When to Engage with Ideas You Don’t Think are Well Founded
In another place, some people got very upset that I would not engage in a discussion whether some populations have a hereditary difference in intelligence from other populations, and that I thought a famous professor who enthusiastically endorsed this idea had trusted some untrustworthy people. Doesn’t that make me a bad scientist who refuses to look at the data? Haven’t I talked about how I miss the rational argument culture of the early Net? Isn’t engaging with people a better way to convince them (and to convince onlookers) than implying that I think their ideas are silly? Am I just like those posturers on corporate social media who try to ban all dissent, or the lobby groups who try to ban research whose conclusions might harm their cause?
The ideal of the free thinker who open-mindedly considers any idea and comes to an independent opinion on it is admirable. But in practice we all have limited time, emotional energy, and memory. We also have strengths and weaknesses.
I am an ancient historian and a military historian. I know a bit about some other things, and I have as many opinions as anyone else, but the thing about opinions is that everyone thinks their own opinions are wise. So while I am happy to give my professional opinion on topics in ancient history and military history, I can’t give a quick and detailed judgement on many other topics in the same way. Keeping a detailed account of the sorry history of race science in my head would interfere with things I am actually interested in and which make me happy to know (and it would not help when I met a homeopath or an anti-masker).
After 20 years on the Internet and 25 years of reading the news, I have observed that people who want me to know about racial or sex-based differences in intelligence are almost all Anglo men with credentials and a comfortable income, and usually have a visible dislike for the people they say are inferior or especially for attempts to give them the same place in society as Anglo men with university degrees and a prestigious job. Its possible that in the obscurity of psychometric journals there are people investigating this topic out of pure curiosity, but the ones who want me to believe usually have an agenda. And L. Sprague de Camp and Herodotus taught me that people are very good at rationalizing their prejudices or their own superiority. Many people rationalizing their prejudices are very clever and very diligent. So engaging with their ideas is not just time-consuming and exhausting, they might manage to fool me, like that poor professor and many other Anglo men with university degrees. It would be a lot like engaging with everyone who wants me to know about an exciting financial opportunity and examining their offer with an open mind.
Not engaging on this particular topic does not make me an ideal philosopher. But it makes me a frail human doing the best as I can in this world within my limits. If I spend all my energy arguing against things I disagree with, I would have no energy to spread ideas which I value. If I devote my time to arguing against old nonsense, I can’t devote it to finding new knowledge.
If you want to argue for racial differences in IQ, or that objects can travel faster than light, or that all infinities are equally big, or whatever weird and wonderful idea makes you excited, go forth and do so! We only have so much time on this earth and each of us should decide for ourself how to spend it. I don’t think I have ever argued that any question should be declared off limits. But I choose whether to engage with you on that topic. And I decide whether your argument shows that you have some prejudices which I had not previously known about.
PS. If you want see expert evaluations of that professor’s research on other topics, you can find them on Tales of Times Forgotten, Phil Torres on salon.com or in a 36 page book review, or Philip Dwyer and Mark Micale (eds.) The Darker Angels of our Nature (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017: Amazon.com)
PPS. after I formed these ideas, @email@example.com told me that Scott Alexander expressed some similar ideas as epistemic learned helplessness. It is too bad that Alexander slipped into genetic determinism too! We educated Anglo men are vulnerable to this nonsense. He also mentioned Zeynep’s law: “Until there is substantial and repeated evidence otherwise, assume counterintuitive findings to be false, and second-order effects to be dwarfed by first-order ones in magnitude.” https://nitter.ca/zeynep/status/1478766408691556353
Edit 2022-04-27: see also Andre Costapoulos, “Finally getting to the practical part of the practical guide to addressing pseudoarchaeology,” Archeothoughts, 30 September 2020 (link to archeothoughts)
Very well said.
I do think there was a tendency in the 90s when I was in college in the anthro dept to ignore people who wanted to discuss things like race and IQ, in the sense that no one wanted to research it or discuss it (as you intimated, why would you unless you have an agenda), although when the Bell Curve came out there was a pretty solid push back on that.
Anyway, yeah, social science would be the place to look for answers, not internet forums. The same goes for COVID cures . . . look to medical science, not Facebook.
Yes, I am glad for researchers like Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, and Richard E. Nisbett who write for the public (Vox) and sites like Skepdic and RationalWiki which summarize the arguments and point out who has worrying connections. Someone has to answer the Charles Murrays of the world, while as a layman I watch the debate and say “many people who say that some populations have smarter genes than other populations sound like they have an agenda, and the psychologists and statisticians I respect say that IQ is a slippery concept and untangling ancestry and environment is hard.”
But trying to jump into the middle of the debate would not help anyone! Its not one of the areas of my expertise.
I’d like to finish a post on all the people who spent the 1990s and the 2000s mapping and answering nonsense which has started to eat the world, earning little or no money and often being discouraged by academic institutions.