I was surprised by the response to my brief post on the question of whether group (race or gender) differences in intelligence are a valid topic for scientific investigation: not only because of the volume of comments, but also because the ensuing debate was largely civil and on-topic. The post was sparked off by two conflicting essays in the most recent issue of Nature, one by Steven Rose opposing research into such differences, and another by Ceci and Williams arguing that sealing off certain lines of enquiry – however contentious – is dangerous and unscientific.
There’s now more on this topic on the two Gene Expression blogs. On GNXP Classic, ben g argues that Rose’s essay contains scientific flaws; I’m not at all qualified to comment on the scientific arguments (and would encourage readers to do so over at GNXP), but I agree with ben’s closing comments:
This is an argument for more research, not less.
This is an argument for genome-wide association studies, which will
allow us to pinpoint the genes that effect intelligence and how they
interact with the enviornment. This is an argument for more research on
the neuroscience behind IQ and intelligence. This is an argument for
further funding of projects to map out the genetic differences between
human populations world-wide.
There’s no debate about whether this research is “permissible” – as Razib notes in a post on ScienceBlogs GNXP, while there will never be a large NIH-funded project explicitly exploring group differences in cognition, such data will emerge naturally from the synthesis of the types of studies ben describes above, all of which are already underway to some extent. As Razib argues, the genetic studies will become faster, cheaper and larger with advances in DNA sequencing technology. It’s only a matter of time before the relevant intersecting data-sets are used to crunch the numbers.
I’d argue that this is a good thing – arguing about data is always infinitely preferable to
arguing about ideas. So long as open scientific discourse is permitted in this field, any shoddy, politically-driven findings will be rapidly swept away by hard data from large,
But will open scientific discourse be permitted? This is why Rose’s implicit argument – that anyone who even considers the question of group differences in cognition is a bigot – is so dangerous. Who would you rather have crunching the numbers above: respectable researchers with a sound knowledge of the limitations of genetics and psychometrics, or individuals working in their basement with a political axe to grind? Labelling the field off-limits to “civilised” scientists essentially guarantees the latter.
I’ll leave it to Razib to spell out the likely consequences of studies into the genetic basis of intelligence – it’s difficult to speculate about this area given how little we currently know about the genetic architecture of cognitive and behavioural traits, but his projections seem plausible to me.