3. The Practical Costs of Condemning Openness to Distressing Answers on Factual Questions

I’ve blogged a good deal so far about why I disapprove of the condemnation of the student who e-mailed a couple of friends saying that she “absolutely do[es] not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent.” But let me turn to a more practical problem with such condemnation.

I would love it if all of us could one day say, with confidence, that there is no difference in intelligence among racial groups. If that is factually true, it would be a truth which would have lots of good social consequences.

I expect that it’s unlikely that we could say this with great confidence any time soon, simply because scientists are only beginning to understand the precise genetic mechanisms that may yield differences in intelligence. But we might be able to say it with some confidence, and possibly increasing confidence. (At the same time, for the reasons I mentioned below, I can’t rule out the possibility that this will prove not to be so, for the simple reason that the world is as it is, and I can’t rule out possible answers to scientific questions just because I don’t like them.)

But what would this take, at least for the nearly all of us who can’t do the underlying scientific research ourselves? It would take what it usually takes for us to speak with confidence about scientific matters (especially ones that can’t be demonstrated using physical proofs of concept, the way that a working electric motor can demonstrate the likely truth of certain theories about electricity). It would take a trustworthy consensus among a wide group of researchers that have carefully, open-mindedly, and skeptically examined the question, the same sort of consensus that makes us confident about so many claims about physics, medicine, biology, astronomy, and more.

And such a trustworthy consensus can only develop if people approach the issue without ruling out possible answers. Say scientists are free to run experiments aimed at testing the hypothesis that blacks are less intelligent than whites (and vice versa), and free to publish and defend results that they think show this hypothesis. Say that journalists and intelligent outsiders are free to examine such data, discuss it, write about it, and point out what they think might be the scientists’ errors, whether individual errors or systematic, groupthink-reinforced errors.

Say that after this is done for some time, the great bulk of objective scientific observers, who have evaluated the theories, and have had to defend their own evaluations against criticism, conclude that the evidence strongly supports the no-racial-differences-in-intelligence hypothesis, and refutes the racial-differences-in-intelligence hypothesis. And say that as new things are learned about intelligence and about human genetics, or new measurement devices are developed, the open process I just described keeps operating. Then we laypeople would be able to conclude, with a great deal of confidence based on the trustworthy scientific consensus, that there are no racial differences in intelligence.

But say scientists know that it’s likely professional suicide to argue that some evidence supports the racial differences hypothesis, or undermines the no racial differences hypothesis. Or say they are assured by their colleagues that it’s safe to go where they think the evidence might lead, but they see people across the quad in another university department being publicly excoriated for even accepting the possibility of the outcome that those scientists suspect might be worth testing for. Or say that journalists or outsiders who think there might be scientific groupthink undermining the soundness of the scientific process suspect that it’s likely professional suicide to challenge no-racial-difference arguments.

At that point, the very attempt to suppress the openness to the possibility that there might be racial differences will make it impossible to disprove that possibility. Even if then the scientific community loudly says, “The evidence is clear: There are no racial differences in intelligence,” that statement should no longer be credible to us. Scientific consensus is trustworthy only to the extent that it’s the result of a process in which scientists — and others — are free to espouse all rival views. To the extent that espousing some views is too dangerous, the consensus that then emerges without the expression and discussion of those views stops being reliable.

So if you hope — as I do — that there are no racial differences in intelligence, and want to be able to reach that conclusion at some point with confidence based on science, not faith, you should be defending people who express an openness to the alternative scientific claim (that there are racial differences). It is only through such openness, and through allowing people to defend that claim, that the position that you hope is true can actually be demonstrated to be true.