The limits of empiricism

While listening to On Point last week I was struck by an argument on a show that focused on Charles Murray‘s new book. I have no interest in arguing the merits of his thesis here, but he believes that, for a variety of reasons, America has been dividing by class and he is profoundly concerned about the implications. In one segment he expresses concern that one result is an growing concentration of the smartest people in the elite class, and, by extension, an growing concentration of the least smart people in the lower classes. The host and other guest push back against what they hear as genetic determinism. Exasperated, Murray says, “There’s a statistical relationship between parental IQ and child IQ… on average, parents with high IQs will produce offspring with higher IQs than parents with lower IQs…It’s a fact!…I’m talking about an empirical relationship that is not contestable!”

I have no interest in entering this debate on this blog, but I think the exchange offers a chance to step outside of the debates in our field.

Murray’s insistence that he was simply reporting a data point shows how blind we can be to our own narratives. He seems only vaguely aware that he has already attributed meaning to the data point—its source, its implications, its importance, and its characteristics. (fixed vs. static, that genetic determinants are powerful and important in comparison to other determinants, etc.)

The other host and the other guest were so troubled by the meaning that Murray ascribed that all of their responses focused on this meaning and they never really responded to the data point.

It seems like a lot of drug policy debates follow a very similar pattern. I find myself frustrated with people who argue that their position is empirically based as though the meaning they derive from their facts is self-evident, that they hold the only rational understanding and their conclusions are value-free.

In turn, I could do a better job of responding to their data and concerns.