Substack cometh, and lo it is good. (Pricing)

Being right, being agreeable, being nice

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.


29 thoughts on “Being right, being agreeable, being nice

  1. Appreciate what you’ve given us. I always think “If this guy goes down, who can replace him?” No one. One can kinda piece together from other sources but it’s not quite the same.

    Just finished “Cynical Theories” by Pluckrose and Lindsay. Gives a good timeline of how this all started. The inventors of Queer theory, etc. knew they were creating a tasty, made-up world that was palatable for the masses – Colonel Sanders would be jealous!

  2. At a post talk dinner in grad school many years ago somehow topic of research into gender disparity in psychometric traits came up. I naively suggested that we should treat this as an empirical matter but my colleague expressed disbelief that anyone could support research that didn’t lead to socially desirable conclusions. That brazen disregard for spirit of open inquiry really stuck with me – he really sounded like it hadn’t occurred to him anyone could think differently about the topic.

    I’m impressed you still try to stick it out in academia. How have your politics affected your career would you say? Does boldness pay off or are you consciously sacrificing immediate professional gain for your intellectual legacy?

    I’m not in academia anymore but am on the periphery of Big Tech and the culture is just as stiflingly PC. We’re not supposed to talk politics at work but somehow that doesn’t stop the many leftists on my team. I always opt for silence since I don’t want to lie but currently I can’t afford to jeopardize my position by openly disagreeing with my coworkers. But I am feeling more and more like Thomas More in Man for All Seasons – for a brief time he was allowed to keep silent but in the end was forced to choose between a false oath and beheading.

  3. That’s a bloody shame coming from Beard – SPQR was good, but she’s got a bit of a contrarian streak and the whole “African in Rome” thing was dumb. She could have just left it at “There could be soldiers with subsaharan Ancestry in the Roman Empire, given they recruited from ‘barbarians’ to the south as well as the northeast, but they wouldn’t have been common and there’s no proof in the genetics”.

    I never see these folks on Twitter anymore. Then again, I’ve got basically all 200 of the allowed “word-mutes” used, so that’s perhaps that.

    In any case, I can’t help but wonder if the increasingly vicious political conflict in Academia is tied into the draining out of funding. When your career survival is on the line, the temptation to use every weapon you’ve got has to be there.

  4. a prominent researcher who LARPs as an SJW on social media, is on the based-shitlordy side in private

    Spencer Wells?

  5. Fwiw,

    You, GC and I were ‘comrades-in-arms’ back in the Sepia Mutiny days. Surprisingly, I found myself recently defending your genetics expertise, of all things (!) to a fellow biologist. This too shall pass, I hope. In the meantime, here’s hoping your Substack foray takes off.


  6. Surprisingly, I found myself recently defending your genetics expertise, of all things (!) to a fellow biologist.

    this is 2020. kevin bird is now the king of human biologists.

    people who make fun of his privately for being an ignorant idiot are respectful of him in public cuz of his social media pull with the idiocracy.

  7. Today, I saw the same people who flipped a shit about JAMA publishing “Racial/Ethnic Variation in Nasal Gene Expression of Transmembrane Serine Protease 2 (TMPRSS2)” in September, resorting to all the usual arguments about how it’s fucked to suggest anything other than systemic racism causes outcome disparities, now touting biologically-based arguments ( about how the vaccines aren’t as well-validated for blacks and Asians. I don’t know how much of it to chalk up to cravenness, and how much to chalk up to motivated stupidity.

  8. I had a very enlightening twitter discussion with Beard five years ago ( TLDR: I said her contention that military history is worthless is itself worthless, because nobody sane thinks that history wouldn’t change if, say, Alexander had died in his first battle against the Persians (which was a very close call, actually). She responded angrily. I said I highly respect her scholarship (which is true) but it still was a nonsense contention. She sort of accepted that, yes, that’s what one has to say in this day and age, and that’s it.

  9. military history

    Ah the stories I could tell you.

    In any case, here is my unsolicited advice to those who fear the Woke mob: get yourself a tribe and learn to fight, with and without firearms. It’s easy for would-be goblins to accost and intimidate individuals who are alone and do not know how to inflict pain in response to threats.

    If you belong to a tight-knit, cohesive community, you will not stand alone and you might be able to rally dozens, hundreds, and even thousands to your defense. And if your would-be harassers know that any attempt at pain launched at you returns ten-fold, they’ll think more than twice before next time.

    Nobody burnt anything in this town:

  10. Great post, though curious that it amounts to “listen to the barbarians”, given your recent contempt for us barbarians 🙂

    one guy who i got a job for was asked to denounce me on social media. he did so immediately. then he sent a text apology

    Dear God, how far have people fallen.

  11. So FWIW this is the post that finally got me off the fence and prompted me to subscribe. Been reading you for ages (so long that when you do the occasional reader survey I struggle to work out just how long ago I started). Thought I should share.

  12. I don’t get it, so people who privately discuss and practically use genetic ancestry but stay away from the shitshtorms are just cowards, but retreating behind the paywall is a brave endeavor to save the beacon of knowledge.

  13. but retreating behind the paywall is a brave endeavor to save the beacon of knowledge.

    did i say that? i didn’t. so you clearly don’t get your own mind, since you just thought that’s what i said.

    also says the person who uses a pseudo; though yes, i know who you are “DM”. but to paraphrase johnson, how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for courage among the bearers of pseudos? every single time.

    i do have to say the funniest example was the muslim software guy in houston who kept making comments about my upbringing, but once i told him i knew he who he was just disappeared from this weblog in terror.

  14. I wasn’t trying to be mean, just sad. Lament, not condemning. It isn’t easy saving the mankind from deadly disease when the people’s own core beliefs are stacked against your efforts. But medical science often had to seek outward conformity with faith to be able to help. Nothing really new about it.

  15. “We are a damned ppl”


    Maybe time to informally institute a ‘guru-sisya’ norm in the Western academy. Perhaps draw a few close friends and students together to form a group interested in only the science per se.

    Something along the lines discussed by the distinguished Sanskritist, Sthaneswar Timalsina, on Mukunda Raghavan’s YouTube channel: Timalsina remarks that a remnant of the ancient Indian ‘gurukul’ system still exists in Indian universities. Per Timalsina, some Sanskrit profs in Indian universities recruit especially talented students for private tutoring, outside of the classroom. Indeed, some Profs apparently urge such students to forego the classroom for such private tutoring.

    Btw, while in Nepal, Timalsina was injured in an attack by Maoists for daring to teach Sanskrit–a literal attempt to cancel Prof. Timalsina.


  16. “Men are generally ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous. And, as long as you are successful, they are yours entirely. When the need is far distant, they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children; but when it approaches they will turn against you.”

    Chapter XVII — Concerning Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether It Is Better To Be Loved Than Feared
    “The Prince” by Nicolo Machiavelli (1513)

    Of course, you know that the quote above was written by a Dead White European Male, and should be disregarded:

    “Did y’all know that many of the ‘classics’ were written before the 50s? Think of US society before then and the values that shaped this nation afterwards. THAT is what is in those books. That is why we gotta switch it up. It ain’t just about ‘being old.’ #DisruptTexts.”

  17. “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). ”

    FORDISC is not reliable….

    “Determining the ancestry of unidentified human remains is a major task for bioarchaeologists and forensic anthropologists. Here, we report an assessment of the computer program that has become the main tool for accomplishing this task. Called Fordisc, the program determines ancestry through discriminant function analysis of cranial measurements. We evaluated the utility of Fordisc with 200 specimens of known ancestry. We ran the analyses with and without the test specimen’s source population included in the program’s reference sample, and with and without specifying the sex of the test specimen. We also controlled for the possibility that the number of variables employed affects the program’s ability to attribute ancestry. The results of the analyses suggest that Fordisc’s utility in research and medico-legal contexts is limited. Fordisc will only return a correct ancestry attribution when an unidentified specimen is more or less complete, and belongs to one of the populations represented in the program’s reference samples. Even then Fordisc can be expected to classify no more than 1 per cent of specimens with confidence.”

  18. Nice post. Almost like old times,

    But, man, I don’t know. Seems like the biggest act of cowardice on this whole thread might be letting a comment about Rush Spencer Wells IV pass as if anyone who knows that cowardly, pompous, venal windbag in real life would give a toss about his views, public or private.

    Just in the past few months, he screwed over his own family, committed multiple frauds, trundled off to hide his pension in a pool in Indonesia so he wouldn’t have to pay taxes on it (my god the brilliance, the derring do! Would that we all had Harvard PhD’s so we could come up with this caliber of scheme for humankind) and ghosted the collaborator who had been carrying his a** for the last however many months or years of podcasting… with 5 figures of salary conveniently unpaid.

    As far as I can see the only thing Spencer Wells is LARPing as is a human being. Why don’t you let that useless sack of Lubbockian shit twist in the Lombok wind like he deserves, Razib? You’re too decent. But what do I know, I don’t even have a substack OR a chan lol.

    #wanderlust #whatwouldChetSnickerdo

  19. I’ve been encouraging my daughter, now embarking on a career in academia, in genetics no less, to read this blog. AFAIK she doesn’t. I feel that she’s a bit naive about academic life.

  20. It’s funny. I work in academia, in the most inglorious nonacademic manner possible (I’m a security guard at a community college/trade school), and what gets me is how much we blue collar staff are exempt from cancel culture that is rampant among the office staff and faculty.

    I had some prick on reddit figure out my real identity and e-mail my boss about some shit I had posted that was critical of antifa and the BLM protests, and my boss pretty much told me he wasn’t going to forward it to HR and to basically stop shitposting because he didn’t want to deal with shit I got into off of work.

    Another janitor I know got pissed off because he was “volunteered” for clean up duty after a school sanctioned BLM rally and remarked to his coworkers “Why they got to do this here, if Black Lives Matter so damn much, then they should stop shooting each other.” He got off with a minor written infraction.

    So there is that sort of freedom that comes with being a prole. No one cares if we think the right thoughts or mouth the right words so long as the janitors keep the toilets clean and I roust the homeless out of the library. By the same token, it’s pretty clear that they don’t care about us in general, considering the slapdash and half-assed COVID operating protocols we essential workers are working with. I myself have no idea why I haven’t gotten sick yet.

  21. Razib — Physically attacking someone whose politics you don’t like crosses a line, and I’m interested in how often this happens in academic settings where one would expect to be physically safe. Aside from the attack and near attack on yourself that you mention, are there any others you know about and are free to relate? Also, how seriously were you attacked? Was it just a slap or was the guy actually trying to hurt you?

  22. Razib, is that really true that you have to travel with a posse at academic conferences to stop people from attacking you?

  23. Razib, you make strong points. Taking our arguments to the hostile is a long term campaign, and at the moment more like guerrilla warfare than a full frontal assault.

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