Quantcast

Measuring skulls

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, November 29, 2011 14:06 EDT
google plus icon
 
  • Print Friendly and PDF
  • Email this page

Andrew Sullivan is back at it again, kindly reminding us that despite his support of Obama, who he really is never lurks far from the surface. Yep, he's defending The Bell Curve again, relying on the same tricks—mainly leaning on the assumption that the audience doesn't have time to do the background research, which is true enough and a reason why journalists really shouldn't promote pseudo-science—and Ta-Nehisis Coates is pushing back, albeit in a way that far more generous than I could ever feel towards Sullivan's intentions. It's really upsetting to see these redonkulous theories of race and IQ continue to be trotted out 30 years after biologist Stephen Jay Gould published The Mismeasure of Man, neatly outlining the history of these kinds of studies, the arguments for what kind of scientific proof would actually be required (hint: much higher than need-to-believe sorts like Sullivan accept), and the real-life results of putting a faux scientific veneer on old-fashioned racist and classist arguments about how oppressed people aren't oppressed but simply inferior. (Forced sterilization is a direct example, but basically all continued institutional racist oppression is rationalized by the "it's not the oppression, it's that they're not good enough" argument). There was even a 1996 reprint that kindly put to bed The Bell Curve's attempts to update the hoary old IQ studies of old. Ta-Nehisi addresses the ahistorical aspects of Sullivan's…..I hate to call the "arguments", so I'm going to say evidence-free whinings about the P.C. police preventing scientists from demonstrating what he clearly thinks they could, which is that black people are inferior as a group. 

With that said, Andrew's ahistorical approach to race and intelligence has always amazed. The contention, for instance, that "research is not about helping people; it's about finding out stuff," may well be true in some limited sense. But it's never been true, in any sense, of race and intelligence. In the 19th century helping out white people (however that is defined) was very much the point of intelligence research. Into the early 20th century, the rise of eugenics was equally linked the field to the advancement of "people." Even the intelligence theorists whom Andrew, himself, has advanced over the years are motivated by a desire to presumably help people, if only in the form of deciding how a society should expend its limited resources.

Advocates of the "p.c. egalitarianism" theory, such as Andrew, evidently believe that the notion that black people are dumber than whites is a cutting edge theory, as opposed to a long-held tenet of slave-holders and white supremacists. They present themselves as bold-truth tellers who will not bow to "liberal creationists." In fact they are espousing firmly established views that date back to the very founding of this country. These views did not emerge after decades of failure of social policy. Indeed they picked up right where their old advocates left off; within five years of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Arthur Jensen was convinced that black people were intellectually addled.

I'll add a couple other points. Sullivan also neglects to remember—despite his claims to have done his research, he doesn't seem to have read Gould's masterpiece on this topic—that in addition to trying to find IQ differences between established racial categories, IQ studies of old targeted ethnic groups such as Italians. I'm sure Sullivan wouldn't find it so scintillating and provocative if I argued that science demonstrating that his Irish heritage puts him in a group that is morally and intellectually inferior to the groups the compose my heritage (French, German, Welsh), but the kind of studies he's so enamored of would have, in the past, done exactly such a thing. That the supposedly agenda-free researchers have stopped bothering to measure white ethnic groups against each other tells you everything you need to know about Sullivan's silly claims that this is about pure science and not about manipulating research to prove a pre-determined conclusion about people the researchers feel racism towards. 

Or to put it more simply, since the Irish and Italians became white, interest in finding "scientific" evidence that they're inferior people has completely dried up. 

I'm not a scientist, so please take my thoughts on this with that knowledge in mind. But I do love science, and have spent my time making fun of the endless stream of research that purports to find that women are inferior—though often by different measures than IQ, though that's a new development that has arisen no doubt as women have gained educational opportunities and can easily equal or even beat men as a group on IQ tests—so I think I can offer a little advice to people reading claims that black people are stupider as a group and are skeptical that research really could prove such a thing. Here's some questions to keep in mind as you read these debates. 

*What are the researchers measuring? The claim here is that "intelligence" is being measured. But what's the definition of "intelligence"? The assumptions employed by Sullivan and the researchers he champions are that intelligence is a single, fixed entity that in innate at birth. Is there evidence to support this contention? There's other ways to think about intelligence that have more evidence for them in the real world. For instance, I tend to do very well on the kind of IQ tests that we're talking about. I'm also quick with a joke, perceptive when it comes to the psychology of complex human systems, and adept at manipulating my first and only language, English. I'm decent at basic math skills. But I'm bad at learning new languages, and dealing with complex but abstract systems such as anything running a computer beyond the most obvious level. So am I "intelligent"? Most people would say yes, but if thrown into a situation I don't understand, the answer is absolutely not. Nor are any of my intelligences fixed in time—I could be having a bad day and be unable to crack a joke. Or I could suddenly have a burst of inspiration/a lot of coffee and dedicate myself to understanding something that's usually beyond me. Nor are any of these intelligences innate. It's probably true that if I had been taught a second language from the cradle, I could be bilingual, for instance. If I'd been socialized as male, I may have had more confidence with computers, as well.

Now defenders of IQ tests would say that it's measuring potential, and would say that because I'm "intelligent", I could pick up say, computer programming, faster than someone who isn't. This I find hard to swallow, because I've met people who were, say, swift at picking up how to play musical instruments (which I can't do) who don't perform nearly as well as I do on standardized tests like the IQ test. Additionally, I've never really seen any evidence to suggest that the IQ test captures potential instead of one's current ability to take IQ tests, which is why my scores graduallly improved every time I took tests like it. What changed was the context and how much I'd learned. This has been demonstrated in labs, as well—the brain is not a fixed entity by any means, but is constantly moving stuff around depending on context.

Before we even begin to measure, innate, fixed intelligence, we need to prove that there is such a thing. Which would require being able to sort out the innate, fixed-ness of it from factors such as education, stimulation, and nutrition. We'd also have to account for the fact that some people are really good at some things and not so much at others, and explain what the scientific reasons are to say X is more "intelligent" than Y. If you assume it takes more intelligence to write for The Daily Beast than fix a car, are you absolutely sure that it's not simply classism that's driving your assumptions? Where's your evidence?

*What tools are they using to measure it? We assume IQ tests measure intelligence, because that's what they've always purported to do. Which is why I really recommend reading Gould's book, because he does a great job of showing how, no matter how test writers tried to rearrange the test, it never really got past measuring acquired skills and knowledge to measure some sort of deep-down intelligence that's unaffected by acquired skills and knowledge. This is important, because if the IQ test is measuring acquired skills and knowledge does absolutely nothing to support the racist contention that differing outcomes for social groups is about innate intelligence and not limited opportunities. 

In addition to demonstrating that an IQ test measures some deep-down innate intelligence—which they've never been able to do, since the very existence of innate intelligence hasn't been demonstrated—they would have to prove that what they're measuring has more impact on eventual life outcomes than socialization, opportunity and education. Since dumbasses like George W. Bush can become President by coasting on privilege, I think that's probably going to be beyond even the most strained rationalizations of the most devoted racists. 

I realize that the authors of The Bell Curve did try to hedge on this by suggesting socialization is part of intelligence, but they still grounded their argument in the belief that innate intelligence is a natural limitation, and that it is the primary factor in how well racial groups do against each other in the economic and educational marketplaces. That's something of a red herring. Even if you think "intelligence" is only say, 50% fixed, you're still arguing that there's a fixed, innate intelligence. You still have to prove that contention. 

To be fair, since I'm a fan of the idea that there's no single definition of intelligence, I'm going to guess that Bush is a pretty good golfer. 

*What categories are they comparing in their research? When IQ studies first came into vogue, assumptions about who and who wasn't in the category we now consider "white" were much different, with Italians and Jews being considered tremendously different than Anglos. Which is to say, race and ethnicity are social and legal categories, but they can't really be understood realistically as biological categories. (According to Wikipedia, the authors of The Bell Curve tried to skip over this problem by claiming that previous studies finding Jews and white ethnics were less intelligent were nothing but folklore, but in fact, there's a strong historical record to prove otherwise.) All the problems inherent to treating men and women as discrete categories who can be meaningfully compared on factors like "emotionalism" and "horniness", as if we didn't have more in common biologically than not? That goes quadruple for treating race categories that way. Because we put a lot of social worth into things like skin color doesn't mean that nature agrees. If we chose as a species to highlight foot length instead of skin color, we're probably be seeing IQ claims correlated with shoe size instead of race. 

I'm not pulling one of those irritating white liberal "race is just a color" things out of my pocket. I accept race as a category and am a firm believer that social categories matter as much, if not more, than biological categories. I'm just arguing that it's important to know the difference. If you're struggling to understand the difference, consider people who have parents of differing racial categories, such as Obama. If you assume race is a biologial category, he's uncategorizable. If you assume it's a social category—as I do, and as most of us do, if you really think about it—he's black. He identifies as black and is identified by others as black. Most of us have a more diverse ancestry than you'd initially realize, making the notion of biological race categories even shakier. In addition, applying the racial categories that have developed in the United States to the world at large, which has a wide variety of ideas about how to categorize people, reveals the limits of conflating social categories with biological ones. In the U.S., for instance, we identify as large and diverse group of people from a large part of the largest continent in the world as "Asian", but I don't imagine they see themselves as a racially homogenous group.

*Is their hypothesis falsifiable? This is getting into the most science-y part of the scientific questions for laymen, and in most cases it might be more than the average reader can take on. But I do think there's one thing to consider for ordinary people looking at this debate: Do the people making the claims of intellectual inferiority back down when their claims are disproved? Or do they hedge, trying to throw up a lot of distracting complications to make their work impenetrable for ordinary people, and otherwise do anything but let go of their theory? I particularly think it's important to watch and see if someone with a racial inferiority theory tries to get you into the weeds by chasing down red herrings instead of dealing with the central arguments and the evidence for them. They're not interested in finding truth so much as defending their hypothesis. (Sullivan does this by saying, "No one is arguing that "that black people are dumber than white," just that the distribution of IQ is slightly different among different racial populations, and these differences also hold true for all broad racial groups…" Which is a way of saying, "If I say black people are dumber than white using bigger words, that will create a larger and more headache-inducing debate that will drive most of you off in frustration." That's not allowing your hypothesis could be falsified by any stretch.) 

In other words, if they're striving to make their claims as complex-sounding and headache-inducing as possible, instead of putting effort towards making their claims and their evidence clear and understandable, that's a giant red flag. They're not trying to invite criticism like proper scientists should, but trying to put a wall up around their ideas to protect them from it. 

Look out, too, for them putting you on the defensive. That's not how scientific theorizing works. It's like court: the burden of proof is on the prosecution. They are going to try to claim that the burden of proof is on those who think it's not obvious that black people are inherently inferior, but since we're not the ones making previously un-evidenced claims (that intelligence is fixed and innate, that IQ tests meaningfully measure it, that racial groups are distinct biological categories), it's not. If they try to shift the burden of proof or make their ideas harder and not easier to understand, that's about protecting the theory and not subjecting it to rigorous criticism. 

**************

Now, by bringing up these questions, I'm not trying to come up with a definitive answer, though I think it's utterly clear what my opinion is. I'm not interested in playing a game of concealing my point of view on these things, because that only contributes to an atmosphere of bad faith that has infected this debate from the beginning. For which I blame the pro-racism side, because they strike a bad faith pose of being merely interested in scientific discourse, even though there's no real reason to think that disinterested scientific research would move in a direction of using inadequate tools to measure ill-defined traits amongst groups that are genuinely hard to categorize using biological measures. But I think that their bad faith pose can cause people of good faith to engage on that level with them, and I hope keeping these four questions in mind will keep you grounded when dealing with an issue that has a whole lot of ill-intentioned hand-waving going on. 

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
By commenting, you agree to our terms of service
and to abide by our commenting policy.
 
Google+