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Monday, September 20, 2021

Behavioral Genetics and the Underpants Gnomes

Gotta go to work
Work all night
Search for underpants hey

Tom Scocca is Slate's politics editor.  His response to the Gideon Lewis-Kraus New Yorker profile of
Kathryn Paige Harden is so good
 it compelled me to subscribe to his Substack, called Indignity.

Scocca gets at the biggest issues with the whole damn Paige Harden business. The first being whether there is really a difference between "evolutionary psychology" and "behavioral genetics":

The phrenologists don't like being called "phrenologists." Even the archaic ones would tell you they were doing "anthropometry" or "craniometry," and the modern ones prefer to call themselves things like "evolutionary psychologists" or "behavior geneticists."
The more I learn about Harden style "behavioral genetics" the less difference I see between that and evolutionary psychology

In my email exchange with Lewis-Kraus, I suggested that Harden was one of many "evolutionary psychology-based researchers." 

Lewis-Kraus was not happy with my description:
Paige has nothing to do with evolutionary psychology, which she agrees is nonsense.
But I had recently found Harden on a page of the University of Texas at Austin website under the heading "Individual Differences and Evolutionary Psychology" and her profile was directly under one of the most prominent advocates of evolutionary psychology, David Buss.

Buss is such a reflexive believer in hereditarian explanations for human social phenomena he once suggested an example of female sexual slavery was a case of female sexual preference, as David Buller described in his book "Adapting Minds."

Scocca went farther than me, calling Harden a phrenologist.

At one point in my exchange with Lewis-Kraus, he wrote:
If you have emails between Pinker and Sailer, I will gladly review them. Otherwise, I think I'll hold my own counsel on the stories that I do, but thanks for the totally unsolicited and unwelcome advice. 
I hadn't offered him advice, I had expressed disappointment he didn't focus more on how politically-focused and well-funded race science is. But I don't think Lewis-Kraus was reading my emails carefully - his tone was hostile from his first response, seemingly appalled that I would dare to question his choice of framing at all.

Scocca was just as unhappy with Lewis-Kraus' framing as I was (my highlight):
Here's how Lewis-Kraus described Harden's own account of the tool she uses to address the most loaded social questions of our time:
GWAS simply provides a picture of how genes are correlated with success, or mental health, or criminality, for particular populations in a particular society at a particular time.....GWAS results are not "portable"; a study conducted on white Britons tells you little about people in Estonia or Nigeria.
That is, the genome makes people unequal, but it does so by an unclear mechanism, the effects of which are contingent on a person's social position in a particular time and place. Yet the reader was supposed to share Harden's regret or bafflement that Darity, a scholar of the material processes of racial inequality, would be hostile to her work.  
Behavioral genetics is an "unclear mechanism" being used to generate just-so stories.
Harden does not, in fact, study the question of how genes produce social outcomes. Frustrated by the slow progress of assigning clear social results to scientists' ever-more-complicated understanding of how genes operate, the behavior geneticists have simply skipped over the whole "how" business. Harden's work, Lewis-Kraus explained, relies on the use of the GWAS—genome-wide association study—in which computation is used "to identify hundreds or even thousands of places in the genome where differences in our DNA sequence could be correlated with a trait or an outcome." 
"[E]ven if researchers don't fully understand what they're learning, this is how the genome is used now," an unnamed population geneticist told Lewis-Kraus.
So behavioral genetics can be more succinctly, if less elegantly, expressed by the Underpants Gnomes.

Where Phase 1 is GWAS and Phase 3 is social outcomes. 

What bothered me most about Lewis-Kraus' email response was his belief that unless I can come up with personal correspondence between Steven Pinker and Steve Sailer, there's no point in writing about the politics behind contemporary race pseudoscience. 

But that's a general problem for mainstream media - their understanding of issues like Steven Pinker's promotion of race pseudoscience is hobbled by the fact that they are not in it for the long term. They dip into an issue, make shallow assessments (pretty young behavioral geneticist thinks leftists are anti-science!) and then move on. 

As long as Steven Pinker doesn't actually come out and say "I think that Black people are innately less intelligent" the cultural gatekeepers will yawn and look away, no matter how many race-mongers like Razib Khan and Linda Gottfredson, and race-mongering publications like Quillette, and racists like Sailer, Pinker has supported, in his role as respectable public intellectual.

Speaking of promoting race mongers, I see Julia Ioffe, a GQ correspondant, is also doing it. 

Have the New Yorker, Gideon Lewis-Kraus and Paige Harden made phrenology the hip new thing?