I don’t want my blogging here at Canadian Atheist to turn into a succession of obituaries, but what am I to do? Another notable Canadian has died. A few days ago it was Raylene Rankin, and now the grim reaper has carried off the controversial scientist Jean Philippe Rushton.
Rushton, a professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario, was infamous for devoting a good part of his career to the study of supposed differences in cognition and “life history” (essentially growth and reproduction) among human racial groups. I have only a passing familiarity with his work, and with the reactions and rebuttals of his colleagues, but I’m pretty sure it’s fair to say that very few other social scientists have ever accepted Rushton’s core thesis that “Black” and “Oriental” populations differ on a genetic level in average intelligence and many other traits, with “White” populations in between. (His views are laid out in an accessible way in an abridged version of his book Race, Evolution and Behavior: PDF here.)
From a purely scientific perspective there is plenty to criticize (see this PDF) in Rushton’s work, starting with his simplistic racial classification (if you’re going to talk about “Whites” and “Orientals”, what do you do with a Turk or a Kazakh?) and his tendency to largely ignore or dismiss the possibility that differences between groups might be caused by poverty, discrimination or cultural factors rather than by genes. He has also been accused, I don’t know how justly, of sloppiness and inconsistency in his approach to collecting and analysing data.
However, it also has to be said that Rushton’s critics have often seemed more interested in impugning his motives (not necessarily unfairly, as we’ll see), and in fulminating against the moral and political unacceptability of his conclusions, than in asking whether those conclusions are justified by the available evidence. David Suzuki, in his celebrated 1989 debate with Rushton, spent a lot of time on the former approach before going on to make some decent points about the unreliability of racial classifications and the need to consider possible environmental explanations for intergroup differences. Worse yet, the moral grandstanding has literally followed Rushton to the grave: PZ Myers, in a brief obituary piece, accused Rushton of “poisoning the discource with evil racist nonsense” but didn’t bother to comment directly on Rushton’s scientific credibility or lack thereof.
This kind of thing allowed Rushton to present himself, with some plausibility, as a constant victim of politically correct witch hunts – a disinterested scholar merely searching for empirical truth, regardless of the consequences. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm for racial differences sometimes strayed outside the boundaries of social science. In 2005 he made this delightful comment to a reporter from the Ottawa Citizen:
“But people are pulling their hair out and are saying, ‘What about Toronto the Good? Where did it go to?’ What about Ottawa? I’m sure it is the same? What about Montreal? I’ll bet you it’s the same. I’ll bet it’s the same in every bloody city in Canada where you have black people. It’s inevitable that it won’t be. So there you go.”
Even Rushton’s own scientific conclusions, which are all about quantitative average differences among populations, do not justify such a simplistic and sweeping link between “black people” and civic degeneration.
People like Rushton present skeptics with an interesting challenge. How are we to respond to someone who appears to be using scientific arguments, or at least superficially scientific ones, as a thin veil for a viewpoint that is deeply at odds with reality? In my opinion, the arguments still have to be considered on their merits, and it’s a straightforward intellectual error to treat the underlying agenda (whatever it may be) as anything more than a distraction when trying to get at the truth of an issue. Either African populations have intrinsically lower average IQ scores than east Asian ones, or they don’t. It may be difficult to get at the truth of the matter, and in particular to separate genetic factors from environmental ones, but we can still do our best. I’m pretty sure that any differences that may exist are small, but I’m happy to agree with Rushton that we should avoid the moralistic fallacy (see this PDF) and follow the data wherever they may lead.