Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Abusing Heritability: “Libertarian Realist” Edition (Part II)

Libertarian Realist and misuse of heritabilityh

In online exchanges with proponents of pseudoscience, they often tend to derail the conversation by bringing up a large number of peripheral objections not related to the main issues. The reason behind this particular technique is a bit unclear. It could be a method used to hide the fact that substantive arguments are missing or maybe is an act of desperately finding something to object in order to attempt to cast a shadow of doubt over the arguments pertaining to the central issues. Typically, the assertions deployed by proponents of pseudoscience are merely regurgitated and counterarguments are rarely addressed. At this point, further response from scientific skeptics are by no means productive as there are far more deployed distractions than substantive arguments. On the other hand, if you do not respond right away, some may view it like you conceded the argument.

Recently, one of the most active race realists on Youtube (called Libertarian Realist) tweeted me a link to one of his videos. We had a short exchange on Twitter and I wrote a post that exposed his misunderstandings of heritability. First, by the use of deceptive wording, he made it appear as if heritability (the proportion of phenotypic variation in a population and environment that can be attributed to genetic variation) was related to the degree to which genes mattered for a given phenotype. Second, he gave the appearance that heritability estimates were informative about between-group differences (they are not). Finally, he did not seem to understand that heritability estimates depend on the population being studied and what environment they are being studied in. Because a singular, context-free estimate for a given population (especially for composite population) is misleading, this effectively undermined his excessive focus on a particular heritability estimate.

After some time, Libertarian Realist made a video response to my criticisms. However, his response largely lacked substantive content, put an excessive focus on a large number of peripheral objections unrelated to the main issues and he declined to engage with any of my six evidence-based challenges to race realism. This post will examine his response in detail. It is split up into two major sections.

Substantive issues

This first section deals with responses made by Libertarian Realist to the substantive issues I raised in my previous post. This includes topics such as the population and environment dependence of heritability estimates, the non-relevance of with-in group heritability estimates for the causes of between-group differences and the scientific case against race realism.

The bait-and-switch / false dichotomy / straw man combo: Libertarian Realist states that his position is that “genetic differences between Africans and Europeans in the United States account for a significant proportion of the observed differences in IQ distributions between the two groups”. However, he then uses a bait-and-switch tactic when he rhetorically asks viewers “So what is the alternative to the thesis that genetic differences between African-Americans and European-Americans account for a proportion of the observed IQ differences between the two ethnic groups?” Notice how Libertarian Realist has now switched between “significant proportion” and “a proportion”. Although he does not state what he considers this “significant proportion” to be, I suspect that his estimate is more than 0.5 and probably anchored around the within-group heritability estimate for IQ that he holds to (~0.75). Clearly, there are other options besides “significant” (i.e. considerable) and none. For instance, “moderate”, “minor” or “unknown”. Libertarian Realist continues with “the alternative would be that genetic differences play zero role”. In other words, Libertarian Realist tries to portray those who disagree with his position as proponents of an extreme environmental hypothesis.

Indeed, this kind of flawed approach is also taken by people in the comment section of the video.

Youtube comment by White Man

Another case of black-and-white thinking. They apparently reason that either any observed differences is mostly due to genetics, or you have to believe in the blank slate. This is a clear example of false dichotomy.

Libertarian Realist spent several more minutes attacking this straw man. Apparently, he did not read my post closely enough as I pointed out that the main genetic differences (caused by recent positive selection) between populations has to do with immune system variation and skin pigmentation (not intelligence), thereby showing that I do not subscribe to the blank slate.

Heritable versus heritability: one of my three major objections that I deployed in my previous post was that Libertarian Realist phrased his argument in a misleading and deceptive way. I am sure that some researchers have used “X% heritable” instead of heritability of X” and I am equally sure that most researchers can mentally reinterpret it to the correct formulation, this is not necessarily the case for online discussions. Let me illustrate with two examples. In his book The Extended Phenotype, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins uses the phrase “a gene for X”. Now, Dawkins knows that there is no 1:1 relationship between one gene and one phenotypic trait. He also knows that genes do not wholly determine phenotypic traits. What he means by the phrase is something like “if gene Y exist, then phenotype X is more probably to arise if all other factors are constant”. However, in the absence of this explanation, the phrase “a gene for X” is deeply misleading (because other genes, interactions between genes, epigenetics and environment are all important). My second example involves the word “random” in the context of evolution. In one sense, evolution is decisively not random: some organisms are better adapted to their environment and because of this, they will have more offspring. However, some people (mostly intelligent design creationists) use the term “random” to mean something like “undirected”, “unguided” or “spontaneous”. When they claim that “evolution is random”, it is highly misleading if they do not clarify what definition of random they are using. In the case of Libertarian Realist, the usage of “X% heritable” implies that heritability is about the degree to which genes cause a given phenotype. Because heritability is a population-level concept, this is a misleading description. This is not an issue of semantics. It is an issue of misleading wording (regardless if it is sometimes used by researchers in the field). The fact that you can find certain contexts in which “evolution is random” or “a gene for X” are technically correct does not change the fact that there are many contexts in which they are misleading. As far as I am concerned, this objection has not been refuted.

The dependence of heritability on population and environment: In my previous post, I pointed out that a single, context-free heritability estimate is misleading because heritability estimates depend on the population being studies and the environment in which it exists. Libertarian Realist retorts that he simply did not go into sufficient detail in his video about the definition of heritability, but that he had done so in other videos. He did not do it in his video about Race and IQ denial and he does not state which video he explained this in. At any rate, this is irrelevant. What matters is that his repeated reference to a single, context-free heritability estimate is undermined by the fact that heritability estimates varies depending on the population and environment. Earlier in the video, Libertarian Realist claimed that this was not an issue since all populations in the U. S. is represented in all environments. However, as he himself admitted, they are not represented equally as there are considerable socio-economic differences. It seems that Libertarian Realist has conceded this objection as he appear to accept that heritability estimates differ depending on population and environment.

Heritability is not informative about between-group differences: the heritability of a trait is the proportion of the phenotypic variation in that trait that can be explained by the genetic variation in that population/environment. This, however, says nothing about the causes of differences between populations. Within-group heritability and causes of between-group differences are two completely different things. The classic example is were two populations of plants have a within-group heritability of stem length is 1, yet the differences in stem length between these populations are entirely due to differences in sunlight (i.e. environment). Libertarian Realist labels this objection as “sophistry” and calls this general example a “theoretical model”. The example above is of course an extreme picked for illustrative purposes, but it goes to show that the two concepts are completely different. You can pick whatever heritability value if you like, but the fact remains: within-group heritability says nothing about the causes of between-group differences.

I think Libertarian Realist does realize this, but his wishful thinking and ideological commitment clouds his vision. In fact, he tries to defend against my objection by deploying a weasel word: “So while it is true that heritability estimates are not conclusive about the causes of between-group differences, they are informative if you bring in the context of environmental similarities”. So Libertarian Realist has now backed away from the level of certainty he displayed previously and lessened his claim to merely “informative”. Interesting move.

Had Libertarian Realist bothered to pursue the reference I listed, such as the review by Visscher et al. (2008) published in Nature Reviews Genetics, he would have read the following:

Box 2 | Misconceptions regarding heritability

“Heritability is informative about the nature of between-group differences”

This misconception comes in two forms, and in both cases height and IQ in human populations are good examples. The first misconception is that when the heritability is high, groups that differ greatly in the mean of the trait in question must do so because of genetic differences. The second misconception is that the observation of a shift in the mean of a character over time (when we can discount changes in gene frequencies) for a trait with high heritability is a paradox. For IQ, a large increase in the mean has been observed in numerous populations, and this phenomenon is called the Flynn effect, after its discoverer. The problem with this suggested paradox is that heritability should not be used to make predictions about mean changes in the population over time or about differences between groups, because in each individual calculation the heritability is defined for a particular population and says nothing about environments in other populations. White males born in the United States were the tallest in the world in the mid-19th century and about 9 cm taller than Dutch males. At the end of the 20th century, although the height of males in the United States had increased, many European countries had overtaken them and Dutch males are now approximately 5 cm taller than white US males, a trend that is likely to be environmental rather than genetic in origin.

So are within-group heritability estimate informative about the causes of between-group differences? In one corner stands published scientific research. In the other, the say-so of Libertarian Realist. I will side with science, not with race realists on Youtube.

The three challenges to race realists were not met: at the end of my previous post, I made three additional challenges (with references to the scientific literature) to race realists: (1) >90% of genetic variation is accounted for by within-group differences and so “races” are not a good description of human biodiversity, (2) clustering in PCA (interpreted by race realists as traditional racial categories) is an artifact of low sampling density and human diversity is better depicted by a cline than racial groups, and (3) observed genetic differences between populations as a result of recent positive selection (e. g. skin pigmentation, immune system variation) does not match race realists beliefs about genetic differences in IQ or athletic ability.

Libertarian Realist decided to avoid engaging with these points more specifically and instead dismiss them as “standard race denial tactic of category protestation”. His justification appeals to the fact that you can divide people into whatever groups you wants and still make between-group comparisons. This suggests that he acknowledges that his concept of race is arbitrary, but he keeps referring to me as a “race denier” (making his rationalization somewhat contradictory). He also misrepresents the study by Serre and Pääbo (2004). Their argument was not that races are really different discrete clines. Instead, they argues that the pattern of human biodiversity is better represented by a single cline (with the exception of human populations that have been isolated for thousands of years) and not racial groups. It seems that Libertarian Realist did not bother to read the paper I referenced, but still seem to think that he had a viable opinion about it.

His response to the observed fact that >90% of human genetic variation is accounted for by within-group variation is the following:

The fact is, whether 90% of genetic variation is accounted for by within-group differences or whether 99.9% of genetic variation is accounted for by within-group differences, the reality is that people who are called black tend to have black skin. That black skin was an adaptation to a specific environment, namely sub-Saharan Africa and black skin covaried with a whole bunch of other traits, including hair texture, nose width, even cranial capacity. Whether whites are called different races, different clines, different populations or different social constructs is irrelevant to heritability estimates.

In other words, to Libertarian Realist, the facts of human genetic variation is irrelevant for his belief in traditional racial categories. No matter what proportion of human genetic variation is explained by within-group variation, he will continue to believe in the alleged scientific validity of race. After all, he says, skin color correlate with hair texture, so traditional racial categories has to be real in his mind.

In the end, evidence does not matter to Libertarian Realist.

Peripheral issues

This second part covers peripheral issues raised by Libertarian Realist, such as the meaning of the word “ravings”, if having a sidebar quote from a person qualifies as “citing” them or agreeing with them, whether or not I committed the fallacy of poisoning the well, his apparent annoyance that I did not link my post to him and so on.

Notifying people I criticize: Libertarian Realist seems slightly annoyed with me for not notifying him about my initial blog post and suggest that this was because I did not want him to read it. In the past, I use to notify people I criticize by sending them an email, posting a comment on their website or sending them a tweet. However, somewhere around the time I wrote the article series debunking Stasia Bliss, I got tired of it for a number of reasons. I rarely got any response and the responses I did get were often very convoluted and did not address the arguments I made.

Providing background is not fallacious: In the first paragraph of most of my posts, I provide a background to the issues and individuals that I discuss in more detail further down. When browsing the Internet, a lot of people have short attention span so one has to make the most of the first couple of paragraphs. Libertarian Realist accuses me of committing the fallacy of poisoning the well when I provide such a background. However, he has misunderstood the definition of this fallacy. According to the Nizkor Project, poisoning the well is defined in the following way:

This sort of “reasoning” involves trying to discredit what a person might later claim by presenting unfavorable information (be it true or false) about the person. This “argument” has the following form:

1. Unfavorable information (be it true or false) about person A is presented.
2. Therefore any claims person A makes will be false.

This sort of “reasoning” is obviously fallacious. The person making such an attack is hoping that the unfavorable information will bias listeners against the person in question and hence that they will reject any claims he might make. However, merely presenting unfavorable information about a person (even if it is true) hardly counts as evidence against the claims he/she might make.

Nowhere did I claim, imply or insinuate that the background information I provided entail that the claims made by Libertarian Realist are false. Thus, providing background information does not by itself constitute poisoning the well. I cannot stress this enough: the opinions expressed by Libertarian Realist on water fluoridation, anal sex, cultural Marxists and so on does not entail that he is wrong about race realism. Instead, that conclusions follow from the arguments I discussed in my post. Arguments that Libertarian Realists either did not address at all, or addressed very poorly.

Anti-fluoridation conspiracy mongering: I wrote up the background paragraphs fairly quickly and based it on an arbitrary selection of recent videos and tweets. Libertarian Realist claims that he has only one video that deals with this issue and that he only covered it briefly. However, at the time, he had posted at least two tweets related to it on his Twitter account. One link went to his video, the other to an abstract claiming that water fluoridation is a “serious public health hazard”. Libertarian Realist states that all he said about fluoride was that overconsumption could lead to dental fluorosis. However, this is a common scare-tactics used by anti-water fluoridation cranks. In reality, fluorosis is dose-dependent and evidence-based safety levels do not present a threat to human teeth. The biggest danger comes from young children swallowing fluoridated toothpaste or mouth-rinse.

Conspiracy theories about Jews: I pointed to a tweet by Libertarian Realist where he appeared to be promoting the Jews-run-the-globalist-media conspiracy theory where he stated that “Jewish-controlled globalist media demands Israel open its borders to all Third World refugees” and even used the hashtag #nojoke. In this response video to me, he claims that he does not promote these conspiracy theories and that he, in fact, objects to them. Be so that it may, it was still a reasonable conclusion at the time.

The definition of “ravings” Libertarian Realist objects to my portrayal of him as raving about cultural Marxists. Instead, he states that he has been “rant[ing] against them, not rave about them”. At first, I did not understand this objection at all. However, after reading a comment and checking some online dictionaries, I discovered that “ravings” apparently had a different meaning besides “wild, irrational, or incoherent talk“. Some dictionaries included a second definition, such as “exciting great admiration or praise“. It seems that Libertarian Realist misunderstood my usage of the word. Of course I meant the “irrational talk” definition (which is also clear from the contexts in which I have used the word previously on this website). I am very aware that people who subscribe to the same kind of positions as Libertarian Realist use the term as a negative epithet for political leftists. Obviously, right-wing race realists do not admire or praise alleged cultural Marxists.

Having a sidebar quote is not the same as “citing” someone: Libertarian Realist is astounded by the fact that I have a quote from the Youtube user SkepticalHeretic (someone who he has apparently argued at length with) in my sidebar. The exact quote is this:

It is so addictive to make videos to people like Fringe [an unreasonable race realist - Emil Karlsson's note] simply because of that pleasing wet snap that you hear inside your head every time you smash up their worldview and show it to be based on bullshit and half-truths. It is enjoyable. [...] It is interesting to see how people’s minds work when they have a preconception they start with and then work from there as oppose to enter into something trying to actively not acknowledge any preconception and go were the evidence leads them.

The reason I put this quote in my sidebar is because I thought it was an on-point description of the psychological satisfaction of compiling a detailed refutation of pseudoscience. I am often asked why I spend so much time refuting pseudoscience when, according to my interlocutor, it is so obvious that the hardcore cranks will never be convinced. I agree, but there are other benefits to doing this: one might convince fence-sitters, provide more ammunition to those that already agree and finally, because it is psychologically satisfying. Putting this quote in my sidebar does not mean that I agree with everything that SkepticalHeretic has ever stated about heritability or any other issue. It just means that I enjoyed the spirit of that particular quote. Nowhere in my first post do I cite or reference SkepticalHeretic. The sources I used for my claims were from scientific review papers and original research papers published in credible scientific journals.

That Libertarian Realist even bothers to being it up suggests that has very little substantive to say about the core scientific issues. In fact, the majority of his video involves these kinds of peripheral issues.

Conclusion

In his response, Libertarian Realist raises a number of irrelevant peripheral issues and very little in the way of substantive arguments. He seems to understand that heritability estimates depend on population and environment, but tries to avoid this issue by claiming that different populations are represented in all different environments. However, he does not sufficiently take into account socio-economic differences. He retreats on his claim that within-group heritability tells us something about between-group differences and now merely claims that it is “informative”. However, a review paper in Nature Reviews Genetics show that it is not informative. In the end, Libertarian Realist refuses to address the three challenge to race realists that was brought up in the previous post.

References

For references, see previous post about how Libertarian Realist misuse heritability.

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4 responses to “Abusing Heritability: “Libertarian Realist” Edition (Part II)

  1. p4rano1d4ndro1d February 8, 2014 at 23:56

    Knocked out of the park!

    Libertarian Realist couldn’t possibly be any less “libertarian” or any less “real.”
    It seems as though his willfully ignorant subscriber base justify their inherently racist views on the basis of the pseudoscience debunked in this follow up post as well as the original.
    It’s quite amusing how a number of his subscribers outright dismiss all sociological statistics which provide verifiable insight to environmental causes that influence the variance of IQ within a population, ranging from inherit flaws in IQ testing, to poverty, to differences in ethnic cultural values, on the basis that the thesis of sociological science does not control for genetic variance. The logic couldn’t be more circular.

  2. shelldigger February 9, 2014 at 16:09

    I always enjoy it when someone certainly more qualified than I, takes on the misguided loud mouths that don’t have a clue what they are talking about.

    Red herrings and moving the goal posts are staples of the ignorant.

    What I gathered from this persons musings was he is making up excuses for being racist. I am glad you were able to explain the heritability issues as well as the socio economic influences that would certainly affect IQ. I can spot the flawed logic easily enough, and can easily point those out, but I just do not have the background to explain these things as fluently as you.

    Well done.

    • Criticaldragon1177 March 30, 2014 at 05:25

      shelldigger,

      “Red herrings and moving the goal posts are staples of the ignorant.”

      Not just the ignorant, but the dishonest, those determined to not change their way of thinking no matter what the cost, because they can’t accept for whatever reason that they were wrong.

  3. Shelldigger March 30, 2014 at 15:26

    No argumets from me CD1177 :)

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