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Occam’s Butter Knife

Summary:
In contrast to Angela Saini’s acclaimed but dismal 2019 work of science denialism, Superior: The Return of Race Science, Adam Rutherford’s 2020 book How to Argue With a Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality benefits from Rutherford’s lively prose style. The British science writer likes to illustrate his arguments with interesting examples, a stratagem that wouldn’t seem too much to ask of an author, but which is increasingly difficult to find these days as conventional wisdom (which Rutherford labors hard to embody) becomes ever more anti-empirical. Despite blustering on his Twitter bio, “Back off man, I’m a scientist,” Rutherford appears to have largely transitioned from being a geneticist to being a science pundit in the

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In contrast to Angela Saini’s acclaimed but dismal 2019 work of science denialism, Superior: The Return of Race Science, Adam Rutherford’s 2020 book How to Argue With a Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality benefits from Rutherford’s lively prose style. The British science writer likes to illustrate his arguments with interesting examples, a stratagem that wouldn’t seem too much to ask of an author, but which is increasingly difficult to find these days as conventional wisdom (which Rutherford labors hard to embody) becomes ever more anti-empirical.

Despite blustering on his Twitter bio, “Back off man, I’m a scientist,” Rutherford appears to have largely transitioned from being a geneticist to being a science pundit in the mode of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins. But that’s not a dishonorable career path.

And Rutherford is adept at writing. For example, Rutherford’s book is quite a bit more interesting than a snooze-worthy essay last year, “Race, genetics and pseudoscience: an explainer,” that he coauthored with three academics.

His coauthors were then crushed humiliatingly in Twitter debates by sports fans much more knowledgeable about the pervasive racial patterns in sports than they are. But Rutherford, a rugby enthusiast, at least knows a fair amount about athletics, so he puts up a more cunning fight on this topic in his own book because he’s not being dragged down by his colleagues’ ignorance.

In fact, I find Rutherford’s writing rather like mine in form. Of course, the difference is that I point out facts in order to increase knowledge, while Rutherford is trying to decrease knowledge by denying realities.

Rutherford starts off his chapter on sports, “Black Power,” by forthrightly admitting of Allan Wells’ gold medal in the 1980 Olympic 100-meter dash:

Not only was this the last time a white man won the Olympic 100 meters, it was the last time that white men competed in the final….

Many pages later he delivers his big argument pooh-poohing this extraordinary racial gap in the 100-meter dash:

If people of West African ancestry have a genetic advantage, why are there few West African sprinters…?

But it turns out there are quite a few very fast West African sprinters, although no superstars yet of the magnitude of Usain Bolt or Carl Lewis. Of the 143 men in history who have run 100 meters in under 10.00 seconds flat, 134 have been of at least half sub-Saharan descent. Twelve have been Nigerian-born (three running under the colors of richer countries, including Francis Obikwelu, the 2004 silver medalist for Portugal). That makes Nigeria the No. 3 sprinting country in the world after the U.S. (57) and Jamaica (19). There are also two Ghanaians and two from Ivory Coast who have broken the ten-second barrier.

Besides the sixteen West Africans, there have also been eight southern Africans (although one identifies as a Cape Coloured, a recent racial group that has emerged over the past few centuries from the admixture of whites, blacks, Bushmen, and Malays).

So men born in sub-Saharan Africa make up one-sixth of all those who have run 100 meters in under ten seconds.

But why don’t they make up five-sixths? Because, as Francis Galton noted, nurture matters as well as nature. Apparently, Africans don’t flourish in highly African countries as well as they do in countries under more white influence.

One of Rutherford’s strategies is to toss out facts, then argue that their seeming randomness undermines those evil racists’ simplistic ideas: Instead, it’s all very complicated. Thus he sums up his section on race in team sports:

None of the numbers makes a great deal of sense if biological race is your guiding principle, and patterns in relation to ethnicity are terribly inconsistent both between sports and within them.

Yet, a careful, informed reader will notice how frequently his own factoids backfire on him. For example:

In top flight American football, the proportion of black players is around 70 percent, but like rugby, that is a game where there are highly specialized positions with different skills and physical attributes….

And the running velocity requirements versus technical expertise demands of positions correlate closely with the race of the players. For example, all the starting cornerbacks in the NFL are black, but none of the placekickers are.

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