Saturday, November 24, 2007

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Looks like journalist William Saletan is the latest to venture into the IQ, heredity, and race quagmire. My reading of his column can be summed up thusly: Saletan's screed is merely a rehash of the same basic talking points offered by eugenicists for over a century. Although I'm not sure I have either the patience or time to revisit the topic, I would like to at least highlight a few items for consideration.

First, let's keep in mind that Saletan's screed is the sort of thing that will be received approvingly by American audiences. Although there are plenty of legitimate biological scientists and psychometricians who correctly dismiss the supporting "evidence" of inherited racial IQ differences as bunk, outside of those specialists one can find plenty of academicians and think-tank intelligentsia who consume such drivel as so much comfort food. I tried to highlight some of that particular Zeitgeist here, if one cared to read it. We seem to still be in the grip of Social Darwinism to a degree that is less common elsewhere. Although England is the home to the first avowed eugenicist (Galton), the eugenics movement flowered in the US, with the end result being numerous draconian laws regarding forced sterilization of those deemed "unfit", as well as severe restrictions regarding interracial marriage, and even a fair amount of cover for Nazi-style medical experimentation without informed consent on institutionalized individuals.

Second, let's keep in mind that the intellectual history of the myth of racial differences in intelligence is indeed a long one, and it is a history that is still being written. Those words written by Saletan and uttered by others such as Jim Watson, Steve Sailer, and William Bennett are in a sense nothing particularly novel. The main difference between today's keepers of the myth and their forebears such as Voltaire and Kant is that today's mythologists manage to wrap racist ideas in scientific-sounding jargon. To a lay audience, such jargon can seem persuasive; if a respected Nobel laureate says it, it must be true, or at least have more than a few grains of truth to it. If you look at either the early eugenics movement, or its late 20th and early 21st century heirs, one will read plenty of pronouncements that racial differences in IQ due to heredity is a scientifically proven fact, that it's all so cut-and-dried. I'll simply note for now (perhaps expand upon later) that a lot of pseudoscience (and eugenics is one of a number of pseudoscientific areas of inquiry) comes across as cut-and-dried common sense, beyond reasonable reproach. Legitimate scientists tend to make much more tentative statements regarding the data they believe support their hypotheses. Legitimate scientists avoid selectively choosing data in order to forward a particular agenda.

But...what if the methods used to "prove" the eugenicist hypothesis are dodgy? What if it turns out that it is far from clear as to what IQ tests actually measure? That brings me to the third item: the so-called inherited group differences in IQ are far from cut-and-dried. There has been a great deal of debate regarding how to measure intelligence, and just how applicable standard IQ tests are to everyday existence. In psychology, research on everyday cognition has been something of a cottage industry since the 1980s. That body of research, much of which is cross-cultural in nature, consistently suggests that the relationship between IQ scores and a wide variety of abilities is fairly minimal at best. I would suggest that one look into the work of psychologists such as Robert Sternberg and Howard Gardner to get a feel for what some of this research is about. For a better discussion of the methodological problems regarding IQ and endeavors to link IQ to hereditary race-based differences, I'd suggest one check out statistician Cosma Shalizi's blog, which has several excellent (albeit hardly easy reading) posts: Yet More on the Heritability and Malleability of IQ; g, a Statistical Myth; and In Which I Demand That Slate Refund My Subscription.

The bottom line: contrary to whatever eugenics apologists would have us believe, our understanding of human intelligence is anything but cut-and-dried. Heck, our friends the chimpanzees may be smarter than us humans. I'd certainly seek moral guidance from a chimp over Saletan any day.

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