Why are so many smart people convinced of so many stupid ideas?
Last month, in a piece published in anticipation of his new memoir, the certifiably brilliant Nobel Prize-winner (for discovery of the double helix) James D. Watson was quoted in the Times of London as follows:
He says that he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really,” and I know that this “hot potato” is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.” He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because “there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level.” He writes that “there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”
Five days later, on October 19, Watson issued an apology, reported as follows in the New York Times:
In a statement given to The Associated Press yesterday, Dr. Watson said, “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. There is no scientific basis for such a belief.”
But his publicist, Kate Farquhar-Thomson, would not say whether Dr. Watson believed he had been misquoted. “You have the statement,” she said. “That’s it, I am afraid.”
Watson’s administrative responsibilities at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island were suspended that same day. A week later, it was announced that he had resigned from his post as Chancellor and from the Board.
Predictably, commentators on the right are loudly charging political correctness, claiming that the subject of racial intelligence differentials is worth considering, but because of the risk of being denounced as a racist, it can’t be done in the current climate. (There’s tons of this stuff on the internet, most taking the form of people who say you can’t talk about it going on to talk about it at length. For example, see a series of posts by William Saletan on Slate.com.)
Online dialogues and public forums on race and intelligence (last week the Harvard Club held one at the Manhattan Institute) are proliferating like fruit flies. The arguments wielded are so clumsy and insubstantial, I get the image of a group of poorly coordinated combatants going at each other with balsa-wood swords. Consider a few things that can indeed be proven:
First, IQ tests measure only certain types of comprehension, logic and cognitive ability—indeed, those which correlate most closely to things like school performance, measured by much the same standards. It’s not exactly earth-shaking to use your yardstick to ascertain that another ruler also measures three feet in length. So what? Many people have pointed out the existence of multiple intelligences, and also the evident fact that their interaction may produce individuals whose remarkable abilities and accomplishments cannot be denied, nor measured by IQ scores.
Second, “race” is a cultural concept, not a scientific one. As increasingly accessible and popular genetic tests are demonstrating, no one is any single thing, as Henry Louis Gates learned deciphering his own DNA results on the PBS series “African American Lives.” Scientists tell us that there is more variation, by every measure, within any designated racial group (i.e., all the people who might self-select or be selected based on appearance for a category such “white”) than between the averages of such groups as a whole. There are so many exceptions to every generalization based in race, why bother making them? With respect to IQ, for instance, tests reveal that results change along with social circumstances. This is from right-winger Thomas Sowell, written in 1995 about The Bell Curve, a controversial book on IQ and race:
[T]he greatest black-white differences are not on the questions which presuppose middle-class vocabulary or experiences, but on abstract questions such as spatial perceptual ability…. [Herrnstein and Murray’s] conclusion that this “phenomenon seems peculiarly concentrated in comparisons of ethnic groups” is simply wrong. When European immigrant groups in the United States scored below the national average on mental tests, they scored lowest on the abstract parts of those tests. So did white mountaineer children in the United States tested back in the early 1930s. So did canal boat children in Britain, and so did rural British children compared to their urban counterparts, at a time before Britain had any significant non-white population. So did Gaelic-speaking children as compared to English-speaking children in the Hebrides Islands. This is neither a racial nor an ethnic peculiarity. It is a characteristic found among low-scoring groups of European as well as African ancestry.
In short, groups outside the cultural mainstream of contemporary Western society tend to do their worst on abstract questions, whatever their race might be….
Perhaps the strongest evidence against a genetic basis for intergroup differences in IQ is that the average level of mental test performance has changed very significantly for whole populations over time and, moreover, particular ethnic groups within the population have changed their relative positions during a period when there was very little intermarriage to change the genetic makeup of these groups.
Babies don’t pop out of the womb with racial labels attached. Such labels are awarded based on observation and information about heritage, leaving lots of room for subjectivity and an ocean of gray area. There are many stories of people changing their labels when they got old enough to choose. (For instance, see Bliss Broyard’s well-reviewed book about her father.) How could they do this if race were an objectively measurable fact?
So when scientists say they are going to study the correlation between race and intelligence, it’s not like studying bears or bees or even babies. It’s rounding people up into categories that can’t be substantiated with hard evidence (for instance, with a large test group, no two researchers would assign identical racial categories based on any form of medical testing or even charts of skin color or hair texture), then measuring them with an instrument that is also socially constructed (the narrow IQ concept of intelligence). And then pretending this says something “scientific” about them. This is as absurd as scientists claiming test flowers for prettiness. It’s a form of opinion poll, maybe, but all claims to hard science are absurd.
Third, no one knows how much of IQ-type measurements of intelligence is attributable to nature versus nurture, and we never will. Every human being is raised in some social context with some range of inputs and influences that can affect the results of such testing. It would be impossible to establish a control group where purely native intelligence (however that’s defined) can be measured.
There are times when I feel dismayed to think our scientism—our proclivity to treat human subjects like so much lab material, believing our amazingly complicated selves and lives will yield their mystery to the same techniques we use to study metals or chemical reactions—is making us so stupid. This is one of those times.