Monday, November 28, 2011

The Unbearable Boldness of Andrew Sullivan

Ta-Nehisi Coates is in rare form taking on Andrew Sullivan's obsession with the alleged race/IQ link. I particularly loved Coates' explanation for why he, unlike Andrew, tended to avoid this topic, to wit: "because I have a bias toward knowing what I'm talking about." (For someone who actually does know, see here).

But Coates' also taps into an aspect -- can we call it a character flaw? -- of Sullivan and his writing that bears mentioning again. Sullivan really is wedded to a self-image as a bold crusader who is willing to say the hard truths society needs to hear but refuses to say. The problem is that what he believes to be unsaid, rarely is. To the contrary, it is often the tritest conventional wisdom, dressed up in "forgotten man" language that was dated when William Graham Sumner was doing it.

That Blacks are biologically inferior to Whites along the axes of intelligence is not cutting edge. It is not the brave frontier of social science research. It has been, for most of our nation's history, the (nakedly ideological and poorly argued) default position, and the effects of that persist to this day. Similarly, after 9/11 America was not oblivious to the threat of Islamic extremism -- and informing us of that peril was not the bold, stand-alone position. Neither is Sullivan's sharply critical stance towards Israel the sort of silenced taboo that only a brave rebel like Andrew can shatter.

All of these positions command a solid and influential following in the circles Andrew runs in and in our media. That doesn't mean one shouldn't say them (though one should probably adopt Coates' bias in favor of having actual subject-matter knowledge), but it does mean one probably should cease trumpeting one's bravery and maverickness. It's self-congratulatory without actually having anything done anything laudatory.


PG said...

And when Sullivan actually IS alone among respectable people in saying something, it's usually for good reason. (See Palin, Trig, biologically implausible theories regarding the birth of.)

David Schraub said...

FYI - Comment was deleted as a suspected sock-puppet for a banned commenter.

M said...

***The problem is that what he believes to be unsaid, rarely is. ***

That there are group differences is not really in dispute (see Philip L Roth’s 2001 meta analysis in Personal Psychology, Volume 54, Issue 2, pages 297–330, June 2001).

The hard question is what causes them. On that point see the Mark Snyderman & Stanley Rothman survey of 661 researchers.

"The question regarding this in the survey asked "Which of the following best characterizes your opinion of the heritability of black-white differences in IQ?" Amongst the 661 returned questionnaires, 14% declined to answer the question, 24% voted that there was insufficient evidence to give an answer, 1% voted that the gap was "due entirely to genetic variation", 15% voted that it "due entirely to environmental variation" and 45% voted that it was a "product of genetic and environmental variation". According to Snyderman and Rothman, this contrasts greatly with the coverage of these views as represented in the media, where the reader is led to draw the conclusion that "only a few maverick 'experts' support the view that genetic variation plays a significant role in individual or group difference, while the vast majority of experts believe that such differences are purely the result of environmental factors."[7],_the_Media_and_Public_Policy_%28book%29

M said...

The plausibility of group differences is also apparent if you have read Bruce Lahn & Lanny Ebenstein's paper in Nature 'Let's Celebrate Human Genetic Diversity' (Oct 2009).

Also, see Professor Robert A. Weinberg, winner of the 1997 National Medal of Science, final lecture in Biology 7.012 at MIT (2004):

Weinberg (@ 32:40): ... And what happens if one of these days people discover alleles for certain aspects of cognitive function? Chess playing ability. The ability to learn five different languages. The ability to remember strings of numbers. The ability to speak extemporaneously in front of a class, for what it's worth, for 50 minutes several times a week.

Whatever ability you want, valued or not so valued, what if those alleles begin to come out? And here's the worse part. What if somebody begins to look for the frequency of those alleles in different ethnic groups scattered across this planet? Now, you will say to me, well, God has made all his children equal. But the fact is if you look at the details of human evolution, some of which I discussed with you a week ago, last week, you'll come to realize that most populations in humanity are the modern descendents of very small founder groups.

... So the fact is it's inescapable that different alleles are going to be present with different frequencies in different inbreeding populations of humanity or populations of humanity that traditionally have been genetically isolated from one another.

It's not as if all the genes that we carry have been mixed with everybody else's genes freely over the last 100,000 years. Different groups have bred separately and have, for reasons that I've told you, founder affects and genetic drift, acquired different sets and different constellations of alleles. So what's going to happen then, I ask you without wishing to hear an answer because nobody really knows?

Then for the first time there could be a racism which is based not on some kind of virulent ideology, not based on some kind of kooky versions of genetics, because the eugenicists in the beginning of the 20th century, as well as the Nazis hadn't had any idea about genetics, they were just using the word, even though they knew nothing about the science of genetics as we understand it today. But what happens if now for the first time we, i.e., you who begin to understand genetics, begin to perceive that there are, in fact, different populations of humanity that are endowed with different constellation of alleles that we imagine are more or less desirable?

What's going to happen then? I don't know. But some scientists say, well, the truth must come out and that everything that can be learned should be learned, and we will learn how to digest it and we will learn how to live with that. But I'm not so sure that's the right thing. And you all have to wrestle with that as well. ...

M said...

Just regarding the "someone who does know", I read their post. They link to an essay by Shalizi.

It's worth pointing out some observations that physics Professor Steve Hsu (who has been working at Beijing Genomics Institute on the genetics of IQ) and Razib Khan have made about that essay:

If you understand factor analysis you will realise that you can have correlations and a single largest factor even if there are no underlying causal reasons (i.e., it is just an accident). Nonetheless, these models may still be useful.

Prior to the availability of molecular studies the heritability of type II diabetes was estimated at 0.25 using all those methods. Now molecular studies have identified at least 9 loci involved in the disease. There are other examples in relation to height. So you can’t say that heritability studies, with all their seemingly ridiculous assumptions, are worthless.

In fact, reading Shalizi closely, you’ll see that he doesn’t think they are either. For instance, he says:

***If you put a gun to my head and asked me to guess [whether there are genetic variants that contribute to IQ], and I couldn’t tell what answer you wanted to hear, I’d say that my suspicion is that there are, mostly on the strength of analogy to other areas of biology where we know much more. ***

Also, in his article on g he seems to accept in the footnotes that intelligence or cognitive ability, as operationally defined by psychologists, is important for economic development.

***Cowen points out behaviors which call for intelligence, in the ordinary meaning of the word, and that these intelligent people would score badly on IQ tests. A reasonable counter-argument would be something like: “It’s true that ‘intelligence’, in the ordinary sense, is a very broad and imprecise concept, and it’s not surprising the tests don’t capture it perfectly. But the aspects of ‘intelligence’ they do capture are ones which are vastly more important for economic development than the ones displayed by Cowen’s friends in San Agustin Oapan, however amiable or even admirable those traits might be in their own right.” This would be a position about which one could have a rational argument. (Indeed, I might even agree with that statement , as far as it goes, as might A. R. Luria.) ***

Even not knowing why these tests work, just analysis of the results shows the tests predict performance and are stable.

PG said...

As ever, hint not taken.

I did really like the post you wrote years ago about how they had to "fix" IQ tests when the initial ones had women scoring better than men. You know it's biased when THAT happens!