Friday, November 25, 2011

Traditional Intelligence Researchers Strike Back

Glenn Greenwald recently linked to a post by Andrew Sullivan lamenting liberals' lack of love for President Obama (hey, you "conservatives" can have him, Andy!). After I'd looked it over I noticed that Sullivan had written the day before about "The Study of Intelligence." I knew he'd had some stupid things to say about that in the past, so I decided to bring myself up to date.

Sure enough: The study of intelligence has, according to Sullivan, "been strangled by p.c. egalitarianism." Anyone who's still using "politically correct" seriously is a fool; in his boot-licking piece on Obama, Sullivan complained "If I hear one more gripe about single payer from someone in their fifties with a ponytail, I'll scream." Well, if I hear one more gripe about "p.c." from a balding right-winger with a goatee ...

Sullivan went on: "The reason is the resilience of racial differences in IQ in the data, perhaps most definitively proven by UC Berkeley psychologist Arthur Jensen", and quoted the article he'd linked on the subject:
"Jensen is still greatly respected by many traditional intelligence researchers," Garlick says. "By 'traditional intelligence researchers,' I mean researchers who still value IQ and continue to do studies that evaluate the effectiveness of IQ in predicting outcomes, or studies that examine possible mechanisms that may cause differences in IQ. However, due to the unpopularity of Jensen’s findings, this group of researchers is now very small.
Well, no, the reason isn't "the resilience of racial differences in IQ in the data", it's doubts about the validity of IQ as a concept. (A good place to start informing yourself on this would be Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man.) The writer of the Alternet article complains, "Somewhere along the way, the very idea of intelligence became politicized." Nonsense. The very idea of intelligence was politicized all along (and Sullivan hopes to continue the grand tradition), but especially since the original Binet intelligence tests were modified for use in the US by researchers at Stanford. "Its legitimacy as a field of study, as a measurable quality -- on par with height, eyesight and hand-and-eye coordination -- and as a concept came under fire." Well, there's your problem right there: you can't assume that intelligence is a trait like height, you have to prove it, and attempts to prove it have failed. Significantly, neither Sullivan nor the Alternet article even mentions The Bell Curve, a reminder that biological-determinist claims about intelligence and IQ could still get a rapturous reception in the US as late as 1994. Yet again, Andrew Sullivan shows that not knowing what he's talking about never inhibits him from taking a firm stand.

"The right response to unsettling data is to probe, experiment and attempt to disprove them - not to run away in racial panic. 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," Sullivan concluded. Given the deranged lies Sullivan likes to tell about Noam Chomsky, I can't resist quoting what Chomsky wrote on this very subject forty-odd years ago:
In fact, it seems that the question of the relation, if any, between race and intelligence has little scientific importance (as it has no social importance, except under the assumptions of a racist society). A possible correlation between mean IQ and skin color is of no greater scientific interest than a correlation between any two other arbitrarily selected traits, say, mean height and color of eyes. The empirical results, whatever they might be, appear to have little bearing on any issue of scientific significance. In the present state of scientific understanding, there would appear to be little scientific interest in the discovery that one partly heritable trait correlates (or not) with another partly heritable trait. Such questions might be interesting if the results had some bearing, say, on some psychological theory, or on hypotheses about the physiological mechanisms involved, but this is not the case. Therefore the investigation seems of quite limited scientific interest, and the zeal and intensity with which some pursue or welcome it cannot reasonably be attributed to a dispassionate desire to advance science. It would, of course, be foolish to claim, in response, that “society should not be left in ignorance.” Society is happily “in ignorance” of insignificant matters of all sorts. And with the best of will, it is difficult to avoid questioning the good faith of those who deplore the alleged “anti-intellectualism” of the critics of scientifically trivial and socially malicious investigations. On the contrary, the investigator of race and intelligence might do well to explain the intellectual significance of the topic he is studying, and thus enlighten us as to the moral dilemma he perceives. If he perceives none, the conclusion is obvious, with no further discussion.

... The question of heritability of IQ might conceivably have some social importance, say, with regard to educational practice. However, even this seems dubious, and one would like to see an argument. It is, incidentally, surprising to me that so many commentators should find it disturbing that IQ might be heritable, perhaps largely so. Would it also be disturbing to discover that relative height or musical talent or rank in running the hundred-yard dash is in part genetically determined? Why should one have preconceptions one way or another about these questions, and how do the answers to them, whatever they may be, relate either to serious scientific issues (in the present state of our knowledge) or to social practice in a decent society? [from For Reasons of State, Pantheon, 1973, p. 361-362]
More or less Sullivan's position, you can see, only better informed and more intelligent. I also want to quote this passage from the same essay:
Similarly, imagine a psychologist in Hitler's Germany who thought he could show that Jews had a genetically determined tendency towards usury (like squirrels bred to collect too many nuts) or a drive towards antisocial conspiracy and domination, and so on. If he were criticized for even undertaking these studies, could he merely respond that “a neutral commentator ... would have to say that the case is simply not settled” and that the “fundamental issue” is “whether inquiry shall (again) be shut off because someone thinks society is best left in ignorance”? I think not. Rather, I think that such a response would have been met with justifiable contempt. At best, he could claim that he is faced with a conflict of values. On the one hand, there is the alleged scientific importance of determining whether in fact Jews have a genetically determined tendency towards usury and domination (an empirical question, no doubt). On the other, there is the likelihood that even opening this question and regarding it as a subject for scientific inquiry would provide ammunition for Goebbels and Rosenberg and their henchmen. Were this hypothetical psychologist to disregard the likely social consequences of his research (or even his undertaking of research) under existing social conditions, he would fully deserve the contempt of decent people. Of course, scientific curiosity should be encouraged (though fallacious argument and investigation of silly questions should not), but it is not an absolute value [360].
One major problem with Sullivan's claim is that it was researchers like Jensen, who "politicized" the study of intelligence by tying it explicitly to race. (I remember Sullivan himself speculating, in a piece for the New York Times Book Review, that East Asians might have higher IQs than whites, based on their test scores and school performance in the US. He had no evidence for the notion, he just liked the idea for some reason.) In a racist society like this one, such claims can never be innocent. As the Alternet article admits, there has been plenty of other research on intelligence in recent decades; I can only conclude that Sullivan doesn't like it because it's not politicized enough to suit him.

Sullivan also assumes that racial differences in IQ can be dealt with only by "disproving" them. As Chomsky indicates, though, they're not of any scientific importance, and they can only have political importance to racists. Political equality isn't tied to IQ scores or even a hypothetical better measure of intelligence. So, why is Sullivan so obsessed with the question?

From there I somehow found myself reading Michael Ruse's blog / column at the Chronicle of Higher Education. (You'll remember Professor Ruse as the man who believes that rape means "fucking the female if [a man] gets the chance," without asking another male's permission.) In a post on Darwin, Ruse wrote:
About thirty years ago, there was a huge debate among evolutionists about the applicability of the theory to social behavior, particularly to human social behavior. Arrayed on one side were a number of scientists, including our own David Barash. They argued that using Darwinian Theory casts considerable light on human behavior and society. Arrayed on the other side were many other scientists, including the late Stephen Jay Gould. They argued that Darwinian Theory does nothing but uphold the status quo – capitalist, racist, sexist. At least [Robert J. Richards] and I like each other and respect each other. Barash versus Gould put one a bit in mind of American politics. And I am not sure that ultimately they were (or would be now) any closer to settling their differences.
Ruse's characterization of Stephen Jay Gould is false; considering that Ruse lived through the period he refers to and participated in those debates, I don't think it's going too far to call it a lie. (Ruse and Gould also participated as expert witnesses for evolutionary theory against Creationism on at least one occasion.) The two positions Ruse sketches so casually aren't even really opposites. Gould and those unnamed "many other scientists" argued that their contemporaries who tried to apply Darwinian Theory to human behavior and society were misrepresenting Darwin, and doing bad science. I haven't read much of Barash's work, but Gould was a very civil debater, not like "American politics" at all. It was some of his adversaries, like Richard Dawkins, who acted like the Tea Party Movement. The same is true of Gould's colleague and ally, Richard C. Lewontin, as you can see by reading his articles from The New York Review of Books and the ensuing exchanges with his critics, collected in It Ain't Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions (New York Review Books, 2001); he concentrated on scientific questions while his opponents, like Stephen Pinker, simply red-baited him.

American Atheists have re-entered the lists for this year's War on Christmas season, with a series of billboards (h/t to JV). "37 Million Americans Know MYTHS When They See Them," reads one, with pictures of Poseidon, Jesus, Santa Claus, and Satan. Sigh. I'm a bit more careful in my use of words like "myth," but leave that aside for now. The point I want to make now is that scientists and secularists keep coming up with myths of their own, like Ruse's about the debates over evolution and social behavior. It's a myth in the strict sense: a story meant to express certain truths (or truthinesses) about a society, thereby promoting solidarity within the group. In the broader, less careful sense, it's a myth in that it's clearly and simply false. Sullivan is religious, of course, but his account of the study of intelligence, which appeals to science, is also a myth in both of those senses.