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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

More on Harden & Behavioral Genetics - still no there there

Steven Pinker expressing his enthusiastic
for rightwinger Claire Lehmann
and her race-mongering rightwing
rag, Quillette

Well this is my fourth blog post about the New Yorker piece on Kathryn Paige Harden

The other three:

In the one with the Underpants Gnomes, I quoted Tom Scocca, Slate's political editor. He made the point that Harden's behavioral genetics, which Scocca calls phrenology, is built on a foundation of quicksand:

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. 

In a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books of Harden's book, titled Why DNA Is No Key to Social Equality: On Kathryn Paige Harden’s “The Genetic Lottery”, four academics, in population genetics, anthropology, science & technology studies, and philosophy, make the same point:

...in her effort to convince readers that genes matter, Harden overstates the degree to which they matter. She tells readers that, “in samples of White people living in high-income countries, a polygenic index created from the educational attainment GWAS typically captures about 10–15 percent of the variance in outcomes like years of schooling, performance on standardized academic tests, or intelligence test scores.” She compares this figure to that for household income, which accounts for 11 percent of the variance. What Harden doesn’t tell readers is that much more of the variance is explained by parental education: about 17 percent when only one parent is considered and over 20 percent when both are. The polygenic index for educational attainment therefore captures an underwhelming amount of variance in educational attainment and other socioeconomic outcomes — certainly not enough to justify putting it at the center of policy solutions.

Harden expects that, as GWAS samples grow, the polygenic index will become more predictive, but exactly how it predicts educational attainment is not at all straightforward. Consider how Harden chooses to present the 10–15 percent figure, making it account for educational attainment through biological mechanisms. She tells her readers that the genes involved are expressed preferentially in our brains, where they increase the bearer’s intelligence, executive function, grit, and perseverance — the cognitive and non-cognitive skills rewarded in our educational system and labor market. What Harden doesn’t tell us is that these genes are also “expressed” in our environments. People with higher polygenic indices for educational attainment are both more likely to be raised by parents with higher socioeconomic status and to go to well-funded schools. A study of adoptees suggests that about half of the effect of the polygenic index operates through these indirect mechanisms. Harden acknowledges this complex causality, demonstrating that small differences early in life lead to children being placed into environments that magnify those differences. For her, these are all genetic causes because, with different genes, we also would experience different environments. By identifying social mechanisms as “genetic,” Harden is naturalizing them, attributing the inequality they produce to the individuals who benefit from or are harmed by them rather than to the policies and practices that privilege some genotypes over others.

There is much more in the piece, go read it.

A disturbing angle the LA RB review does not address is mentioned by John Jackson in his review of the book. 

In spite of the weakness of Harden's claims, she advocates for them with the evangelical fervor of Charles Murray.

In July of this year, in Quillette, Razib Khan wrote a favorable review of Charles Murray's latest book, in which Murray claims that Black Americans are genetically inferior and their failure to thrive as a group is not due to racism - or as Khan calls itnebulous theoretical explanations of “systemic racism” and “white supremacy.” 

And refusing to go along with race pseudoscience is dangerous according to Murray, as Khan wrote, in agreement:

The book’s thesis is that American society faces disaster if it is not prepared to confront certain politically uncomfortable facts about race...

(Steven Pinker, as shown in the tweet above, is a big supporter of race-mongering Quillette.)

But Harden is also appalled that anybody might fail to accept her claims. As Jackson says:

Social scientists, Harden warns, “have been trained to view the results of behavior genetics with fear and loathing” (p. 277). Indeed, they are guilty of committing a violent crime:

The tacit collusion in some areas of the social sciences to ignore genetic differences…is wrong. It is wrong in the way that robbing banks is wrong. It is stealing. It’s stealing people’s time when researchers work to churn out critically flawed scientific papers, and other researchers chase false leads that go no where. It’s stealing people’s money when taxpayers and private foundations support policies premised on the shakiest of causal foundations. Failing to take genetics seriously is a scientific practice that pervasively undermines our stated goal of understanding society so that we can improve it. (p. 186)

Well, anyone accusing their colleagues of being the moral equivalent of a stick-up artist must have good grounds to do so. Moreover, they must come from a research tradition that has never been guilty of “churning out critically flawed scientific papers!” Unfortunately, Harden misrepresents the fields the criticizes. She shifts standards of evidence to suit her pre-conceived goals. Most importantly, she fails to show that behavior genetics is at all relevant for the values and policies she endorses.

So Charles Murray believes we face disaster if we don't accept hereditarianism, Harden believes that it is the same as armed robbery

This isn't the only time Harden sounds like Murray. As Scocca noted:

But Harden's message, the theory behind hereditarian leftism, is that there is no reason to believe that the effort to find inborn inequalities between people should lead to greater social inequality. Kraus-Lewis wrote, "Harden argues that an appreciation of the role of simple genetic luck—alongside all the other arbitrary lotteries of birth—will make us, as a society, more inclined to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy lives of dignity and comfort."

This is the disclaimer that Murray and Herrnstein attached to The Bell Curve, in a pose of political neutrality. If we decide we know that some people are naturally disadvantaged at school and in our education-based system of economic opportunity, who is to say that our society won't decide to help those people out more, to make up for it?

At least Murray and Herrnstein knew they were being cynical about this. Harden and her fellow hereditarian leftists seem to believe in phrenology as a neutral tool, an absurd position for self-styled empiricists to take. We have a long, detailed record of what happens when the skull calipers come out, and it's never an advance in equal treatment of all. As the UPenn professor Dorothy Roberts told Lewis-Kraus: "There's just no way that genetic testing is going to lead to a restructuring of society in a just way in the future—we have a hundred years of evidence for what happens when social outcomes are attributed to genetic differences, and it is always to stigmatize, control, and punish the people predicted to have socially devalued traits."

So is Kathryn Paige Harden really this feckless? Does she really think she's helping anybody except the hereditarian right, by publishing her speculations on the utility of GWAS to root out the genetically defective? 

She has no problem citing the hereditarian right. Jackson:
  • One reason Harden thinks (Jared) Taylor is an extremist is that he “was a recent recipient of Pioneer Fund money” (p. 15). But so was Thomas Bouchard, the leading behavior geneticist whom Harden cites as an authority. Bouchard’s acceptance of that money lent his credibility, that of the University of Minnesota, and that of behavior genetics to the leading funder of scientific racism in the the post-World War II world.
The racist slimepit and Koch beneficiary American Renaissance (they like to reprint excerpts from Quillette for obvious reasons) cheers for Harden and even says with admiration she's more full of moral panic than Murray:
...she denounces those who ignore genes in stronger terms than Dr. Murray is ever likely to have used:
It’s stealing. It’s stealing people’s time when researchers work to churn out critically flawed scientific papers, and other researchers chase false leads that will go nowhere. It’s stealing people’s money when taxpayers and private foundations support policies premised on the shakiest of causal foundations.
Bravo for Prof. Harden. Let her words ring out throughout the social sciences and in the halls of government.

But let her also consider another kind of stealing: the theft of the moral legitimacy of the entire white race. Let her at least consider the possibility that, just as the rise or fall of individual whites is influenced to some degree by their genes, so are the achievements of races as a whole.
This is the kind of person Harden is helping - and nobody else.