Things I Don’t Know About

Will Saletan has kindled some blogospheric furor by writing an article in Slate about racial differences in IQ. The thesis of his article is that there’s a solid, genetically based difference in IQ between racial groups, one recognized by scientific consensus. The difference is mediated by head size, a claim which despite not being unambiguous bullshit, ought to raise a few red flags. My point is not to pillory Saletan, though many folks will be happy to do so. Rather, my reaction is to ask “why the fuck is Saletan talking about this?”

I don’t know a lot of details about Saletan’s life and credentials (except that he’s a major writer for Slate) but very little the article suggests that he’s an expert in psychology, biology, or even statistics. And certainly the people reacting to Saletan (Ross Douthat, the American Scene) don’t appear to be applying expert knowledge of those subjects either. The same is true of skeptics like Matthew Yglesias (whose post includes the self-same). Most of these people are paid to write about politics, not psychology. Even if they manage intelligent commentary, they’re mostly muddling around in the dark.

More importantly, it’s not clear why these people need to care. My impression is that there is real research on the genetic contribution to IQ, it’s not getting suppressed, but that there’s hardly a scientific consensus. There’s also few if any obvious political implications: suppose we found out tomorrow that there was an innate 5 point genetic difference in IQ between two races. How would we react? My best guess is that almost nothing would change politically–or at least that nothing should change (this is the exact opposite over the ‘debate’ concerning global warming). So there’s no reason political bloggers should be involved in the topic.

I have all sorts of opinions about the topic, but I’m well aware that they’re at best well-founded second-hand beliefs, and might be a lot worse than that. I think the annoying thing about blogs is that they copy a feature of the MSM where you get oracular figures holding forth on all sorts of topics, regardless of whether they know anything about anything. Blogs are a little more meritocratic: you usually have to know about some subject to attract readers. It just doesn’t have to be what you’re currently talking about.

Update: I can’t actually resist directly linking to this piece making fun of Saletan’s sources.

Update 2: Looks like Ross Douthat has withdrawn parts of his earlier post, though I wonder why he wrote what he did in the first place.

4 responses to “Things I Don’t Know About

  1. My best guess is that almost nothing would change politically

    I couldn’t disagree more. I think it would be a permission slip that would unleash a tremendous wave of racism in which lawmakers and taxpayers alike would feel free to use Science to justify whatever bigotry they wanted to carry out. Defund inner-city schools? Sure, why not.

    Give up programs designed to prevent racial and ethnic minorities from being “tracked” into vo-tech schools instead of college? Get rid of dropout prevention? Abandon early-childhood education outreach efforts to poor families? Get rid of after-the-fact reviews in the army or university envinronments to determine why Group X is being promoted less often than Group Y? Legitimize conversations about forced or coerced sterilization for members of “less intelligent” groups? Go for it.

    In short, I think it would be like the Patriot Act after 9/11 — a handful of people have been waiting a long time for a useful pretext for a power grab, and a lot of other people are responsive to having their “fear of otherness” buttons pushed, and when those three intersect, watch out.

    What makes you think that things would NOT change politically?

  2. hyperpapeterie

    Well, if necessary I’d back off from the claim that nothing would change, to nothing major should change as I said, and it’s worth noting that many of the people who are discussing this topic are not know-nothings intent on whipping up spurious racial animosity (ED: is there any other kind?).

    As for the concrete instances, I feel safe to rule out coerced sterilization anytime soon in the US. That takes much more than belief in a genetic difference, it takes visceral hatred. As for benefits to the poor, means testing is a lot different from race-based policies. The one area where I suspect something would happen is affirmative action, but this isn’t obviously an outrage–to my mind the best defenses of affirmative action, including my own spectacular one, all give reason to believe that something has gone terribly wrong if we’re still having it in the year 2100.

    While I’m pessimistic about our society’s willingness to help solve racial inequality, I’m actually an optimist about people’s attitudes towards race, though attitudes towards Arabs may be the exception.

  3. Pingback: More Things I’m Unaware Of « Wintry Smile

  4. very interesting, but I don’t agree with you