When Good Bloggers Pimp Bad Science (No, We Don’t Need to “Study” Race and IQ)

IF A THEORY is too ugly to float across the table at a dinner party, it probably doesn’t merit the cover of a respectable magazine. One of the low points in mainstream American journalism was October 31, 1994, when The New Republic decided that it would be a good idea to devote the journal briefly to the promotion of racism.

The decision was to feature a book called The Bell Curve. It was a study of intelligence: specifically, a careful examination of how different races scored on IQ tests. No hatred entered into this. “Racism,” in its purest sense, is not race hatred. The older, more respectable definition designates a theory and a field of study: the science of race.

I use the word “science” very loosely here, and the word “respectable” to mean its precise opposite. In fact, a sorrier parade of clowns has never stumbled and giggled its way down the pages of scientific history than the fraternity of racial scientists. Their wondrous collective incompetence is documented eloquently in The Mismeasure of Man, by the late Stephen Jay Gould: a scholar whose training put him in the best position to comprehend this advanced species of thinker. (He was a paleontologist.)

Andrew Sullivan was at the wheel of The New Republic when it published that issue. Others at the magazine objected fiercely. This same Andrew Sullivan now steers the good ship Dish, at The Daily Beast. And he’s at it again. (Mutiny is less of an issue on a blog.)

new post is entitled “The Study of Intelligence.” The heart sinks. We are told, ominously, that “it’s been strangled by p.c. egalitarianism.” That sounds bad. “The reason is the resilience of racial differences in IQ in the data.” That sounds, well, really bad. Bad in the sense of something you wouldn’t want to discuss at a polite dinner party.

I go to the Dish regularly, and this swell topic has surfaced every once in a while over the years. It is somehow both predictable yet unexpected, like the intermittent recurrence of bubonic plague in New Mexico. (The blog itself has a nice medieval quality, in fact. I think of it as a priestly task in a high fantasy: presenting the daily Dish to the Daily Beast.)

I suspect Andrew Sullivan does not have a racist bone in his body, in that uglier sense of the word. He seems like a genuinely good person. He is also an extremely gifted writer and thinker, and I’ll admit to openly admiring his work: when he is good, he is very very good. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that, insofar as journalism can be heroic, Sullivan has been heroic.

When The Daily Dish was at The Atlantic, Sullivan’s relentless reporting on the policy of torture under Cheney and Bush was instrumental in keeping that loathsome business on the front page. He simply would not let it go. A lot of the heavy lifting was done by Dana Priest at The Washington Post, but it was Sullivan who made sure that these revelations were never silenced in the media, that they kept haunting the criminals. He was the tell-tale heart.

Andrew Sullivan’s virtue is that he has the intellectual tenacity that we associate with genius. His failing is this same first-rate dependability: it is a virtue we associate as well with the best industrial staple guns. Sully can be counted on to go the distance, yes. But sometimes the distance does not want to be gone. There are many who wished — for his sake — that his famed determination had flagged a bit earlier with regard to the Trig Parentage Question. Frankly, I wish his inner pitbull had simply never imprinted on the folly of rehabilitating IQ science. (Bonus points for admiring my reference to Breaking Dawn.)

It is odd that Andrew Sullivan, of all people, would be cheering for this pseudoscience. The IQ scam is predicated on fallacies best understood by someone with precisely Sullivan’s education — he has a PhD in political philosophy, and his sympathies clearly lie with the good guys: the humanists who have stood fast against modern attempts to hijack the human soul.

If you’ve spent any time in a philosophy department in the last century, you’re aware of a certain gruesome strain of thinking: the failed effort to reduce unscientific things to the level of rigorous science.

Like all bad theories, it has its roots in Vienna. It began with a fearsome school of thought: “logical positivism” — mistitled, as it was neither sensible nor a good thing. The Viennese meisters insisted that the only kind of knowledge was scientific, as a result of which we ended up with very little knowledge. “Hitler is bad” could not be assigned a truth value, which left the statement at best a sort of interesting opinion, and at worse meaningless. (I’m doing no justice whatsoever to the Vienna Circle, of course. And they deserve it.)

This in turn inspired other scholars — nostalgic for real knowledge — to misapply scientific precision to their own fields of inquiry, and we ended up with such mistitled disciplines as political science. (These people might have turned to Aristotle, who founded the science of logic and pioneered political philosophy. He made it very clear that this was a bad idea. Unfortunately, because of the new hunger for actual knowledge, nobody serious was reading Aristotle anymore.)

The IQ swindle is just this: an attempt to quantify the unquantifiable. The field aspires to the level of science; therefore it has to boast precision. It attempts to achieve this, disastrously, by counting something that can’t be counted. By measuring something that isn’t even, when looked at closely, a thing. One of the central headaches in the measurement of intelligence is that nobody knows what intelligence is. Experts like to call this thing that they’re measuring the “g factor,” because that sounds kind of scientific, like a mathematical variable. Unfortunately — just like a mathematical variable – g can be whatever you want it to be.

Every attempt to nail down the factor simply breaks it into pieces. Upon analysis we have so many kinds of intelligence, most of them unquantifiable, that the notion of assigning a single number to stand for all of them — Intelligence Quotient — is at best laughably reductive.

In fact it’s an intellectual error of an entirely different order. You would imagine that Andrew Sullivan in particular, a Catholic thinker, would see this instantly and recoil: IQ science is an attempt to turn the mind into a slab of fixed stuff, with physical properties that can be addressed with a tape measure. Stephen Jay Gould talks about the “reification” of g – the attempt to turn this non-concept into a thing. Here we have an error that is analogous but worse: the attempt to turn the soul into a widget.

Our problems are multiplying, if we want to be good racial scientists. The g factor won’t support a single number. The mind is not a quantifiable thing. Add to this the most embarrassing problem yet: “race” is not a coherent scientific concept. Scientists recognize “clines” — physical tendencies that alter progressively as you go from one part of the world to another (skin gets darker, etc.) — but not “races.” The notion that we are dealing with neat taxonomical categories — Black, Caucasian, Oriental — with proper definitions and boundaries, might be useful if you’re taking a census, but it’s based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the species.

It doesn’t get much worse than this, as science goes. You’re trying to attach an attribute that can’t be defined, to an object that isn’t a thing, then to refine the results of that meaningless exercise by rigorously sorting your non-numbers into classes of non-groups. If you think it’s hard to count the angels on the head of a pin, just wait until it comes time to divide those angels rigorously into groups of werbles, glinks, and fluts.

The most damning critique of IQ science is based on a principle that Andrew Sullivan, in one of his finer moments, duly celebrated: The “Obama effect.” The New York Times reported:

 

A performance gap between African-Americans and whites on a 20-question test administered before Mr. Obama’s nomination all but disappeared when the exam was administered after his acceptance speech and again after the presidential election.

That may seem too marvelous to be true, but makes a great deal of sense when you note that the reverse has also been demonstrated: a reaction that has come to be known as “Stereotype Threat:”

Researchers in the last decade assembled university students with identical SAT scores and administered tests to them, discovering that blacks performed significantly poorer when asked at the start to fill out a form identifying themselves by race. The researchers attributed those results to anxiety that caused them to tighten up during exams in which they risked confirming a racial stereotype.

Put differently: Black students don’t do as well in school when the covers of respectable magazines tell them that they’re not good at thinking.

Here we have an example of a truth that is gorgeously unscientific. As are many of the best truths. These observations have nothing to do with numbers, and everything to do with the shape of the human will. Notional doors have a very real capacity to block a child’s capacity to achieve. On the other hand, simply demonstrating the possibility of greatness can turn a child’s soul to a battering ram.

Put pseudoscientifically: The Obama Effect is a cure for Stereotype Threat. And both taken together demonstrate that psychometrics is not so much measurement as self-fulfilling prophecy: Tell a kid that he’s stupid, and he’s going to fail. Tell a kid that he’s smart — that he comes from an exceptionally smart group of humans — and he’ll run with it to places we’ve never been.

The boundaries of the mind are defined not by a ruler, but by aspiration. You cannot map the mind because the borders shift with attainment, and it is a nation bent on colonizing the universe. The IQ scientists, at their worst, force their wretched notions to become facts: The mind is helpfully numbered so that it is frozen in place, just this side of failure.

Luckily, soul-killing prophecies do not always fulfill themselves. On occasion, they conjure a powerful force, opposing and unequal: the Fuck You Response. When I was told by my first-year professor that I did not have the aptitude to excel at English, I responded by becoming a novelist.

Sullivan attempts to end on a moderate note: “But the deeper problem is that the racial aspects of IQ have prevented non-racial research into intelligence, and how best to encourage, study and understand it.”

That is not in fact a deep problem. You could say the same thing about eugenics, which began as a (relatively) benign field. (In fact, a field joined at the hip to psychometrics.) The horrors now associated with eugenics probably make it difficult to get grants in the area. Should we lose sleep over this? How important is it to study IQ? You can’t tell me that funds aren’t available for responsible studies of intelligence: investigations into how children learn, for instance.

Are some people more intelligent than others? It would be, yes, silly to suggest that all humans are equally good at geometry. We have attributes, and they are distributed unequally. They are also, however, mysterious. You cannot know whether someone is good at geometry until they’ve fallen in love with geometry. Human potential can be measured only in retrospect.

Also, while being good at geometry is a fine thing — you can see why it became one of the traditional measures of intelligence — the world is filled with daunting engineers who cannot write a passable essay. I knew a guy who had mastered Ancient Greek but could not get through a first-year course in symbolic logic.

My own skills are comically malapportioned: I waltzed through calculus and physics, but my chess game is worse than mediocre, and I still can’t figure out the most basic electronics. When I stare at the schematic diagram for a crystal radio, I have the urge to found a cargo cult. Language skills? I’ve lived in Mexico for half a decade, and I speak Spanish at the level of a promising four-year-old.

Sometimes when I’m bored I’ll try an IQ test online. I’ve tested, depending upon my mood, between high genius and low moron. You think I’m joking: I emerged once with an IQ of 80. And I was trying.

I had a really bad cold, it’s true. That’s not an excuse, however, for measuring at the level of an eager warthog. And if this is the number that had been assigned to me at the beginning of high school, I suspect it would have had a nasty effect on my education.

If you swallow IQ science — if you promote psychometrics — then you are doing precisely this: assigning a bleak magic number, waving your racial wand to fix it in stone, and crippling students accordingly.

Nothing should be absolutely forbidden as a field of study. By all means pursue knowledge, however perilous. Simply note that some fields — homeopathy, phrenology, IQ science — must be pursued in a very specific way. The way that vampire hunters pursue their quarry. With a stake in one hand, and a really good hammer in the other.

 


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