For reasons that are obscure to me, Andrew Sullivan and his blog The Dish are highly popular. He is often cited as someone whose opinion is worth considering and is a frequent guest on talk shows. But he has always struck me as someone who has no internal compass to guide him but worships power and those who possess it. The only purpose he serves to me is as a reliable indicator of where the boundaries of conventional wisdom lie, because he cruises close enough to give himself the air of a daring thinker while not threatening the current social order.
He was an enthusiastic warmonger who cheered lustily as George W. Bush went on his war rampages and he viciously castigated as terror-loving fifth columnists anyone who doubted the wisdom of these actions. He displayed all the excessive jingoism of an immigrant who wants to outdo Americans in their patriotism, a quality he shared with his compatriot the late Christopher Hitchens. Later, when the war turned sour, he turned against it and now has become an Obama worshipper who attacks anyone who dares question his Dear Leader’s drone war on Muslims. His latest foray was his shameful and outright dishonest distortions of Glenn Greenwald’s questioning of the selective the use of the word ‘terrorist’, which reached a new low even for him.
But Sullivan’s crimes go back to the days when he was the editor of The New Republic and heavily promoted the release of the book The Bell Curve in 1994. As a result of the beating that he and the book’s authors took on their entire methodology, he has backtracked from some of those ideas but, in the context of the recent Jason Richwine debacle, he is still pushing the idea that the differences in mean IQ between groups mean something significant enough to be the basis of policy decisions. Most recently, he has been engaging with Ta-Nehisi Coats on the meaning of the Richwine analysis in which he does his usual trick of imputing to his opponents broad assertions that they do not make.
If we are discussing “subgroups with genetic differences,” we avoid the pitfalls of race as an overly-broad category. But we do not deny biological genetic differences in these subgroups, which can correlate with various degrees of accuracy with our crude racial terminology.
It’s really futile and I would argue self-defeating for liberals to deny this reality. These days, you can actually find out the exact subgroups with genetic differences that your DNA most closely resembles.
I don’t know what Sullivan’s expertise is in quantitative analysis but he strikes me as one of those people who are easily impressed when people toss out statistical and other mathematical terms. He seems to think that the fact that certain groups have a greater chance of having certain genetic traits (for example people with African ancestry with sickle cell and Ashkenazi Jews with Tay-Sachs) is somehow deeply significant and lends credence to Richwine’s argument that Hispanics are somehow doomed to be lower in intelligence than white people.
The big problem is of course that ‘intelligence’ is vaguely defined and it is not clear how it relates to IQ tests, and scores on IQ tests have been rising too rapidly to be caused by changes in genes. So the differential distributions of IQ scores between identifiable groups may be measuring something but what that thing is and what consequences follow from it are not at all obvious.
The fact is that any sub-population that tends to significantly interbreed within itself will experience a certain amount of genetic variation that are statistically from that of another population. So take the population of an island like Sri Lanka and measure the gene frequencies in its population and it would not be at all surprising to find a distribution for some genes that differs from that of the population of another island like Madagascar. So what? What follows from this other than providing evidence for how evolution occurs?
The problem is that what we find are just correlations and not strictly deterministic. By measuring the genes of any given individual, you would not be able to tell whether they are were Sri Lankan or Madagascan but could only give very crude odds. It is this lack of predictivity that makes gene frequency knowledge, like IQ test results, not lend themselves to policy prescriptions at the individual level, because of the vast number of false positives that would inevitably ensure.
If you are an Ashkenazi Jew it may make sense to test for that gene for health reasons but it would be outrageous for the US to forbid immigration of this entire group if it ever decided that Tay-Sachs were a serious health hazard it did not want to deal with. The same is true with any other trait that is statistically distributed like sickle cell.
And IQ is just another trait that has even less consequence than medical traits.