Sunday, November 18, 2007

Inequitable Creation

William Saletan has started a new series in Human Nature, titled "Created Equal." In the first installment, "Liberal creationism," he lays out, with supporting facts, his basic argument that differential evolution has lead to an uneven distribution of traits between various racial/ethnic groups. Certain groups are better at certain things, or their bodies work in different ways, because prehistoric conditions favored those developments. So everybody has their strong suits. "Not that that's much consolation if you're stuck in the 21st century with a low IQ," he says, during the wrap up.

Now, I like Mr. Saletan, and enjoy reading Human Nature, but sometimes I think he completely misses the point. I think that he should have said: "Not that that's much consolation if you're stuck in the 21st century with a physical resemblance to the low IQ group, and the high IQ group decides that during a shortage, it's looks, and not test scores, that govern the food rationing." This is what William Jennings Bryan meant when we spoke of "'eliminating the weak,'[...] and undermining 'the sympathetic activities of a civilized society.'" And this is what's really at stake with the constant bickering over who's smarter than whom.

Human dignity means little in the face of famines, epidemics, wars or even simply high unemployment; and when people are needy (honestly, or just in their heads), they search for reasons why they, and the people they care about, should be the first (and sometimes only) ones in line for resources. (And, let's face it, most of us haven't done anything that would get us to the head of the line on our own merits. Thus the tendency to attach ourselves to the coattails of some person, or some group of people, that we feel DO merit an entitlement.)

Rather than a give and take on the idea of racial IQ, and the politics thereof, I'd like to read a series on how IQ came to be the end all and be all. Why do racists and eugenicists seem to gravitate towards what has to be the least easily measured trait that a person has?


TenaciousK said...

Read the article he linked to - it does a good job of laying out the argument (the Rushton and Jensen). You might also want to glance at this thread, if you can get past the combativeness, to get an idea about what some of the other related issues are (I'd do it in "flat" view - it's looooooong). Some of the lower responses might be particularly worthwhile.

The "g" researchers have made a strong argument that is difficult to refute, and though the single-factor of intelligence has been persistent (due to it's persistent statistical reality), it's only recently that researchers have identified a variety of biological and neuropsychological measures that correlate strongly with it. They've built quite a case.

I happen to think they're wrong, and that the single-factor model of intelligence is going to be dismantled. Eventually. In the mean time, you really can't mount a formidable challenge to the argument on the basis of available data - the case they've built is too strong.

We've got a lot of conceptual catching-up to do, which is exactly why I think this research is such a terrible idea - all it does is identify group differences. It does not adequately characterize the nature of those differences, or the manner in which they've developed, and the whole mess threatens to be a repeat of one of the darkest periods on psychology, in which psychometricians used their academic authority to provide a veneer of credibility to the racists (and worse, racist policy-makers) of the day.

Saletan's pissing me off lately. He's become less concerned with conveying information and more concerned with attention-whoring. I criticized him explicitly on this and another issue on the basis of journalist ethics (whatever the hell that means). I'm glad he's at least presenting both sides (though we'll see how honest he is about it tomorrow). It's an improvement.

Keifus said...

I only caught the last of his series, and skimmed it at that. It was like an updated version of that ugly old racist joke: "I've only been a member of the master race for fifteen minutes now, and already I can be a patronizing motherfucker."

Maybe I'll go back and reread. It looks like Saletan may have actually dug through peer reviewed literature for once, although I wouldn't put money on that. On the whole, I find his science reporting less than serious. If he veered off into the physical sciences ever, I might address him on it, but even then, it doesn't seem worth it.


Dawn Coyote said...

I haven't read the articles or followed the dust up in the Human Nature fray over them, but I find the timing suspect, given the falling US dollar and the rising interest rates.

What really interests me is the predictable banality of it, and the things at which we as a society will grasp in order to justify pushing people off the boat.