Sunday, March 29, 2009

The latest bit of bright-eyed optimism about IQ

There are always books and articles coming out that purport to show that IQ is unimportant, not hereditary and uniform across races. The research findings show the opposite but that offends against the "all men are equal" credo of the Left so the facts have to be got rid of somehow. Another such treatise has just arrived. A review of it (from the NYT!) is below. I have not read the book and nothing in the review encourages me to do so but I assume that some of my colleagues who specialize in IQ studies will read it and dissect it in due course. Meanwhile, I just offer a few comments (In italics) that occur to me. The book is INTELLIGENCE AND HOW TO GET IT. Why Schools and Culture Count by Richard E. Nisbett. The book is actually better than most in that it is largely research-based so concedes the two major facts that always stick in Leftist craws: That IQ is important and is largely hereditary.
Success in life depends on intelligence, which is measured by I.Q. tests. Intelligence is mostly a matter of heredity, as we know from studies of identical twins reared apart. Since I.Q. differences between individuals are mainly genetic, the same must be true for I.Q. differences between groups. So the I.Q. ranking of racial/ethnic groups — Ashkenazi Jews on top, followed by East Asians, whites in general, and then blacks — is fixed by nature, not culture. Social programs that seek to raise I.Q. are bound to be futile. Cognitive inequalities, being written in the genes, are here to stay, and so are the social inequalities that arise from them.

What I have just summarized, with only a hint of caricature, is the hereditarian view of intelligence. This is the view endorsed, for instance, by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray in “The Bell Curve” (1994), and by Arthur R. Jensen in “The g Factor” (1998). Although hereditarianism has been widely denounced as racism wrapped in pseudoscience, these books drew on a large body of research and were carefully reasoned. Critics often found it easier to impugn the authors’ motives than to refute their conclusions.

Richard E. Nisbett, a prominent cognitive psychologist who teaches at the University of Michigan, doesn’t shirk the hard work. In “Intelligence and How to Get It,” he offers a meticulous and eye-opening critique of hereditarianism. True to its self-helplike title, the book does contain a few tips on how to boost your child’s I.Q. — like exercising during pregnancy (mothers who work out tend to have bigger babies who grow up smarter, possibly because of greater brain size) [More likely because they are middle class]. But its real value lies in Nisbett’s forceful marshaling of the evidence, much of it recent, favoring what he calls “the new environmentalism,” which stresses the importance of nonhereditary factors in determining I.Q. So fascinating is this evidence — drawn from neuroscience and genetics, as well as from studies of educational interventions and parenting styles — that the author’s slightly academic prose style can be forgiven.

Intellectually, the I.Q. debate is a treacherous one. Concepts like heritability are so tricky that even experts stumble into fallacy. Moreover, the relevant data come mostly come from “natural experiments,” which can harbor subtle biases. When the evidence is ambiguous, it is all the easier for ideology to influence one’s scientific judgment. Liberals hope that social policy can redress life’s unfairness. Conservatives hold that natural inequality must be accepted as inevitable. When each side wants to believe certain scientific conclusions for extra-scientific reasons, skepticism is the better part of rigor.

Nisbett himself proceeds with due caution. He grants that I.Q. tests — which gauge both “fluid” intelligence (abstract reasoning skills) and “crystallized” intelligence (knowledge) — measure something real. They also measure something important: even within the same family, higher-I.Q. children go on to make more money than their less-bright siblings. [An important admission]

However, Nisbett bridles at the hereditarian claim that I.Q. is 75 to 85 percent heritable; the real figure, he thinks, is less than 50 percent [The most common estimation is two thirds so Nisbet is not being very original there. And even a 50% figure puts large contraints on what a person can achieve]. Estimates come from comparing the I.Q.’s of blood relatives — identical twins, fraternal twins, siblings — growing up in different adoptive families. But there is a snare here. As Nisbett observes, “adoptive families, like Tolstoy’s happy families, are all alike.” Not only are they more affluent than average, they also tend to give children lots of cognitive stimulation [I doubt those assertions. The point is one commonly made but I think the evidence for its effect is weak]. Thus data from them yield erroneously high estimates of I.Q. heritability. (Think: if we all grew up in exactly the same environment, I.Q. differences would appear to be 100 percent genetic.) This underscores an important point: there is no fixed value for heritability [A non sequitur. The value can be fixed even if it is hard to estimate]. The notion makes sense only relative to a population. Heritability of I.Q. is higher for upper-class families than for lower-class families, because lower-class families provide a wider range of cognitive environments, from terrible to pretty good. [An assertion only]

Even if genes play some role in determining I.Q. differences within a population, which Nisbett grants, that implies nothing about average differences between populations. The classic example is corn seed planted on two plots of land, one with rich soil and the other with poor soil. Within each plot, differences in the height of the corn plants are completely genetic. Yet the average difference between the two plots is entirely environmental. [True in theory but irrelevant in fact. There are studies going back many years where blacks and whites have sat in the same classrooms throughout their education but the IQ gap remains. And any claim that blacks are poorly fed is laughable. Their rate of obesity is higher than for whites]

Could the same logic explain the disparity in average I.Q. between Americans of European and of African descent? Nisbett thinks so. The racial I.Q. gap, he argues, is “purely environmental.” For one thing, it’s been shrinking: over the last 30 years, the measured I.Q. difference between black and white 12-year-olds has dropped from 15 points to 9.5 points. [Blacks mature faster so the IQ gap has long been smaller during childhood. The adult IQ gap remains the same] Among his more direct evidence, Nisbett cites impressive studies in population genetics. African-Americans have on average about 20 percent European genes, largely as a legacy of slavery. But the proportion of European genes ranges widely among individuals, from near zero to more than 80 percent. If the racial gap is mostly genetic, then blacks with more European genes ought to have higher I.Q.’s on average. In fact, they don’t. [But where do the white genes concerned come from? Mostly from the bottom of white society. "Race mixing" has been looked down on for most of America's history]

Nisbett is similarly skeptical that genetics could account for the intellectual prowess of Ashkenazi Jews, whose average I.Q. measures somewhere between 110 and 115. As for the alleged I.Q. superiority of East Asians over American whites, that turns out to be an artifact of sloppy comparisons; when I.Q. tests are properly normed, Americans actually score slightly higher than East Asians. [I concede that some of the figures for Asian IQ may be poorly representative but the enormous rate of achievement among Asian Americans certainly shows that Asians who emigrate are superior. We are on much firmer ground with Jewish IQ because of Israeli army figures. There is no doubt of Ashkenazi superiority -- if Jewish achievements alone did not tell you that]

If I.Q. differences are indeed largely environmental, what might help eliminate group disparities? The most dramatic results come from adoption. When poor children are adopted by upper-middle-class families, they show an I.Q. gain of 12 to 16 points [For a while. In adulthood their differences are small. And the children chosen for adoption by such families are probably not representative either]. Upper-class parents talk to their children more than working-class parents do. And there are subtler differences. In poorer black families, for example, children are rarely asked “known-answer questions” — that is, questions where the parents already know the right answer. (“What color is the elephant, Billy?”) Consequently, as Nisbett observes, the children are nonplussed by such questions at school. (“If the teacher doesn’t know this, then I sure don’t.”)

The challenge is to find educational programs that are as effective as adoption in raising I.Q. So far, Nisbett observes, almost all school-age interventions have yielded disappointing results [An important and entirely true admission]. But some intensive early-childhood interventions have produced enduring I.Q. gains, at a cost of around $15,000 per child per year. [Small gains achieved at great effort are consistent with the environmental component of IQ]. Yet, by the author’s reckoning, it would cost less than $100 billion a year to extend such programs to the neediest third of America’s preschoolers. The gain to society would be incalculable. [More likely to be negligible -- on the balance of the evidence]

Still, there are limits even to Nisbett’s optimism. Social policy can get rid of ethnic I.Q. gaps, he thinks, but “the social-class gap” in I.Q. “is never going to be closed.” I would frame the matter a little differently. Even if I.Q. inequality is inevitable, it may eventually become irrelevant. Over the last century, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, I.Q. scores around the world have been rising by three points a decade [That has now stopped and it did not affect the racial gap anyway]. Some of this rise, Nisbett argues, represents a real gain in intelligence. But beyond a certain threshold — an I.Q. of 115, say — there is no correlation between intelligence and creativity or genius [IQ has never correlated strongly with creativity -- largely because different sorts of creativity do not correlate with one-another]. As more of us are propelled above this threshold — and, if Nisbett is right, nearly all of us can be — the role of intelligence in determining success will come to be infinitesimal by comparison with such “moral” traits as conscientiousness and perseverance. [And law-abidingness?] Then we can start arguing about whether those are genetic.



Perhaps I should say a little more about the nutritional argument. It is briefly alluded to above but is very commonly mentioned in arguments of this sort.

There appear to be two adverse nutritional influences on IQ: Total calorie deprivation and micronutrient deprivation. The first is obviously irrelevant to American blacks so I will just note that the Dutch famine study showed it to have a eugenic effect if anything. It is mainly the children of smart people who survive a famine so the children concerned will on average tend to be brighter rather than dumber.

Micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) deficiency is more serious, though United Nations figures suggest that, even so, it accounts for only about 5 IQ points. If you give micronutrients to poor blacks in Africa, it does boost their average IQ by about that amount. The diet of poor blacks in Africa and the diet of American blacks are however quite different. Africans in Africa might see fried chicken only a few times in a lifetime. They mostly live on corn porridge ("mealie pap"). But critics nonetheless say that while African Americans eat plenty, they eat the "wrong" food: McDonalds for instance. But look at what is in a Big Mac meal: Meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which adds up to a mainstream Western diet. Some contend that there is too much salt and fat in such meals but that the meals provide a good range of micronutrients can hardly be doubted.

So there are no grounds for saying that the cause of lower average IQ in blacks is nutritional. They are not "seed that fell on stony ground".

Thursday, March 12, 2009


I wrote the article below for the Philadelphia "Bulletin" and it appeared there on 10th. I think its interest is not confined to Philadelphia, however, so I reprint it below. My many academic papers on authoritarianism can be accessed here

Among psychologists, the word "authoritarian" has a meaning quite different from how that word is used elsewhere. And thereby hangs a tale.

In normal usage, the word is most used to describe people who boss others around -- with government by dictatorship being the extreme case of authoritarianism. But psychologists use it to describe people whom one researcher summed up as "fearful toadies". There is certainly no evidence that they boss anybody around.

How come? It originates from an attempt by a Marxist-led group of psychologists to square the circle. Theodor Wiesengrund (aka Adorno) and his Leftist friends had a big problem immediately after World War II. Everybody was aware at that time that Hitler's doctrines were simply a more aggressively-pursued version of what the American Left of the day (the "Progressives") had been preaching for over half a century. In the first half of the 20th century, the enthusiastic preachers of eugenics and racism were all on the Left and Hitler had generally been in good odor among the prewar Left. He did after all call his movement "National SOCIALISM".

But that had all now become disastrous. Being associated with Hitler was now beyond the pale. So some means had to be found to dissociate the political Left from Hitler. And if you could show that Hitler was in fact a conservative so much the better. And as we all now know, Wiesengrund and his team succeeded. Most people now believe that Hitler was of the Right. So how did they do it?

They said, correctly, that Hitler was an authoritarian and produced evidence to show that conservatives were more authoritarian than the Left. But the "evidence" they produced used their own very peculiar definition of "authoritarian". It consisted of an opinion poll that used statements that were simply popular beliefs of the day -- and if you agreed with lots of such statements you were arbitrarily said to be an "authoritarian". That it would be more reasonable to describe such people simply as "agreeable" was glided over. Wiesengrund put forward Freudian-type theories to argue that even if such people were not likely to boss anyone around personally, they would support others who did. Wiesengrund never proved that but he may have been correct. It is plausible to argue that such people might well put up with ANY government of any character, whether or not they agreed with it.

So what was the point of all that? The point is that people who agreed with a lot of Wiesengrund's collection of opinion statements tended to be politically conservative! That could probably have been interpreted as showing that easy-going guys tended to be conservative but within Wiesengrund's theory it meant that authoritarians were conservative! Which is what he had set out to prove. In his mind, he had shown that the most likely supporters of Hitler and his ilk were conservatives! But note the leap of logic there. Even if we accept Wiesengrund's claim that easy-going people are authoritarian, his findings do not show that conservatives are in general authoritarian. There are disagreeable conservatives too. It is like saying that some dogs are poodles so therefore all dogs are poodles.

But anyway, Left-leaning professors loved it all. It got them off the hook as chief supporters of Hitler. And from then on, they preached it so incessantly that almost everyone now believes that Hitler can be blamed on conservatives. The historical fact that Hitler's most unrelenting enemy was a conservative -- Winston Churchill -- is quietly glided over. Freudian speculation is preferred to historical fact.

So where does Obama fit into that? Clearly, he is not a "fearful toadie", so he is not an authoritarian in Wiesengrund's sense. There are however things about him and his supporters that are interesting from a psychological viewpoint. There are a number of things which are alarming when taken together. Any one of the things that I am going to mention leads to no conclusions by itself. But when those things make a set (or a "syndrome" in medical parlance) conclusions tend to be suggested.

Let's start with the obvious: Obama comes across as a nice guy. So did Hitler. The tremendous "hold" that Hitler had on Germans is generally unexplained in textbooks but the cause of it is in fact simple. He came across to Germans as a father-figure who loved his people.

Obama gained power through a democratic election. So did Hitler. Enough people voted for him for him to win control of the German government.

Obama has support among his followers that verges on the hysterical. So did Hitler.

Obama supporters are predominant in the media. Hitler dominated the media of his day too.

Hitler wanted the government to control most things without entirely abolishing the private sector. Obama is trying to vastly expand the role of government too.

All that is just by way of introduction, however. The most troubling thing about Nazism is that it was psychopathic. It showed no awareness or right and wrong and no respect for truth versus falsehood. And that fits in perfectly with the modern Leftist doctrine that "There is no such thing as right and wrong". And Hitler did not just preach that. He carried it out. It is perhaps early days to see what Obama's ideas of right and wrong (if any) will add up to but we CAN see what his ideas of truth and falsehood are. Like clinical psychopaths, Obama is a fantasizer with no regard for the truth at all. His latest claim (on Feb. 24) that the automobile was invented in America (all schoolboys used to know that it was actually Germany) is a minor example of that but he has been fantasizing often and for a long time. Take this excerpt from 2007:
"Speaking early this month at a church in Selma, Ala., Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said: "I'm in Washington. I see what's going on. I see those powers and principalities have snuck back in there, that they're writing the energy bills and the drug laws." . . .

But not only did Obama vote for the Senate's big energy bill in 2005, he also put out a press release bragging about its provisions, and his Senate Web site carries a news article about the vote headlined, "Senate energy bill contains goodies for Illinois." . . .

On Sunday, the Chicago Tribune reported that an extensive search found no basis for an episode Obama recounts [in his 1995 book, "Dreams From My Father"] about a picture he ran across in Life magazine of a "black man who had tried to peel off his skin" in a failed effort to use chemicals to lighten it. Obama writes that "seeing that article was violent for me, an ambush attack." The Tribune reported: "Yet no such Life issue exists, according to historians at the magazine. No such photos, no such article. When asked about the discrepancy, Obama said in a recent interview, 'It might have been an Ebony or it might have been . . . who knows what it was?' (At the request of the Tribune, archivists at Ebony searched their catalogue of past articles, none of which matched what Obama recalled.)" . . .

As another example, consider Obama's stirring tale for the Selma audience about how he had been conceived by his parents, Barack Obama Sr. and Ann Dunham, because they had been inspired by the fervor following the "Bloody Sunday" voting rights demonstration that was commemorated March 4. "There was something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Ala.," he said, "because some folks are willing to march across a bridge. So they got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born. So don't tell me I don't have a claim on Selma, Ala. Don't tell me I'm not coming home to Selma, Ala."

Obama was born in 1961, and the Selma march occurred four years later, in 1965. The New York Times reported that when the senator was asked about the discrepancy later that day, he clarified: "I meant the whole civil rights movement."

He just makes things up as he goes along with no concern about the truth at all. But the silly thing about such fantasies, and the thing that brands them as psychopathic, is that they sound good only at the time. Subsequently they are easily found out as false and therefore tend to cause distrust of the speaker. The psychopath just floats along on a sea of fantasy until people eventually find him out and cut him off. And I think there are already signs that Obama's proposed solutions to America's problems are fantasies too. The "stimulus" that did not stimulate seems likely not to be the last fantasy that does not work out in reality.

So Obama has a lot in common with the Fascists of history, with his clear psychopathic tendencies being the most worrying. He is in that real-life sense an authoritarian.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Material success and social failure?

More junk epidemiology below. The authors find less social dysfunction in Nordic countries and in Japan and say that is because incomes are more equal there. So, like nearly all epidemiologists, they make causal inferences from correlational data -- which you cannot logically do. They allegedly spent 30 years arriving at their conclusions so I am sorry to say that it took me approximately two minutes to see an alternative explanation for their findings: ethnic diversity. Japan to this day has few immigrants and the Nordic countries have only recently begun to have a large immigrant population. And as Robert Putnam has famously shown, social homogeneity expands trust and co-operation. So there is less social dysfunction because people feel happier and safer and more co-operative in a country where most people are like them.

And, without looking at it in detail, I am guessing that the same applies to U.S. States. States with the largest minority populations (the South?) have the highest level of social dysfunction.

How nasty of me to undermine so quickly conclusions that so suit the prejudices of the Left! But even if all of the explanation that I have just given is wrong, the point still stands that "correlation is not causation". You learn that in Statistics 101 but if you are a grand epidemiologist, you are allowed to ignore that, apparently. And BOTH of us could be wrong. There could be some third process at work generating the numbers concerned. Assigning causes from epidemiological data is always mere speculation

It is common knowledge that in rich societies the poor have shorter lives and suffer more from almost every social problem. Likewise, large inequalities of income are often regarded as divisive and corrosive. In a groundbreaking book, based on 30 years' research, Richard Wilkinson, Emeritus Professor at The University of Nottingham together with co-author Kate Pickett from the University of York, go an important stage beyond either of these ideas to demonstrate that more unequal societies are bad for almost everyone within them - the well-off as well as the poor.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett forcefully demonstrate that nearly every modern social and environmental problem - ill-health, lack of community, life, violence, drugs, obesity, mental illness , long working hours, big prison populations - is more likely to occur in a less equal society, and adversely affects all of those within it.

The remarkable data the book presents and the measures it uses are like a spirit level which we can hold up to compare the conditions of different societies. It reveals that if Britain [Which has always received lots of immigrants and which as a consequence now has a large and troublesome minority population] became as equal as the average for the four most equal of the rich countries (Japan, Norway, Sweden and Finland), levels of trust might be expected to increase by two-thirds, homicide rates could fall by 75 per cent, everyone could get the equivalent of almost seven weeks extra holiday a year, and governments could be closing prisons all over the country.

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, shows us how, after a point, additional income buys less and less additional health, happiness and wellbeing. The issue is now community and how we relate to each other. This important book explains how it is now possible to piece together a new, compelling and coherent picture of how we can release societies from the grip of pervasive and schismatic dysfunctional behaviour, a picture which will revitalise politics and provide a new way of thinking about how we organise human communities. It is a major new approach to how we can improve the real quality of life, not just for the poor, but for everyone.

More here

The above post also appears today on my FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC blog, which is where I normally debunk epidemiological theorizing

Monday, March 02, 2009

The Left do NOT mean well

Fifteen years ago Jeff Jacoby's first regular column appeared in the Boston Globe. He has recyled it recently. See below. I usually agree with him but I have some reservations about this column that I set out at the foot of it

So what's a nice conservative like me doing in a newspaper like this? Wondering, for a start, why so many liberals think of conservatives not so much as people they disagree with, but as people they despise.

Most mainstream conservatives acknowledge that liberals are essentially well-meaning. Misguided, to be sure. And naive? Certainly. And elitist, self-righteous, collectivist know-it-alls, chronically unwilling to learn from their mistakes, clueless when it comes to the workings of the marketplace, always persuaded that the next government program will fix whatever went wrong with the last government program? Yeah. But well-meaning.

It should go without saying that you can mean well and do ill. Those liberal good intentions have helped pave more than a few of the 20th century's roads to hell, from the Evil Empire to the welfare state to the meltdown of the American criminal justice system. Conservatives condemn the demonic results that liberal good intentions have led to, and with gusto. What they don't do, as a rule, is demonize their opponents. Liberals do.

Liberals look at conservatives and see moral cripples: Conservatives hate the poor. Conservatives are greedy. Conservatives have no compassion. Conservatives are Neanderthals . . . racists . . . homophobes . . . warmongers. To be conservative, in the eyes of many fervent liberals, is to be by definition a vile human being -- someone to recoil from, not reason with; someone to damn, not to debate.

Personal vignette: It was a roundtable discussion about poverty and social welfare policies in Massachusetts, and I had made some point or other about welfare and illegitimacy. The representative from the prominent, Boston-based foundation spoke up in disagreement. "People like Mr. Jacoby can say that because they don't care about the poor," she began. "But the rest of us . . ."

"They don't care about the poor". Period, end of story. No room for differences of philosophy here. You're a conservative? Then you're morally defective, your views are warped, and would you please get out of the marketplace of ideas before you stink up the joint. Think of Ted Kennedy's slander of Judge Robert Bork in 1987 ("Bork's America is a land in which . . . blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids . . ."). Or of Boston City Councilor Charles Yancey's foul comparison of his colleague, conservative James Kelly, to a Nazi ("It would be like electing David Duke . . . he has the same politics and rhetoric as David Duke.")

"Liberals go for the jugular," says David Horowitz, the one-time antiwar activist and editor of the radical magazine Ramparts. "With them, it's always about character assassination. If you're conservative, you're either sick or in some way deeply malevolent."

The most flagrant recent example oozed across The New York Times op-ed page last month, when columnist Frank Rich launched a vitriolic personal assault on conservative journalist David Brock, author of a controversial article on Bill Clinton's extramarital adventures. Brock's "motives are at least as twisted as his facts," wrote Rich. "It's women, not liberals, who really get him going. The slightest sighting of female sexuality whips him into a frenzy of misogynist zeal. All women are the same to Mr. Brock: terrifying, gutter-tongued, sexual omnivores."

Imagine a conservative trying to discredit a liberal by sledgehammering him as an unhinged woman-hater, or none-too-subtly "outing" him as a homosexual. Actually, that's hard to do: The last well-known conservative with a taste for baseless personal invective was named Joe McCarthy.

At the 1984 Democratic National Convention, Tip O'Neill -- the great-hearted, much-mourned late Speaker himself -- voiced his opposition to President Reagan's policies thus: "The evil is in the White House." The evil. Never would Reagan have used such language to describe O'Neill.

But then, Reagan wasn't a man of the left. He wasn't on a utopian crusade. Like most conservatives, he didn't think the blights of the world could be ended by transforming human nature. And he certainly didn't imagine the only thing blocking that transformation was wrong-thinking people who must be gotten out of the way -- or excommunicated as "evil."

So what's a nice conservative like me doing in a newspaper like this? Why, conserving. Looking to the past to figure out what has succeeded, and trying to apply its wisdom to the conundrums of the present. Acknowledging that there are no guarantees and that life is unfair, but knowing that the best road for the pursuit of happiness is the one marked with the old signposts: Freedom. Responsibility. Virtue. Work.


I think Jacoby is right in saying that many conservatives give Leftists the benefit of the doubt -- but I think that is a mistake. I think Leftist motives have to be inferred from their deeds, not their words -- and their deeds are with eerie consistency destructive of the wealth and wellbeing of the society in which they live. That cannot just be a mistake. Except for Joe Biden, Leftists are not stupid people. I think that the Leftist AIM is destruction of the world they see about them and which they hate for various reasons. Conservatives may or may not support the status quo but Leftists uniformly want to destroy it. And the Leftist hatred of conservatives is a part of that. They see that conservatives do NOT want to destroy the society in which they live so conservatives are hated obstacles to Leftist aims. I think conservatives should view Leftists as evil. They have no hesitation in viewing us that way. It is of course an old Leftist dodge to see in others what is true of themselves ("projection"). Conservatives need to wake up to that. "You're just projecting" should become a standard reply to Leftist abuse.