Racist pseudoscience keeps creeping back into the culture, and I like the point made in this article by Gavin Evans that one mechanism is by the alliance of the pseudoscience of race with the pseudoscience of heritable intelligence, both “slippery concepts” that allow an amazing amount of sloppiness in which to inject one’s biases. You know you’re dealing with a charlatan when they start making very specific claims about the genetics of intelligence in humans, something that has been extraordinarily difficult to measure and test, in correlations with the genetics of race, a concept that is poorly defined. They’re trying to build a skyscraper when the only materials they have to hand are buckets of watery jello and porridge — it turns out they don’t make steel when combined.
My personal views are that populations have structure, and there are rivers of genes that run through different lineages, but that the structures don’t align well with the exclusionary, constructed concept of race. Those genetic patterns are interesting and important, but their study is ruined by the know-nothing yahoos, like Charles Murray, who keep intruding and trying to warp the data to fit their preconceptions about how the human social order ought to be, which somehow is always conditioned by archaic and crude ideas about the inferiority of the Other. There is no higher or lower, there is only difference.
As for intelligence, the entire point of the human brain is plasticity and sensitivity to experience and novelty. There is no such thing as high intelligence — but there is such a thing as high adaptability. Since intelligence is actually a response to the environment, it’s disappointing and absurd that there are actually scientists arguing for some mysterious hard-wiring of the brain for some difficult to describe ability like “performance on IQ tests”. Don’t they realize that that’s the antithesis of what human intelligence is? You have a property that is all about interacting with complex environmental challenges in diverse ways, and you think you can capture it in a simple, constant parameter, one that doesn’t include the environment? Weird.
Yet people still push this contrary notion. Charles Murray is one; so is Steven Pinker; among the worst and clumsiest promoters of racial IQ science is Sam Harris, whose career has been all about defining boundaries between people, and making evasive suggestions about what ought to be done with the Other. When Harris brought on Murray for an interview, this is how he introduced him:
People don’t want to hear that a person’s intelligence is in large measure due to his or her genes and there seems to be very little we can do environmentally to increase a person’s intelligence even in childhood. It’s not that the environment doesn’t matter, but genes appear to be 50 to 80 percent of the story. People don’t want to hear this. And they certainly don’t want to hear that average IQ differs across races and ethnic groups.
Now, for better or worse, these are all facts. In fact, there is almost nothing in psychological science for which there is more evidence than these claims. About IQ, about the validity of testing for it, about its importance in the real world, about its heritability, and about its differential expression in different populations.
Please, please, please…someone define this curious property that Harris has labeled “intelligence” which doesn’t change and which is hardly at all malleable, even in childhood. Anyone who has had a child knows that their minds grow and change over time — I see it even in the 18 year olds who enter college and then leave 4 years later with often great changes in maturity and outlook. Yet none of that is part of Harris’s understanding of “intelligence”.
We know that living in poverty, suffering trauma, lead exposure, poor schools, social isolation, abuse, and poor nutrition all affect academic performance and people’s roles in society, yet somehow none of these involve the ineffable subject of the term “intelligence”. “Intelligence” is fixed and intrinsic, with perhaps 20% that can be modified by stuff like education and experience. Or is it 50%? I don’t know. I don’t even know how you can peg it to a single number, or what it means for someone to be 20% more or less intelligent than I am.
Also, contrary to Harris’s claim that this assertions are facts unopposed by psychological science, Vox found 3 psychologists specializing in intelligence who, um, opposed his views.
This infuriated Sam Harris.
He went on a tweet rampage — apparently, showing that he is wrong, and that his opinions are not universally shared, is “defamatory”. He is very upset that once again someone has publicly pointed out that his statements sure sound awfully racist, and that what was published against him is “nothing less the total destruction of a person’s reputation for the crime of honestly discussing scientific data”. He made a suggestion that Ezra Klein, editor of Vox, should engage with him in his podcast, and published the emails that bounced back and forth between the two as they negotiated.
It’s a remarkable exchange. You should read it. Also remarkable is that Harris willingly posted it, thinking it would demonstrate the rightness of his position, when all anyone can see is that Klein is patient and friendly, while Harris is increasingly testy and self-righteous. Harris challenges Klein to do a podcast, he accepts, and then there’s this long weird gripe about how he was defamed, yet he doesn’t want to discuss this subject with qualified psychologists (which Klein suggests), but only with Klein — and then he doesn’t want to discuss the claims about race and science he obligingly approved of in his discussion with Murray, because, he says, it would be “boring” to his listeners.
This “boring” dismissal seems to be routine with Harris when he senses the argument isn’t going his way. He did the same thing with Omer Aziz, recording a 4 hour session and then deciding not to air it, because it was “boring”.
He also likes to pull this stunt when he meets someone who dismisses him of posting the email exchanges between them with this strange notion that somehow they redeem him — he did this when Noam Chomsky refused to debate him. It’s a curious phenomenon, because he seems to think his prickly whining makes him look like a good guy, but all it really does is reveal him as a pompous ass. But he might be wise in doing it, because there are always a mob of ardent fanboys who afterwards reinforce Harris’s opinion of himself.
Ezra Klein has responded by pointing out how Harris pandered to Murray, and rejecting the claim that psychological scientists even have the ability to assess an intrinsic component to IQ.
International evidence suggests oppression, discrimination, and societal resentment lowers group IQs. As the New York University philosopher of neuroscience Ned Block has written, quoting the work of anthropologist John Ogbu, oppression has a clear effect on marginalized groups globally. “Where IQ tests have been given, ‘the children of these caste-like minorities score about 10-15 points … lower than dominant group children,’” he writes.
Block’s point, and this is important, is not that IQ isn’t heritable, or even that it’s impossible to imagine it differing among groups. It’s that it’s impossible to look at the cruel and insane experiment America has run on its black residents and say anything useful about genetic differences in intelligence.
He makes a measured response. It’s a solid article that politely rips Harris’s views strongly. It should win over rational people, which doesn’t include the blinkered goons who love Sam Harris no matter what he says.
But that doesn’t matter. Sam Harris has won over 4chan.