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October 16, 2004

We Hold These Truths to Be Wishes

In a reflection upon the ten-year anniversary of The Bell Curve, John Derbyshire runs afoul of the principles of our nation, I'd say, when he writes:

We Americans are averse to inquiring too deeply into human abilities, for fear that what we might find would contradict the founding principles of our nation, principles we naturally hold dear. In that sense, the human sciences are in their very nature un-American. Science doesn't care what you wish. You may wish that the sky were a crystal dome, or the earth hollow, or the living species unchanging through all time; science calmly, patiently, and irrefutably tells you that none of these things is the case.

I suppose certain points could be raised as evidence on that argument's behalf, although they'd be recent and superficial for the most part. It's indisputable, for example, that a certain feelgoodism has swept the land, but as is evident in our capitalism, Americans tend to consider success — at whatever — to be its own proof of human abilities. Many Americans like to believe, as Derb suggests, that "anybody can be anything," but in its purer form, the declaration is results-driven, and never divorced from effort. Work hard enough, the promise goes, and (perhaps more importantly) find your own path to an end, and you can achieve success in reasonable proximity to an ideal.

Tiger Woodses are a special breed, to be sure, but making them the disproof of the anything that anybody can be takes a narrow view of what we mean by "anything." The American dogma — and yes, it involves idealism — requires that one find a strategy for playing golf that fits one's unique talents and expend enough effort in practice to allow that unique approach to become decisive. The odds improve greatly, obviously, the broader "anything" becomes, whether clubhouse champ is adequate or, taking a different tack, starting/funding/running/covering a professional golf tournament counts as having "made it" in golf.

The distinction is foundational. I reply to Derb that the fact that human beings are differently abled is in no way contradictory to "the founding principles of our nation." Note what those principles state:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights...

The equal endowment is the rights. We are self-evidently equal, even as we are self-evidently not equally capable of any given task. Human abilities — endowments of brain, brawn, or bucks — are not the measures of value or of importance. This is why, beyond his odd hint that America's self-evident truth is just a wish about which science doesn't care, the contradiction that Derb cites does not exist:

Personally I believe that the contradiction between core American ideals and the results now pouring in from the human and biological sciences is resolvable, and that a properly scientific approach to the human sciences, and a widespread popular understanding of them such as Herrnstein and Murray attempted to promote via their book, would strengthen and improve our society, not weaken it.

The "contradiction" is not "resolvable" in exactly the same sense that the "contradiction" between science and religion is not "resolvable." These problems are not resolvable because they are not problems. In the American vision, which has, admittedly, blurred in recent decades, human equality supercedes anything that science could possibly tell us, just as God incorporates material reality and is felt mostly in the Why that science cannot touch.

It is a shame that the American intelligentsia smeared Herrnstein and Murray's book before their message could sink into the national psyche to help form a strategy for addressing disparities that may arise in the future. But the basic truth of the matter is that, while science can help us to identify and solve problems, the conviction that they are, indeed, problems must come from elsewhere.

Science, therefore, is only "un-American" to the extent that it presumes to tell us what equality means, not in a narrow context, but as a measurement of value. The reason that The Bell Curve met with such a heated reception was that the book's opponents believed its yardstick to offer a measurement of just that, value, rather than simply of intelligence. To their everlasting credit, the authors took the different approach of beginning with the American principle that all men are created equal and then looking to their research for ways to avoid Americans' forgetting it.

Posted by Justin Katz at October 16, 2004 1:15 AM

There's an editorial in the latest Science Magazine that touches on this issue. I'll reproduce it below because it requires a subscription.

Neuroscience and Neuroethics
Donald Kennedy

Neuroethics, it appears, is a subject that has "arrived." The Dana Foundation is, for the second time since 2002, sponsoring a special lecture on this topic at this year's annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. AAAS, publisher of Science, also joined with Dana to produce a conference on "Neuroscience and the Law" earlier this year. The U.S. President's Council on Bioethics is now devoting serious attention to the topic. Companies are deploying functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map brain activity as they assess the product preferences of prospective consumers (Coke or Pepsi?). There's even a new discipline called neuroeconomics. So something is going on here.

What got it started, and where is it headed? I think it emerged as new techniques and insights into human brain function gave us a dramatically revised notion of what might be possible. The first microelectrode recordings in active, behaving, nonhuman primates made it possible to look seriously at how valuation, choice, and expectation are encoded by single cells in particular parts of the brain. It further evolved with the development of fMRI and other noninvasive techniques for tracing neural activity in people. These studies are beginning to explain how particular brain structures are involved in higher functions (making difficult moral choices, for example) or in predisposing the individual to a particular kind of behavior.

In a different area, the successes of psychopharmacology in altering brain states and behavior have raised new problems of their own, not least in terms of how we may feel about the chemical manipulation of innate capacities. The list is long and ever growing: antidepressants, methylphenidate (Ritalin) for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), compounds that enhance alertness, and a new wave of drugs that may enhance memory formation and heighten cognitive ability.

Some of the questions now being raised by our expanded neuroscientific capacity are not exactly new. Consider, for example, the old issue of treatment versus enhancement. A child deficient in growth hormone could benefit from replacement therapy, and few would object to that, but its use by an aspiring teenage basketball player of normal height would raise questions. Now to the nervous system: Children with ADHD are often given methylphenidate after a physician considers their need. High school and college students without benefit of evaluation are using the same drug in the hope of improving their exam performance. Aside from the health risks associated with such drugs, what is it that bothers us here?

Perhaps it is our belief that the playing field should be level--we worry about the students who can't access the drug. Well, what about the kids who can't afford a preparatory course for taking a standardized test? Don't they raise the same questions about distributive justice? And suppose that we make the playing field level: All kids get the drugs, and all the sprinters get the steroids. Risks aside, are we comfortable with competition run in this way? Will the winners examine their enhanced selves and wonder "Was that really me?"

The ability to peer into brain processes also intensifies old privacy questions. Suppose that fMRI records become individually diagnostic with respect to some behavioral anomaly or predictive of some future tendency. Surely we would worry if they were used in insurance or employment contexts or in criminal litigation. Privacy protection would be guaranteed if the record were obtained as part of a medical procedure, but of course there are other possible sources. In the future, brain imaging techniques could conceivably be employed in the context of a court procedure as a test of truth-telling or subpoenaed in a case involving violence.

Finally, special issues arise when we penetrate into the philosophical territory where dualists and determinists debate over free will. As we learn more about the neurobiology of choice and decision, will we reach a point at which we feel less free? Perhaps more important for society, will we eventually know enough to change our view about individual responsibility for antisocial acts? There are those who worry about this. I am not among them, only because it seems so unlikely to me that our knowledge of the brain will deepen enough to fuse it with the mind. So, remaining convinced that my will is free, I am left to worry about the privacy of my inclinations and my thoughts.

Posted by: Mike S. at October 18, 2004 11:44 AM