October 25, 2007

From Robert Gerlai:

Re: Nobel scientist suspended from job over race comments (Oct. 18): I am not nearly knowledgeable about all the facts that surround the question of differences in mental characteristics among major racial groups. And I also do not know what exactly Professor Watson said. However, there are numerous issues that have been, and I suspect will be, debated with regard to the so called “race differences”. First and foremost, the racial groups are not well defined genetically. That is, there is tremendous genetic heterogeneity within a racial group, and some argue that the genetic differences between racial groups are actually smaller than within. Second, it’s been quite difficult to separate socio-economic status, i.e.the other side of the coin, the environmental effects, from genetic effects. In other words, the difference between races may have a cultural origin, at least to a degree. Simply put, it’s the geneticist’s nightmare to disentangle how the environment and genes may contribute to the observed differences. Last, and perhaps most importantly, the differences themselves are not well defined. The often cited IQ, which proudly converts one’s complex cognitive function into a single number, may be misleading. Human intelligence is arguably (although not all scientists would agree) multifactorial and multifaceted. For example, the more we learn about memory, the clearer it becomes that it is not a unitary process. It has several forms, phases, and mechanisms. Thus the problem becomes: does IQ, or any other simplifying psychometric method, capture the full complexity of cognitive characteristics typical of a human being? And if it doesn’t, how can one line up the races on a linear scale?

Again, the point: I do not know nearly enough to answer the above questions, but I suspect the experts will need to work on these, and numerous other, questions before the answers may be obtained. However, irrespective of the answers we will get, I suggest we treat each other with dignity and respect and remain sensitive to human feelings. A little tact can go a long way and actually may help science and scientific freedom. It will allow the diligent workers on the field of sciences to gather enough data and to develop appropriate analytical procedures and it will help avoid infuriating the public and policy makers with statements that are controversial even among the experts.

Prof. Robert Gerlai
Behaviour Geneticist


Blogger Yo said...

It's wonderful to see an intelligent, balanced response to this issue; a response, that in its caution, respect for others and simple humility is, I am certain, far more representative of most scientists than the senile blatherings of Watson could ever be. Let us remember the adage: "The empty vessel makes the most noise".

Thank you, Robert Gerlai!

November 06, 2007 7:30 PM  

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