May 2010

You are currently browsing the monthly archive for May 2010.

You may have heard about the (some think) racist email from a third year Harvard Law student. You can read the (nearly) full email here. But this quote gives the gist of the student’s argument:

I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. I could also obviously be convinced that by controlling for the right variables, we would see that they are, in fact, as intelligent as white people under the same circumstances. The fact is, some things are genetic. African Americans tend to have darker skin. Irish people are more likely to have red hair. (Now on to the more controversial:) Women tend to perform less well in math due at least in part to prenatal levels of testosterone, which also account for variations in mathematics performance within genders. This suggests to me that some part of intelligence is genetic, just like identical twins raised apart tend to have very similar IQs and just like I think my babies will be geniuses and beautiful individuals whether I raise them or give them to an orphanage in Nigeria. I don’t think it is that controversial of an opinion to say I think it is at least possible that African Americans are less intelligent on a genetic level, and I didn’t mean to shy away from that opinion at dinner.

Why doesn’t she say she thinks it is possible that African Americans are MORE intelligent on a genetic level? By her argument, we don’t know the facts so this could be just as true. (Is she revealing a racist bias?) I also found it amusing that she thinks her babies will be “geniuses and beautiful individuals” whether raised by her or in a Nigerian orphanage. Typical Harvard student, thinks she’s a genius — and that her kids will be too! We know her kids would be very different individuals under those scenarios regardless of their genetics. Personally, I think I would like the Nigerian version of her children more. I also call bullshit on the idea that “prenatal levels of testosterone” have anything to do with gender and math scores, whatever “scientific” study she is talking about there.

She sums up:

In conclusion, I think it is bad science to disagree with a conclusion in your heart, and then try (unsuccessfully, so far at least) to find data that will confirm what you want to be true. Everyone wants someone to take 100 white infants and 100 African American ones and raise them in Disney utopia and prove once and for all that we are all equal on every dimension, or at least the really important ones like intelligence. I am merely not 100% convinced that this is the case.

I agree with her first sentence. But look at how she frames it. Isn’t it just as bad science to pursue the opposite conclusion in the absence of evidence, that innate intelligences are unequal? Recall how she cited the prenatal study. Is she reaching for data that will confirm what she wants to be true?

Since we cannot do the 100/100 experiment, we will likely never know the answer to this debate. But we can go with common sense. And common sense tells me there are 100 different kinds of intelligent in this world. One kind gets you into Harvard Law school. Another kind knows the futility of engaging in this argument unless you are a racist.

In her defense, she just considered it an intellectual discussion between her and two other friends. It’s not like this was an op-ed piece she wrote. And I’m sure everyone has a few emails they wish they could take back. The Harvard Law student who sent the email said this in her apology to the Black Student Law Association: “I emphatically do not believe that African Americans are genetically inferior in any way. I understand why my words expressing even a doubt in that regard were and are offensive.”