Life, Liberty, & the Pursuit of Knowledge

Screenshot 2017-06-03 21.27.15

This weekend was certainly interesting, and in many ways, I’ve come out of it disillusioned. I am all for constructive academic debate, but I’m increasingly realizing that perhaps ‘constructive’ is an ever illusive hope. What do we mean when we say constructive debate? Constructive is defined as “having or intended to have a useful or beneficial purpose.”  I think so far I’ve been fairly diplomatic in my engagement with all parties, genuinely trying to understand what people think and why.

When I first began my work I found that there were individuals within the social sciences, a field I tend to think I am a part of, that felt my research was giving too much credibility to researchers conducting potentially ‘dangerous’ work by engaging with them (talking with them, debating them, etc). I believe(d) that having these conversations were the best way to understand what drives these researchers, who often times argue that their work is in and of itself constructive, beneficial for society, illuminating, an exploration into an area that could inform policy. Now, any researcher likely has these goals, wanting to have an impact. I wonder, however, given all the response I’ve received on Twitter these last few days from people who’ve advocated for using genetics research on IQ differences between racial groups for immigration selection, or to establish that racism is not as ‘bad’ as well all think it is, what the researchers who actually conduct this research have to say? Why did no one step in when the conversation turned to immigration selection? Why are we so quick to defend our personal academic careers and slow to defend others who are not given a voice in the conversation? What does the lack of researcher engagement in explicitly racist and exclusionary arguments for why genetics research on IQ when it comes to race is valuable signify? Why aren’t people standing up and speaking out against potential misuse of research? Is it because they do not see it as a misuse?

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” – Desmond Tutu

I certainly have my own academic career to think about, but I have been horrified by the overwhelmingly problematic (and dare I say racist) conversations I’ve seen initiated this weekend– all of which go back to a question that’s been a tangential thread in genetics research since the beginning: “Are IQ differences between racial groups biologically influenced?”

Being a social scientist, context is incredibly important to me. History tells us that this question, “are IQ differences between racial groups biologically influenced” first arose out of a desire to legitimize colonial rule, validate slavery/oppression/segregation/marginalization, and explain inequality. On it’s own ‘explain inequality’ is not a bad thing, but it becomes bad when ‘explain inequality’ becomes synonymous with ‘establish that racism is not the problem- that White people are not the problem, because we’re just biologically different.’ This is what I see.

Psychology suggests that individual tend to think of genetics in essentialist or deterministic terms (Heine et al, 2017). This proves troublesome in a context that has historically used the language of genetics to assert and justify race and class based differences and where marked racial and socioeconomic disparities remain pronounced. A field like behavior genetics which carries with it the perceived empiricism and objectivity of scientific research is that much more impactful on human understandings, which is precisely why it must be that much more careful not to reinforce bias and feed into the racist undercurrent of society.

So when I write “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Knowledge”- I am asking, whose life are we valuing in the pursuit of knowledge? Who has the liberty of conducting this research and why? Who is privileged enough to pursue knowledge, and who does that knowledge benefit?

When I experience what feels like an overwhelming belief that racial differences in IQ are the primary explanation for inequalities in society, I feel tired. More than anything, however, I feel afraid. As a woman of color in academia, this terrifies me. In an interview in 2010 Charles Murray said:

“Now suppose tomorrow that we knew that the mean difference between Blacks and Whites was entirely genetic, would that make Barrack Obama any less smart? He is who he is. What you as an individual bring to the table defines you and there is no reason for White people to treat Asian people differently or Asians to treat Blacks differently because of a group difference in ability, each individual is who he is.”

When has that ever happened? When have we ever decided to judge someone for the individual that they are and not for the color of their skin or the clothes they’re wearing, or the way they talk (rather than the substance of their conversation)? Pursuing knowledge is a privilege, but it also carries with it serious responsibility. If tomorrow, we knew the mean difference between Blacks and Whites was entirely genetic [which I don’t think we will ever ‘know’], I have no doubt discrimination would be upgraded once again by technology/science. “Deficit Thinking” would take on an entirely new meaning. In the meantime, the pursuit of this research is already feeding into a frightening discourse of using genetics research for essentially eugenic purposes. I hope the phrase ‘social responsibility’ means something and researchers begin to ‘constructively’ engage with supremacists who are using genetic language and tracking genetics findings to validate their beliefs in superiority– the alternative is siding with the oppressor through omission.

Not every field of research requires this high a level of engagement with the public, and there are certainly many in academia do not believe in the idea of ‘social responsibility.’  But those areas of research that carry with them such a grave threat to human lives ought to. Think of clinical trials and the rules, regulations, and ethical protocols put in place to protect and preserve human life, to ensure that people are treated fairly and equally. Surely research into IQ differences between races carries the same need to protect human life? And even though it ought to, history tells us that certain bodies are not as valued as others.

I’m tired.

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