Many years ago I suggested to Ta-Nehisi Coates that he should interview Neil Risch after Coates waxed on about race and biology. He subsequently did so. The reason I suggested that Coates talk to Risch is that Risch convinced me rigorously that racial categories mapped onto genetic realities in a useful fashion in the early 2000’s. For example, here is the 2002 first-author paper from him, Categorization of humans in biomedical research: genes, race and disease:
In our view, much of this discussion does not derive from an objective scientific perspective. This is understandable, given both historic and current inequities based on perceived racial or ethnic identities, both in the US and around the world, and the resulting sensitivities in such debates. Nonetheless, we demonstrate here that from both an objective and scientific (genetic and epidemiologic) perspective there is great validity in racial/ethnic self-categorizations, both from the research and public policy points of view.
And yet, to my surprise, people have quoted the Coates’ interview of Risch to show how race has no biological basis. Zach Beauchamp of Vox once asked me “did you see the Coates interview of the geneticist?” to argue for why race has no biological basis, and I responded, “I recommended Coates interview Risch, so yes.”
To be fair to Beauchamp, Risch pulled his punches and told Coates what he wanted to hear on the whole. Rather than telling Coates things that Risch himself had said earlier, he dodged and soothed. This really disappointed me, but live and learn. Many academics do this. The post-modernists were unfortunately very correct about the social conditioning of science. There is no way that a researcher would publish what Risch published today. Because Risch is very progressive and rather old he won’t get “canceled” for his earlier work, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some scientists demand retractions at some point of these publications, since they inject thought-impurities into the citation stream. Though only a minority of scientists today accept that results should serve “social justice,” these are much bolder and more courageous than the silent majority, who will accept the lies so long as they are left alone. I know this because many of the latter are my friends, and all are of course cowards when it comes to public action as opposed to private grumblings.
This is on my mind because for various reasons I stumbled upon this paper, Migration and diversity in Roman Britain: A multidisciplinary approach to the identification of immigrants in Roman York, England, and it reminded me of the debate between Mary Beard and Nassim Taleb. To not put too fine a point on it, Taleb was pretty much right, and Beard was almost certainly defending a position she knew to be wrong, but which she thought was politically more palatable.
Because of modern political needs, there tends to be an overemphasis on the number of people of Sub-Saharan African ancestry in the Roman world. Or, as we’d say today, Black people. The reality is that most Sub-Saharan African ancestry in the Mediterranean world seems to date to the period after Islam and the rise of substantial south to the north slave trade (though not all). Though there were recognizably Sub-Saharan people in Classical Antiquity in the Roman Empire, they seem to have been somewhat rare, with the possible exception of Upper Egypt.
The abstract of the paper says, “The results of the craniometric analysis indicated that the majority of the York population had European origins, but that 11% of the Trentholme Drive and 12% of The Railway study samples were likely of African descent.” More from the text:
To investigate the degree and patterning of cranial variation in the two samples, the cranial measurements were compared to Howells’ (1973, 1995) worldwide reference populations using FORDISC 3.0, discriminant functions software (Jantz and Owsley, 2005). It is understood when using these multivariate analyses that similarity to a reference population does not indicate a specific identity or origin, but rather a physical affinity to the closest population based on a morphometric comparison of the unknown cranium.
Whenever I dig deep into the scholarly citations arguing for a large number of Sub-Saharan African people in the Roman world it’s always morphometrics. Basically, “skull-science.” This is ironic in light of the Left-wing meme that any discussion about race is “skull-science.” But these morphometric studies often seem to have low power and precision. Remember the weird inferences about the skull of Kennewick Man? The science wasn’t “wrong,” it was just weak. And the conclusions reached are often wrong or even random. If you want to find a bunch of East Asians or Sub-Saharan Africans in the Roman world, I’m sure some morphometric analyses will support that bizarre conclusion.
What’s going on here? The truth doesn’t matter, all that matters is “winning” the argument. Even caliper-wielding skull scientists are good “allies” as long as they come to the “right” conclusions.
Where does this leave us? The point of scholarship is that facts are facts, no matter whether they support a particular argument at hand. Beard should simply have admitted that it was unlikely that a person with such dark skin would have been a prominent Roman Briton because there were very few people with such dark skin in the Roman world at the time. Beard should also not have speculated that Septimius Severus may have been very dark-skinned, because that seems very unlikely, as his background was a mix of colonial Italian and Punic. Neither of these groups is brown, let alone black, in complexion.
Beard is a PhD historian. A nerd. Her job is to say “well actually….” In the 2000’s this was a meme. The know-it-all neck-beard fedora-wearing type. These virgins are annoying, but that’s the point. They annoy you with inconvenient facts in a world where facts matter. Other people will be cool. They will conform. But the nerd says what is true. Or so it was…
The age of the fedora is over, and the neck-beards have mostly bent the knee. I’m sad that Beard, the nice person, seems to have plainly submitted herself to the shibboleths of the age. But then, with that in mind, is it surprising that someone as disagreeable as Taleb would be the one to assert the most likely truth?
I like to point out that I was pretty much in total shock in the middle of February of 2020 when science-Twitter was spending its time “taking down” Richard Dawkins over his comments on eugenics when coronavirus was starting to be a major concern. After all, shouldn’t scientists be focused on the facts that might actually endanger us, rather than a passing controversy that will no doubt fade? Actually, no. “Dunking” on Dawkins was the socially normative act. Focusing on coronavirus might make people think you are crazy, and you wouldn’t want people to think that, would you?
In my interview with Jeremy Kamil, I told him plainly that if researchers discovered a correlation between BLM protests and the spread of COVID-19 I doubt they would publish it. He’s disagreed. But I stand by my statement. When it comes to speaking “truth to power,” we know how things will shake out. If you want the intelligentsia to support you, be part of their tribe, or, force them through the threat of lictors. That is all there is to it.
The terms of the game to come are set. Now we wait for it to start, as old illusions are torn apart.
One of the reasons I started a Substack is to monetize my content. But another reason is also that I feel it’s time to start gating the truth and information. The world we thought we lived in isn’t the real world. Actually. Information is power. Don’t give away power. Use it. Wield it. Proscribe lest one be proscribed.
The time for the veil of ignorance is at hand. Don’t expect too many posts like this here anymore.
Note: A good friend, whose papers I’ve talked about, expressed shock to me that a prominent researcher who LARPs as an SJW on social media, is on the based-shitlordy side in private. My point to him: how do you think he got so prominent? Bend the knee to the regnant faith. They always will. Therefore, the solution is simple: kill the priests and burn the churches. They will worship at the new temples and bow down before idols, because that is the way of power and plenty. Fealty to truth does not bring one the accolades of one’s peers. Be popular.
People wonder at my cynicism. I have seen the heart of man, and it is craven.
Addendum: If there’s a pandemic in the offing, listen to Taleb, not Beard. He’ll say what he thinks, not what’s convenient.