May 25 2011

The Politics of the Null Hypothesis

If you’ve been in the blogosphere as long as I have, you’ll know that certain arguments about science stem not from the science itself, but from a desire to affect political change despite the science based on one’s own personal biases. In the case of IQ and race, much of the “controversy” appears to come from people who really, really want intelligence to be race-related, so as to give themselves cover for racism, latent or otherwise. Notwithstanding the potentially hairy idea that IQ is even a proper proxy for “intelligence”, people will argue for a genetic link for certain aspects of humanity based only on the most tenuous of lines of evidence, ignoring gigantic confounds like motivation or affluence. Why? For no other reason than because they’ve already decided this must be the case. It’s a rampant case of selection bias, with a helping of argumentum ad ignorantium on the side, suggesting that because we don’t know the cause of a particular trait, it must therefore be genetic.

The ineffable Stephanie Zvan has written up a guest post on Scientific American (!!!) about this very topic, and about the politics at play in a number of genetic-intelligence proponents’ arguments.

Nothing about the field of IQ studies is free of political influence. It’s naive to believe that any kind of research on a purported measure of individual merit could be politics-free in a self-proclaimed meritocracy with wide inequalities. Binet’s original work was meant to determine which children should have access to additional educational resources. IQ scores are used occasionally to sort out “inappropriate” candidates for various jobs, including those whose IQs are too high for a role. IQ as a proxy for merit is used to argue that a group does or does not face discrimination in educational or career opportunities. This is all terribly political.

The question isn’t whether there are politics surrounding this issue or where. They’re everywhere. The question is where does the politics get in the way of the science? Again, the answers don’t favor Pinker’s view of a fatwa against genetic explanations of individual differences.

I can’t think of a better person to take on a nuanced meta-analysis of this argument, especially given that it appears every bit as cyclical as say the accommodationism debate, the gender debate, the nuclear power debate, et cetera, et cetera. Given how entrenched the players are in this argument, and how much influence they wield in scientific fields, it’s terribly sad to see their arguments go unanswered. I’m grateful that Stephanie stepped up, and I can only hope her popularity snowballs from there.

There’s a damn good reason I’ve dubbed her “Our Lady of Perpetual Win“. And it’s not because she has an adorable nose.

(But she does, by the by.)


1 ping

  1. 1
    George W.

    I have completed a scientific study of IQ in relation to race and gender. Based on a sample of blogs I frequent, I have deduced that white males are the least intelligent, based on a sample size of 7 blogs. Though if corrected for religious affiliation, it appears they are the third most intelligent. Hispanic men come in a respectable second, based on the 1 blog I frequent. Asian women rank third or fourth depending on whether we adjust for white male religious affiliation, and it appears that Negros do not exist. The smartest appear to be white women, of which I sampled 3 blogs, even after adjusting for the ridiculously high IQ of one Stephanie Zvan.
    I hope this settles all the issues.

  2. 2
    Stephanie Z

    Well, it’s nice that we could finally find a measure of physical attractiveness that’s totally objective. ;)

    George, one of the things about IQ that amuses me is that I’ve had two IQ tests in my life, both when I was relatively young. The scores on them were about four standard deviations apart. That’s just silly.

  1. 3
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