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Saturday, February 22, 2003

Bell, Book and Crossburning

Ok, so I can’t resist jumping into this debate about race and intelligence with an observation. Kevin Drum says: In particular, liberals are forced to make the following argument[s]: Intelligence isn't really a meaningful trait.

If this is so, then I would have to say that liberals have won this argument hands down. How else can one explain the dizzying popularity of George W. Bush in conservative circles? Ba-dum-pum.


I argued earlier on Atrios’s blog (and he quotes me today) about the obvious racist implications and conclusions of The Bell Curve. It is irrefutable that the science underlying these conclusions and the statistical analysis they used have been thoroughly rebutted. But, that doesn’t really address the main thrust of Kevin’s post.

First, I agree with Kevin that “intelligence” in the sense of somebody being ”a smart cookie” is the common sense kind of assessment we make every day. But, many people who test very well do not appear to be “smart cookies” and the opposite is also often true. The common sense assessment is made through a thicket of personal prejudices and experiences. And history as well as current examples show that cultural influence has a huge effect on how one interprets intelligence. I’m reminded of a work colleague who when faced with hiring one of either a black or a white candidate said to me, “I don’t know, I just lean toward hiring (the white guy). He seems to be more on the ball.” I asked him why he thought that and he replied, “He reminds me of myself when I was his age.”

Kieren Healy ascribes to Kevin a desire to be “reasonable” as the reason he waffles from what appears to be a defense of the idea that IQ tests show that African-Americans are less intelligent to an acknowledgement that socio-economic and other factors properly mitigate the disparities between African- Americans and others.

I think we are talking about two different things there and they get to the main thrust of Kevin’s argument, which is that because liberals are so afraid of the information about intelligence being used to promote eugenics or eugenics based policy that we are “forced to make the following arguments: Intelligence isn't really a meaningful trait. And even if it is meaningful, IQ tests don't measure it well. They are culturally and racially biased. And even if intelligence is measurable, it doesn't have a significant genetic component. It's mostly based on environment and upbringing.”

Atrios argues that liberals merely resist using the word “intelligence” when discussing disparities in test score results because it implies immutability --- something that can lead inexorably to racism in a culture that Kevin and many others would agree finds “intelligence” to be a valuable asset to society as a whole. In his mind the argument is one of semantics and I think that is correct. It is important to understand how the meaning of words is twisted to advantage in areas like race and be cautious about falling into a trap laid by those who are very aware that what they say has multiple layers of meaning to people who care to look.

In many ways, the crux of the entire discussion we’ve been having lately about the Southern Strategy, racism and political correctness is one of semantics. One side argues that “it is what it is” and the other argues that there is more to it. We are arguing the meaning of words and phrases and it doesn’t seem useful, to me, to pretend that these semantic differences aren’t tremendously significant. So, in the interests of maintaining credibility, those who study the differences between the races in standardized test scores should be very specific and resist the urge to use terms like intelligence, or at the very least they should be very careful to state (as Murray and Herrnstein did not --- and in fact did the opposite) that IQ and g are very definitely NOT immutable characteristics.

But, beyond that is Kevin’s assertion that liberals believe that IQ tests don’t measure intelligence well. I think is a fair characterization of one liberal position on the topic. They point to data that suggests that these tests in themselves aren’t very predictive of success in life (which somewhat refutes the point of Kevin’s argument --- that we need to raise the test scores so African-Americans can be more successful.) “Intelligence” as measured by IQ tests does not take into account the huge number of variables that go into potential individual success, for which the IQ often serves as a proxy. It is worth noting again, that when the tests are properly adjusted for SES, the disparities disappear. Therefore, when many people say that IQ tests don’t measure intelligence well, this is the kind of thing they are talking about. In and of themselves, they only present a part of the picture and yet there are those who persist in believing that testable cognitive ability alone is a meaningful measure. It is not a liberal rejection of the science, it is a liberal requirement that the science be careful and complete.

I don’t know whether intelligence has a significant genetic component. I don’t think anybody does yet. I don’t doubt that g is heritable to some degree, but I have seen nothing to indicate that the heritability of g is related to the heritability of superficial racial characteristics, which can be dominant or recessive from generation to generation, like any other genetic trait. From a genetic standpoint, the differences between the races are extremely small and our measurement of g is very crude, so I think the jury is still out. But, I do know that race in this country is an interpretive art, a social construct, more than anything else. When the science is able to do it, it’s going to be very interesting to find out where we all fall in the racial spectrum because it’s been defined up to now by everything from what color your great grandfather was to what you chose to call yourself on the official form you just filled out.

Atrios published an additional comment of mine regarding the scientific vs the political aspect of this debate. Science is under attack from the Right in this country far more than from the Left. I adamantly believe that it is important to fight this in every way at our disposal and that means with scientific as well as political arguments. In the case of racism, it sometimes requires a bit of both to make the point.

But, there is no margin in allowing Murray and Herrnstein even a moment of credibility on any level and it is exceedingly important to recognize that these old and tired eugenic arguments can easily be dressed up in the modern language of science for a lay reader who is looking for something “scholarly” to back up his gut feeling that “those people” just aren’t as smart as they are.. We can argue about logistic regression and the immutability of g until the cows come home, but those people who bought that stupid book (and the media that shamelessly plugged it because it was “sexy”) need to be put on notice that it is nothing more than a racist screed pretending to be science. It’s exhausting, and people get tired of hearing it, but as Kevin points out, we must face the truth squarely. And the truth is that The Bell Curve is a racist book and was written to serve a racist agenda.

Edited 2/22 6 pm for hilarious mistake --- see comments.