no biological grounding and that the ancestral populations used in behavioral genetics research have little to do with our socially constructed racial categories.” At the same time, they continued, “biological racial realism certainly has its defenders in the sciences and philosophy.”

Cofnas’s paper “certainly adopts provocative positions on a host of issues related to race, genetics, and IQ,” the note concludes. “However, none of these positions are to be excluded from the current scientific and philosophical debates as long as they are backed up with logical argumentation and empirical evidence,” and they “deserve to be disputed rather than disparaged.”

In and of itself, Cofnas’s article doesn’t break new ground: it mostly cites existing research surrounding race and intelligence, including a large body of work supporting the idea that race is a social construct. But it also discusses what Cofnas describes as another, largely ignored or rejected body of work suggesting otherwise -- that race does matter when it comes to intelligence. His main point is that when (soon, he says) and if (likely, he asserts) advances in science reveal “genetic variants underlying individual differences in intelligence,” we won’t be ready for it.

In that case, Cofnas warns, “social policies predicated on environmentalist theories of group differences" in intelligence “may fail to achieve their aims. Large swaths of academic work in both the humanities and social sciences assume the truth of environmentalism and are vulnerable to being undermined.”

In a statement this week, the journal’s editors said that Cofnas’s initial submission met the minimum conditions to go through their standard review process. Per normal procedure, they said, two independent reviewers read the paper. Two rounds of revisions followed, as did approval and publication.

In an academic journal such as Philosophical Psychology, van Leeuwen and Herschbach continued, “the role of the editors is to monitor the scholarly adequacy of the reviewing process -- not whether we, or the readership, endorse the values behind the paper.” Readers of our journal, therefore, “get to read papers they may find offensive, or papers by authors whose other statements or behaviors they may find objectionable.”

Addressing Alfano’s concerns about an insufficient discussion of environmental causes of group differences in IQ, Van Leeuwen and Herschbach said that would be relevant if Cofnas’s article had been a review on the most likely causes of the IQ gap. Instead, they said, Cofnas’s focus is to “defend the moral imperative of research into the possible genetic causes of the gap." Given that, "Cofnas attempts to show that the hereditarian thesis is a scientifically serious possibility.”

Precisely because the issue is so complex, van Leeuwen and Herschbach said, “we welcome responses to what is empirically and normatively controversial about Cofnas’s paper." Efforts to "silence unwelcome opinion, however, are doing a disservice to the community.”

Ongoing Discussions, and Why Humans Aren't Like Fruit Flies

Alfano said this week that he hadn’t yet heard back from the journal’s editors directly. He did spar, ad hominem, on social media with Cofnas -- probably in a way that didn’t help his argument. Asked about his Twitter style, Alfano said that when he participates actively in online discussions, he finds a need to distinguish between “people with whom I can have an actual conversation” and “trolls.” Of the latter group, he said, “I treat them with the contempt that they deserve.”

As to why Alfano didn’t submit a rebuttal for the journal to consider, he said this case called for a different response. Cofnas’s paper, he said, is a “Trojan horse” and not a “genuine contribution to the scholarly discourse.” 

Ultimately, he said, free speech for Cofnas “just means the right to push his views about racial hierarchies without pushback or consequences. And free inquiry is what the actual scientists who study intelligence already enjoy.”

What does Cofnas want? Cofnas said this week that he is not trying to be a provocateur and that he doesn’t in fact enjoy the backlash he’s experiencing.

“I wrote about this because it’s important, and if we fail to deal with these issues, I believe the long-term consequences could be disastrous,” he wrote in an email. “People who think this area of research is ‘pseudoscience’ are in almost all cases uninformed about the relevant science." Statements such as "‘IQ tests only measure your ability to take an IQ test’ are flat out wrong. IQ tests measure cognitive abilities that are involved in performing real-life tasks both inside and outside the classroom.”

There is more to intelligence than just IQ, “but IQ tests measure something important,” and IQ has been proven to be heritable, he added.

As for race, Cofnas cited his own paper, saying that “no completely environmental explanations of IQ gaps in the U.S. have been successful. There is no scientific basis for rejecting the theory that genes play a significant role in these gaps.” And any scientific basis to support that would bring “very difficult moral challenges,” he said, underscoring his thesis.

Cofnas has certainly raised big philosophical questions. But there are others who are perhaps better situated to address whether or not we face an impending moral crisis about genetics and neuroscience -- namely those philosophers and natural scientists who work in this area every day. Among them is Quayshawn Spencer, Robert S. Blank Presidential Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. Spencer studies the philosophy of science, biology and race and was inspired to become become a philosopher by reading The Bell Curve.

Spencer said that Cofnas’s article appeared -- as described in the editors' note -- not to address the very nature of race. That’s a common oversight among hereditarians, and “particularly frustrating to philosophers of race like myself who specialize in researching and publishing on exactly this topic.” In other words, Spencer said he didn’t see how it’s not a “fatal flaw” for an article on hereditarianism not to discuss the race schema used in the psychological research at hand and whether the existence of racial groups is based in scientific reality.

Even if one does have good reason to think that the “folk races" used in IQ research are biologically real, Spencer said, referring to the way we talk about race in everyday life, there are many different ways of being biologically real -- and some of them don’t lend themselves to the hereditarian hypothesis.

What hereditarians need is a clear, nonaccidental, causal link between group DNA and so-called cognitive capacity, Spencer said. And that doesn't exist.

Joseph L. Graves, professor of biological sciences at the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering North Carolina A&T State University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, said that there wouldn’t be a problem with Cofnas’s line of inquiry if it were “being done in a way that adheres to what we really know about the genetics of complex traits.” Complex traits aren’t solely determined by the environment or by genes, but are rather always a "complex interaction" between genetic and environmental effects.

The real question, then, for those who study complex traits, is the split: how much is environmental and how much is genetic. And currently, Graves said, that’s impossible to estimate or “partition” because people are, well, people.

The kind of certainty that Cofnas seeks would require us to “grow human beings in controlled ways,” such that they all experience the same environmental, genetic and combined environmental and genetic effects, Graves said. To boot, we’d need to do that for at least two generations to eliminate maternal effects on the complex traits. (Graves has studied complex traits in fruit flies but published on why his approach won’t work with humans.)

“I’m not against the study of complex traits in humans,” Graves said, “but what I am against is pseudoscience masquerading as the study of differences in complex traits in humans.”

As to Alfano’s petition, Spencer, the philosopher of race, said he didn’t condone censorship, as it was The Bell Curve that inspired his own career path. That book had some glaring problems, he said, but it “wasn't, in my judgment, anything so below the industry standard of social science that it didn't warrant being allowed to be read.”  (Other philosophers have disagreed with the premise of the petition, including in a discussion thread on the popular philosophy blog Daily Nous.) Pointing to other issues plaguing academic publishing, Spencer also said it’s also increasingly difficult to find expert readers -- including subfield specialists on, say, race and intelligence -- to referee journal articles.

Sensitivities surrounding race are heightened in the current political climate, and science is surely no exception. But is race-based science, or eugenics, making a comeback, along with white supremacist political activity? A 2018 investigation by the Associated Press, for instance, determined that the Pioneer Fund -- founded in 1937 to promote research on eugenics -- was still supporting a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona. The London Conference on Intelligence, running since 2014, also has attracted international criticism for hosting panels on eugenics. 

Graves said it was a mistake to think that race science ever went away.

The majority of biomedical researchers still think that humans have biological races, and race differences are still taught in medical schools, he said. To understand why that’s wrong -- why our geographically based genetic variations can’t be “unambiguously apportioned into biological races” -- requires a specific sort of training, in evolutionary and population genetics. The majority of graduate students who exit Ph.D. programs in biology never receive that training, Graves said, while genomics often attracts those with a computer science background.

Of course, he added, the “overall shift towards legitimacy of white supremacy also helps.”

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