What is a “Scientific” category?

Dalton Conley Speaks Out on Race in an interview at Nautilus (which I saw via 3QD). He says a lot that is sensible but his denial that “race” can be a “scientific category” is based more on wishful thinking than on reason. Most scientists think of science as “whatever works” and so would entertain any category that can be used to make consistently better than chance predictions as “scientific”. And even the crudest out-dated concepts of “race” do have some predictive power. Much of what was claimed as such was probably false but some is undoubtedly real.

Conley’s reference to “the chopstick problem” is a case in point.

If I desperately needed to quickly find ten people who were highly dextrous with chopsticks, and whom I was prepared to reward highly for that, and had a room of a thousand eager applicants to consider, then it might make sense to test just those with epithelial folds in their eyelids and ignore the rest. Yes, I might miss the best one in the room, but depending on the skill level needed and the urgency of that need speed might be more important than optimization. Many employers, educators and law enforcers *think* they are in an analogous situation. Often they are wrong but sometimes they may be right. The question of how to either avoid or somehow compensate for such unfair exclusions is not resolved by declaring that there is no “scientific” connection between epithelial folds and chopstick skill.

It may be morally wrong to make use of (or even talk about) some of these things, but that moral position is not advanced by misidentifying moral error as scientific error. Indeed such misidentification both undermines public scientific literacy and discredits the moral position that it was intended to advance.

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