Sunday, April 15, 2012

My long response to Derbyshire's glib superiority

This is a difficult follow-up to my post on Derbyshire's insulting racist column that got him fired from National Review. I'm not going to take a standard line that Derbyshire's column was unforgivably racist and leave it at that. I'm going to try to explain what I think about the IQ data that Derbyshire points to in his column.

I hope that readers aren't offended by me writing about this data. It's certainly depressing that there is such an achievement gap between races in our country. We should be able to talk about it, though the way Derbyshire approached it, hurling one insult after another, is not conducive to discussion if you hope to include black folks or non-racists. If you want to discuss the issue with white supremacists, then Derbyshire's method is very effective, because they are almost the only ones defending him.

I'll be open and honest in stating that I'd prefer all races to be equal in intelligence, or nearly so. Claims of the superiority of 'us' and the inferiority of 'them' have led to an extreme amount of bloodshed. But my belief isn't based on wishful thinking and indifference to evidence. There are a number of reasons to question that the IQ data showing that blacks are less intelligent than whites, which is the conclusion Derbyshire and these white separatists seem to subscribe to.

Why this is hard to write
I'm not someone who will be hurt by what I have to say. I have the immunity of my racial/ethnic background (European), and my educational and professional success. I know I'm smart, I've demonstrated it often, and most people who know me acknowledge my intelligence. But if I talk about the intelligence of black people, I can hurt a lot of people who don't have that immunity. There's little doubt that many blacks have had painful experiences of being prejudged as less intelligent, or as shifty, criminal, or "up to no good." I don't want to add another painful experience to this thorny, nasty thicket.

That is why I hesitated to write this post at all. However, I decided to write so I could share what I've learned from the span of my experiences and research. It is a hopeful message.

Reminder: I shouldn't have to write this. The question itself is insulting, degrading, and dehumanizing.

Historical View - We've been wrong before
Think of the ethnic groups who have been accused of being inferior: Irish, Jews, Italians, Chinese, Germans,  and probably every one of them at some time or other. And, of course, women. In earlier times, claims about inferiority didn't have IQ tests to prop them up, so the critics used other criteria, such as lack of technological advancement. So the Romans thought the Germans were inferior because they didn't have architectural works. Two thousand years later, the Germans are bailing out these superior Italians (who are actually descended from eastern slaves, but they did build most of the later Roman architecture.)

The point is that technological superiority moves from group to group. That doesn't mean that declining people have become genetically stupid. Instead, often they've suffered a crisis due to war, famine, disease, or poor political policy. They've been cut off from their old knowledge and the new knowledge is growing elsewhere. Often they've had to concentrate on more basic tasks like fending off or buying off raiders, and trying to get enough food to live. It's hard to do well building a high civilization, or answering multiple-choice IQ questions correctly, in those circumstances. So, low accomplishments don't equate necessarily to low intelligence.

Reminder: I shouldn't have to write this. The question itself is insulting, degrading, and dehumanizing. The history of the world shows this over and over again.

Scientific View - Validity of IQ tests
I've read long ago (no link) that IQ tests are good predictors of success in school. They measure current aptitude for answering multiple choice questions, which correlates for many people to doing well in school or other reading-based jobs.

IQ tests don't actually measure intelligence--they merely try to. Intelligence has been very hard to quantify since it has broad outlines. Someone vastly superior in math may not be able to construct a readable sentence, for example. This has all been known for a long time, so most people dismiss IQ tests. (I certainly do. I scored 144 in my fourth grade IQ test, and I've doubted them every since. So does my brother, with his double-800 SAT scores.)

These were an educated layman's doubts. Then I got to work inside a testing company--one of those places that manufactures the test questions. What an eye-opening experience. The writers, editors, and producers of those tests are overwhelmingly 1)middle-class, 2)white, 3)educated in private colleges or universities, and 4)female. If that's your family background, and your family encourages you to get good grades, you have excellent preparation for test success. Doesn't seem like a level playing field, does it?

Genetics View - Variability
This is not my strong suit because I don't know much about population genetics. My guess is that competitive pressures in Africa ensured intelligence was favored. We've partially undone these competitive pressures all over the world, but only quite recently, and not recently enough to have changed the gene pool.

Here is an argument by someone with some expertise:
"As the population geneticist Richard Lewontin has been pointing out... heritability is a measure of the genetic contribution to a trait within a population, under a given set of environmental conditions. It is the result of many-to-many relationships among genes, environmental variables, and interaction terms." -- Article in online science forum.
I had trouble finding a readable source. Feel free to look for works by geneticists.

Reminder: I shouldn't have to write this. The question itself is insulting, degrading, and dehumanizing. Science (or religion) has been a favorite cudgel over and over again.

Cultural View - Patterns that enhance or undermine performance
This is close aligned to the historical view. How is it that Jews or Chinese were once thought inferior in intelligence, and now do better than average on IQ tests? Changes in barriers, changes in opportunities, and cultural environments that promote learning and test-taking skills.

It is truism, and probably true, that some aspects of US black culture actively works against academic success. It's also a truism that poor people in general do worse academically and have less interest in academic achievement, and proportionally, more blacks are poor than whites. Here is more than enough here to explain most or all of the gap in IQ scores, so this is where I place my bet.

 Reality check - What is my experience?
I've laid out many reasons to doubt that IQ test results equate with potential for intelligence. Perhaps more important to me is my own personal experience. I know statistical studies can be manipulated, so I also test theories against my experience, knowing that I will honestly question my precepts, and accept results even if I don't like them.

I grew up with very few blacks, so my experiences are from college on. Most of my impressions have been formed or tweaked in the past 12 years while working intensively in racially mixed workplaces. The blacks I've met range in intelligence on par with the whites I met, that is, a few highly intelligent, more quite intelligent, and a broad number of average intelligence. The workplaces have demanded a minimal of intelligence, so I don't work with the strata that is far below normal.

I suppose it's possible that I just haven't met many of this supposedly huge pool of lower intelligence blacks. However, I don't think so. Many of the blacks I've met and worked with have been from poorer families, so just the kind of stock that would be in the less intelligent ranks, but they and their children are average and above average.

I think the arguments that people make for the lower intelligence of blacks aren't based on a great deal of interaction with blacks, but instead are based on sparse interaction and second-hand news and impressions. Did Derbyshire actually talk about all the low IQ blacks he'd met over the years? No, he didn't. He probably has very few black acquaintances because he's been making sure that he avoids black hordes. So much for checking first-hand whether his thesis makes sense in light of real-life experience.

Should I believe someone else's statistics, or my own experience? I'm a reflective, thinking, honest person, so I'm going with my experience. But my historical, scientific, and cultural arguments are also a strong support.

Reminder: I shouldn't have to write this. The question itself is insulting, degrading, and dehumanizing. But I write to honor and defend all the wonderful people I've known who would be targets of this kind of attack. That includes my entire family.

Go ahead, play with the curves
 Graphic credit:

A note about race. I used to believe in races. Now I'm convinced by my research that there aren't races. The four racial groups are a convenient social classification that doesn't capture the biological picture. 

Humans can, do, and have interbred forever. However, there are regional differences that are best thought of as ethnic, not racial. For example, we have light-skinned, red-haired Norwegians, Somalis with narrow noses and dark skin, Siberians who are stout and built like furnaces, and lots of gradations and mixes. You can't draw dividing lines and end up with four distinct groups because there are transitions at the borders, and there are a hell of a lot of border regions.  

There is one human race, and we are all part of it. Welcome if you dare enter. . . but you are already here.

"But what comes out in the end is claims like this: you’d have to go through 5 or 10 times as many blacks as whites to find someone who’s mentally equipped to be a teacher or an accountant. I find that very hard to believe."
  • I can't tell if this blogger is a racial realist, as they call themselves, or not. However, he seems to know a great deal about European migration patterns. The net kicks up gems sometimes.
  • My followup to this post is here. Basically, I feel that I was wrong to argue against Derbyshire's conclusion (that blacks are inferior) and not attack the premise. If you've been thinking that as you read this post, I agree--I'm just late to that realization. (I also added those reminders on 5/24/12.)

1 comment:

A Political Junkie said...

It's the old "nature vs. nuture" argument all over again. If you don't have the opportunity to succeed, it is highly unlikely that you will; if you don't have the genetics that wires your brain in a certain way, it is also just as likely that you won't succeed.

That's one of the few things I carried with me from my University education that actually had sticking power.