The exception proves the rule, right?

A black scientist writes about James Watson, and it’s insightful. C. Brandon Ogbunu is a computational biologist, so he understands both DNA and statistics, and is in a good position to recognize abuses of both.

Black exceptionalism is a popular and complicated idea. It asserts that a monolithic “average” black identity exists, and that by transcending this average, one is exceptional. While the idea isn’t welded to black achievement, it is related. Successful members of the black community who somehow avoided the regression to the (black) mean are presented as paragons, exceptional ones of their kind. There are backhanded compliments, and then there is black exceptionalism—a racist idea lightly dressed in a pat-on-the-back.

Some of us, in a naïve or perfunctory manner, wear black exceptionalism as a badge of honor, even under the guise of progress: “I will show them what we are capable of.” Good intentions be damned, because to adopt this stance is to walk directly into a pernicious trap. The most effective racist ideas rarely deny the existence of exceptional members of the out-group to which undesirable features are attributed.

On the contrary, the most destructive ideas embrace high-performing members for statistical cover. In order to argue that the mean performance of an out-group is lower for a desirable trait, there should be some high performers. High-performing black people are essential for racism like James Watson’s, and even he might predict a statistical and genetic exceptional negro, because they can’t all be incompetent.

The problem with this argument isn’t only that it avoids critical discussions about the possible sources of group differences, but also that it uses the notion of the exceptional individual to justify racist ideas towards others in the out-group. In general, armchair appeals to statistics often conceal negative feelings that people already have, attitudes forged in the fires of fear and bias, not science.

I’ve seen that routine so often. “I know a Negro with a Ph.D. — in science — therefore I’m not racist.” “I admit that Jews are often academically gifted, therefore I don’t have a bias against them, I just know they’re evil.” “If my statistics don’t convince you that black people are less intelligent, how come they also show that Asians are better at math than white people?” It’s the contrast that is supposed to convince us that they are objectively evaluating real data.

“Intelligence” is an undefinable and complex parameter that changes depending on how you measure it. The only reasonable response to claims that one has characterized the “intelligence” of a large group of people and has some sweeping interpretations is to realize that they are simply expressing their unfounded biases in a pseudoscientific tone, and dismiss them.


  1. jack16 says

    Intelligence. “We don’t know what it is but we’re getting better and better at measuring it.” (David Owen, “None of the Above”)


  2. stroppy says

    Also the “credit to his race” gambit in the Horatio Alger, Up by the Bootstraps game, i.e., the “poor people are poor because, for whatever reason, they’re lazy and immoral” thing.

    Every person is an island, if that is to be believed.

  3. zoniedude says

    We know from copious research that lead poisoning reduces I.Q. We also know that policies that resulted in housing discrimination and other concentrations of African-Americans in lead-laced inter-city neighborhoods ipso facto resulted in the widespread lead poisoning of the black population while white flight to the suburbs left white I.Q. unaffected. Lead gasoline produced high aerosol lead in high traffic areas such as inner-cities, settled into the soil, and combined with deteriorating lead-based paint to introduce lead into the bodies and brains of children who lived there. The well-known symptoms of lead poisoning are aggression, violence, inability to learn, and other behavioral consequences that people can see and attribute to poisoned people being black rather than being poisoned. Many racists know from their own experience that blacks have lower I.Q.s and are prone to violence, but are told that this is racism rather than empiricism. Meanwhile, very little is done to reduce lead poisoning or to provide compensatory education. We as a society deliberately poisoned black Americans with a poison that reduces I.Q. and increases violence. Quit ignoring what everyone who has read the medical research literature already knows.

  4. unclefrogy says

    “Intelligence” is an undefinable and complex parameter that changes depending on how you measure it. The only reasonable response to claims that one has characterized the “intelligence” of a large group of people and has some sweeping interpretations is to realize that they are simply expressing their unfounded biases in a pseudoscientific tone, and dismiss them.

    that sums it up in the most succinct way.
    until we can figure out what intelligence really is all of the measurements will be nothing more than how well the subject performed on the specific tasks on the tests that they are being judged on which will be influenced by familiarity with some aspects of the tests.
    the understanding of intelligence also has a great deal to contribute to any AI we think we can produce and how we make the attempt to produce one.
    I get the feeling that many who use such measurements to evaluate peoples are conflating intelligence and consciousness to some degree or other. Another ill-defined term.
    uncle frogy

  5. says

    Zoniedude, racists like Watson are applying their, ahem, arguments to black people in general. Vague, pollution-based apologetics about urban/suburban populations do nothing to rehabilitate the scientific racist position, and everything to make you look like a troll.

  6. longdog says

    I thought “intelligence” was known to be a relatively objective thing, insofar as mental proficiency in one area is correlated with mental proficiency in others, and such ability is known to have some genetic correlation? That was the position of that Vox article summarizing scientists’ objections to the Bell Curve book, right?

  7. KG says

    Many racists know from their own experience that blacks have lower I.Q.s and are prone to violence – zoniedude@3

    Er… how exactly do they know this “from their own experience”?

    Nothing in what PZ says contradicts what you are saying, except perhaps your vague claim that “intelligence” is “a relatively objective thing”. “Intelligence” is a natural language term, and like many such terms, its meaning changes with context. It’s not the sort of objectively measureable quantity that can have (or not have) “some genetic correlation”. It should not be conflated with “IQ”, the score someone gets on a test of performance on a limited range of puzzles, as the “scientific racists” love to do in their opening move. IQ is a relatively reliable measure at an individual level (when a person is re-tested, their score tends to be similar, although even this has its limits – you can raise your IQ by practicing on the types of puzzle involved), but its validity – how far it measures what it is supposed to measure – remains questionable, although it does correlate to some degree with performance at university, for example. IQ tests can be useful in identifying specific cognitive deficits, where the pattern of scores on different types of puzzle is what is looked for (this was the purpose for which Binet designed the original tests), and they can sometimes identify individuals who are severely underperforming at school. What they emphatically cannot do is what the “scientific racists” want them to do: tell you about innate differences in the intelligence of population groups. The Flynn effectalone is sufficient to show this. IQ tests have had to be repeatedly recalibrated over time (so that the mean score of those tested is 100); tested using today’s tests and scoring protocols, a large proportion of the population of industrialised societies a century ago would have scores that today would be taken to indicate learning difficulties severe enough to make the capacity for independent living questionable.

  8. manytimesover says

    Turns out there’s at least one instance of research that’s really useful using IQ – as an index demonstrating something about a group.

    I know it’s a TED talk, siiigh, (from the guy who threw a rock in the water at Davos), but I’ve not done any follow-up for the papers nor those that have followed. Basically, poverty has a substantial negative impact on the IQ tested performance. of. a. group. The effect literally disappears weeks later when the farmers receive their single annual payment, more than half their annual income, for their crop. (Sugarcane in India in this instance.)

  9. Kagehi says

    Sigh.. Until/unless zoniedude really proved troll, I plan to give him the benefit of the doubt. I myself have a bad habit of posting my view of data/research which is being ignored by the subject of a post in such a manner that it may appear as though I am talking to the people in the thread, or the author, when I am indirectly addressing only the failings of the person/people being discussed. Had he started not by diving, head first, into a description of research on the matter, but had said something to the effect that, “people like Watson are almost always absurdly selective about what evidence or facts they bother to learn, in support of their view point, case in point the evidence of lead poisoning in black neighborhoods…”, and he had also made it clear that ignorance of this, or intentional disregard of it, is key to people like Watson being able to claim that these behaviors are racial and genetic, instead of environmental, I really seriously hope no one would have jumped all over him as a troll.

    And, yeah, he didn’t, and that is a problem, but.. as I said, I have, myself, sometimes had a habit of jumping straight into data, or research, etc. without making clear who I am referencing, or talking to, or about. I.. wrongly presume that people in the discussion will automatically recognize that I am addressing the people who have a particular failing, and that its an example of one of those failings, not attacking someone in thread, or trying to derail the conversation, or posting things that are somehow, in some people’s minds, irrelevant.

    However, as I suggested with my suggestion of how he “should have” led into it. I do think that Watson and other racists **flat out ignoring* well researched evidence of why the very things they are ascribing to the whole race of people as genetic are actually caused by other factors is why they likely hold such views. After all, they its quite likely that they see all the “unexceptional” evidence coming out of big cities, and neighborhoods where the very things they are blatantly ignoring also originate.

  10. says

    Especially after the state of the ounion BS yesterday evening…

    I wish people would stop misusing and misunderstanding this aphorism. At the time “the exception proves the rule” became common, to “prove” something was not to demonstrate it definitively, but to test it. And it’s not all that long ago — if you’ve got a strong stomach you can delve into the “literature” of homeopathy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and see this use of “prove” repeatedly. You can also find it in a lot of nineteenth-century speeches in Parliament, although it seems to die out in the 1870s.

    Thus, the phrase really means “exceptions test whether a general rule applies to the domain that includes the exception.” Which, of course, is exactly correct… but is not how the aphorism is usually (mis)used.

  11. John Morales says

    Jaws, you’re overthinking it.

    You see a sign reading “No parking between 7am-9am Monday-Friday”, you know parking is permitted outside those times.

    Simple as that.

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