Monday, November 19, 2007

Dumb and Dumber

If I could enact just one unconstitutional law, I know exactly what it would be. I would take the pruning shears to the First Amendment and prohibit the news media from reporting any scientific study, social or natural, until at least ten years after its publication. Before we allow journalists to frighten and misinform their audience (remember the now-discredited abortion-breast cancer link?), let the scientists do the quiet but necessary work of re-testing and replication. If the findings stand up over time, they can be revealed to the public with honesty and confidence.

If I could make a second such law, I would enjoin's Will Saletan from ever again writing about matters of biology, physiology, or genetics.

Saletan's latest contribution to the public discourse is a bizarre brief on behalf of the proposition that black people are, on average, less intelligent than everyone else. Most of us had assumed that this sort of nonsense had been buried sometime between the demise of Josef Mengele and the death of George Wallace, but it seems there's always someone around eager to exhume the grotesque and rotten corpse. Several years ago, it was the authors of The Bell Curve, a book disturbingly embraced by some right-wingers who thought it proved…something. Now along comes Saletan.

Unlike previous apologists for this viewpoint, Saletan wants us to understand that he really, really, really wishes that everyone was just the same and that we could go back to judging people by the content of their character. But sadly, he tells us, the scientific evidence is now so persuasive that it is time for liberals to concede that their dreams of human equality might forever remain unfulfilled. Saletan goes so far as to compare those who refuse to accept these findings with creationists who insist on biblical inerrancy and deny Darwin. That he is equating a group of people who dispute a single line of research to those who reject science altogether is apparently lost on Saletan.

As is almost always the case with these arguments, the instrument for measuring intelligence is the IQ test. Saletan's evidence is conveyed as a ranking of various ethnic groups in terms of their average Stanford-Benet score (or whatever form they're using these days): American Jews and residents of Hong Kong (113); Japanese (110); Asian-Americans (106); white Americans (103); Brits (100); Latino-Americans (89); African-Americans (85); and black Africans (70, which is, by the way, equal to the high-end standard for mental retardation).

It's the usual bait and switch. First, we're talking about intelligence and then we're reciting IQ scores as though they were the same thing. The cultural and class biases embedded in IQ tests are well known and clearly documented (did the Latinos take the exam in Spanish?). Further, there is a tautology inherent in this argument that should be clear to even the dead-average Englishman. Rarely do analysts or their journalistic enablers actually attempt the Herculean task of defining the elusive concept of intelligence; thus, the IQ test becomes both the definition and the evidence.

Saletan's thesis, however, becomes progressively weirder as it goes along. To answer the charge that IQ is subject to cultural influences, he pulls out the measuring tape. "How could genes cause an IQ advantage?" he asks. "The simplest pathway is head size."

Well, it turns out he doesn't really mean noggin width (Saletan is nothing if not rhetorically careful). Otherwise, the smartest man in the world would currently be Barry Bonds. He's actually talking about brain volume, which is not always the same thing. It seems that MRIs or witch doctors or somebody has demonstrated that "Asian-American kids have bigger brains than white American kids, who in turn have bigger brains than black American kids." And since IQ covaries with brain/head size, then the differences cannot merely be cultural.

Indeed, says Saletan, displaying the full measure of his scientific chops, "the new science of MRI finds at least a 40 percent correlation of brain size with IQ". Does he mean that the correlation is .40 or that brain size explains 40% of the variation in IQ scores? As it stands, his statement makes no sense.

Could a man who doesn't understand what a correlation is also fail to comprehend that a single article or series of findings cannot possibly constitute definitive evidence? 'Fraid so. According to, a website produced by a collective of people who actually know what they're talking about (i.e., scientists), "[t]here is evidence to support both sides" of the debate about the relationship between head circumference and smarts. Indeed, one criticism of the genetic argument suggests an environmental factor that could influence both brain size and intellect: childhood nutrition. Duh-uhhh!

Anyway, Saletan goes on to propose his own wacky theory of evolution, which is effectively demolished here. He also takes pains to reassure us that he is no racist nutjob with this smarmy reminder:

"Remember, these are averages, and all groups overlap. You can't deduce an individual's intelligence from her ethnicity. The only thing you can reasonably infer is that anyone who presumes to rate your IQ based on the color of your skin is probably dumber than you are."

Nice try, Will, but it's a little late to make the individual-level case for colorblindness after telling us that the average African-American is far less intelligent than the average white person. If Saletan is right, the presumption of inferiority would not only be appropriate, it would prove correct a vast majority of the time. There are monstrous implications to the casual acceptance of such questionable science, and Will Saletan should not be permitted simply to walk away from them.

There's a lot more that could be said here about the whole nature/nurture debate, and maybe I'll take it up some other time. For now, suffice it to say that we should tread carefully when arguing that some races are less intelligent than others. We should not do this because it is politically correct. We should do it because it is destructive and, in all likelihood, wrong.


Anonymous said...

Watson 1, Zimbabwe 0...

The Man Who Was Never Born said...

And in other sports scores:

MLK 17 Bull Connor 0
Nelson Mandela 14 Apartheid 0
Common Sense 24 Bigotry 0