John Horgan believes that research on race and IQ should be banned, and that having university IRBs veto such research would be a reasonable way of doing so. There are problems with this idea. Not just that freedom of enquiry is a thing of value, and that John, if given the chance, would exchange his soul for a pile of dung – and be right to do so. No, enforcement of this policy entails technical difficulties. For one thing, essentially all IRBs already try to ban such research, but they don’t do a very good job, because they don’t know enough about the subject. Probably nobody does. For example, not so long ago people felt free to speculate that modern humans might have picked a few useful alleles from Neanderthals – including ones that increased intelligence. That was before it was found that there is substantial Neanderthal admixture only in non-Africans. In much the same way, it was ok to talk about male-driven mutation that increases with paternal age, but if you couple that with the actual populations that have high average paternal age, the topic becomes sensitive. Sometimes the clues aren’t there yet, sometimes no-one has put them together – but ignorance is a minefield, not least because of the nasty way in which one thing leads to another. You start out trying to breed a pig with more bacon and before you know it you’re arguing that medieval evolution made the Jews smarter.
I can see two possible ways of addressing the problem. One is to end all science. Horgan might like that: he thinks that there isn’t much more to find out anyhow. The other solution is to find out exactly what it is that we don’t want anyone to know: find the true causes of ethnic differences in cognition and personality. Find the exact number and position of the mines in the minefield, all the Bouncing Bettys and Claymores, so that we can tell people exactly what topics to avoid or ignore. The current system is particularly unfair to immigrant scholars who have been raised on a different brand of nonsense (for example, thinking that the Tibetans are resistant to hypoxia = racism) and aren’t familiar with our Index. We don’t have to worry about the minefield being empty: people like Horgan know damn well what they expect research to find – if they thought there was nothing there, they wouldn’t worry about it.
Of course, once you had the complete story, there are only a few billion obvious ways in which the information could leak out. But that’s the subject for another post!