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Fighting Bigotry Without Political Correctness

In what appears to be a continuing series, yet another dreary argument has broken out between an obnoxious atheist and his offended critics, and I can’t help myself from breaking in. This time, the obnoxious atheist  is Richard Dawkins.

Again, the back-and-forth is so tiresome. Party A makes some broad-brush statement about the detrimental effects of Islam. Party B responds that such any such broad-brush statement is ipso facto bigotry. Party A asks how facts can possibly be bigoted. And so it goes, around and around in a cycle of ever-expanding enlightenment.

Here’s a handy-dandy little fact to throw out there: 20% of Nobel Prizes have been awarded to Jews. This despite the fact that Jews are only 0.2% of the world’s population. In other words Jews are represented at a rate 100 times higher than strict proportion to population would suggest. Contra Nesrine Malik, the Jews are one “arbitrary” group of people to have won far more Nobel Prizes (in every category, by the way) than Trinity College, Cambridge graduates have.

Now, what are we to make of that fact?

At first glance, it would seem that if the “it’s all culture” folks mean what they say, the implication would be that we should all become Jews. After all, if the Islamic world’s poor showing proves that Islam “holds back intellectual development,” then presumably this extraordinary Jewish performance proves that Judaism massively promotes intellectual development. Does Isaac Chotiner agree? Can I expect Andrew Sullivan and Richard Dawkins to sign up for conversion classes?

But wait a moment. Because if you scroll through the pictures of those Jewish Nobel laureates, you’ll discover see few if any covered heads. Some of the winners come from traditionally observant backgrounds, but I’m not aware of any that live the life of a strictly observant Jew. It seems that Judaism is a great religion to be from, but you have to leave it behind in order to achieve Nobel-level greatness. Ironic, but not impossible, I suppose. [UPDATE: I’m informed that there have been at least two Orthodox Jewish Nobel Prize winners, or about 1% of the Jewish total. So sue me.]

But wait again! It’s interesting, isn’t it, how wildly over-represented Ashkenazi Jews are on that list of Jewish Nobel laureates. Not every Jewish Nobelist is Ashkenazi – there’s Salvador Luria, for example, and Baruj Benacerraf, and Emilio Segrè, and no doubt a few others – but the ratio of Ashkenazi to Sephardi Nobel laureates is nowhere near the ratio of populations. And from a religious perspective the differences between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Judaisms are negligible. They are certainly negligible compared to the differences between Judaism and other religions.

It almost looks as if a whole host of confounding variables are at play in the question of “why so many Jews among Nobel laureates.” And yet, the result is this wild disproportion that cries out for explanation.

So what about those verboten biological explanations? Are genes among the stew of confounding variables at play? Isaac Chotiner says the following by way of half-way defending Dawkins:

The point he was trying to make, I would assume, is that Islam is a religion which holds back intellectual development, and thus the Nobel Prize count is skewed towards non-Muslim countries. This might be a silly argument in point of fact, but it is perfectly acceptable to make these types of claims. Religions are man-made things. People choose to follow a particular faith. It would be one thing to say that the color of one’s skin sets back one’s intellectual development; Dawkins was (I think) trying to say that a belief system human beings choose to follow has impaired their development. Arguments like this should be not only within the bounds of reasonable debate, but are completely necessary.

I completely agree with the first half of that last sentence. I don’t agree at all with the last half. And, more to the point, I don’t see why arguments about the positive or negative effects of “man-made things” are “reasonable” and “necessary” but arguments from nature are neither. Isn’t it just a matter of two societies with different shibboleths? America has a long history of robust argument about religion and a far more limited history of religious persecution (not zero by any means, but far more limited) than either Europe or the Muslim world. Meanwhile, America has a long history of white supremacy, and has spent the past half-century grappling more seriously with this legacy than at any time before. Isn’t that history, rather than some essential quality of the argument, the reason why we find breezy assertions of superiority of one culture or religion “reasonable,” but not similarly breezy assertion of the superiority of one or another breed?

Why, after all, does Chotiner think Jews have performed so spectacularly over the past century in competitions for brass rings like the Nobel Prize? Back before the great unpleasantness of the mid-20th-century, Jews themselves were often inclined to credit their superior “germ plasm.” It’s understandable that this is now a touchy subject, but that argument hasn’t gone away—nor should it. Neither, of course, should we jump to the conclusion that there is a meaningful biological component to the explanation. The truth is, we don’t know enough about either the genetics or the operation of intelligence to be able to make any kind of definitive claims. But science is not built by making definitive claims and sticking to them dogmatically; it’s built by making tentative, testable claims and then going about testing them. In the meantime, at a minimum, it should be clear to anyone who is so sure that “culture” is the sole answer to these kinds of questions that this answer is supremely flattering to anyone actually from the achieving culture. And I’m not clear why flattering the victors in the contest for intellectual supremacy is considered politically correct.

From a political perspective, the right response, it seems to me, to the extraordinary disproportion of Jewish Nobel prizes is neither “wow, Jews are totally awesome; we should all be like them—and if we can’t, it must be our fault” nor “wow, this game must totally be rigged by the Jews [um, Swedish Jews?]” but “wow, levels of achievement at the very top can be really wildly disproportionate to population. And the modern economy seems to be more winner-take-all than it used to be. Maybe the selection process for Nobel Prizes isn’t a good template for how all of society should work? Maybe there’s a moral case for countervailing social and economic forces?” Because the fact is: we don’t know how to engineer a society to produce a bumper crop of Nobel Prize winners. And my proof is: if we knew how to do that, Singapore would have done it already.

Is it reasonable and within bounds to debate whether adherence Islam in some way retards intellectual development? Sure—why not. If you’ve got a coherent argument to make, let’s hear it, and debate it. But it’s also reasonable and within bounds to debate whether there are biological differences between peoples that account for differential achievement. It’s reasonable and within bounds to debate just about anything, right? That’s what free inquiry is all about.

But is either necessary?

Necessity implies that something important depends on it. What is that something? What will we not know, or do, or be if we decline to tweet our hunches that indisputable facts have obvious social and political implications? What terrible thing would happen if we were to admit: the facts are what they are, but we don’t know enough to know in any detail why they are what they are?

Richard Dawkins doesn’t have a theory about the relationship between Islam and intellectual development, and neither does Isaac Chotiner or Andrew Sullivan. They have self-flattering hunches that make them feel better about their base-level distrust of the politically-correct proposition that there can be “no important difference” between groups, in this case religious groups. Wouldn’t it be more honest to simply own up to that distrust? Not only would it be more honest—it’s much more defensible. Because trust has to be earned. It cannot be commanded.

The only way to fight bigotry is with understanding. That understanding is not principally scientific; it is principally phenomenological and perspectivist, an appreciation for how things look and feel through eyes other than one’s own. But one side of these debates persists in the fallacy that this kind of appreciation has implications for what the objective facts must be, while the other side persists in the fallacy that this kind of appreciation somehow detracts from knowledge rather than adding to it. Meanwhile, both right and left are wedded to the notion that actual outcomes have comfortably-explicable causes. As Richard Dawkins should know more than most people, everything we know about nature militates against that conclusion.

So we should not base our social compact on allegiance to dogmas that are unlikely to be proved true. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need a social compact to help us live together in peace. On the contrary: we most assuredly do.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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