Nov 4, 2007

living scientifically - or not

This is a very provocative post. It may not seem like it, at first - at least in the circles I run in, it's not, shall we say, terribly outlandish to suggest that Black people are as intelligent as White people. But this post goes farther than that.

[Aside, I must say that the following quote is worthy of, I don't know, some fabulous accolade: "Beardiness is very much like intelligence; all a bit fuzzy."]

Here's the interesting part: the post concedes that we can't be 100% sure that race does not influence intelligence. That's true. There are a lot of things I can't be sure of: I can't be sure that my chair will not suddenly disappear from beneath my rear (quantum coincidences are possible!). I can't be sure that all my experience is not a hallucination. I can't be sure that I am not currently breathing in pathogenic bacteria right now.

In life, however, it's generally known that if you go about assuming, suspecting, or even planning for the sudden disappearance of your chair or impending mortal illness, your life will be compromised. You cannot simultaneously live in all of life's possible paths. You have to "have faith" in a few things in order to avoid paralysis by indecision.

Wait, you have to have WHAT? Is this a religious discussion or a scientific one? Ahh, this is where things get complicated. Is it actually possible to live life without trusting that your chair will remain solid beneath you? The answer is very important. If the answer is yes, that means it's possible to reach a degree of zen such that the uncertainty associated with being alive can coexist with choices that ignore that uncertainty. If the answer is no, that means that our actions in life will be profoundly dependent upon which possible reality we use as a model.

I suspect that the answer is, in fact, no. I don't think we're capable of living life without faith in a few things . We seem poorly equipped to be continuously aware, yet unfearful, of all the disastrous twists and turns life might suddenly take. It's not that we're never aware of What Could Happen, but most of the time we choose to ignore most other possible realities. You don't consider that you might break your leg with every single step, do you?

So, the possible reality that we focus on influences the way we act. That means that if we focus on the possibility of Black people being less intelligent than White people, we will act accordingly. And, as a society, we do. This page lists 10 ways in which it is "proven" that Black people score lower on IQ tests than White people. Proven, however, in a society that focuses heavily the concept inherent racial inequality and acts accordingly. Reason #10 on this list above says the following:

"Do Culture-Only Theories Explain the Data? Culture-only theories do not explain the highly consistent pattern of race differences in IQ, especially the East Asian data. No interventions such as ending segregation, introducing school busing, or "Head Start" programs have reduced the gaps as culture-only theory would predict."

Do they honestly believe that all the cultural bias was removed when segregation ended? That "Head Start" can shield a child from all discrimination? That school busing can solve the problem? The only way to test whether or not culture is the culprit is to put the kids in a locked box or something, and I expect that would lead to much worse results.

Humans are not perfect scientists. We can't pick a hypothesis and then let the data roll in, impartial as you please. We can't even pick a hypothesis and dispassionately collect evidence.

This is a case for optimism.


Brian said...

An excerpt from the paper:

Serious questions have been raised about the validity of using tests for racial
comparisons. However, because the tests show similar patterns of internal item
consistency and predictive validity for all groups, and because the same differences
are found on relatively culture-free tests, many psychometricians have
concluded that the tests are valid measures of racial differences, at least among
people sharing the culture of the authors of the test (Jensen, 1980; Wigdor &
Garner, 1982). This conclusion was endorsed by the APA Task Force’s statement:
“Considered as predictors of future performance, the tests do not seem to be
biased against African Americans” (Neisser et al., 1996, p. 93).

Seems to me this is THE question that has to be answered before any of this research is worthwhile - are IQ tests culturally-unbiased metrics of that tenuous quality known as "intelligence"?

Personally, I don't think anyone has adequately defined "intelligence", so I find it strange to be measuring it.

In my view, measuring "intelligence" is like measuring..."physical aptitude". Suppose you wanted to measure the "physical aptitude" of a person. How would you even begin? You can't define "physical aptitude" without asserting a personal normative judgement on the concept. As a violinist, I would personally judge finger agility to be more important than upper body strength, but a football fan might disagree. I think there is a similar effect in the measuring of intelligence - without a suitable definition, there's no point in "measuring it".

I can't find the results interesting, since I don't believe the IQ test measures anything in particular (and if you believe the IQ test is a "predictor of success", I challenge you to define "success" without personal or cultural bias).

Anyhow, I'm optimistic too, but for different reasons :)

Cygnet said...

Brian -
I think you bring up a really good point. Intelligence really *isn't* defined, and it's hard to measure.

And, aside - it's been shown the IQ has basically nothing at all to do with success, and I'm well aware of that.

But what still makes me uncomfortable, even assuming IQ tests are totally ridiculous - is the idea that whatever the hell it's measuring, Black people and White people wouldn't score the same on it. I can't think of a quantity that an IQ test might be measuring - even quantities that have nothing to do with intelligence - that ought to be racially correlated.