Izzes and Oughts

In a comment on a recent post about intelligence and education, my friend Peter Kranzler asks:

Let’s suppose that you possessed data which proved that a certain race of people were less intelligent than the rest of humanity. To take it outside this realm, let’s suppose that you are a white New Zealander and could conclusively prove that Maoris have an IQ substantially lower than the white population. If you report your findings, you will make life even more difficult for a group of people who have enough difficulties already. It is hard to imagine any good coming from the revelation that Maoris are incapable of ratiocination (or whatever). Do you report your findings? Are there some scientific truths which ought not to be revealed?

This is, as intended, a difficult question, and shows the trap that awaits any of us who insist on too tightly coupling moral and political philosophy to empirical questions of human biology.

A similar example may be found in those who argue, for example, for or against the proposition that homosexuality is simply a “lifestyle choice”, undetermined by genetics or physiology; they are betting that the science will come out on their side on a matter that rightly belongs purely to the realm of ethics.

In the same way, there are those who argue that it is a scientific fact that “race” simply does not exist — that all differences between human groups (including many important differences between the sexes) are so swamped by variation within groups as to be negligible — and rely on this assumption as their primary justification for equal treatment of all people. They have put their eggs in the wrong basket, because the world simply is what it is, and is under no obligation to produce phenotyopes according to political doctrine. The science might go either way, and Nature gives us no “oughts”.

(By the way, I feel the need for a disclaimer at this point: I am sure my friend Peter, who hasn’t a racist bone in his body, had no reason to pick on the Maoris, and anyway, the example might just as well be given with the finding being one of greater, not lower intelligence. To avoid any hurt feelings, let’s pretend he picked my own ethnic group, the Scots.)

One obvious point to be made is that there is usually a large variation among all populations for any given trait; in the example given, it would be astonishingly unlikely that all members of one group were less intelligent than all members of another. This is in itself an obvious argument for treating each person on his individual merits, not as a member of a group. But just to consider the most difficult case, let’s assume that this indeed turns out to be so.

What, then, are we to do? It seems clear to me that the ethical responsibility falls to us, not the science, to decide how people shall be treated. Should we limit, en masse, the participation of the members of this group in society?

You can probably imagine what my answer will be; most certainly not. This is not to say that there are not roles in society that require minimum qualifications; for example we do not allow the blind to drive cars. But the way to address such issues is to establish fair and reasonable standards, and to allow everyone to have a chance to make the grade. If there were an ethnic group who all suffered from visual impairment, we would still expect that if a member of the group could pass an eye test, they should be allowed to drive.

These issues are already before us; for example it used to be standard policy that women could not be firefighters. A fairer approach, and the one generally practiced today, is to let anyone who can pass the physical test qualify, regardless of sex. This does not mean that the test itself should be weakened, at the risk of all, just for a political agenda, any more that we should eliminate the eye test for driver’s licenses in order to stop “discriminating” against those who can’t see. But it does mean that standards should be group-blind, and applied only to individuals.

The point, then, is that science simply tells us what is. What we ought to do is up to us.

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  1. Kevin Kim says

    “let’s pretend he picked my own ethnic group, the Scots”

    So much for controversy: the Scots are demonstrably stupider than everyone else! Ha ha!

    OK, I’ll be serious now. You wrote:

    “The point, then, is that science simply tells us what is. What we ought to do is up to us.”

    I’m not sure that this answers your friend’s question: “Are there some scientific truths which ought not to be revealed?” If I read him correctly, your friend is skipping the “is”es and moving directly to the “ought”s. Sounds to me as though he’s asking you to stake out a position on this issue. He’s asking a yes/no question, and my own answer– which is subject to weaselly revision– is “No, there are no such truths; none should be deliberately hidden.” I need to elaborate on this point, but won’t do so here.


    PS: I’m actually something of a coward regarding ises/oughts and the revelation of truth: if my plump girlfriend were to ask, “Do I look fat to you?” I would almost certainly lie.

    Posted January 24, 2007 at 5:45 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Kevin, you are quite right. I should respond more explicitly to that as well, and I will.

    Posted January 24, 2007 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  3. Addofio says

    The scientific facts about the plasticity of the human brain, and the Pygmalion effect in the classroom (students believed by their teachers to be bright do better on average than students believed not to be bright, even when assignment of the bright and not-bright labels is random), might have some bearing on the ethical question. I guess I’m saying that the hypothetical results you cite would not be the only scientific results that would be relevant.

    There’s also the question of how we may properly apply statistical facts to individual cases. Even if average differences between demographic groups are well-established, I see no reason that would have any a priori application in public policy in terns of participation, because averages don’t say anything meaningful about specific cases–you have to look at the specific case if you want to know about it. Your example of the firefighters is relevant here; on average men are larger and stronger than women, at least in upper-body strength, and strength is a legitimate job requirement for a firefighter. Is that a reason to bar women from the profession? No–you test everyone, and go by the individual results. Unfortunately, other instances regarding policy affecting access to society’s resources are often not so clearly defined, or so easily resolved, as that.

    A third point, and then I’ll stop: having delved into the sex differences literature in my youth with regard to spatial and mathematical ability, I can say with confidence that “scientific” results in the area of human differences are not a clear-cut or clean as your hypothetical situation. The researchers are part of one group or another, and this influences their thinking, often quite blatently. For instance, one meta-study found that you could reliably predict whether or not differences in spatial ability between the genders (which usually favored males) would be found based on knowing the gender of the researcher. I remember one study in which the conclusion of the (male) researcher that a difference favoring males was found was flatly contradicted by the data and graph that was presented to support his conclusion. There’s also a correlation between the size of any gender difference a study reports for math or spatial ability and how long ago the study was conducted–more evidence for the plasticity of the human brain and/or the influence of social bias in the researchers, take your pick. The moral of the story is that if one is reasoning from scientific “facts” to solcial policy–one must take one’s facts with a grain of salt, and consider a full range of facts.

    Posted January 24, 2007 at 11:34 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says


    The points you make indeed add support to the argument that we must deal with people as individuals, not as members of groups.

    As you say, science is a human activity, and it inevitably takes time, and multiple peer reviews, and critical re-examination of methods and underlying assumptions for the self-correcting mechanisms inherent in the process to take effect.

    I was taking Peter’s example, for the sake of examining the “edge case” of the ethical question, in the strongest imaginable form – a multiply confirmed, incontrovertible finding that all members of a particular group were, deterministically, grossly deficient in IQ (or, if you prefer, in “g”, the metric of “general intelligence”). This is of course an extremely unlikely scenario, but is possible in principle, and would provide the ethical stress that Peter was asking us to consider.

    But the point of the post, which you reiterate in your remarks, is that we ought always to deal with each person as an individual.

    Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment.

    Posted January 24, 2007 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  5. the one eyed man says

    Too busy at work today to give this post the time it deserves — however one quick observation re “if my plump girlfriend were to ask, “Do I look fat to you?” — the correct answer is “compared to what?” Roseanne Barr or Calista Flockhart?

    Works every time.


    Posted January 24, 2007 at 3:52 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    I prefer “I’ve seen fatter…”

    Posted January 24, 2007 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  7. the one eyed man says

    Kevin is right: the question is what ought to be done with information revealed by science. As a society, certain scientific endeavors are off-limits. We do not condone cloning or selling your organs on Craig’s List to medical researchers. There are limits on giving placebos are to people with life-threatening diseases in double blind tests when potential cures exist. Does this extend to keeping scientific discoveries secret when their disclosure could materially harm a group of people?

    Posted January 24, 2007 at 8:42 pm | Permalink