Science is sufficient for any inference

By Razib Khan | June 14, 2010 4:15 pm

Because I’m a generally somewhat more anthropocentric in regards to my interest in the “squishy science” I am often amused by the wide range of inferences that people make when presented with a set of scientific results. Naturally, when I talk about the genetics of Jews it gets a lot more heated. You did not see most of the extremely bizarre comments which kept coming in as I simply marked them as spam. But I thought I would point to how different individuals can derive totally contradictory inferences from the same posts in two weblog reactions. These two bloggers link to my posts as summaries of the research. First:

…A recent study suggests that Jews are tied by more than common religion, we have the same genetics.

While even some Jews have fought the notion that there is a Jewish race, it is something I am happy to embrace. I am no scientist or geneticist, but it is clearly obvious through recent research that we do, in fact, have a common genetic link. This has been discussed in a second article as well.

While it is complex research, the data speaks for itself. Alan Dershowtiz has said it. Martin Luther King Jr. has said it. And I have said it again and again. If you hate Jews, you do not hate a set of beliefs. You do not hate a country. You are a racist. Period.

Conversely:

I knew Mr. Razib Khan will show his true self eventually, and he did. Despite his protestations to the contrary, he objectively is working for the goal of de-legitimatizing Israel by falsifying scientific data to prove that Jews are not a distinct people with shared identity but a collection of descendants of various South-European ethnic groups. Naturally, this theory is welcomed by various Arab scoundrels with their claim that Israelis are newcomers from Europe, and that Palestinians (Arabs, that is) are closer to original ancestors than “occupiers”-Jews, therefore they have legitimate right to kick Israelis from their homeland and take it for themselves….

I probably disagree with the details of the conclusion of the first post (I think there is something a bit weird personally about the importance of an anti-Israel stance in many circles if one isn’t a Palestinian or a Muslim, but I don’t think it has to do with racism). But the second post is plainly false in its assertions about my post. The individual probably didn’t read the post linked in the criticism, as I state that “Jewish groups share a lot of the genome identical by descent.” I doubt you have to be super well versed in scientific terminology to get the drift of what I’m talking about. But another issue in the second post is that the poster doesn’t seem to care much about Mizrahi Jews; it’s clear that this group has little European ancestry, and they obviously weren’t European colonizers. I know that Leftist and Arab/Muslim critics of Israel do focus on the state’s Ashkenazi Jewish secular Zionist origins, and many Leftists have applied to the white/non-white dichotomy onto Israeli society somewhat inappropriately (Jews being white, Arabs being non-white). One tendency which crops up in comments & questions about Jewish genetics which I’ve noticed is the implicit  substitution Ashkenazi Jew for Jew. Again, as if non-European Jews are a triviality which can be dismissed out of the rhetorical equation (this is certainly not the case in Israel where about half the Jewish population is of non-European origin).

This is the sort of thing which makes me generally skeptical that any given scientific result necessarily entails a set of policy or value positions. Over and over I’ve seen the same scientific data leveraged into supporting diametrically opposing normative stances. Clearly then the science isn’t driving the logic of the core argument; rather, science is a handmaid which is brought on after the fact to lend an air of authority, and the glamor of its cultural prestige.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Genetics
MORE ABOUT: Jewish Genetics
  • http://haquelebac.wordpress.com/2010/04/06/my-fossil-railroad/ John Emerson

    Over and over I’ve seen the same scientific data leveraged into supporting diametrically opposing normative stances.

    The same is true for philosophical principles and religious principles.

    It’s been awhile since I’ve read Bourdieu, but in “The Logic of Practice” he says something like: the particular local geographical-historical social form is the reality. It’s not an imperfect instance of some ideal, or a manifestation of some underlying form. Abstract structures and forms and religious principles and ideas and moral principles so on can help you figure out what’s going on in a given case, as tools to untangle the complexities, but the concrete particular society is the basic unit. “Fundamentals” are transformed in the particular case, and the fundamentals will not tell you everything you need to know about the particular.

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    Wow. Seeing those two reactions side by side I’m not sure whether to laugh or to cry. I’m confused by the first individual in that I have to wonder if one has a problem with some group and it happens to turn out that everyone in that group shares a lot of genetics would that make one a racist?

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention Science is sufficient for any inference | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine -- Topsy.com

  • Gilbert Jones

    It appears you can’t win. Perhaps a disclaimer is necessary when dealing with sensitive subjects. I know it infringes on ideas of science being pure and free from politics, but that we all that’s not possible. Thus, a preface could save you from future headaches.
    -Gil

  • Chris T

    “This is the sort of thing which makes me generally skeptical that any given scientific result necessarily entails a set of policy or value positions. Over and over I’ve seen the same scientific data leveraged into supporting diametrically opposing normative stances.”

    Far too many people, including scientists, mistake normative for objective positions (stem cells, global warming, abortion, etc.). Science can tell us what is; it cannot tell us what we should, if anything, to do about it.

  • http://www.riverellan.blogspot.com Tom Bri

    Chris T, it is even worse than you state. Science not only can’t tell us what we should do, but also can’t tell us what is. At least not in the social sciences.

    Scientists are supposed to stand outside, dispassionately observing, devising tests. But we can’t do that very well when the subject is other human beings. We are all insiders, and our very act of observation skews the results.

    How often have we heard of some interesting social science, say, a survey, and upon reading the questions we realize that the scientists, by the bias of the questions they devised, have created the results, rather than merely objectively measuring a phenomenon?

    I recall my genetics professor demonstrating ‘the rule of thumb’ of fruit-fly geneticists. Squash the fly that skews you results away from what you are supposed/expect to find. Scientists are not above fudging data if it conflicts with their beliefs and values.

    Unconscious or conscious bias affects all social science research.

  • Katharine

    Tom Bri, do you actually do science?

  • Adam F

    Speaking as a biologist here…squash the fly which skews the results?! Gack! You’d never be respected again in the scientific community if you were caught doing that. Not to say scientists are impartial all the time, but we try to hold ourselves to higher standards than blatant cheating. Not to mention that the weird flies are the interesting ones.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Melendwyr

    If scientific investigation can tell us what is, then it can necessarily tell us what we should do; the second is just a particular subset of the first.

    The problem is that, so much of the time, we don’t care about learning what we should do. We want to find ways to rationalize doing what we desire to do instead.

    Most people intuitively recognize this, which is why people think they can determine what a person’s secret goals are by looking at the social consequences of the things they point out. When that model is applied to a person whose work focuses on trying to determine objective realities instead of producing a rhetorical justification, you get absurdities like the one razib points out above.

  • anonymous guy

    nitpick: Sephardi-aka non Ashkenazi-Jews Were and Are still discriminated against

    example: http://www.cjnews.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=18595&Itemid=86
    news like this is not widely popular, but happens nonetheless.

  • http://fs.pkheavy.com zach

    These responses demonstrate the need to define priors

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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