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Crimethink and Thinking Ability

January 30, 2012

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Crimethink and Thinking Ability

What’s the latest from the scientific frontlines in the IQ Wars?

As you’ll recall from the press, the Bad Guys are social scientists such as Arthur Jensen, Linda Gottfredson, Charles Murray, and the late Richard Herrnstein. They have all argued that there are differences in average intelligence among races and other politically fraught groups which impact their overall real-world performance. They also argue that these IQ gaps are likely to stubbornly resist complete eradication in the short and medium terms.

In a word: crimethink!

Granted, the IQ Realists’ views sound plausible. And their predictions, such as our growing college-admissions mania, have often come true. The real reason for elites’ periodic witch-burnings when some intellectual authority figure—such as Harvard President Larry Summers in 2005 or DNA structure co-discoverer James D. Watson in 2007—lets slip that he finds some of the IQ Realist case persuasive seems to be that, deep down, most suspect that The Bell Curve was on to something.

“Deep down, most suspect that The Bell Curve was on to something.”

In interesting contrast to the IQ Realist school is the IQ Ameliorist school. Seven prominent members, including Richard E. Nisbett and James Flynn, have coauthored a lengthy new paper in American Psychologist called Intelligence: New Findings and Theoretical Developments. It is a useful Greatest Hits collection of all research published since 1994’s The Bell Curve that could suggest the problems posed by current IQ inequality might not be as permanent as the Realists imply.

Yet the Ameliorists themselves are crimethinkers. Being experts, the seven Ameliorists are closer to the Realists than they are to the conventional wisdom that IQ is discredited, biased, or meaningless: “The measurement of intelligence is one of psychology’s greatest achievements.…”

The seven coauthors declare that for individuals, IQ “is a reasonably good predictor of grades at school, performance at work, and many other aspects of success in life (Gottfredson, 2004; Herrnstein & Murray, 1994).” (As the citations suggest, the Ameliorists and the Realists are generally respectful of each others’ work.)

Even more courageously, the seven Ameliorists note that IQ tests are valuable because they quantify that most career-threatening of hot buttons in American intellectual life—racial differences in intelligence—which they find both sizable and socially significant:

IQ is also important because some group differences are large and predictive of performance in many domains. Much evidence indicates that it would be difficult to overcome racial disadvantage if IQ differences could not be ameliorated.

Much of the Realist-Ameliorist debate is over whether today’s IQ gaps will prove somewhat intractable or somewhat tractable.

As coauthor Flynn famously pointed out, raw scores on IQ tests all over the world have been rising for generations (what Herrnstein and Murray approvingly named the “Flynn Effect”). For example, US Army psychometricians were shocked at WWI draftees’ dimness but were happier with WWII’s more on-the-ball conscripts. Was this due to more schooling, better nutrition, less hookworm and cretinism, more mental stimulation from radio, movies, and automobiles, more scientific conceptual models in common circulation, something else, or all of the above? As the Ameliorists admit, there’s no consensus on the Flynn Effect’s causes.

The coauthors theorize that the current highest-IQ groups will eventually reach a genetic limit to their intelligence, allowing trailing groups to catch up. This sounds reasonable, but they’ve found surprisingly little evidence for it yet.

In the 40 years I’ve followed testing stats, the biggest change in American racial rankings has been that the cognitively rich have gotten richer: Asians are pulling away from whites on high-stakes tests. In California in 2009, there were 49 National Merit Semifinalists named Wang versus only seven Smiths and one Cohen.

In 2000, I devised my own Ameliorist theory after reading a 1999 study that breastfeeding raised IQ by five points. With only 30% of black mothers breastfeeding versus 60% of white mothers, I calculated that persuading black women to breastfeed at the white rate would close one-tenth of the white-black IQ gap of around 15 points.

But does breastfeeding actually raise IQ? The Ameliorists report on seven newer studies. While still hopeful, it’s not a slam-dunk: “The breastfeeding issue remains in doubt.”

My little theory also illustrates one inevitability in the Ameliorist project that few want to ponder: Horizons for narrowing IQ gaps would have to be measured in generations. If somebody invented a magic bullet tomorrow that would somehow eliminate racial IQ disparities among all babies born from now on, measurable (though diminishing) gaps in the total population would still exist until everybody alive today is dead in the 22nd century.

And as this paper makes clear without quite emphasizing it, we don’t appear close to a magic bullet. Americans need to understand that racial gaps in IQ and their manifold implications will be around for at least decades to come.


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