Friday 2 May 2014

LCI Proceedings: Science and its discontents


Kicking off the London Conference on Intelligence was Gerhard Meisenberg, with what used to be called a Keynote Address. Happily, Gerhard produced something far better: not uplifting generalities but a close a look at some of the problems which arise when science throws up results which the public find unpalatable. Even today, some parts of the world find it difficult to accept that evolution exists, and that they are part of it. About a third of Americans have accepted that there is a genetic code, but not that evolution takes place, which two thirds of respondents still reject.

Science is the study of what is, not what ought to be.

Gerhard looks at some of the options open to scientists and communicators about science when psychology throws up group difference findings which conflict with popular expectations.

Science and Its Discontents

Gerhard Meisenberg, Ross University Medical School, Dominica

This contribution examines the nature of resistance to scientific insights about human evolution and individual differences. Among fundamental psychological needs, the need to believe in a just world is identified as a major reason for resistance to scientific research whose results are, or are expected to be, incompatible with this belief. In particular, there is widespread resistance to research showing that people have unequal opportunities for success in life as a result of genetic inequalities in abilities and personality. In large part this resistance is based on the 20th-century belief that only environmental conditions but not genes can be changed by social engineering. Therefore one remedy for scientists working in the field is to emphasize that with rapid advances in molecular genetics, genetic engineering is becoming as feasible as social engineering. While possibilities for social engineering and improvement of environments have been nearly exhausted, there still is ample room for improving the human condition through genetic engineering.

With examples from the General Social Survey in the United States, it is shown that resistance to sensitive research areas is linked to religious and ideological belief systems. In the United States, popular resistance to the belief in human evolution – universally accepted in science since at least the 1930s – is still surprisingly strong among the general public, with more than half of respondents rejecting this belief. Rejection of evolution in favor of divine creation is favored strongly by religiosity, but also independently by political or social conservatism. Unsurprisingly, higher intelligence increases the likelihood of believing in evolution.

Unlike the belief in human evolution, the belief in “inborn disability” as a cause of race differences in social outcomes has declined massively since the 1970s, but only among non-Hispanic Whites. Today, only 8% of Whites as opposed to 14% of non-Whites endorse this belief. In this case, religiosity and liberalism-conservatism are unimportant. It is suggested that today, liberals do not believe in genetic race differences because that’s what they always preferred to believe, and conservatives who grew up after the 1960s believe the same because this is the traditional belief with which they grew up. In this case, higher education favors disbelief in genetic differences although expert surveys show that most intelligence researchers believe that both genes and environment are important for race differences in intelligence. Thus it appears that highly intelligent and educated individuals are not only more responsive to information emanating from experts, but also to misinformation originating elsewhere.

Generally, tolerance of cognitive dissonance appears to be high even among high-IQ individuals. For example, most educated and high-IQ people accept the reality of human evolution while failing to acknowledge its more upsetting implications. The unjustified linking of intelligence research with value systems and political agendas is identified as a major avoidable reason for resistance to research in this field. Scientists can and should guide policymakers by predicting the likely outcomes of various policy options. Social engineering, like mechanical engineering, should be based on sound science. However, scientists need to emphasize that factual statements do not imply an endorsement of specific value systems and political goals. As an example that should not be emulated is the way in which Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray linked their favorite libertarian political agenda with the results of intelligence research. Science tells us how the world works. It even tells us why people prefer certain beliefs and values to others, but it does not tell us what we ought to pursue in life.

See the whole presentation here:


  1. Sounds like a great talk!

  2. I read his presentation. Too bad I missed it, I probably would have had a few things to say.

  3. Individual differences follow immediately from evolution, and are a prerequisite for it; (1) without different alleles there could be no selection, and
    (2) if you believe that as man evolved from apes he became more genetically intelligent, then DNA coding for intelligence must exist. Mutations can happen anywhere so individual differences follow.

    Btw, Herrnstein claimed to be a political liberal, Murray was the libertarian.

    1. First point would have better been written as, for a phenotype as intelligence to evolve, there needs to be corresponding genetic variants coding for that trait.