Thursday, May 23, 2013

Another crisis for scientific objectivity?

The Heritage Foundation's recent report that immigration reform could cost the U.S. trillions of dollars resulted in a scandal for one Jason Richwine, who was forced to resign his position at the foundation due to the ensuing furor over the discovery of his 2009 dissertation. In his own words:
So what is actually in the dissertation? The dissertation shows that recent immigrants score lower than U.S.-born whites on many different types of IQ tests. Using statistical analysis, it suggests that the test-score differential is due primarily to a real cognitive gap rather than to culture or language bias. It analyzes how this cognitive gap could affect socioeconomic assimilation, and it concludes by exploring how IQ selection might be incorporated, as one factor among many, into immigration policy.
Naturally, the word "racist" has been thrown around in response to this discovery, and the word "racist" tends to immediately discredit the views of one to whom it is applied with sufficient vigor. Richwine would therefore have you believe that this is a big cultural mistake. In particular, it portends a disastrous future in which scientific facts are ignored due to political correctness:
The furor will soon pass. Mercifully, the media are starting to forget about me. But a certain amount of long-term damage to political discourse has been done. Every researcher who writes on public policy over the next few years will have a fresh and vivid memory of how easy it is to get in trouble with the media’s thought police, and how easy it is to become an instant pariah. Researchers will feel even more compelled to suppress unpopular evidence and arguments that should be part of an open discussion. This is certainly not the way science should be conducted, and it’s not the way our politics should be either.
This raises once again the troubling question of whether "objectivity" in science is illusory, or whether it's all just competing agendas. Consider this response:
Now, I don't think the subject or conclusion of Mr Richwine's dissertation is out of the bounds of reasonable discourse. Yet I think a suspicion of racism is perfectly reasonable. Grad students can choose from an infinite array of subjects. Why choose this one? Who are especially keen to discover a rational basis for public policy that discriminates along racial lines? Racists, of course. Anyone who chooses this subject, and comes down on the side vindicating racist assumptions, volunteers to bring suspicion upon himself, to expose his work to an extraordinary level of scrutiny.
This almost seems as troubling as Richwine makes it out to be. Are we to shy away from controversial subjects because of the potential to offend?

(There is a part of that response, however, that makes me extraordinarily less sympathetic to Richwine, for a very, shall we say, "objective" reason. To wit:
Were Mr Richwine's dissertation a model of scientific rigour, he might easily enough survive this scrutiny. However, according to Daniel Drezner, a political scientist at Tufts, it's not exemplary work:
I've perused parts of Richwine's dissertation, and ... well ... hoo boy. Key terms are poorly defined, auxiliary assumptions abound, and the literature I'm familiar with that is cited as authoritative is, well, not good. It's therefore unsurprising that, until last week, Richwine's dissertation disappeared into the ether the moment after it was approved. According to Google Scholar, no one cited it in the four years since it appeared. Furthermore, Richwine apparently didn't convert any part of it into any kind of refereed or non-refereed publication.
No citations in four years? No published work resulting from it? It's frankly probably not worth defending.)

Controversies like these give us cause to reflect on what we mean, or might mean, or might hope to mean, by objective reason. Whatever objectivity is, I am sure it is not a state of being completely free of value judgments. If that were the case, there could be no such thing as objective value judgments. Indeed, consider the very concept of "IQ" at issue here. Presumably, IQ is the measure of some kind of value, namely the effectiveness of some cognitive functions. There's no way to abstract that out of the realm of values into the realm of "pure facts," as if intelligence could be measured the way one measures the length of a table.

My favorite response to this has been from none other than the Cato Institute, which could in many cases be expected to take the Heritage Foundation's side. In this case the, author Brink Lindsey shows "why Richwine’s position is intellectually as well as morally unsound." Consider this point about the link between IQ and value judgments:
Comparisons of IQ scores across ethnic groups, cultures, countries, or time periods founder on this basic problem: The cognitive skills that IQ tests assess are not used or valued to the same extent in all times and places. Indeed, the widespread usefulness of these skills is emphatically not the norm in human history. After all, IQ tests put great stress on reading ability and vocabulary, yet writing was invented only about 6,000 years ago – rather late in the day given that anatomically modern humans have been around for over 100,000 years. And as recently as two hundred years ago, only about 15 percent of people could read or write at all.
It is possible to quantify many things once you have developed categories as well as systems for measuring them. The fact that relationships between quantities (that is, mathematics) is a completely objective science, not requiring that any feelings be hurt, can easily be used as cover for things that are genuinely immoral.

Is there such a thing as an immoral idea? I think so. Indeed, that's really the whole point of morals. If we had no guide for ideas, we would in turn have no guide for actions.

So when people react to studies like Richwine's, are they reacting on a moral rather than on a scientific level? Yes, but the two can't really be all that separated. It is wholly appropriate for scientists to be kept in check by outside observers who understand the value content of their studies.

There are, of course, scientific truths that make us uncomfortable. There are facts we don't like facing. On a moral level, we should be willing to have our assumptions challenged. But it isn't so obvious how far we should let someone go with this. When is it appropriate to stop a scientist in his tracks and say, "Shut up you racist"?

I guess I'll just finish on a question, because I'm really not all that close to finding a satisfying answer. I will say that there are two possible answers that I find deeply unsatisfying. One is to say that every scientific inquiry is acceptable, that studies like Richwine's dissertation should be an acceptable part of the public discourse alongside everything else, and that we should always be forced to turn off our moral compasses so that we can listen to academics spit out statistics. The other is that we should choose not to study "dangerous" subjects which might or might not lead us into exactly Richwine's situation.

And a third possibility is also unsatisfying: that it doesn't matter what researchers say, because, after all, politics is a matter of the people's will, and we can decide whatever we wish regardless of the facts. That also seems a rather foolhardy notion.

If you ask me, our moral framework needs to be sufficiently robust that it can enter into the same arena as "objective science." We can't simply suspend all value judgments, and expect others to do the same, while seeking to abstract "purely factual information" from the world of research. But in what sense our moral framework should be "sufficiently robust," I'm not exactly sure.

These are things to keep pondering. In the meantime, I'm pretty sure IQ tests should not be part of American immigration policy.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I love to hear feedback!