December 02, 2004

Clear thinking about group differences

Any two human groups will almost certainly have different distributions for any particular trait. The distributions may have different shapes, means, standard deviations, and may differ significantly, as in facial flatness between Europeans and East Asians, or only a little, as in IQ between Germans and Danes.

In some traits one group will have a "better" distribution than another -- if the trait has a positive or negative value, e.g., the incidence of some disease, or IQ. In other traits it will have a "worse" distribution. There will also be some traits, e.g., the incidence of shovel-shaped incisors where differences can't be interpreted as either "positive" or "negative".

These are just the facts about group differences. People have different ways of approaching these facts, and I distinguish four basic attitudes:

  • Pure Racists claim that group A is better than group B without qualification. Racism can be summarized as the belief in the essential superior value of one group over another.
  • Selective Racists claim that group A is better than group B for a particular set of traits. Selective racists may be justified in claiming group differences in value, however they exhibit bias in their subjective choice of traits. If for example group A is taller and smarter (on average) than group B, but also fatter and more prone to cancer, then a selective racist who belongs to group A may assert the value of A based on height and intelligence, subjectively preferring these traits over fatness and tendency to cancer.
  • Realists acknowledge group differences equally and do not bias their thinking in favor of a set of traits in which their group seems to do better than other human groups.
  • Selective Egalitarians acknowledge group differences over a particular set of traits, especially those that do not have an obvious value, such as curly hair or shovel-shaped incisors, but refuse to acknowledge such differences over other traits, especially ones with a clear value, such as intelligence.
  • Pure Egalitarians refuse to accept any differences, or to talk about differences, or even -in extreme cases- to acknowledge the very existence of separate human groups.

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