Let’s Fake a Deal

A lot of analysis or opinion in the media is a sort of veiled negotiation about what we the unwashed are allowed to believe.

That’s the impression I get reading this New York Times piece from David Reich, acknowledging race realism while denouncing “racism” (which is arguably impossible):

Groundbreaking advances in DNA sequencing technology have been made over the last two decades. These advances enable us to measure with exquisite accuracy what fraction of an individual’s genetic ancestry traces back to, say, West Africa 500 years ago — before the mixing in the Americas of the West African and European gene pools that were almost completely isolated for the last 70,000 years. With the help of these tools, we are learning that while race may be a social construct, differences in genetic ancestry that happen to correlate to many of today’s racial constructs are real.

The negotiation begins with the concession that a previously obscured reality has come into light and new terms are required.

I am worried that well-meaning people who deny the possibility of substantial biological differences among human populations are digging themselves into an indefensible position, one that will not survive the onslaught of science. 

I am also worried that whatever discoveries are made — and we truly have no idea yet what they will be — will be cited as “scientific proof” that racist prejudices and agendas have been correct all along, and that those well-meaning people will not understand the science well enough to push back against these claims.

Is there another subject that is so deliberately hamstrung? The scientific method demands we ignore the social pressures on us, even the overwhelming pressure to avoid racism. A true scientist would come at the subject of human biology with a deliberate detachment, as if he was a spaceman descending on an alien scene.

But the fear of exposure has become palpable. Here the author frets over whatever discoveries may come, for fear they’ll upset an increasingly delicate social construct holding race trivial. He even puts out the call for the “well-meaning” to prepare to refute these as of yet facts–to protect the status quo we must be ready, no matter how much it is contradicted by the challenge. Indeed, the more the status quo is challenged the more prepared we need to be whatever may come. It’s astounding to me that the educated and intelligent class of people Reich represents don’t see the absurdity in that “whatever” part. We are not to stand ready to accept the truth, but to repel it.

If Reich is representing liberal conventional wisdom here he could provide a mea culpa for its deliberate repression of this reality heretofore, but there’s still no incentive for that. So the concession that the respectable have been wrong this whole time is coupled with the demand we do nothing about it, that we ignore any implications of it that might upset the worldview that, still, represses this reality.

The orthodoxy goes further, holding that we should be anxious about any research into genetic differences among populations. The concern is that such research, no matter how well-intentioned, is located on a slippery slope that leads to the kinds of pseudoscientific arguments about biological difference that were used in the past to try to justify the slave trade, the eugenics movement and the Nazis’ murder of six million Jews. I have deep sympathy for the concern that genetic discoveries could be misused to justify racism. But as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among “races.”

Acknowledging the reality of race while leaving the scare quotes around “race” is quite a contortion, but it’s essentially what Reich wants us all to do.

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