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November 23, 2007

Race, Genes, IQ, and Yawns.

I've not jumped into the latest round of "are black people stupid" because, well, what is there to say? I'd sort of hoped that if this ever came around again, I'd actually have a lot to say, because earlier this year, I read a history of the concept of IQ (which, let's be clear, is all IQ is -- a constructed, mutable, oft-changed concept), but aside from leaving me with a generalized distaste for an opaque metric often used to advantage certain subgroups at the expense of others, it didn't leave me with tons of insightful paragraphs to write. The moral of the story is that reading books is a waste of time. That said, a couple disconnected points:

• I'm not down with the Atrios view that anyone who enters this discussion is a racist. I'm pretty sure Saletan isn't a racist. Rather, this whole discussion, as it so often is, seems motivated by the desire to be a Brave Truthteller, not by a hatred of black people. Read Saletan's first article in the series, which is about how liberals are too scared to face the evidence in this matter, not about the actual evidence in this matter. You can learn a lot from a lede. In this case, the studies about IQ and "g" are secondary to demonstrating that Saletan, though a liberal, isn't a herd animal, and is willing to courageously stride into intellectual thickets where ideologues fear to tread. "Race, genes, and intelligence" isn't a particularly descriptive title for the series. "How I, William Saletan, am Willing to Engage the Touchy Subject of Race, Genes, and Intelligence," is.

• Saletan really doesn't seem to have a good grasp of the science involved here. For instance: Is "g" a statistical artifact? Is it meaningful at all? If "g" is intrinsic to intelligence, how come controlling for "acquired knowledge" erases the IQ gap? How come rewriting studies -- not their content, but their wording -- into language more natural to the children (ebonics, say) wipes out the gap between races? Saletan sort of handwaves this stuff away, saying that whatever this IQ thing is, it seems to correlate with outcomes. Well, fine, but we're not talking about outcomes, we're talking about intrinsic intellectual capacity, and that's a claim weighty enough to require a pretty robust measurement. Saletan never tries to prove that "g" is up to the task, or answer the evidence against its existence and viability.

Point being: This issue is complicated, and there's nothing close to scientific consensus on it. Saletan appears to have dived into the subject about two weeks ago, when the James Watson stuff broke. So take your motivation -- proud, independent intellectual sees scientist being pilloried for a statement that has prima facie plausibility -- and your lack of study in the area, and you have a series that's not terribly worth trusting. If Slate wanted to host a debate between hereditist Arthur Jensen and Cosma Shalizi, or Eric Turkheimer, that might be interesting. But Saletan parachuted into an immensely complicated, sensitive issue, not because he had a full command of the relevant literature, but because he intended -- even if slightly subconsciously -- to make a particular intervention in what he saw as a one-sided debate. That's not necessarily the best way to engage this subject.

• Throughout the series, Saletan repeatedly warns that group data does not predict individual cases. Indeed, it's the first of Saletan's 10 conclusions, and the one meant to protect him. "If you think it's safe to guess that a white job applicant is smarter than a black one," he writes, "consider this: The most important job in the world is president of the United States. Over the last seven years, the most important judgment relevant to that job was whether to authorize, endorse, or oppose the use of force in Iraq. Among the dozen viable candidates who have applied for the job, one is black. Guess which one got it right?" In other words: Black people may be stupid, but that's not reason to believe the black person in front of you is stupid. (The actual implication of his argument is actually sort of the opposite, but let's stick to Saletan's weak version of his own claims.)

Okay then: So what's the point of all this? What're the implications? So far as I can tell, there are none. We don't deal with people in aggregate groups. We deal with them as individuals. If "individual IQ can't be predicted from race," then none of this actually matters. One could argue that improving group IQ should be a societal goal and thus we need this data, but since Saletan is arguing for an immutable, racial, component to IQ, that obviously isn't an option. If the various races were moving in opposite directions on IQ scales, we could get really worried about that, but instead, we're seeing convergence, and everyone expects more as cultural/economic/educational disparities improve. So, again, what's the implication here?

There is none. Not if you take Saletan's premises seriously. He wants to create a problem for liberalism which he can seem brave for facing up to, but this just isn't a particularly troublesome issue. Liberals have long been aware that there's a spread of IQ across society. I've lived a life which could plausibly be interpreted as one long prep course for some eventual IQ test, and I don't find my sense of egalitarianism challenged because I might outscore someone whose parents made a little less. Indeed, it's liberals who think society shouldn't be viciously darwinistic, that all jobs deserve dignity, that all workers deserve unions (and thus the power to wrest dignity), and so on, and so forth.

Indeed, not only do I believe the meritocracy to be a vicious myth, but I believe it to be a bizarre way to conceive of your society. Abstract intellectual capacity does not seem like the most important skill in the world. Egalitarianism doesn't collapse atop IQ variations; it exists to deny their relevance, along with the relevance of class, culture, race, creed, family lineage, etc, in guaranteeing every individual a dignified, secure life within which they can pursue peace and pleasure. Saletan, of course, has to deny this, because having dived into hereditarian literature to show his bravery, it wouldn't make much sense to come back with the conclusion of, "well, either way." But that's basically what his argument ends with.

November 23, 2007 in Gaze at my Navel! | Permalink


Well, we've been having this conversation over at LGM but its not really the case that the choice is *either* he's a racist *or* he imagines himself to be a brave, truthtelling, contrarian. He could be both. And I'm not really willing to concede the monicker "brave, truth telling contrarian" to him either. There's a huge difference between telling truth to power (in the old phrase) and sucking up to the status quo. Does anyone think for one minute that Saletan would risk anything important to him (salary, perks, importance, public regard) to tell "an inconvenient truth" to someone who could actually take those things away from him? He's no Al Gore, that's for sure. And yet there are many things, perhaps even hundreds of things, where with real courage a writer such as Saletan could stand up against received wisdom and actually make a difference in someone's life. Certainly it would take courage. It might take intelligence and vision. But it wouldn't take propounding the popular theories of popular racist crackpots in the pages of a little read magazine.

It is possible to describe what Saletan is doing when he persists in writing these phony science think pieces--puffery? self love? race hatred? shill shopping? sucking up? making excuses? giving aid and comfort to racist policies? These and many others come to mind but contrarian? hardly. Unless courageous contrarian now means "curmudgeonly reactionary."



Posted by: aimai | Nov 23, 2007 5:30:40 PM

I think the issue for liberals is to protect our personal genetic information from being used to discriminate against us. Regardless of whether Saletan is right or wrong concerning inherent intelligence, our genetic information will be used to decide what life and health insurance you can receive and what your rates should be. It will be used to justify decisions about hiring you, just as credit worthiness is used to decide if you are worthy of working for Home Depot is.

I personally think it's bizarre to make the argument that somehow intelligence (not IQ, but intelligence) is different from other genetic facets of our lives. I suspect that Saletan and many others are correct when they say that sooner or later (more likely sooner) someone will have measurements of intelligence or components of intelligence that can be linked to your dna. And that DNA tests will become routine and cheap.

Today we discovered that the FBI can routinely access your cellphone GPS data and track you. Privacy losses happen all the time.

Sticking our heads in the sand by insisting this is a racist form of inquiry is asking for trouble, it flies in the face of academic freedom, and it is not reality based science.

What you Ezra could do that no other bloggers have done yet, is find actual researchers in the field and ask them. So far 99% of the arguments have come from economists and lawyers and taken from respect science popularizers, not the scientists themselves.

Posted by: jerry | Nov 23, 2007 5:36:51 PM

Oy, Jerry, please read any of the better takedowns of the simplistic arguments Saletan and Sullivan are once again spouting.

No one's arguing there isn't a genetic component to intelligence. Yes, there are lots of environment and socio-economic factors, but there is a genetic component as well.

What people are arguing is fairly simple:

1) Race is a made-up construct, with no real basis in genetics (you can thank DNA for showing us that) - therefore you cannot realistically argue the "races" (which do not exist in any genetic sense) are genetically superior/inferior to each other intelligence-wise.

2) IQ and "g" are not immutable measures of intelligence - and tend to be pretty poor proxies for even the things they claim.

It may or may not be (I fall on the "may" side) racist to argue what Saletan and Sullivan are, but it sure is ignorant and stupid. Perhaps there is something to be said about differences between the "mainstream" bloggers IQ levels. Is it something in the water?

Posted by: jcricket | Nov 23, 2007 5:46:24 PM

IQ doesn't mean anything. People who know their IQ and tell others about it are merely justifying their intellectual laziness and inability/unwillingness to reach their potential.

George W., to take a completely random example, just might be a genius like the guys at Powerline say. He might be the smartest human being that's ever lived. But he's clearly intellectually lazy and disinterested, quite content to remain ignorant of pretty much anything of import.

The person of average intellect who knows how to work hard will always do better than the genius who just doesn't care. I've seen it over and over.

Posted by: Stephen | Nov 23, 2007 5:54:43 PM

Maybe Saletan isn't a racist. But anyone who parachutes into a minefield with little knowledge of how mines explode, and endangers others who can be hit by flying shrapnel is an asshole. I believe Atrios called him that, too. That's one I can get down with.

Posted by: mk | Nov 23, 2007 6:05:04 PM

I'm pretty sure Saletan isn't a racist. Rather, this whole discussion, as it so often is, seems motivated by the desire to be a Brave Truthteller, not by a hatred of black people.

Ezra, Ygelsias, and a few others I've read seem to have an overly narrow definition of "racist." They seem unwilling to call someone a racist in the face of anything but incontrovertible evidence that the person is operating from a first principle of innate, intrinsic hatred of another race.

That Saletan desires to be a Brave Truthteller is not an alternative hypothesis to the claim that he's a racist - it's a possible explanation for the fact that he's a racist.

Remember Derek, the main character in American History X? One could make similar arguments about him - he wasn't really a racist; rather, he was motivated by a desire to be admired and followed, or a desire to avenge his father, etc. But no - he was a racist SOB, perhaps because of his father's death or whatever, but a racist nonetheless. And Saletan, while obviously not quite at the level of a Neo-nazi, is spouting racist bullshit, and therefore is a racist SOB.

You can always come up with a theory about why somebody is a racist; it doesn't absolve them of racism.

Posted by: Jason C. | Nov 23, 2007 6:17:36 PM

all human beings are not created equal.

i think that we should be finally advanced enough to transcend the belief that we can use linguistic and mathematical/logical intelligence as a sole yardstick for defining intelligence.
....we are not all created equal.
the beauty of the human mind is that intelligence is not quantifiable in those narrow and simply defined terms.
i q testing is not relevant in talking about the whole field of gifted multiple intelligences.
...is creativity a measure of intelligence?
how does one quantify creative potential?
there is nothing black or white in measuring the potential of a human being.

Posted by: jacqueline | Nov 23, 2007 6:21:11 PM

The fundamental problem with this whole debate: not only is "g" an arbitrary construct, not only is IQ a measurement of an arbitrary skill set - but the concept of intelligence itself is an arbitrary concept.

There is no such thing as "intelligence" considered separately from a shifting set of interests and contingencies that make certain mental traits more valuable to certain people for a certain amount of time. Intelligence is an intrinsically, irredeemably normative, value-laden concept that means nothing apart from what we want it to mean. To say that someone is intelligent is to say nothing more than that they possess mental abilities that we find it desirable for people to possess.

Thus even if IQ is a perfect measure of "intelligence," it's still meaningless because it's measuring "intelligence" as defined by a small group of people who have certain values and interests that are not necessarily in accord with everyone else's.

This is not a proper subject of scientific inquiry. It would be like conducting a study of physical beauty: it simply cannot be done without a reference to some normative standard of beauty. So OK, study what features are shared by people who tend to be regarded by others as physically attractive. You'd probably find that white people were more likely to possess those features. What would this tell you? Nothing - except that our standards of beauty are in large part dictated from on-high. You wouldn't be justified in concluding that white people are more attractive than black people.

Posted by: Jason C. | Nov 23, 2007 6:34:02 PM

Abstract problem solving, as measured by IQ tests, is only one form of intelligence according to Howard Gardner, who identified six other kinds of intelligence in addition to Logical-Mathematical: Linguistic, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Spatial, Musical, Interpersonal and Intrapersonal.

All other factors being equal (they're not), what does it take to become successful in life? Some people can succeed with Logical-Mathematical, but others do it with Interpersonal or Linguistic skills, or the others that Gardner notes. Plus there are other skills (intelligences?) that contribute to success, like creativity and patience. One could go on.

But of all the possible intelligences only one is easily testable--Logical-Mathematical--so that's the basis of not only IQ tests but also testing under NCLB which is now purging the US educational system of the lower castes. It's: Hey, loser, you're stupid because you can't do algebra. The economic system can't use you, but the prison system can.

Posted by: Don Bacon | Nov 23, 2007 6:34:36 PM

Saletan's whole social schtick seems to be calling on people he looks down on to give up things so that his conservative buddies won't feel uncomfortable. Women should give up abortion concerns so that the Democratic Party can attract more abortion-haters. Non-white people should give up their hope for equal standing because of those naughty naughty genes, and certainly give up pressing for equal treatment in the law, because what can you do about those genes? At no point does he ever call for wealthy white men to make a sacrifice of their hopes and privileges on behalf of others. He's a bigot, and he's a whiner about it when called on it.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh | Nov 23, 2007 6:39:14 PM

As a thought experiment: how would the punditocracy respond to a working-class black woman who got curious about Watson's recent bigotry and then a couple weeks later started publishing her very deep thoughts about what it all meant, with no obvious awareness of much of the history or context and an emphasis on white deficiencies in key intellectual factors?

Posted by: Bruce Baugh | Nov 23, 2007 6:41:25 PM

Ezra, good post. I think you've got Saletan's motivation down.

Now, there's been some question as to whether Saletan is an actual contrarian, someone who will argue against an idea even when doing so might be risky for him. To quote aimai: "Does anyone think for one minute that Saletan would risk anything important to him (salary, perks, importance, public regard) to tell 'an inconvenient truth' to someone who could actually take those things away from him? He's no Al Gore, that's for sure."

Yikes. Well, when did Al Gore risk anything by stating his opinion? Being against global warming doesn't exactly qualify. But, back in '02, Gore spoke out against invading Iraq, and good for him. It was a dangerous thing to do, given opinion at the time. The problem for aimai's comparison is that, also back in '02, Saletan did at least one column that tore a hole in the rationale for invasion. I remember because, after several happy years of ignoring big-deal public debates, I was trying to size up the Iraq situation and found rhe column a tremendous help.

What Saletan did was present a transcript of a press conference held by the Raelians about their supposed breakthru in cloning. Then he revealed that the transcript was actually from a White House news briefing. For "clone" and "cloning," read "WMDs." For "protecting the privacy of the family involved" (or whatever the cult's rationale for not showing anyone the clone), read "protecting the safety of intelligence sources in the field" (again, not an exact quote, because this is from memory). The column was a thought exercise, and a very useful one. Saletan had established that the White House's claims made about as much sense as the Raelians'.

Saletan may be a bit vain and he may be out of his depth with regard to the race/IQ debate. In fact I'm pretty sure both are the case. But in '02 he showed more courage about Iraq than, to take two examples, John Kerry or John Edwards did. I don't know if he was even against the war. But in looking at the evidence, he saw something that didn't add up and focused on that. Right now he's trying to do the same with regard to our society's very muddled attitudes toward race.

Posted by: Kyle | Nov 23, 2007 6:48:12 PM

"The moral of the story is that reading books is a waste of time."

Now you're thinking. I can't believe we, no you are having this discussion in the blogosphere. Shockley, Sullivan, Maddox, Bull Connor, Steve Sailer, Theodore Bilbo, Adolf Hitler should not be countered with evidence and arguments. I get sick to my stomach reading pieces trying to convince myself and others not to be racist, homophobic, or sexist. I have never needed convincing on these core beliefs, altho I might need help in behavior, and I don't think those who are racist, homophobic, or sexist are going to be convinced with arguments and evidence. 2 by 4's are the better tools.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 23, 2007 6:52:33 PM

There will never be a shortage of brave truth-tellers who specialize in explaining why injustice is really justice and why things that cry out for change don't need to be changed. Saletan may or may not be racist, he's undoubtedly something just as bad. He's a lickspittle. His chosen role in life is to explain that the poor will be with us forever and the rich and powerful deserve all that they have.

Posted by: Bloix | Nov 23, 2007 7:10:34 PM

Race is a made-up construct, with no real basis in genetics (you can thank DNA for showing us that) - therefore you cannot realistically argue the "races" (which do not exist in any genetic sense) are genetically superior/inferior to each other intelligence-wise.

Yes, but why can we make generalizations about, say, sickle cell anemia? Is it wrong (I know it's not politically correct, but is it factually "wrong"?) to say: members of the African race are more likely to carry to suffer from sickle cell than caucasians? Or, what about "people of the Asian race tend to be more lactose intolerant than members of other races."? Serious questions here. I've usually found dubious the notion that certain races are smarter or dumber than others, simply because, as social animals who must compete for sexual partners, it seems to me more and better cognitive function for all human beings everywhere since the species emerged 150,000 years ago would confer survival advantages to the genes found in those smarter people. But saying brain function or cognitive ability between the races doesn't vary isn't the same as saying the races don't exist.

Posted by: Musika | Nov 23, 2007 7:23:41 PM

Saletan, though a liberal, isn't a herd animal, and is willing to courageously stride into intellectual thickets where ideologues fear to tread.

The only reason you would step into this particular ideological thicket is because you believe something important needs to be said and 'the herd' isn't saying it. If what you believe needs saying is that certain races are inherently less "intelligent" than other races you are, de facto, a racist.

Posted by: flory | Nov 23, 2007 8:09:15 PM

"but is it factually "wrong"?) to say: members of the African race are more likely to carry to suffer from sickle cell than caucasians"

Yes, it is factually wrong. As I understand it, people with shared ancient geographical origins may carry the gene, but say that those with certain kinds of hair shapes (triangular), skin color, or nose shape carry the sickle cell gene is factually wrong. I don't think all jews carry Tay-Sachs, Sephardic jews don't.

"French Canadians of southeastern Quebec have a carrier frequency similar to Ashkenazi Jews, but they carry a different mutation. Many Cajuns of southern Louisiana carry the same mutation that is most common in Ashkenazi Jews"

To be honest, only a really rabid racist would try to prove that Ashkenazi Jews, Quebecans, and Cajuns must have common genetic characteristics separate from Spehardic Jews, that is, are some kind of race.

This whole kind of conversation, and you, make me sick to my stomach. Why the hell do I have to talk to these Klansmen and Nazis?

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 23, 2007 8:17:16 PM

The quote about Tay-Sachs at 8:17 was from the Wikipedia article. I got upset, and forgot the attribution.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 23, 2007 8:19:38 PM

Sickle-cell susceptibility is related to malarial resistance, from the Wikipedia article"

"Due to the evolutionary advantage of the heterozygote, the illness is still prevalent, especially among people with recent ancestry in malaria-stricken areas, such as Africa, the Mediterranean, India and the Middle East.[6]

The Price equation is a simplified mathematical model of the genetic evolution of sickle cell anaemia.

The malaria parasite has a complex life cycle and spends part of it in red blood cells. In a carrier, the presence of the malaria parasite causes the red blood cell to rupture, making the plasmodium unable to reproduce. Further, the polymerization of Hb affects the ability of the parasite to digest Hb in the first place. Therefore, in areas where malaria is a problem, people's chances of survival actually increase if they carry sickle cell trait (selection for the heterozygote).

In the USA, where there is no endemic malaria, the incidence of sickle cell anaemia amongst African Americans is lower (about 8%) than in West Africa and is falling. Without endemic malaria from Africa, the condition is purely disadvantageous, and will tend to be bred out of the affected population."

Y'all could have done just a little research, but you prefer to think in terms of race, you bigoted fuck.

And I show my own preferred way to deal with the Saletans and Sullivans. I don't play nice with Nazis.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 23, 2007 8:26:31 PM

Bob take a chill pill. As a Jew and a carrier of several Ashkenazi linked genetic disorders, I suspect that it doesn't require a racist or even a genius at all to figure out there might be a genetic differences between Ashkenzai and Sephardic Jews. And in fact, such is exactly what Neil Risch, Ashkenazi Jew, geneticist and UCSF professor studies, and one reason why, contrary to so many others, he apparently believes there is something real underlying race.

And um, on it's face your statement is incredibly dumb, it is clear that the Cajuns of Southern Lousiana do share genetic characteristics with Ashkenazi that differentiate them from the Sephardic. It's that Tay-Sachs gene. To ask why that is, parallel evolution, common ancestry, coincidence, is a valid question, not a racist question.

Unless you've encountered Musika before, there is precisely nothing in that post that is racist or should upset your widdle tummy with questions of Klansman or Nazis.

If anything should upset your tummy, it should be what happens to science and inquiry and liberalism when we let bullies demand certain results and restrict speech.

Posted by: jerry | Nov 23, 2007 8:36:30 PM

I'm with you, Ezra. Look, I wouldn't be surprised to see, somewhere down the line, it being definitely proved that there was some minuscule innate genetic difference in "g" or whatever, however that construct is defined, between certain racial or ethnic groups. But so what? What does that mean? What are the implications? There are none, none whatsoever.

P.S. I take issue with some comments above. First, I agree, intelligence and physical beauty ought to be similar sorts of measurements in terms of their subjectivity. However they not are not totally subjective, and I would argue they can be pretty objective. Ideals of physical beauty for example are fairly constant among all cultures and societies (as measured through baby tests). Second, comparing Andrew Sullivan and Will Saletean to Adolf Hitler is deranged. Sullivan's writings probably do exhibit certain racist tendencies, but that does make him equivalent to Hitler in any way.

Posted by: Korha | Nov 23, 2007 9:05:11 PM

His point Jerry and I can see the frustration as a black person (which I don't assume you or Bob are, and, quite frankly, nor does it matter) is that what you casually ignore as science is actually about political people talking politics. You aren't talking about science here, you are talking politics. I don't understand what issues you bring to the table, and I don't care- but you are on a political blog talking politics admonishing someone for being bothered by the politics. And let's be clear your last sentence gives who you are away- someone with an agenda outside of the points that Bob made- so you create in the end strawmen arguments that were never made.

Posted by: akaison | Nov 23, 2007 9:06:35 PM

Korha, who do you think the Nazis were? how do you think their thoughts operated to affect society? Just curious when I see comments like yours- you admit what people are saying is probably true but add that it doesn't rise to some hated figure in history- is that becuase you are looking for action rather than the underlying thoughts that eventually produce them>?

Posted by: akaison | Nov 23, 2007 9:08:35 PM

In the USA, where there is no endemic malaria, the incidence of sickle cell anaemia amongst African Americans is lower (about 8%) than in West Africa and is falling...Y'all could have done just a little research, but you prefer to think in terms of race, you bigoted fuck.

Bob: Don't get your panties in a knot. I didn't think I needed to do research to posit that the sickle cell gene confers a degree of resistance to malaria -- I thought that was common knowledge. Yes, of course sickle cell is a "response" to environmental factors, just like the pale skins of Scandinavians (something about vitamin D) and the extra-large lungs of Andes Indians. I've already stated I doubt such factors would ever be absent with respect to cognitive function (again, competition for sexual partners within the social groups in which our species is always found), hence my doubt that congnitive function deviates from one race to another. But other things quite obviously do vary from one race to another. Oh, excuse me, other things vary from one "ethnogeographic group" to another. It may indeed be inaccurate to say "members of the African race" are more likely to carry the gene for sickle cell. So, perhaps you'll permit me "people with ancestry in sub-saharan Africa" are more likely to carry the gene for sickle cell if it'll make you feel better. What I'm trying to illustrate is, even if claims about intelligence and race are erroneous (I suspect they are), an overly puritanical reaction to discussion of race and science could have negative implications for such things as disease research.

Posted by: Musika | Nov 23, 2007 9:11:29 PM

Also, let me add that the entire point of IQ tests is as a sort of proxy for measuring innate superiority and, because success follows from superiority, as a justification for superior social standing and performance. Arguing that IQ is an imperfect or indeed outright meaningless measure of performance, which is probably true, doesn't quite get down to the real core of the issue, which is this: is there a combination of genetic traits that will predict future social performance to a high degree of causality, or isn't there? I don't know the answer to this question, but it may be a troubling one.

Posted by: Korha | Nov 23, 2007 9:12:15 PM

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