Why Not Both?

Kyle Rowland writes:

I was recently discussing the correlation between race and life outcomes. I pointed out what I think is the most salient truth in modern politics:

When groups of millions of people are systematically doing worse, or better, there must be an explanation. If the explanation is not that the different groups have different traits, then the explanation must be some system of oppression that wrongfully suppresses the potential of certain groups. It does no good to do the fashionable conservative thing and dodge around the question of group differences, when that question determines your innocence or guilt in the greatest moral question of our time.

Someone asked: Why do we have to choose one explanation or the other? Surely some part of the difference could be due to different traits, while another portion of the difference could be due to oppression!

Well, you do have to choose one explanation or another. Let us suppose that a man goes to doctors because he has a sore on his back. Different hypotheses compete — one doctor believes they are from an autoimmune reaction, the other believes they are from a bacterial infection.

The sore is sampled, and bacteria of a type that produces such sores are found.

We now have an explanation for the sore. While it is not strictly impossible that both doctors are correct, we need nothing more than the bacterial infection to explain the sore. Now, if an autoimmune reaction was also behind the existence of the sore, it would simply be by coincidence. We are not forced to raise our estimated probability of said reaction due to the presence of the symptom, because we already have an explanation for the symptom.

Every competent doctor understands this. Now let us suppose that the career of the doctor who claims the sore was an autoimmune reaction depends upon him being correct.

That doctor will NOT say: yes, indeed we found bacteria at the site of the sore, but only part of the sore is caused by bacteria. We happened to sample that part. If we sample another part, we’ll find no bacteria, because that other part of the sore is due to the autoimmune reaction. We’re both right!

While this may seem convincing to some laypeople, it is absolutely idiotic and unbelievable to people familiar with the subject matter.

Our imperiled doctor will, instead, cast doubt upon the findings. He has several avenues of attack: perhaps the people who cultured the bacteria accidentally introduced it. Such things happen. Perhaps the people who drew the sample got it mixed up with another sample. Such things happen. Perhaps the method of culturing the bacteria is itself flawed, with an error rate too high to make a useful determination. Perhaps those who are casting doubt on his diagnosis are junior to him, and they are speaking from ignorance. Perhaps those who are casting doubt on his diagnosis are senior to him, and are speaking from arrogance.

These are all much better tactics than accepting the test results. There are uncertainties everywhere – the strategy of maximizing their apparent relevance, while mixing in doubt about everyone involved, is a very good strategy if one has the social capital to pull it off.

A layperson sitting at the sidelines might say – what is all this fuss over? Maybe both doctors are right!

Sadly, it’s almost impossible for both doctors to be right. Both doctors know this, even if the layperson doesn’t.

We are in an analogous situation when it comes to the study of variation in human traits.

If it is true that there is a large variation in human traits, particularly intelligence, that is sufficient to explain vast differences in economic and other sociological outcomes.

If we already have an explanation for vast differences in outcome, there is no need to posit a system of oppression that is forcing millions of people into suboptimal outcomes based on their race and class.

It’s not strictly impossible that there are both trait differences, and a system of oppression that forces millions of people into suboptimal outcomes based on race and class. However, pretty much the entire reason to believe that such a system exists, is the differential outcomes themselves. If we have an convincing alternate explanation for those differences, the case basically evaporates.

Theoretically, there could be lots of stuff besides differential outcome to point to in order to support the systematic oppression idea. However, there just isn’t much. The stereotype threat idea failed to replicate. The majority-minority dynamic idea runs headfirst into the incredible success of Asians and Jews. On the other hand, the hereditarians have concrete finding after concrete finding to point to — often coming from scientists who were trying desperately to avoid coming to said conclusions.

It’s not impossible to imagine situations where ’both-sides-ism’ is a logical stance. However, in the case of explaining group outcome differences, as in the case of explaining the patient’s back sore, ‘both-sides-ism’ simply reveals ignorance about the subject matter. One explanation must prevail, or the other.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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