Photo via Flickr User Wizzy0807
Race and Intelligence… there’s an easy Monday morning issue that everybody can agree on. Oh wait, that’s not even remotely true. Since the Bell Curve was published over ten years ago, the race/intelligence debate has simmered on the back burner, boiling over in the past two months.
The senile rantings of DNA co-discoverer James Watson sparked this latest round, but even more interesting is blogger Andrew Sullivan’s more nuanced role. He’s been a major proponent of the viewpoint that different races do in fact have different intelligence levels. He also does his best to keep the issue alive, posting updates on the subject at least weekly. If it seems like his stake in the issue is almost personal, it probably is. During his stint as editor of the New Republic, he nearly faced mutiny from his staff for publishing excerpts from The Bell Curve. He seems to have dug himself into the trenches on this particular position, but enjoys using it to regain some conservative cred.
Although his motives are probably personal, his actions nonetheless promote the exercise proper scientific skepticism. Unfortunately, the overly-P.C. scientific community has tried, embarrassingly, to suppress the debate on the issue. Following Mr. Watson’s statements, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory moved immediately to suspend him. The Science Museum of London cancelled a speech. His publicist was quick to issue a retraction. We’re a step away from scientific McCarthyism. Suppressing the debate on an issue because it's not politically correct does a disservice to free speech and the scientific method.
Sullivan and his crew is right. The evidence does seem to show an IQ gap between races, with Asians and Ashkenazi Jews at the top and Native Americans not having a large enough sample size to be counted. The validity of these data points seems to be reasonably well-established. Yet the same data lead us to vastly different conclusions. Racists, like James Watson, interpret it to mean that Africans are idiots. Myself and most people whose social networks extend beyond a whites-only country club realize that these data don’t jive with our real-world experience, so we mine the complexities for a better interpretation.
Malcolm Gladwell threw his hat into the ring this morning, with a New Yorker article on IQ testing being the best take on the subject. He points out that Sullivan-types are IQ fundamentalists, attaching far too much importance to an arbitrary number that seems to be a poor measure of intelligence. The notion of quantifying intelligence is pretty close to a joke at this point.
I’d go a step further… even if intelligence could be quantified, who really cares? Intelligence is functionally useless in the real world. Would it matter if Eskimos were smarter than Armenians by a fraction of a percent? Has being smart ever accomplished anything useful? It’s the jocks that rule high school, not the nerds. We live in an idiocracy. Intelligence doesn’t help people advance their career or find a more attractive mate. If IQ tests showed dolphins were more intelligent than humans, we’d just use our pointy sticks to force the dolphins to do higher math for us. Let’s stop this endless fixation on intelligence and move on to more important things.
Like writing a funny post instead of all this serious stuff...