Here’s a thought for would-be editors of a national paper of record: any time your headline editorial starts with the phrase “in spite of the evidence,” it’s probably a good time to reconsider what you’re writing. On what basis are you going to argue, then, if not evidence? Gut feelings? Dreams? Divine revelation?
Ever since the Margaret Wente scandal broke (if not before that), the Globe & Mail has certainly made an art form out of making an ass of itself. Friday’s editorial, however, took the cake. I almost hesitated to be that harsh on them. Unlike most of their rivals in the newspaper sphere, the Globe & Mail at least claims to be pro-science. But it isn’t. It isn’t even science literate. And that, I have to suspect, is why it published an editorial more becoming a third-rate free community weekly than a national “paper of record.”
Last week, a Stanford biologist named Gerald Crabtree published the first part of a series of papers which will argue that human intelligence peaked thousands of years ago and is now gradually declining. It’s the result, Crabtree says, of the accumulation of genetic defects on the X chromosome. Once communities began growing large and well-organized, especially but not solely because of the invention of agriculture, individual baseline intelligence started to become less important than other factors for survival in groups, combined with the fact that once we invented language we could pass on knowledge through education, rather than each of us needing to carry with us a genetically determined toolkit making each individual capable of, in essence, re-inventing the wheel.
It’s heady stuff, the sort of “reality TV is making humans dumber” stuff that’s guaranteed to get a lot of headlines (even though, you’ll note from the above, Crabtree is talking about genetic evolution resulting from group dynamics over thousands of years, not reality TV or any other modern-day ills). So naturally he got a lot of headlines. Even the Globe & Mail couldn’t pass the story up. And that’s where the trouble started.
First off, Crabtree’s piece, in the journal Trends in Genetics, is behind a paywall. That didn’t stop the redoubtable Sixth Estate, but it was evidently too much for the Globe & Mail’s ace reporter, Wency Leung. Irony abounds. The Globe & Mail wants us to pay to get through their paywall, but other people’s paywalls present an insurmountable inconvenience to our newspaper’s top journalists. As a result, Leung based her story on quotes from various public sources rather than the paper itself. Her main quote from the paper itself, for instance, was drawn from a story already written by a superior newspaper, the Independent (UK). Their reporter evidently did read the paper.
Leung worked the Globe’s special magic on the piece forom the start. Her first sentence judges Crabtree’s claims to be, at least on the surface, “ludicrous” because we’ve created space travel, nuclear power, and the Internet during the past century. She then closed the article by noting that “Crabtree’s conclusions are hotly debated,” without bothering to mention a single credible challenger, followed by some irrelevant speculation about the effects of Google and cell phones on our “brain power.”
In the minds of the Globe’s editorial board, however, Leung hadn’t mashed the article up nearly good enough. So, on Friday, they ran an extraordinarily incompetent editorial which, as I mentioned, is hardly worthy of placement in a national paper. It is particularly upset that Crabtree claims we are “devolving.” I don’t know whether Crabtree actually used this word or not. I kind of doubt it, though. There is no such thing as “devolving.” Evolution doesn’t go “backwards.” And they had more to say, too:
Take the idea of a man from 1000 BC Athens in a room full of his modern peers. Aside from the fact that he wouldn’t be so rude as to stare at his smartphone while we tried to ask him questions about his trip to the future, there would be little to recommend this unwashed slave owner who considered women to be inferior and wind to be an element… No, we’re smarter than we used to be.
So nice to see that the chief muckety-mucks of the Globe newsroom flunked biology.
Actually, it’s worse than all that. Crabtree was talking about genetics. The Globe claims to be responding to Crabtree; consequently, either it is arguing that human genetics play no part in human intelligence (which would be a blatant, Sun Media-esque denial of basic science), or it is arguing that Crabtree is wrong about the direction in which the genes determining intelligence are evolving. If today’s intelligence is higher because of genetics, and we can see this through the rise of Western science, then until very recently almost all of the genetic “improvement” in intelligence would be occurring specifically among Europeans. Ergo, the Globe would be arguing that white people are genetically superior to people of Asian, American, and African descent.
There is a third possibility open here — that genetically determined intelligence is neither greater nor lesser than it was 10,000 years ago — and, although that opportunity was open to it, the Globe & Mail didn’t take it. And there’s even a fourth possibility — that the Globe & Mail has no idea what it is talking about, and blundered into a discussion about intelligence without understanding that Crabtree was talking about the accumulation of barely perceptible genetic defects, rather than the accumulation of scientific knowledge.
I suspect the fourth possibility is the correct one: the Globe has no idea what it is talking about, and evidently considers that there is no need to educate itself before printing an editorial for a national audience. This statement shows what I mean:
The most striking thing about the study is that it reminds us that we are now smart enough to theorize that we are not as smart as we used to be.
Uh-huh. Crabtree’s point was that humans were genetically capable of doing this “theorizing” thousands of years ago, too. I assume the Globe would actually agree with him on this.
If this was just a minor theoretical science paper, it would be a little titillating and we could have a good laugh about it. But it isn’t. The Globe evidently didn’t think so either, given that it published this editorial on the subject. We have real, complicated, problems to solve over the next several thousand years. All of them will require science. Which means we will need high-quality science education and high-quality science reporting. And high-quality science policy.
And we’re off to a good start!Tweet