Prejudice: The Watson Case

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

Sometimes David Friedman is willing to discuss ideas that no normal person would discuss publicly — like Prejudice: The Watson Case:

In the recent flap over public comments by James Watson, one of the things that strikes me is the odd misuse, in attacks on him, of the term “prejudice.”

A prejudice is a belief held in advance of the evidence. Watson’s biological claim — that human populations that have spent a long time separated from each other in different environments can be expected to differ in heritable characteristics — is so obviously true that I find it hard to imagine anyone honestly denying it. His application, his conclusion from his own observation that sub-Saharan Africans are on average less intelligent than Europeans, may or may not be correct, but without knowing what his observations have been it is hard to see how one can know that it is due to prejudice.

Unless, of course, one knows in advance that Watson’s conclusion is false. So far as I can tell, there is literally no evidence to support that position. At least, in all of the arguments on the subject that I have observed, those arguing for racial equality of intelligence do so not by producing evidence that it is true but by arguing that the evidence that it is false is inadequate or mistaken. Even if all of their arguments are correct, the conclusion is not that we know that racial groups don’t differ in intelligence but only that we don’t know if they do, or if so how.

Watson’s comment was surely tactless as well as imprudent; his conclusion may, for all I know, be mistaken. But all of the prejudice so far exhibited in the case is on the other side.

He goes on to discuss Ethnic Cleansing, Other Horrors, and the Racial IQ Controversy:

In the discussion set off by my post on the Watson controversy, one person writes:

“It is never too much to remember how much ethnic cleansing was made in the past based on ‘scientific evidence’ that some races were ‘not as intelligent as ours’…”

I think claims of this sort are often made, but I’m not sure there is any basis for them. Ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, so far as I can tell, had nothing to do with any scientific evidence, real or bogus, about the relative intelligence of races. In some cases the cleansers and their victims differed only in whether their ancestors had or had not converted to Islam in the distant past. In others, the justification offered for the cleansing was “it’s historically our land, and they have taken it over by immigrating and having more babies than we did.”

What about the Holocaust? I believe some Nazis made claims about Jewish inferiority of one sort or another. But the basis for their anti-semitism, so far as I can tell, was the idea that Jews were race enemies — in which case the more intelligent they were, the more dangerous. One can see that pretty clearly in Henry Ford’s (less malevolent) version of anti-semitism. I don’t know what justifications were offered for killing Gypsies, who were the other main “racial” target.

In the post-war period, I think the largest scale race killing has been the Hutu/Tutsi conflicts in southern Africa. It’s hard to believe that any significant amount of it was motivated by evidence of IQ differences between the two groups.

If we move from killing to enslaving, the case becomes a little stronger. My impression is that one argument used against freeing black slaves was that they were less intelligent and so unable to run their lives themselves — although it’s hard to see that as a plausible argument for enslaving them in the first place. But I thought the main justification offered — insofar as any was needed beyond the usefulness of slavery to slave owners–was biblical, the “sons of Ham” argument. And in any case, all of this predates the invention if IQ and scientific literature on it.

In the case of classical antiquity, slavery frequently involved slaves of the same ethnic stock as the slave owners. So although philosophers might make arguments about some sorts of people being natural slaves, it’s hard to see how any such arguments could have explained the actual practices.

So here is my challenge: Can anyone offer an actual historical example of genocide, ethnic cleansing, or slavery where either the main reason for it, or the main justification offered, was scientific or pseudo-scientific evidence that the victims were, on average, less intelligent than the perpetrators?

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