Angela Saini misrepresents Galton kerfuffle at University College London; fails to see the beam in her own eye

Angela Saini is a British science writer who has two degrees: in Engineering from the University of Oxford and in Science and Security from King’s College London. She’s written three books:

Although I haven’t read any of these in full, I’ve read several of her essays and watched several of her videos, as well as having read criticism of her latest book, which is largely an indictment of science for trafficking in racism, some of it unrecognized. More about that in a minute.

Last week Saini wrote a one-page “World view” piece in Nature that I want to discuss and criticize. Click on screenshot below; or get a pdf here

Most of the article deals with a recent controversy in which a committee of employees, students, and staff from University of College London (UCL) investigated whether the name of Francis Galton, a famous statistician, biologist, and polymath, should be removed from UCL buildings and endowments. Why? Because Galton was an advocate of eugenics, and helped set up commissions, journals, and organizations to study it.

Although none of Galton’s work ever resulted in any eugenic activities involving breeding or prevention of breeding, or the creation of British laws or government policies, his advocacy of eugenics is  deemed sufficiently repugnant to warrant the creation of a UCL commission of inquiry whose task was to deal with how to erase Galton’s history. Most of the people on the commission weren’t scientists (there were a few), and there were a lot of people from diversity offices and the social sciences. Given that, the outcome was preordained.

I have a copy of the long report (ask and ye shall receive), which basically recommends that everything with the name of “Galton” on it be renamed. Further, there are recommendations that the University apologize (though it’s not clear to whom), and that everybody in UCL be given mandatory instruction about this shameful episode in the University’s history.

Saini makes two claims in her Nature piece.  First, that the reexamination of Galton’s history was prompted by “humanities scholars” rather than by the university’s biologists.  As we’ll see in a subsequent post, this claim is flatly wrong: UCL’s biologists have been teaching about Galton’s eugenic views for decades. Yes, humanities scholars were on the committee that decided to censor everything Galton did out of UCL history, but Saini’s claim below (in bold) is incorrect and disingenuous:

When a survey conducted as part of the UCL inquiry asked staff and students whether “we should separate science and politics”, it found agreement among higher percentages of those in the sciences and engineering than in the social sciences and history. In my coverage of the inquiry, I’ve seen that it was not the university’s biologists, but its humanities scholars — including curator Subhadra Das and historian Joe Cain — who forced their workplace to confront a sordid history that some geneticists had been willing to overlook.

There will be more on this as many UCL geneticists, including ones we’d consider liberal or woke, are taking violent exceptions to Saini’s claim above, as well as to the “erasure” of Galton that the committee recommended. When they speak out publicly, I’ll then write another piece.

As far as the “separation of science and politics” are concerned, that leads us to the second issue: Saini’s arrogant claim that we should all admit that we are not objective, even when we deal with science. All, that is, EXCEPT FOR SAINI, who apparently does not include herself in the list of “non-objective people.” Have a gander:

Scientists who imagine that bias lies in others, not themselves, fail to recognize that to live in the world today is to be drip-fed assumptions and prejudices that guide our thoughts and actions. If it were any other way, the demographics of academia would be more equitable, and the current strain of genetic determinism in governments wouldn’t be possible.

. . . Scientists rarely interrogate the histories even of their own disciplines. When I studied engineering at university, I was expected to write just one essay on ethics in four years. No wonder that new technologies perpetuate racial and gender stereotypes, or that automated facial recognition struggles to identify people with darker skin.

The best research is done not when we pretend that we are perfectly objective, but when we acknowledge that we are not. The UCL inquiry report recommends that students and staff be exposed to the history of eugenics, and that students be encouraged to value the history of their own fields. I would go further. Scientists need both history and the social sciences to develop the intellectual tools to think critically about their research and

What’s most curious about Saini’s self-exemption from The Biased is that she’s clearly biased: she’s uses Critical Race Theory in her analyses, is pretty much of a blank slater, and, from what I read in reviews (including direct quotes), and from what I’ve seen in her YouTube talks and interviews (e.g., here), she denies any usefulness of the term “race” (I avoid the term, too, but human populations are structured in biologically meaningful ways), and, most important, appears to have distorted and cherry-picked the biological literature on human differentiation to make the ideological point that differentiation isn’t particularly meaningful.  Further, she appears to have the attitude that finding any difference between races, whether physiological or, especially, psychological, would somehow buttress racism.

I’ve argued against that latter view repeatedly, saying that regardless what science shows—and I can’t deny that many scientists were biased and propped up racism with specious arguments—our moral view on the equality of people should not be based on biological facts. If that were the case, and you make Saini’s argument that we really are biologically equal in the most important ways, and that such a finding dispels racism, then you become liable to future studies that might show biological inequalities between groups. And that would then prop up racism. Moral equality should be a philosophical, not a biological argument, but Saini appears to believe (or at least behave) otherwise.

I’ve read several reviews of Saini’s latest book, and found the one below the most cogent and reasonable. Yes, it’s in Quillette, and I do take issue with a few of its clams, but it seems quite even-tempered and rational on how we should regard genetic differentiation in humans.  (I note that both authors were dismissed from their jobs for their work on race, yet I can’t see any grounds for dismissal from this review, at least.)

The long piece below pretty much damns Saini’s book, using direct quotes. Click on the screenshot to read it:

As I said, I take issue with a few of the authors’ claims. I haven’t read The Bell Curve, so I can’t speak to their argument that many scholars signed a petition defending the book. And I was pretty critical of Nicholas Wade’s book on race, “A Troublesome Inheritance,” which Winegard and Carl think was “unfairly condemned” (see my posts here and here.) But other claims, like Saini’s misunderstanding the “Lewontin Fallacy” committed by my Ph.D. advisor in defense of the genetic equality of races, are accurate, and make one realize how tendentious Saini’s claims really are. (Lewontin, god bless him, was also tendentious and wrong on several issues.)

It’s a long review and I’ll give only one quote.  This is about using science to prop up morality.

Finally, by far the most prominent fallacy in Superior, one which lies at the very heart of Saini’s book, is the fallacy of equating any claim that genes might contribute to population differences on non-“superficial” traits with racism. (For the sake of brevity, we shall refer to this as ‘the fallacy of equating hereditarian claims with racism.’) Indeed, this fallacy encompasses the third and fourth of the theses that we laid out in the introduction.

By way of illustration, Saini employs the terms “scientific racism” or “scientific racist” 17 times in the book, and she employs the terms “intellectual racism” or “intellectual racist” an additional 11 times. In Chapter 1 she describes the supposition that population groups “may have evolved into modern human beings in different ways” as “unconscionable.” And in Chapter 6, when discussing the work of famed geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, she writes, “as he saw it, racism was just a scientific idea that turned out to be incorrect.”

Before proceeding, we should be clear about what we are not saying. First, we are not denying that research into the genetics of human differences has been misused for appalling purposes at various points over the last two centuries. Second, we are not denying that some of the scientists who have undertaken such research were motivated by racial animus or by a desire to subjugate other people. Hence we understand the temptation to assume the worst about anyone who might be willing to entertain what we have called ‘hereditarian claims.’ Nonetheless, equating hereditarian claims with racism is a fallacy, and one that we believe is likely to end up doing more harm than good.

As Steven Pinker argued at length in his book The Blank Slate, those who equate testable scientific claims with various ‘isms’ (sexism, racism, fascism, etc.) are effectively holding our morals hostage to the facts. By using the word ‘racist’ to describe a claim such as ‘genes may contribute to psychological differences between human populations,’ they are implying that:

  • The claim must be false; but also that
  • If the claim were ever shown to be true, then racism would be “scientifically correct.”

Yet as Pinker notes, this is a complete non-sequitur:

I hope that once this line of reasoning is laid out, it will immediately set off alarm bells. We should not concede that any foreseeable discovery about humans could have such horrible implications. The problem is not with the possibility that people might differ from one another, which is a factual question that could turn out one way or the other. The problem is with the line of reasoning that says that if people do turn out to be different, then discrimination, oppression, or genocide would be OK after all.

The argument that we should not hold our morals hostage to the facts has been made over and over again by scholars interested in the genetics of human differences. As far back as the 1960s, one of the 20th century’s leading biologists, Ernst Mayr, said the following:

Equality in spite of evident non-identity is a somewhat sophisticated concept and requires a moral stature of which many individuals seem to be incapable. They rather deny human variability and equate equality with identity […] An ideology based on such obviously wrong premises can only lead to disaster. Its championship of human equality is based on a claim of identity. As soon as it is proved that the latter does not exist, the support of equality is likewise lost.

The market for woke books is huge, and you won’t get anywhere claiming that scientists should be studying genetic differentiation between sexes and races because it’s interesting (one must of course always be sensitive to how people feel about this). Ergo you can get away, as Saini has, with being deeply tendentious. A parallel is Cordelia Fine, whose books on gender always are supercritical of studies showing differences between males and females, but go easy on studies that claim the opposite (see my posts on her work here and here).

In view of Saini’s own ideological biases and tendentious treatment of the literature, it’s ironic that she chastises scientists for not recognizing their biases, while completely failing to recognize—or at least mention—her own. Or is she the only writer completely free of bias?. I have ordered her book and will read it, but I already discern from her essays and interviews, as well as excerpts from Inferior, that she is no less ideological than the so-called “nonobjective” scientists she criticizes.  The parable about motes and beams in one’s eye applies.

h/t: William L.

82 Comments

  1. Richard Sanderson🤴
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Anti-science creeps and loudmouths such as PZ Myers are fans of Angela Saini.

    Angela, if you’re reading, you might want to take note of that. It’s problematic.

  2. Posted March 15, 2020 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    The link to the Winegard article instead goes to an interview of Saini.

  3. Mike Anderson
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Angela Saini:

    . . . Scientists rarely interrogate the histories even of their own disciplines. When I studied engineering at university, I was expected to write just one essay on ethics in four years. No wonder that new technologies perpetuate racial and gender stereotypes, or that automated facial recognition struggles to identify people with darker skin.

    An ethics class won’t solve this problem (but of course it can highlight it). This is an engineering problem, an engineering error. Bad (unrepresentative) data is being used to train pattern matching systems. At this point it’s a well known problem, and I’d guess it’s being addressed in schools.

    • Posted March 15, 2020 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

      Not to mention engineering and science are different disciplines. Lumping them together based on superficial similarities is frankly unfair.

      -Ryan

  4. Posted March 15, 2020 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    I’m fixing it now; thanks!

  5. Posted March 15, 2020 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Pinker: “The problem is with the line of reasoning that says that if people do turn out to be different, then discrimination, oppression, or genocide would be OK after all.”

    Although I almost always agree with Pinker, this sounds a bit unfair. I suspect those that want to bury the facts about racial and sexual differences do so not because they worry that everyone will accept discrimination, oppression, and genocide but that a few malicious people will use such facts to justify their bad ideas. I’m still in favor of not hiding the truth but I understand and share this fear. As with free speech in general, it is best we confront bad ideas with truth and better ideas.

    • Eric Grobler
      Posted March 15, 2020 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      Imagine a super AI computer determines that the IQ of men vs woman is 100.1 vs 99.9.
      I stupid boy would think that he is vastly superior to girls!

      Some facts regarding group differences are already suppressed because the average person (including Saini) jump to extreme emotional interpretations.

      • Posted March 15, 2020 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

        True but are you suggesting it is a good idea to suppress these differences? Or should we seek to understand them and base our policies on facts and deal with the inevitable thorny ethical issues when they arise?

        • Eric Grobler
          Posted March 15, 2020 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

          “are you suggesting it is a good idea to suppress these differences?”

          During weekdays absolutely, but come weekends I am not so sure.

          I think as a society we should put the focus on individuals rather than groups.

          (Ironically the modern left seems even more obsessed with groups than today’s right)

          • Posted March 15, 2020 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

            “Ironically the modern left seems even more obsessed with groups than today’s right.”

            I don’t know about that. Trump’s “group” seems pretty focussed on their particular ideology. It is often said that the Left’s weakness is that they are so fragmented.

            • Eric Grobler
              Posted March 15, 2020 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

              “Trump’s “group” seems pretty focussed on their particular ideology. ”

              Fair point.

  6. Historian
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Per the post, it appears that UCL is considering removing Galton’s name from buildings and endowments. I do not know enough about Galton as to whether I would support such a move. However, the issue here seems to be identical as to the controversy over removing Confederate statues or the renaming of Calhoun College at Yale. In all these instances, certain groups (such as a college administration) have the power to no longer honor people that were previously deemed worthy of it. The principle is no different than post-war Germany removing all public honoring of the Nazi regime or the American revolutionaries tearing down statues of King George III. What is certain is that such actions by themselves are not erasing history. An attempt to erase history would only take place if books and other media by or about these individuals were banned or censored. So, there is nothing inherently wrong regarding the Galton proposal or the others I cited above. Every person who has a say in whether Galton’s name should be removed needs to decide if he is no longer worthy of being honored, that is whether his contribution to society is of such magnitude (taking into consideration the pluses and minuses) to warrant public recognition.

    • Posted March 15, 2020 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      My point in this post is that Saini claims that the problem was pointed out by the humanities people. It was not: the biologists have been telling students about Galton for years.

      I think we should take Darwin’s name off of everything, too, as he was a racist, like most white men of Victorian England. As for erasing history; yes it is erasing history if you teach only the negative things Galton did, for he did a lot of valuable work.

      • Eric Grobler
        Posted March 15, 2020 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

        “I think we should take Darwin’s name off of everything, too, as he was a racist…”

        Not all “racists” are equal.

        Many 19th century European racists were happy to exploit and subjugate “natives” around the world.
        However there were also many Europeans that had a “humanitarian urge” to Christianize and civilize the “barbaric natives”.
        Arrogant and condescending, but not the same type of racism the Herero suffered by the Germans in South West Africa.

        Many European “racists” considered themselves superior but not all were devoid of compassion and empathy.

        I suspect that Darwin and Galton were the same kind of “racists” we would have been at that time.

      • Mike Mayer
        Posted March 15, 2020 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        And those Darwin fish bumper stickers are obviously a racist dog whistle.

      • Riversup
        Posted March 15, 2020 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

        I have no horse in this race nor extensive knowledge of Galton’s beliefs, but removal of U.S. civil war monuments in the South seems to me quite different (and I’m not sure how I stand on their removal anyway). Racial oppression still exists to a large degree in the South as well as in MANY other areas of the U.S., whereas, as I understand them and someone pointed out above, Galton’s eugenic theories were never enacted and do not represent an ongoing perversion of justice or infringement of human rights. And if it seems as though individuals from the humanities are ganging up on and demonizing the evil scientists perhaps we should locate some buildings and edifices named for long gone despicable writers, painters, architects, musicians, playwrights, sculptures, etc. etc. etc. But I’m sure there are none of those…

    • Posted March 15, 2020 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      I think the situation is rather unlike that with Confederate statues. Most such statues honor Confederate leaders by virtue of their advocacy for, and defense of, the Confederacy; it’s not like they did much of anything else worth remembering or celebrating. Stonewall Jackson’s accomplishments were on the field of battle for the Confederacy, and, but for these, he would be little known or remembered.

      For the Confederates, we have statues of “A for doing X”, where X is fighting for, as U.S. Grant put it, “one of the worst [causes] for which a people ever fought”.

      But what is Galton honored for? The development of statistics, the biometrical approach to genetics, and institutional capacity building of the sciences in Britain. These are good things.

      For Galton, we have a laboratory named for “A for doing X, who held social/political view Y”. X is still thought to be good, but view Y is now considered benighted.

      I’ve no idea what Michelangelo’s views were on the Italian city-state system, the Barbary slave trade, or the equity of 16th century economic conditions. I’m sure I could find out something about some of them. But whatever they are, they would not detract from his art, nor be reason to take down his works or the memorials to him.

      • Historian
        Posted March 15, 2020 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

        Suppose that Dr. Josef Mengele while conducting his medical experiments at Auschwitz made a dramatic discovery that ultimately saved many lives? Do you think he would deserve a statue or have a medical school named after him because he did some good while doing bad? Where do you draw the line? It’s a subjective decision on whether a person should or should not be honored. As I’ve stated in my previous comments, I am not saying that Galton should not be discussed in an academic statement. My views are limited strictly to the question of whether or not he should be publicly honored.

        • Posted March 15, 2020 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

          Can you formulate a general rule to be applied in such situations? How bad does someone’s ideas or actions have to be, and for how long, for them to be irreversibly denied their statue? Is there a line, an algorithm? I am not intimate with Galton’s history but, based on what others have said here, he only expressed some ideas that weren’t put into action and, therefore, he should be forgiven and his statues allowed to stand.

        • Posted March 15, 2020 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

          The point I was trying to make, apparently unsuccessfully, is that we should not base our estimation of historical figures on the basis of a toting up of the totality of what they thought in the light of what we think about those things today. We would not honor Mengele as a physician because of his failings as a physician; in that realm we can tally the good and the bad, and find him wanting. (We would of course still use whatever counter-factual life-saving discoveries he made.)

          For Darwin, as a scientist, we tally his good and bad (descent with modification and atoll formation vs. pangenesis and the parallel roads of Glen Roy), and he seems worth honoring. He also loved his family dearly, expressed his opposition to slavery in such a way as to jeopardize his career, performed many kindnesses for his community, and seems to have been a nice guy. But all of the latter matters very little to our estimation of him as a scientist.

          Galton pioneered the quantitative investigation of biological phenomena, but was quite wrong about the mechanisms of inheritance (the apparent contradictions between his views and the later-discovered Mendelian mechanism being reconciled by Fisher). That’s why Galton, though honored, is not as exalted as Darwin. But his views on mass Chinese immigration to East Africa, which he never was in any position to take any action on, and did not occur, however misguided, don’t enter into our evaluation of him as a scientist.

          GCM

          • Historian
            Posted March 15, 2020 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

            I draw a distinction between recognizing and acknowledging individual achievement (such as contributions to scientific knowledge) versus honoring the person based on evaluating the totality of his/her life, and, yes, based on the morality of current times. I think this is at the heart of our disagreement. I think we have different understandings of the definition of the word “honor.” Take the example of Charles Lindbergh. He should be acknowledged as an aviation pioneer in the 1920s. At that time, he was universally recognized as a hero. As the 1930s wore on he was no longer a hero as he became a spokesman for the America First movement. Does he deserves schools named after him? I think not, but you may disagree. My point is that a person should only be honored or not when the totality of his/her life is weighed, which is a subjective act. This does not preclude recognizing the “good” things the person did during his/her lifetime.

          • Tim Harris
            Posted March 17, 2020 at 7:36 am | Permalink

            It is a difficult problem, isn’t it? There is also the notorious Japanese 731, which performed experiments, including vivisection, on living people on China. Here is something quickly got from Wikipedia, but which so far as I remember, having read a book about the business some years ago,is accurate:

            ‘The researchers involved in Unit 731 were secretly given immunity by the U.S. in exchange for the data they gathered through human experimentation.[6] Other researchers that the Soviet forces managed to arrest first were tried at the Khabarovsk War Crime Trials in 1949. The Americans did not try the researchers so that the information and experience gained in bio-weapons could be co-opted into the U.S. biological warfare program, much as they had done with German researchers in Operation Paperclip.[7] On 6 May 1947, Douglas MacArthur, as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, wrote to Washington that “additional data, possibly some statements from Ishii, can probably be obtained by informing Japanese involved that information will be retained in intelligence channels and will not be employed as ‘War Crimes’ evidence”.[6] Victim accounts were then largely ignored or dismissed in the West as communist propaganda.[8]’

            And:

            ‘Researchers in Unit 731 also published some of their results in peer-reviewed journals, writing as though the research had been conducted on non-human primates called “Manchurian monkeys” or “long-tailed monkeys”.[18]

            ‘The test subjects were selected to give a wide cross-section of the population and included common criminals, captured bandits, anti-Japanese partisans, political prisoners, the homeless and mentally handicapped, and also people rounded up by the Kempeitai military police for alleged “suspicious activities”. They included infants, men, the elderly, and pregnant women. The members of the unit, approximately 300 researchers, included doctors and bacteriologists.[19] Many had been desensitized to performing cruel experiments from experience in animal research.[20]’

            (In those last words about being desensitised, as well as the reference To ‘monkeys’, I cannot help but think of Harry Harlow and his experiments.)

            The people in charge of Unit 731 came back to Japan and got comfortable jobs as professors at well-known universities. I don’t know whether there are any statues of them. Perhaps there are busts or portraits of some of them somewhere.

            Finally, I should like to say that I honestly do not think it is easy to separate off the moral purity of science as done in the academy (assuming that something like Harlow’s experiments are morally justifiable – I don’t think they are) from the uses to which it is put. Perhaps I am mistaken, but one has the sense that science is regarded as somehow existing in some realm of moral purity beyond the mess of ordinary life. Science is financed by modern societies largely, alas, because it is regarded as useful; which is not to denigrate in any way either the achievements or the probity of good scientists. But I do not think that anything in human life is innocent and unsullied, and think that is unwise to suppose that it is.

            Sorry about the length of this.

            • Tim Harris
              Posted March 17, 2020 at 7:38 am | Permalink

              final phrase: ‘and think that it is unwise to suppose that it is.’

  7. KD
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    There is a practical problem in human relationships: say you are married, and want to stay married, but you are having an affair and you are afraid your partner suspects you are having an affair. What do you do?

    One strategy is to accuse your partner of having an affair. The accusation may be baseless, but it distracts away from the issue (your affair) and then lets you claim that counter-accusations are motivated by denial.

    The analog is if you are promoting politically motivated claims which are not scientifically grounded, accuse your enemies of being unscientific and politically motivated.

    Saini is obviously not stupid or scientifically illiterate, she is certainly familiar with David Reich’s work, so its pretty clear that she exists to muddy the waters and supply a veneer of respectability to the “social constructivist” position.

    At the end of the day, any genetic differences between populations as expressed in individuals are going to be smaller than those between men and women. To whatever extent individual men and women can be equal, individual members of the so-called “races” can be equal.

    Moreover, racial preferences and ethnocentrism, whether race or ethnicity is constructed or real, are real and seemingly intractable features of human behavior. The difference between an authentic Picasso and a fake Picasso may only be ascertainable by art experts, and why one may have more significantly more value than the other is clearly “socially constructed”, but I don’t see the art market collapsing.

    The only “benefit” to social constructivism is that it provides a basis for equating a lack of equality in outcome to a lack of “equal opportunity” or “systemic discrimination”. But so does God creating Adam in 4004 B.C., and all human descendants coming from Adam, and evolutionary change in populations being false. Garbage in, garbage out.

  8. hazur
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Jerry: “What’s most curious about Saini’s self-exemption from The Biased is that she’s clearly biased.”
    Saini: “Scientists who imagine that bias lies in others, not themselves, fail to recognize that to live in the world today is to be drip-fed assumptions and prejudices that guide our thoughts and actions.”
    I fail to see where she’s excluding herself. I’m not endorsing her whole idea, but I think what she expresses here is accurate and it seems to me Jerry’s comment is confirming her observation.

    • Posted March 15, 2020 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      For one thing, I don’t think she considers herself a scientist.

      Second, it would have been better had she admitted her own biases. If you’re going to call out everyone for being biased, then it’s incumbent on you to say that you are too, and say how you’re biased.

  9. Eric Grobler
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    We should also erase Gandhi from the history books, because he wrote to the Transvaal administration in 1904 and asked for apartheid policies to protect Indians from Africans:

    https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/2019-10-09-gandhi-left-his-racism-behind-before-he-left-sa/

    We should never ignore the context of historical events. All of us would have been nice little hitler jugend boys if we were born in 1930 Germany to a typical German family.

    • Historian
      Posted March 15, 2020 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      You have presented a classic straw man argument. The question is not whether Gandhi or any other historical figure should be mentioned and discussed in history books or any other forum. The question is whether a historical figure should be honored publicly by a society. Societies have the right to honor and then remove the honor from any person based on what the society deems worthy of honoring at any given time.

      • Posted March 15, 2020 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

        “Societies have the right to honor and then remove the honor from any person based on what the society deems worthy of honoring at any given time.”

        They certainly do have that right but I think the problem with what’s being talked about here is that Saimi and others like her want to judge scientists by the worst ideas they ever had and ignore all the good ones. It seems ironic that she wants scientists to acknowledge their biases but she’s also read to judge them brutally on that basis. A smart scientist who dreams of being acknowledged for their good ideas had best shut up about their biases.

        • Posted March 15, 2020 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

          Remember that Gandhi statues have been removed from some places in Africa.

          • Posted March 15, 2020 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

            I wasn’t advocating for any particular public figure or scientist. Generally I let others decide who gets a statue. I just hope they do it fairly, acknowledging that we’re all flawed in some way. 😉

            • Saul Sorrell-Till
              Posted March 15, 2020 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

              Sounds like you’re angling for a statue…

        • Historian
          Posted March 15, 2020 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

          A society can be viewed from anything as large as a nation state to much smaller entities such as a university campus. Such societies (or more exactly, the decision makers within them) can choose to honor a person, not honor, remove an honor, or restore an honor. Often the decision makers are subject to pressures from different directions. Ultimately, a decision is made, meaning that it is quite likely that some elements within the society will be unhappy with it. It is the job of the dissenters to try to have the decision reversed.

          What I find troubling is the conflation of the removal of honors from a person and the notion that somehow this is, seemingly by definition, the erasing of history. I take “erasing of history” to mean an attempt that the person previously honored is now no longer to be acknowledged as one of historical significance and henceforth whose life and ideas are not to be studied, analyzed, and debated. Removing honors is not by itself an erasing of history. Erasing of history in the Galton case would take place only if there was an attempt to remove his works from the library or to censor books written by him or about him, to bar faculty from discussing his indisputable contributions to science, or to bar faculty from discussing him as an important figure in the eugenics movement. Simply put: removing his name from a building is not erasing history.

          • Posted March 15, 2020 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

            Sorry, but I disagree. Erasing of history would also take place if, when students were taught about Galton, as the new UCL report recommends, they learned about his eugenics views and not about his positive accomplishments. The students then, who might not have heard of Galton, then get a distorted view of what he did.

          • Posted March 15, 2020 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

            “Simply put: removing his name from a building is not erasing history.”

            Some undoubtedly would view it as a good start.

      • Eric Grobler
        Posted March 15, 2020 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        “You have presented a classic straw man argument.”
        Did I?

        Gandhi and Galton both highly respected men on closer inspection are not saints.
        However in this climate the scrutiny is on western males.

        “Societies have the right to honor and then remove the honor from any person based on what the society deems worthy of honoring at any given time.”

        The woke postmodernist outrage mob do not represent society and they are not looking at Galton’s achievements and failures in good faith, are they?

        • EdwardM
          Posted March 15, 2020 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

          I think it isn’t so much that they are “western males” that draw the attention of these efforts so much as the fact that it was essentially only western males who’ve been so honored. There are very few statues to anyone else.

      • EdwardM
        Posted March 15, 2020 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        You make a solid case, Historian, but I am troubled by the narrowing of the purity tests that are being used to judge these. They are driven by ideology, not historical context. But, as you say, that’s every cultures’ right.

      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted March 15, 2020 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

        Just because the subject of eugenics can seem as though it exists in some rarefied, purely academic vacuum, it’s worth noting that the UK government had to fire a policy advisor(hired by Dominic Cummings, a kind of fascist Nathan Barley) because he had an unfortunate history of proposing the forced sterilisation of the poor.

        …And if I had a quid for every time some ‘race realist’ commenter online brought up The Bell Curve in order to justify their claims that black people are inherently unfit for western society I’d be a rich man.

        This is a live issue, is what I’m trying to say. People are using these ideas – and using people like Galton and Charles Murray to lend them an imprimatur of respectability – right now.

        That’s not to say that I agree with Saini(who seems breathtakingly arrogant, tendentious and condescending). I’m just trying to dispel this notion that The Bell Curve and eugenics can be seen and judged from purely academic perspectives.

        The truth is they have been co-opted in exactly the way that many of the critics of both Murray and Galton feared they would be. That does complicate things.

        • Posted March 15, 2020 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

          This is then an argument that nobody should study differences between human populations, or between men and women, because those studies can be “co-opted” for nefarious purposes. You seem to be buying into Saini’s implicit argument that such work needs to be stopped because it could fuel bigotry.

          Lots of pure science has been coopted for dangerous purposes (germ warfare, for one thing). I presume that you don’t think we should stop studying microbial infection.

          • Saul Sorrell-Till
            Posted March 16, 2020 at 10:41 am | Permalink

            No. I used the words ‘it complicates things’ because that is how I genuinely feel. It’s complicated.

            “This is then an argument that nobody should study differences between human populations, or between men and women,”

            Where did I say that Jerry? It’s often difficult to insert complicating shade into discussions with you because you immediately assume the most extreme position on the part of the other person.

            “Lots of pure science has been coopted for dangerous purposes (germ warfare, for one thing). I presume that you don’t think we should stop studying microbial infection.”

            I think there’s a difference between studying microbial infection and studying IQ differences between races. I can’t for the life of me see any reason to study the latter, and I can see plenty of reasons not to.

        • Eric Grobler
          Posted March 15, 2020 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

          “And if I had a quid for every time some ‘race realist’ commenter online brought up The Bell Curve in order to justify their claims that black people are inherently unfit for western society”

          Jeez, in which unholy virtual alleyway do you hang around?

        • Eric Grobler
          Posted March 15, 2020 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

          “People are using these ideas – and using people like Galton and Charles Murray to lend them an imprimatur of respectability”

          My bet is that you have not read any of Murray’s books, and you have no appreciation of Galton’s contribution to science.

          Should I apologize to you if I find Darwin, Galton, Murray or whoever interesting?

          • Saul Sorrell-Till
            Posted March 16, 2020 at 10:11 am | Permalink

            Your bet would be wrong.

            “Should I apologize to you if I find Darwin, Galton, Murray or whoever interesting?”

            Stop behaving as though you’re being persecuted. Deal with what I wrote, not some imaginary comment where I demanded an apology from anyone who finds Galton or Murray interesting.

            “Jeez, in which unholy virtual alleyway do you hang around?”

            The internet. I don’t want to blow your mind but not everywhere is as polite and reasonable as WEIT.

        • Posted March 15, 2020 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

          Agreed. I think the real issue is whether one should fight bad ideas by hiding the books that contain them and removing their authors’ statues, or reading them and understanding what makes them so bad.

          • Saul Sorrell-Till
            Posted March 16, 2020 at 10:22 am | Permalink

            I’d have thought they could contextualise these ideas with a few words here and there. I think they do that with certain statues to controversial figures. And certain books have forewords that do the same thing.

            I’m torn about statues – there clearly is a kind of person whose statue it would be acceptable to most people to tear down. Hitler. Stalin. Pinochet. But those are the easy cases, and even then some people would argue we should leave them up. I lean towards leaving them up, with historical contextualisation alongside them where necessary. But I’m not against exceptions.

        • Posted March 15, 2020 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

          “a policy advisor … had an unfortunate history of proposing the forced sterilisation of the poor.”

          I think the quote was about preventing teen pregnancies by compulsory contraception (not “sterilisation”) for teenagers, and for all teenagers, not just poor ones. Which is quite a bit different. (Unless there is some other quote?)

          “And if I had a quid for every time some ‘race realist’ commenter online brought up The Bell Curve in order to justify their claims that black people …”

          If so then they’ve not read it, since there’s very little in it about races, and what there is says that the evidence is too unclear to conclude anything.

          • Saul Sorrell-Till
            Posted March 16, 2020 at 9:57 am | Permalink

            This is what Sabisky apparently said. Note the words about preventing ‘a permanent underclass’:

            “One way to get around the problems of unplanned pregnancies creating a permanent underclass would be to legally enforce universal uptake of long-term contraception and(sic – presumably he meant ‘at’) the onset of puberty”.

            …He also believes that black Americans have lower IQs than whites and are more likely to have intellectual disabilities.

            “If so then they’ve not read it, since there’s very little in it about races, and what there is says that the evidence is too unclear to conclude anything.”

            They have read it, and they’ve come to a different conclusion from yours. And there’s plenty in it that’s ripe for use by ‘race realists’. It’s their bible. To pretend otherwise is to engage in wishful thinking.

            • Tim Harris
              Posted March 17, 2020 at 1:07 am | Permalink

              Thank you, Saul.

            • Posted March 19, 2020 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

              As I read the proposal girls would come off the “long term contraception” when no longer teenagers (so not “sterilisation”) and note the “universal” (so not a policy aimed only at “the poor”). It’s thus about breaking the cycle of children of teen mothers being more likely to then be teen mothers. Not that I am defending the proposal, but it is not “eugenics”.

              As for The Bell Curve, feel free to give actual quotes from it that are either objectionable or pseudoscience.

        • sted24
          Posted March 15, 2020 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

          “Just because the subject of eugenics can seem as though it exists in some rarefied, purely academic vacuum, it’s worth noting…”

          …that as I note at #16, many social reformers in the UK in the first half of the last century were eugenicists, who went out and actually did stuff. Much of which many are grateful for.

          As you also note: “That does complicate things.”

          • Saul Sorrell-Till
            Posted March 16, 2020 at 10:44 am | Permalink

            I don’t think it complicates things. I think most of us are capable of understanding that good people sometimes believe bad things.

  10. Jon Gallant
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Many thanks to PCC(e) for the Ernst Mayr
    quote, which incisively sums up the entire
    issue. The conflation of equality with identity is exactly why the woke
    Left is generally illiberal, censorious, and
    inclined toward thought-policing of the kind
    characteristic of the late-lamented Peoples’
    Democracies of east Europe. “Identitarian” is just the right word for this tendency.

  11. pablo
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    The woke can simultaneously complain about research into differences between the sexes and races, and complain that medicine doesn’t account for differences between the sexes and races apparently suffering cognitive dissonance.

    • Eric Grobler
      Posted March 15, 2020 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      good observation!

  12. Posted March 15, 2020 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    If the “critical theory” people would be as critical of their own roots as they are of others, I might take them more seriously. Incidentally, I put critical theory in ” ” because there are a lot of versions of critical theory and not all lead to this kind of extreme thinking. If they were consistent, they would ban Heidegger and would apply their critique to the reactionary counter enlightenment roots of their own philosophy. This particular variant of critical theory seems to rest on a fallacy: either we have complete, total neutrality or everything reduces to a matter of perspective and power.

  13. ED HESSLER
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Someone may have posted this. I’m never able to read all the comments. Today stopped at #11. Bo Winegard has written about his firing from Marietta College on Quillette. It had to do with a Twitter post(s) or started there. It is bizarre.

  14. Posted March 15, 2020 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Galton was an amazing polymath. His contributions to statistics alone justifies his being remembered. Unlike his half-cousin Darwin, he was not afraid to apply evolution to humans and follow the implications wherever they took him. Like scientists should. As for eugenics, as Dawkins tweeted—it would work. The question is whether it would be ethical. Galton’s mistake was to believe it is. Today, the word eugenics provokes reflexive revulsion in most people, but as an idea we should be able to think about and discuss it without these attacks.

    • sted24
      Posted March 15, 2020 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

      Two Darwins, a son and a grandson, were presidents of the Eugenics Education Society, also a Huxley. After a couple of renamings it is now the respectable Galton Institute. Who knows, maybe they will have to have another go!

      Not mentioned here is that Galton left a ton of money to UCL. None of which they are offering to give back.* A primary beneficiacry by professorship was Karl Pearson, who is also to be cancelled by UCL.

      Cancelling, in my view doesn’t go far enough. Anything associated with Pearson (or Galton), tainted by eugenics, that is, should be cancelled too.

      In Pearson’s case, a staticistian, that apparently will include:

      * Correlation coefficient
      * Method of moments
      * Chi distance
      * p-value
      * Pearson’s chi-squared test
      * Principal component analysis
      * Etc

      I have little idea what any of these are but who nedds them? Depite the fact that biologists and others seem to find them useful. Well, they should desist. And any scientific papers using them, past or present, should be burned.

      Or, at least, accessable only to those who have received Implicit Bias Training.

      * One possibility is that the endowment could be used for reparations. I would approve, if I could get any of it.

  15. Posted March 15, 2020 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Her claim, or rather unsupported assumption, that scientists think they’re objective is a common, lazy, and utterly stupid strawman.

    Which scientist claims objective knowledge?

    In fact, the continuously repeated claim that they do is itself an outdated piece of ideological puffery. Religious people, prophets and theologians and philosophers from the time of Plato onwards claim to possess objective knowledge of a superior order. The fact that science has made their claims untenable has made people think that scientists must by default be claiming the same kind of objectivity.

    • Posted March 15, 2020 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

      If only. Some scientists admit to non-objectivity, some don’t. Pretty much the same for engineers, philosophers, historians, whoever. The only particular problem when scientists make or imply a claim to pure objectivity, is that a lot of people might believe them.

      The comedy of this whole thread is that science is a lens that can see its own flaws. Saini is utterly right to recommend that scientists not make a claim that (as you rightly note) many don’t make, and (as I just noted) no one needs to.

      • Posted March 15, 2020 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

        As you (succinctly) say, science is a lens that can see its own flaws: which implies recognition of the need for such a lens.

        Saini seems to be skipping over that aspect of science.

      • Riversup
        Posted March 15, 2020 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

        It’s not a matter of admitting to or not admitting to non-objectivity. The whole point of statistics is to minimize and avoid bias. No real scientists can get away with not applying statistical methods to their data. We do this BECAUSE we are ALL non-objective to some degree. That is how the whole system works.

  16. Filippo
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    sub

    (I’d like to hear Saini’s critique of the omniscient, omnibenevolent unbiased Hebrew Israelites.)

  17. sted24
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    In the UK the eugenics movement was mostly more concerned with class than race. In monocultural Britain for the first half of the last century race wasn’t a *domestic* issue. And reformers weren’t primarily concerned with the Empire.

    Many of the best known were clearly ‘progressives’ – wanting the best for society. Keir Hardie, H G Wells, John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw, and on. Even William Beveridge, revered here as the founder of the welfare state.

    Present-day progressives take note.

    The women’s movement fares little better: Virginia Wolf, for example. Then Marie Stopes, founder of the birth control movement. She and her American counterpart, Margaret Sanger, were clearly motivated to reduce the suffering of working class women. But also to reduce the number of ‘disfunctional’ children they produced.

    Today we applaud reforms to educate and empower women. The aims – effects – are the same: the reduction of children. Mechanisms different.

    Stopes was also likely antisemitic. And when her son announced his intention to marry a woman who was myopic (and daughter of acclaimed Dam Busters bomb designer, Barnes Wallis) she said she would disinherit him. He did, and she did.

    It is disputed if Sanger (with multiple things names after her in the US) was racist. Here is a quote from her “What Every Girl Should Know”:

    “It is said the aboriginal Australian, the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development, has so little sexual control that police authority alone prevents him from obtaining sexual satisfaction on the streets…”

    • Posted March 15, 2020 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      Australia’s infamous policy of removing children from their parents was inspired by eugenics and “Social Darwinism” (which of course is not Darwinian).

      The policy was more than one step lower than how most chimps treat their young.

      • sted24
        Posted March 15, 2020 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

        And what do you, or an Australian aboriginal person, make of her qoted remarks? She also, incidentally, opposed immigration and abortion.

        Things are complicated!

        • Posted March 15, 2020 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

          I think anyone with statements like that on their record deserves to have any memorials or statues not only removed but blown up and the fragments blasted into outer space.

          • sted24
            Posted March 15, 2020 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

            And I think you are quite wrong!

            How about Helen Keller? This from WikiP:

            “Keller supported eugenics. In 1915, she wrote in favor of refusing life-saving medical procedures to infants with severe mental impairments or physical deformities, stating that their lives were not worthwhile and they would likely become criminals.”

            Or this, on a different note, from a more sympathetic article in Smithsonian. The author is making the point that Keller (who came from a wealthy family) had lots of ways to communicate before Anne Sullivan, her teacher, came along:

            “She mostly used those to communicate with her friend Martha Washington, who was the daughter of the Keller family’s cook…Keller’s relationship with Washington was shaped by their different social statuses…: “It pleased me to domineer over her, and she generally submitted to my tyranny rather than risk a hand-to-hand encounter”

            Rich kid dominates servant kid.

            Should we thus blow up any Keller tibutes? Only, I suggest, if you have a one (or two) dimensional view of human beings. Or are woke!

            • Posted March 16, 2020 at 2:49 am | Permalink

              I was referring specifically to her claims about Australian Aborigines. That is not any kind of confused ideas about eugenics, but straight up ignorant and sickening racism. That’s not confusion about genetics or tacit acceptance of social custom she is expressing there, but vitriolic hatred against (and some kind of twisted sexual fascination with) a group of people none of whom she ever encountered.

      • Deodand
        Posted March 15, 2020 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

        In the lead up to Australia’s Bicentennial (1988), what was then a major Australian magazine (The Bulletin, now defunct) ran a front page article on a woman who advocated in the 19thC that Australian Aboriginals (aka Noongar aka PoC Type 1.4) be bred out of existence by ‘dilution’ (e.g Aboriginal women should be forced to marry white men.)

        That’s where euginics can go.

        Sadly while I can remember the appalling details of what she advocated I cannot remember her name. I wish I could.

        Not that the Bulletin’s history is entirely unstained by dubious racial ideas as is covered in it’s Wikipedia page.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bulletin_(Australian_periodical)

  18. Eric Grobler
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    “But also to reduce the number of ‘disfunctional’ children they produced.”

    You make it sound like it is a bad thing!

    • sted24
      Posted March 15, 2020 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      I make it sound like what, in various terms, eugenicists advocated.

  19. Posted March 15, 2020 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    Regarding “Lewontin’s fallacy”: Lewontin’s method in his article on the apportionment of human diversity is indeed deeply fallacious. Using his method, even two distinct species with no shared alleles at a given locus could have within-group “variation” of >95% and between-group variation of less than 5%, whenever within-group “diversity” is high. His measures of genetic similarity and differentation, like those of his student Russ Lande, are nonsensical, and this can easily be seen using examples where there are many equally-common alleles at the locus in question, with none shared between groups.

    I’ve addressed the general mathematical issues here:
    https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1890/06-1736.1
    and the application to genetics here:
    https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-294X.2008.03887.x

    These papers derive valid measures of genetic similarity and differentiation. I do not know if using these measures would change Lewontin’s conclusions. My point is only that his method is nonsensical and can lead to wildly wrong conclusions.

  20. Roo
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    If one replaces ‘science’ with ‘truth’, this becomes:

    “In failing to recognize that truth can be political, the scientific community allows the resurrection of dangerous ideas.”

    This seems problematic. I assume she is a postmodern type who doesn’t believe in objective truth vs. someone who just celebrates Orwellian thinking. (Although even there I think she hedges, as she decries ‘science’ one moment and then a few sentences later clarifies that what she is actually talking about is pseudoscience. So perhaps it’s more of a category error than anything – defining ‘science’ as including “the personal failings of all scientists” or “politicization of scientific findings” or even “pseudoscience”. Those things may all be found in close proximity to science, but they are not, so far as I understand it, science itself.)

  21. Jon Gallant
    Posted March 16, 2020 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    Cancel culture, having swept through such offenders as Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Jefferson, is now hot on the heels of Galton and Karl Pearson. Next, we can look forward to campaigns against the repute of Isaac Newton, Darwin, Degas, Bach, Sibelius, Gandhi, and other past figures who lacked the perfection of 21st century wokies. With each new wokie cancel campaign, I ask myself: don’t these characters have anything better to do with their time? If they themselves think not—then what could more decisively signal the decline of the Left?

  22. Posted March 16, 2020 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    I often wonder what real good comes from such campaigns? Will the oppressed be better off? I really don’t think so.

  23. HibernianHypothesis
    Posted March 16, 2020 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Disclaimer: I’m mostly talking about the U.S. in this post.

    While I do agree that we shouldn’t suppress information and I am entirely open to the idea that there could be substantial genetic differences that could lead to the differences that we see in society I do think that a platitude of “discrimination is bad” is not quite going to cut it. We’ve pummeled society with the strongest, most dogmatic version of this for decades and it still hasn’t stuck in a substantial portion of the country.

    If we’re going to be real about it, information is useful and we expect people to use it. You’d essentially be asking people to never use this information because it’s immoral to do so. How is that even close to being rational? Human beings are statistical thinkers and you’d deny them the ability to use certain priors because it’s, to use to parlance popular amongst groups you probably never interact with, ‘rayciss’? Racism and sexism is not enough to stop us from looking for the differences but it is strong enough for us not to use it? The implications become more fraught when we expand it to populations where it naturally belongs.

    It becomes a lot easier to argue that we shouldn’t let immigrants who are highly skilled into Western society because their children will not only not be as exceptional as them but will see a greater decline in their abilities than the native white population. Is that immoral to do? You’ve denied an individual the possibility to reach their full potential but for a rationally justifiable reason: they would create people that you would not have wanted to let immigrate.

    We all talk about how we’re stuck in echo chambers but I think you look too much at twitter and see SJWs, who are a substantial minority even in any region where they have any influence, and talk mostly to your friends who likely already hold strong egalitarian principles and assume that is how most people are. Unfortunately, most people don’t feel particularly strongly about this principle, or many others for that matter, and can easily be swayed either way. We’ve already seen how quickly we went from one extreme to the other in the United States. We’re genetically identical to the people who came before us and we should be proud of how much better our society is today but we’re supposedly immune from reverting back?

    I think it’s super easy for people who wouldn’t be harmed by the information to say that words will always suppress actions, and that because we say you shouldn’t do it people won’t because if you’re wrong, you only feel bad that society let you down. Stakes are higher for the rest of us. I’m not saying we should like or suppress what we find. I’m just saying that it’s not a novelty of little interest to most people and I wish you could be honest about that.

  24. David Duffy
    Posted March 16, 2020 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    I’m _sure_ the real reason Galton is _persona non grata_ is because of his
    “Statistical inquiries into the efficacy of prayer” 😉

    https://academic.oup.com/ije/article/41/4/923/689380


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