I want to follow up Jesse’s excellent post on this ridiculous tide of people pretending that there’s legitimate, unresolved questions about intelligence differences between black and white people as groups, and I want to continue teasing out something Jill picked up on. The defenses of Stephanie Grace from the likes of Eugene Volokh and others—and her own email—are a classic example of what skeptics like to call “JAQ-ing off”. Ironically, I just was dealing with a cruder, stupider version of this from Jill Stanek and the other folks claiming that aborted fetuses in vaccines cause autism. But because the people that are “Just Asking Questions” about whether or not black people are stupider are more sophisticated, it might be hard to see that they’re doing the same thing to the same effect as the fetuses-in-vaccines nutters, which is making ridiculous, unscientific claims while pretending to be interested in scientific inquiry.
A refresher on what “JAQ-ing off” means:
JAQing off is the act of spouting accusations while cowardly hiding behind the claim of “Just Asking Questions”. The strategy is to keep asking leading questions in an attempt to influence listeners’ views; the term is derived from the frequent claim by the denialist that they are “just asking questions”, albeit in a manner much the same as political push polls. It is often associated with denialism in general.
I would definitely say that the people JAQ-ing off on the “question” of intelligence here are denialists, and what they’re denying is the historical turn towards a progressive, humanitarian, and not coincidentally more scientifically sound understanding of our common humanity. Like most denialists, they eagerly ignore the mounds of evidence that the questions they’re claiming to raise have been settled beyond a shadow of a doubt, because they’re not really raising questions. They’re lobbing accusations. Volokh’s bad faith might be hard to smell since he buries it in a pseudo-sophistication that no doubt took him years of wanking off to cultivate, but his work is showing all over the place. Like here:
One absolutely should not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. Likewise, to give examples involving three groups I myself belong to, one absolutely should not rule out the possibility that Jews are (say), on average, genetically predisposed to be more acquisitive, or more loyal to their narrow ethnic group than to broader groups, or that whites are genetically predisposed to be more hostile to other racial groups, or that being nonreligious is genetically linked, and that people who have those genes are genetically predisposed to be more likely to commit crime or cheat on their spouses or what have you.
Note what questions he doesn’t entertain. Like Jesse said, he doesn’t entertain the possibility that whites could be less intelligent. But he also doesn’t ask this question of Jews, even though historically this accusation has been lobbed and was part of the justification for the Holocaust. Which in turn leads me to believe that Volokh’s stated willingness to entertain “hard” questions about himself and his people is just a put-on.
JAQ-ing off crops up a lot when the conspiracy theorists/denialists in question are trying to refute a giant wad of evidence against their claim that basically settles the question beyond any reasonable doubt. Creationists dwell on what they considered unanswered questions about evolution. Holocaust denialists, 9/11 Truthers, Birthers, you name it—they all hide by saying, “I’m not saying for sure, I’m just asking questions,” as if the answers weren’t readily available. And that’s what Volokh does here:
Whether there are genetic differences among racial and ethnic groups in intelligence is a question of scientific fact. Either there are, or there aren’t (or, more precisely, either there are such differences under some plausible definitions of the relevant groups and of intelligence, or there aren’t). The question is not the moral question about what we should do about those differences, if they exist. It’s not a question about what we would like the facts to be. The facts are what they are, whether we like them or not.
Okay, fine. But you cannot have it both ways. If it’s a matter of scientific fact, then it cannot by definition be resolved by a bunch of law students and bloggers “debating” it. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Volokh is just hiding behind “science” here, since he never bothers to even ponder if science has ever looked into this question. He stubbornly ignores the fact that one of the most famous and well-respected popular science books of all time—The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould—rounds up all the major reasons that these “questions” are stupid and makes it clear that this is about as legitimate a form of debate as debating whether or not evolution happened. Volokh doesn’t actually talk about the actual scientific inquiry, because it says what he doesn’t want to hear.
He gets very close to stabbing at why, before recoiling and running off into the wilderness of his own ignorance.
But we still know very little about which genes produce intelligence, how exactly those genes operate, and even how intelligence can be defined. We obviously have vastly more left to learn about this.
He’s close, but misses by a mile because he wants to leave the “question” open. Actually, there’s entire fields of scientific study about how the brain works and develops. We actually know quite a bit about cognition and what he likes to call “intelligence”. It’s just that what we know makes it clear that this debate is stupid. But he is right about one thing! Which is that “intelligence” is hard to define. Well, and then he’s only kind of right. The reason that there’s no magic bullet studies about “intelligence” isn’t that it’s because it’s a set thing that’s simply hard to measure. It’s because “intelligence” is an inexact, meaningless word. It’s not culturally meaningless, of course. When I say, “Oh, you’re so smart” to a friend that figures something out, I’m not full of shit. But as an actual trait that can be measured? It’s meaningless as a term.
It’s like the way anti-vaccers talk about “toxins” in vaccines. It’s an empty word that means whatever you need it to mean in order to keep the “questions” going. Intelligence is tricky to measure, because there is no such thing. For instance, if I devised an IQ test that only measured how well a person understands scientific inquiry, Eugene Volokh would probably score incredibly low. If you measured intelligence by how well someone understood legal jargon, I’d score incredibly low. Or take my cats, for instance. One would kick ass at the drawer-opening test, and the other at the figuring out how doorknobs work test. But if you reversed those, suddenly the super-smart cats would seem like really stupid cats. Add to this that not only isn’t intelligence a single quality, but it’s also not a fixed trait. I may not have a high “IQ” on legal jargon, but if I went to law school, my “native” intelligence on this question would rise dramatically.
What’s amazing to me is what Jesse was pointing to, which is the ease with which people I would consider ripe morons, like Eugene Volokh and Stephanie Grace, consider themselves the pinnacle of intelligence. Actually, I’m pretty sure that they’re good at what they’re good at, even though they’d seem like complete idiots if all you know about them is this debate. If you devised an IQ test around questions like, “Should questions of science be resolved by not asking scientists but instead having a bunch of law students faux debate about it?”, they’d not do so well!
I could keep making jokes in this vein, but I’d like to finish off by pointing out that this whole non-debate has another classic hallmark of denialism, besides just ignoring the actual evidence while “asking questions”. And that is the conspiracy theory element. Granted, this is another way that these denialists of a pro-racist stripe are surprisingly good at dressing themselves up in sophisticated clothing, because it’s hard to see initially how they are basically engaging a conspiracy theory. They’re able to argue this in the margins. They hint, but never say outright. But their implication is hard to miss. They’re implying that there could be scientific inquiry into this, but that the evil Political Correctness Army won’t allow it. And you can tell, because the Political Correctness Army shuts down the most valid form of scientific inquiry known to man, which is drunk law students debating something they know nothing about with nothing but vague terms and a resolved unwillingness to look at actual evidence on their side. And the Politically Correct Army does this through the most pernicious form of censorship ever invented, which is criticizing conservatives, and making fun-killing if accurate points about how this “debate” was put to rest eons ago by simply looking at the non-evidence put up by racists to uphold their unscientific claims.