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Sam Harris wrong on race

 
SoylentGreen
 
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SoylentGreen
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27 May 2017 11:17
 

Sam’s discussion about race and IQ with political scientist Charles Murray was derailed from the start because their ideas and conclusions rested upon the proposition that seven billion people can be sensibly sorted into a handful of traditional biological race categories.

Fundamentalist race belief is propped up by a problem one sees with many irrational beliefs. Our minds routinely engage in selective hearing and twisted thinking to protect our beliefs and keep us feeling confident and comfortable. Harris, of all people, should be aware of this, given his many frustrating encounters with religious fundamentalists. Race fundamentalists hear things that are never said. When confronted with simple, straight-forward explanations of why popular biological race categories make no sense, all they hear is ‘Everyone looks the same. Everyone is equal in everything. We must pretend that race isn’t real in order to push utopian, progressive politics.’ Pointing out fatal problems with belief in biological races is not a denial of our real biological diversity, nor is it the stealth attack of some weird leftist agenda. Human biological diversity is real, traditional biological races are not.

Biological diversity is not our problem. The problem is that we continue to make up ways of describing this diversity that don’t make sense. We cage large groups of humans with arbitrary labels and then fool ourselves into believing that we know more about their talents and abilities than we do. This is a profound problem because it drives unnecessary social conflict and leads to the squandering of individual freedoms and potential.

Believing in races doesn’t make one a racist. Disagreeing with Harris about traditional races is not the same thing as calling him a racist. I have no reason to think he is one so please don’t take that from this commentary. These words are meant to be constructive. I suspect that Harris is smart enough and sufficiently open minded to be disabused of his belief in races quite easily. He only needs to consider things like the fact that these “undeniable” and “obvious” race labels keep changing across time and across cultures. They only seem, natural, fixed, and irrefutable because of early cultural indoctrination, constant social reinforcement, and historical myopia.

Here’s a simple mental exercise that Harris and other fundamentalist race believers may find useful: How many oceans are there? Those who paid attention in geography class will answer “five” (Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic, and Southern). But this is wrong, or at least misleading. “Five” is culture’s answer. Nature’s answer is “one”. Look at a globe or world map. There is a single, continuous body of salt water that flows around our world. Viewing a globe from the bottom shows it best. We are taught as children to believe in multiple oceans and spend the rest of our lives never questioning such an “obvious truth” when there is actually only one with variation. Anything sound familiar here?

Does Harris know that not so long ago light-skinned Poles, Italians, Greeks, and Irish immigrants did not qualify as members of the white race in America?
Does Harris know that there is no consistent biological race model in the world today? A person’s membership to a “biological” race can vary widely depending on where he or she is born, having little or nothing to do with the individual’s biology. Compared with the US, for example, Brazil has a very different and irreconcilable perspective on who is black and who is white. One’s race can change by simply flying to another country that has different race rules. How can that happen to a natural, biological classification system? Does Harris think there is some invisible force recalibrating genes and deep ancestry up at 35,000 feet?

Is Harris aware that America’s “one-drop” race rule in America is not universal? Traditionally, for Haitians, any observable hint of recent white ancestry makes one white, the exact opposite of America’s traditional any-hint-of-black-ancestry-makes-one-black model. Is Haiti doing it wrong, or is the US doing it wrong? If biological races are so clear and obvious—“straightforward biology”—as Harris said, then why are they always so flexible and inconsistent? It all seems suspiciously like a bunch of made up nonsense, don’t you think?

But can’t we all just see race? At one point in the podcast episode Harris suggested that anyone can easily see race in the mere physical appearance of people which proves the validity of the concept. One can generally predict where a person’s ancestors came from, he claimed, “by just simply looking at his face”. Not true. Give me the world’s population to work with, dress them in neutral clothing, and I could stump Harris all day long. Geographical location and social isolation can fool anyone into seeing humanity as a handful of caricatures.

It is typical for race believers to reach for the “police lineup” example when trying to defend their belief. They say: “Imagine a dark-skinned African, a light-skinned European, and some typical Chinese person standing side-by-side. How can you deny the races when you are looking right at them? You can see the differences. It’s obvious”. Of course we can see differences because we are not a species of clones. But this is an intentionally misleading presentation of humanity, one that distorts who we really are.

If I stood 6-foot, 8-inch basketball player Lebron James next to a four-foot, 10-inch professional horse jockey I’m confident that I could argue some people into believing that there are two distinct races of humans, the tall race and the short race. ‘How can you deny the races when you are looking right at them? It’s obvious.’ Those who fail to pause and think might be inclined to believe it. Imagine how easy it would be to convince young children of this two-race claim. But the presentation seems to work only because I omitted billions of people in between the NBA star and the jockey. That old cliché mental lineup for biological races seems to work for the same reason. It renders vast portions of the human population unseen and unaccounted for.

If one travels the world—outside of Hilton hotels and tour buses—it becomes apparent fast that our species is not so easily labeled and sorted as fundamentalist race believers would have us think. I know some dark-skinned Fijians, for example, who would be very difficult to pick out from among some dark-skinned Africans or Caribbean people—even though Fijians are about as far away genetically as one can be from those two populations.

I wonder what Harris makes of a telling study published in Nature in 2010. Researchers found that two southern African tribesmen who had lived their entire lives within walking distance of one another were less related to each other than any one of them was to a typical white European or Japanese person. Think about this for a moment. At least 99 percent of American race fundamentalists believe that anyone with dark skin who lives in Africa or has recent African ancestry belongs in the “black race”. The reality, however, is that Africa has never cooperated with this notion. The genetic diversity of its population makes a mockery of it.

What about “race diseases”? Race believers always bring this one up. Harris cited sickle cell disease as a race-specific disease that helps prove the existence of biological races. Wrong again. Sickle cell disease is an evolutionary adaptation to Plasmodium, the malaria parasite. This particular protozoa doesn’t believe in biological races either. It only seems to many Americans that sickle cell is a “black people’s disease” because of their limited perspective. Sickle cell is a problem that can impact people with ancestry connected to regions with high rates of malaria in the past. That’s it. Imagined races have nothing to do with it. For example, the trait is relatively common in central India and the Middle East. A small town in Greece, Orchomenos, has one of the highest rates of sickle cell anemia in the world, much higher than what we see in the African-American population. And the disease is virtually absent among black South Africans.

Harris also mentioned Tay-Sachs, a genetic disorder that strikes Ashkenazi Jews at a high rate. Does this mean Harris thinks Judaism is a biological race? I thought it was a religion. Cajuns and French Canadians have had problems with Tay-Sachs. Are they races, too?

At one point during their discussion, Murray presented a hypothetical example using Barack Obama as a member of the black or African-American biological race. Neither Murray nor Harris recognized the absurdity of this example. There they were, talking about genetic intelligence and biological races, and neither of them saw a problem with naming Barack Obama as a member of this particular biological race. Sure, he belongs to a cultural group called black or African-American. But he is the son of a mother who had recent European ancestry and an East African father. Most black Americans trace their recent ancestry to West Africa. This means that most African Americans are distantly related to East Africans, despite similar skin color.

Obama is more closely related, genetically/ancestrally, to a typical white American than he is to most black Americans. But Murray and Harris didn’t flinch at Obama inhabiting a biological race that is different from that of his own mother. Such is the cognitive fog that race belief brings. Race is supposed to be about kinship, blood, genetics, biology—“straightforward biology”—and yet one’s own birth mother can be in a different race?

Race is just another bad religion. Similar to many fundamentalist religions, race belief survives from generation to generation by relying on childhood indoctrination, emotional defense of the primary delusion, support from a few cognitive biases, a sprinkling of lies here and there, and key gaps in scientific knowledge. I hope Sam Harris will come to recognize this and use his influence to encourage a more realistic view of our species. It’s never too late to wake up. The reality of who we are is right there before us, obvious and apparent to anyone willing to see it: Human biological diversity is real; traditional biological races are not.


–Guy P. Harrison is the author of seven books that promote science and reason, including: Race and Reality, 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian, Think, and Good Thinking

 

 
Jan_CAN
 
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27 May 2017 11:29
 

Thank you for this informative post.

 
 
Celal
 
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27 May 2017 15:27
 

Soylentgreen, many good arguments.

I’ve always been fascinated by America’s interest in categorizing mix blacks like Obama as “black” and completely dismissing his mother side of the blood line. Especially the “one-drop” race rule in America is off the charts on the reason scale. I suspect Sam Harris might argue in support of the widely held Jewish belief, for a baby to be born as a Jew, the mother must be Jewish, yet he will go along with Obama to be black born to a white mother.  This mix race rule, particularly “one-drop” race rule in America strikes me as very condescending and patronizing.  It is almost as if buying clothing on a discount simply because there may be a tear or stain on the shirt. So, it is marked down.

I tend to think these contradictions stem from primarily conflating cultures with races. In addition, in politics, the ruling class need to identify and exploit the class of people that   is categorized by “race” or culture. How can you declare yourself as the champion of groups of people without the need to label them? 

I would like to hear your views on WHY we don’t see humans as “one” analogous to the oceans example you gave.

 
EN
 
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27 May 2017 17:51
 
Celal - 27 May 2017 03:27 PM

Especially the “one-drop” race rule in America is off the charts on the reason scale. I suspect Sam Harris might argue in support of the widely held Jewish belief, for a baby to be born as a Jew, the mother must be Jewish, yet he will go along with Obama to be black born to a white mother.  This mix race rule, particularly “one-drop” race rule in America strikes me as very condescending and patronizing.  It is almost as if buying clothing on a discount simply because there may be a tear or stain on the shirt. So, it is marked down.

Agree. The racial issues in America have a very deep historical root, especially as it pertains to blacks, and it’s going to take a while before it is eradicated. In my opinion, we evolved to immediately notice differences that signified “us” from “them”, because “them” might be a major threat. On the surface, there is no greater difference between “us” and “them” than in the white-black dichotomy.  The terms we use make it even worse (there is no “white” or “black” person in the world who is actually alive and not dead - it’s more like various shades of beige and brown).  This tribal instinct is difficult to overcome.  We look at outward appearances, and subliminally we categorize people according to these criteria.  You have to be aware of this to overcome it, and many people are not.

 
eucaryote
 
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27 May 2017 21:47
 
SoylentGreen - 27 May 2017 11:17 AM

Sam’s discussion about race and IQ with political scientist Charles Murray was derailed from the start because their ideas and conclusions rested upon the proposition that seven billion people can be sensibly sorted into a handful of traditional biological race categories.

Yes. You’re right about this and everything that followed except for the idea that Harris will acknowledge ANY shortcomings in his views. In his mind you’re thoughts represent a congruence with taboos over race.
What you way however is true and the most basic genetic level. It is true that genetics is responsible for some part of what we know as “intelligence” in any given species. However it is without evidence that these genetic properties are not otherwise evenly spread across the human genome without respect to skin color. Harris’s and Murray’s view’s are Victorian. See Erich Siegel Scientific American

 
 
Ola
 
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28 May 2017 02:40
 

This conversation probably maligns Sam Harris, and very possibly Charles Murray, because it was said -  emphatically - on the podcast that you cannot tell anything about an individual by knowing their skin colour, and that the variance in IQ is greater across any single “race” than between any “races”.

And neither of them argued for a “race” concept at all, in fact I think they agreed it was debatable.

You can catch all this through listening to the first five or ten minutes of the “Forbidden Knowledge” podcast.

So are you sure you even know what Sam thinks?

 
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28 May 2017 08:33
 
Ola - 28 May 2017 02:40 AM

This conversation probably maligns Sam Harris, and very possibly Charles Murray, because it was said -  emphatically - on the podcast that you cannot tell anything about an individual by knowing their skin colour, and that the variance in IQ is greater across any single “race” than between any “races”.

And neither of them argued for a “race” concept at all, in fact I think they agreed it was debatable.

You can catch all this through listening to the first five or ten minutes of the “Forbidden Knowledge” podcast.

So are you sure you even know what Sam thinks?

Yeah, I agree.  I believe Sam mentioned that it’s just what people have self-identified with so that’s what was used. While he will argue that there are degrees of genetic differences across different populations, I don’t feel Sam would argue too much against the idea that the classical definition of race is antiquated and probably doesn’t deserve to be part of the collective lexicon.

Or maybe I’m projecting since I like Sam and believe him to be a reasonable fellow.

 
eucaryote
 
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28 May 2017 11:36
 
Ola - 28 May 2017 02:40 AM

This conversation probably maligns Sam Harris, and very possibly Charles Murray, because it was said -  emphatically - on the podcast that you cannot tell anything about an individual by knowing their skin colour, and that the variance in IQ is greater across any single “race” than between any “races”.

And neither of them argued for a “race” concept at all, in fact I think they agreed it was debatable.

You can catch all this through listening to the first five or ten minutes of the “Forbidden Knowledge” podcast.

So are you sure you even know what Sam thinks?

And yet they continued to talk about racial differences in IQ. Harris is known for inoculating his more odious conversations with verbal noise designed to obscure the conclusions he draws to his critics. For example, he and Murray did talk about the Flynn effect but completely failed to recognize how that falsified their arguments. Harris and Murray seem to be soul mates in that sense. Harris spent the first half hour of the podcast identifying with Murray and talking about how unfairly persecuted Murray has been. Several time Harris mentioned that he had decided that Murray must be right in his beliefs solely based on the criticism Murray had received from others. At no time did either of them acknowledge the arguments of their critics insisting that any criticism they received was a matter of them bravely breaking a taboo that others cannot. This is Harris’s go-to argument whenever he encounters opposition to the notions that he pre conceives without doing any investigation into broader views. Harris’s condescending view is that while he has “woken up”, everyone is asleep and blindly follows taboos.
In his conversation with an actual geneticist, Mukherjee, he started out asking him a question, and then spent 5 minutes interrupting him and telling him he was wrong. In that discussion, Harris was so defensive and stuck on his own views that he completely failed to acknowledge or even pretend understand what he was being told. It is typical of Harris to stake out a contrary position simply because it’s contrary to some more established norm without bothering to investigate or understand why that may be so.
Eric Siegel Scientific American

 
 
Ola
 
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28 May 2017 11:42
 

That characterisation doesn’t ring true to me.

“Harris is known for inoculating his more odious conversations with verbal noise designed to obscure the conclusions he draws to his critics.”

Yeah no yeah wtf! No he isn’t. 

He’s not perfect. But he’s a very clear speaker. Verbal noise? Forget it. Rubbish.

 
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28 May 2017 12:06
 
Ola - 28 May 2017 11:42 AM

That characterisation doesn’t ring true to me.

“Harris is known for inoculating his more odious conversations with verbal noise designed to obscure the conclusions he draws to his critics.”

Yeah no yeah wtf! No he isn’t. 

He’s not perfect. But he’s a very clear speaker. Verbal noise? Forget it. Rubbish.

It’s ok Ola, I know that criticism of Harris is taboo. The views of others, no matter how qualified, represent “forbidden knowledge”.
If you listen to Harris’s and Murray’s discussion of the “Flynn effect” you’ll see that they discuss it briefly without bothering to address why it’s important and falsify’s their thesis. This verbal noise is exactly what Harris referred to when he was criticized for missing the point. Sorry, but it’s true. Harris doesn’t really tolerate critical thinking well.

From Eric Siegel

This isn’t the “PC police” talking. Although prejudice breaks taboos, stomps on eggshells, and hurts people’s feelings with unfairness, that’s just the beginning. Its full damage reaches much more dire extremes. Personhood and individuality are sacred. Judging by way of category is the epitome of dehumanizing. It curtails the individual’s opportunities and livelihood, and contributes to what is often a self-fulfilling, systematic cycle of disadvantage for an entire group. It also curtails the prejudger’s potential to wholly evaluate a person as an individual by his or her prior behavior, choices, and character. This is why the term “civil rights” has a nice ring to it and “bigotry” does not.

[ Edited: 28 May 2017 12:11 by eucaryote]
 
 
Ola
 
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28 May 2017 14:05
 
eucaryote - 28 May 2017 12:06 PM
Ola - 28 May 2017 11:42 AM

That characterisation doesn’t ring true to me.

“Harris is known for inoculating his more odious conversations with verbal noise designed to obscure the conclusions he draws to his critics.”

Yeah no yeah wtf! No he isn’t. 

He’s not perfect. But he’s a very clear speaker. Verbal noise? Forget it. Rubbish.

It’s ok Ola, I know that criticism of Harris is taboo. The views of others, no matter how qualified, represent “forbidden knowledge”.

Don’t kid yourself. There’s no taboo about criticism of Harris. If anything, there’s a leaning on this forum towards nonchalance and dismissal and “Sam who now?” I dunno if it’s a cool kids gang or what, but taboo? Do not make me laugh.

Claims that Sam says x on a podcast or in a book are merely a simple matter of record. Misunderstanding is allowed. It happens. Mishearing or misreading, likewise. Misrepresenting what he may or may not have said is not a case of telling truth to power, now, is it? It’s just poor etiquette. (Which I suppose is a taboo in its own way).

 

If you listen to Harris’s and Murray’s discussion of the “Flynn effect” you’ll see that they discuss it briefly without bothering to address why it’s important and falsify’s their thesis.

Ok, let’s all listen together. It lasts about five minutes from the point it’s going to start playing…

https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=Y1lEPQYQk8s&t=1h1m45s

This verbal noise

...nope. Its quite detailed - Murray coined the term originally, Murray explains what the effect measures, Sam asks a couple of questions, including quoting Flynn, Murray quotes a study (and even spells out the name of the researcher so you can look it up) that indicates the Flynn effect doesn’t negate the racial difference in mean IQ, Murray points out that the Flynn effect shows up just how much more there is to learn about the field. It’s not meaningless noise.
“Put on your listening ears” ~ Judge Judy.

... is exactly what Harris referred to when he was criticized for missing the point. Sorry, but it’s true. Harris doesn’t really tolerate critical thinking well.

Now that’s what I call verbal noise.

 

I don’t know why you left the Eric quote there. Sorry, you’ll have to explain - my guess might be wrong. Thanks.

 
Abel Dean
 
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25 December 2018 17:13
 

I have often heard the line of thought that, “Races don’t exist because you can’t divide the human species into discrete non-overlapping boxes.” The problem seems to be that almost nobody actually believes that about human races, including the proponents of racial theory, and they never did believe it, not even historically. It is a strawman argument. The people who believe in races very much tend to believe that races are spectral. Johann Blumenbach of the 18th to 19th centuries is credited as the grandfather of scientific racial theory, and he, too, explicitly believed that races are spectral. Charles Darwin, who wrote a book about human evolution, made the continuity of human races absolutely necessary, with his general theory of evolution. I challenge anyone who believes that “traditional” human races are claimed to be discrete boxes to provide such a quote from a prominent author who accepts the existence of human races.

So, if races exist as continual, would that destroy any related racist claims? Not as far as I can gather. Genotypic intelligence differences or any other kind of difference can exist between spectral groups just as easily as discrete groups. Spectral groups can and do still have objective differences. To claim otherwise would be a logical fallacy with a name: the continuum fallacy. Would we claim no objective difference between the color red and the color yellow due to the existence of orange? Unfortunately, the continuum fallacy is almost everywhere within talks about human races. The fallacious argument is elevated by the highest scientific authorities, which I think is scandalous. It is implicitly expressed in the American Anthropological Association’s Statement on Race: “Physical variations in any given trait tend to occur gradually rather than abruptly over geographic areas.”

That does not mean we must convert to an Alt Right ideology, but I think the racial hereditarian camp of the science of human intelligence (of which Charles Murray is only a middling advocate) stands firmly on the matter of biological human races, grounded in evolutionary theory, not so easily struck down by that common retort. It is scandalously common among academics outside that narrow field, seemingly due to explicit political ideology. American anthropologists frequently misquote Ruth Benedict with, “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.” Shouldn’t the purpose of anthropology be to find the probable truths about the human species, or something like that?

 
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25 December 2018 17:43
 
Abel Dean - 25 December 2018 05:13 PM

I have often heard the line of thought that, “Races don’t exist because you can’t divide the human species into discrete non-overlapping boxes.” The problem seems to be that almost nobody actually believes that about human races, including the proponents of racial theory, and they never did believe it, not even historically. It is a strawman argument. The people who believe in races very much tend to believe that races are spectral. Johann Blumenbach of the 18th to 19th centuries is credited as the grandfather of scientific racial theory, and he, too, explicitly believed that races are spectral. Charles Darwin, who wrote a book about human evolution, made the continuity of human races absolutely necessary, with his general theory of evolution. I challenge anyone who believes that “traditional” human races are claimed to be discrete boxes to provide such a quote from a prominent author who accepts the existence of human races.

So, if races exist as continual, would that destroy any related racist claims? Not as far as I can gather. Genotypic intelligence differences or any other kind of difference can exist between spectral groups just as easily as discrete groups. Spectral groups can and do still have objective differences. To claim otherwise would be a logical fallacy with a name: the continuum fallacy. Would we claim no objective difference between the color red and the color yellow due to the existence of orange? Unfortunately, the continuum fallacy is almost everywhere within talks about human races. The fallacious argument is elevated by the highest scientific authorities, which I think is scandalous. It is implicitly expressed in the American Anthropological Association’s Statement on Race: “Physical variations in any given trait tend to occur gradually rather than abruptly over geographic areas.”

That does not mean we must convert to an Alt Right ideology, but I think the racial hereditarian camp of the science of human intelligence (of which Charles Murray is only a middling advocate) stands firmly on the matter of biological human races, grounded in evolutionary theory, not so easily struck down by that common retort. It is scandalously common among academics outside that narrow field, seemingly due to explicit political ideology. American anthropologists frequently misquote Ruth Benedict with, “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.” Shouldn’t the purpose of anthropology be to find the probable truths about the human species, or something like that?

Nonverbal, of the late-20th-to-early-21st centuries wonders how it is that you’re concerned about this issue, Abel. Do you have any recommendations about steps that need to be taken to end this—apparently to you—problem?

 
 
Abel Dean
 
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25 December 2018 17:57
 

Do you believe that such matters can be important only for racists? If so, then I will be happy to explain why the objective truths about the human species, whatever those truths may be, should be important for thinkers of every moral/ideological/political orientation. If not, then I will simply answer your question as follows: the effects of political ideology need to be pointed out and shamed within the halls of science, perhaps starting with that Ruth Benedict misquote, much like young-Earth creationism is shamed within the academic halls of biology and geology.

 
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25 December 2018 18:03
 
Abel Dean - 25 December 2018 05:57 PM

Do you believe that such matters can be important only for racists? If so, then I will be happy to explain why the objective truths about the human species, whatever those truths may be, should be important for thinkers of every moral/ideological/political orientation. If not, then I will simply answer your question as follows: the effects of political ideology need to be pointed out and shamed within the halls of science, perhaps starting with that Ruth Benedict misquote, much like young-Earth creationism is shamed within the academic halls of biology and geology.

You haven’t addressed my question. But that’s okay. It’s Christmas.0 today.

 
 
Abel Dean
 
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25 December 2018 18:06
 
nonverbal - 25 December 2018 06:03 PM
Abel Dean - 25 December 2018 05:57 PM

Do you believe that such matters can be important only for racists? If so, then I will be happy to explain why the objective truths about the human species, whatever those truths may be, should be important for thinkers of every moral/ideological/political orientation. If not, then I will simply answer your question as follows: the effects of political ideology need to be pointed out and shamed within the halls of science, perhaps starting with that Ruth Benedict misquote, much like young-Earth creationism is shamed within the academic halls of biology and geology.

You haven’t addressed my question. But that’s okay. It’s Christmas.0 today.

I sincerely thought I answered your question directly. You asked for steps, and to be fair I suggested only one step. Would you like me to provide more than one step? I expect that the one step I suggested is enough.

 
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