The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

28 August 2005

We hold these truths at a great distance

Last year, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of The Bell Curve, John Derbyshire explained why it got such bad press from largely-liberal media:

Much of the negative reaction on the left was a result of the book's explicit repudiation of blank-slate egalitarian principles. The Left's position on human nature is, and always has been, that it is infinitely malleable — that the superstitious peasant can be turned into New Soviet Man; that, as Mao Tse-tung said, the masses are a blank sheet of paper on which beautiful characters can be drawn. The notion that this might not be so — that human beings, either individually or collectively, might be unimprovable by any known arts, or possibly by any arts at all — is intolerable to the left mindset. This way of thinking therefore regards psychometry with loathing, and argues either that we cannot measure the attributes of the human mind, or that, even supposing we can, we ought not.

Charles Murray — co-author Richard Herrnstein died in 1994 — has some present-day thoughts on the matter:

Suppose that a pill exists that, if all women took it, would give them exactly the same mean and variance on every dimension of human functioning as men — including all the ways in which women now surpass men. How many women would want all women to take it? Or suppose that the pill, taken by all blacks, would give them exactly the same mean and variance on every dimension of human functioning as whites — including all the ways in which blacks now surpass whites. How many blacks would want all blacks to take it? To ask such questions is to answer them: hardly anybody. Few want to trade off the unique virtues of their own group for the advantages that another group may enjoy.

Sometimes these preferences for one's own group are rational, sometimes not. I am proud of being Scots-Irish, for example, even though the Scots-Irish group means for violence, drunkenness, and general disagreeableness seem to have been far above those of other immigrant groups. But the Scots-Irish made great pioneers — that's the part of my heritage that I choose to value. A Thai friend gave me an insight into this human characteristic many years ago when I remarked that Thais were completely undefensive about Westerners despite the economic backwardness of Thailand in those days. My friend explained why. America has wealth and technology that Thailand does not have, he acknowledged, just as the elephant is stronger than a human. "But," he said with a shrug, "who wants to be an elephant?" None of us wants to be an elephant and, from the perspective of our own group, every other group has something of the elephant about it. All of us are right, too.

We do no one a service by assuming that everyone is exactly identical. "Equality," wrote Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate, "is not the empirical claim that all groups of humans are interchangeable; it is the moral principle that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properties of their group." The tabula rasa crowd on the Left, wishing not to be an elephant, has instead made of itself a dinosaur.

(Disclosure: Yours truly has Scots-Irish — which, being Scots-Irish of the American South, might well include African influences — Mexican and Syrian/Lebanese ancestry. Make of that what you will; what I've made of it is me.)

Posted at 11:18 AM to Almost Yogurt

TrackBack: 10:36 PM, 29 August 2005
» MURRAY REACTIONS from Begging To Differ
Charles Murray's recent article (linked below) had generated the predictable responses. NoSpeedBumps has a roundup. This one is taken from that one, with some other reactions mixed in as well. Scott Lemieux: "[E]ven in his less 'controversial' mode Mur......[read more]

TrackBack: 10:11 PM, 30 August 2005
» The Inequality Taboo from The Right Nation
If you don't know who Charles Murray is, the author of Losing Ground, The Bell Curve and (more recently) Human Accomplishment, it's your own business. But if you don't read his last essay published on Commentary, you're just nuts. Analysis, comments ......[read more]

Or, perhaps, some other modern comments on the subject, this time from 2003:

It's not the liberals who were being "unfair" or "afraid" by rejecting the book out of hand, it was those who pretended that Murray and Herrnstein weren't cynically using the language of science (by treating g theory as "mystical," for instance) to "prove" to their lay readers that blacks and Mexicans were "problems" (and that those problems are immutable because of their race), so no matter what the government or others try to do, they are going to remain a problem unless we get them to stop breeding and immigrating. That is what the book concludes whether anybody wants to admit it or not.

Derb is, as usual, dissembling. It's not a "repudiation of blank-slate principles," it's a flat-out statement that them fellers and gals with the browner skin be inferior to them whut has the lighter skin. It's indefensible.

Posted by: Matt at 3:35 PM on 28 August 2005

I gotta admit, Matt, your knees are better than mine; I couldn't jerk that quickly to save my life.

But if we're gonna quote blogstuff, try this one:

The brain is a physical organ. Neurophysiologists can't pin down exactly how abstract thought is supported by the brain's structure, but the overall nature of brain function is quite well understood. The complexity of operation a brain can support is determined by the number of triggerable neurons it holds and the number of synapses that interconnect them. The maximum speed at which it can operate is determined by the rise and fall times of the triggering mechanisms in the neurons and the neuroinhibiting chemicals in the synapses.

All of the above are physical phenomena. There's no logic to the insistence that a man can't inherit these characteristics from his parents, just as he inherits his stature and coloration. Yet some very smart people fly into a quite impressive rage at the suggestion, not that genetic factors determine everything about a man's intellect, but that genetic factors might contribute to determining his cognitive potentials. They want the question placed entirely out of bounds, and will shower the foulest epithets in the lexicon — "racist" is the mildest of them — upon anyone who declines to do so.

Consider this my declination.

Posted by: CGHill at 3:48 PM on 28 August 2005

Straw man, CG. The Bell Curve does not postulate that "a man [can] inherit [physical] characteristics from his parents," up to and including some brain characteristics. It uses phony statistics to "prove" that entire "races" of people are fundamentally, physically, and inalterably dumber than other "races."

You need real science to lead from the specific to the general, and the book doesn't have it. The measures of intelligence it calls "immutable" are actually highly affected by socioeconomic status, and that's just for starters.

The defense you quote above is based on another straw man - that the book must be right, and that those who attack it just can't stand to see their worldview challenged. It's little different than "The Bible must be right, and those atheists who won't believe in Creationism just don't want their worldview attacked."

If you want to prove these hypotheses, you need real math and science, and The Bell Curve don't got it. There's a reason the thing was published as a popular tract and not submitted for peer review.

Posted by: Matt at 10:49 PM on 28 August 2005

Fascinating subject that I have not explored or seen explored previously in "blog speak." While it is unusual and even a bit uncomfortable for me to disagree with Chaz, I think I do on this one. Matt's comments both bolster that stance and in some way confuse me further. After a re-read of everything, I've concluded that the issue is confused for me by what seems like a role reversal of what I believe are the generally accepted notions of "left" and "right", at least as it might apply in this context.

Chaz, thanks for throwing this one out for us to chew on.

[Note to self: As time permits, follow the links and explore subject further.]

Posted by: Winston at 5:23 AM on 29 August 2005

Being aware of the dangers of commenting on a book I have not read (which, from what I have read, distinguishes me from most of its critics), I will not opine.

Posted by: McGehee at 6:33 AM on 29 August 2005

If everyone agreed with me, there'd be no point in having Comments, would there? :) (Think of it as, um, peer review.)

The liberal objection to this sort of thing is rooted in the quite-reasonable fear that people will use any and all differences among people as an excuse for discrimination, and history suggests that on occasion they'll do exactly that. This is why we have anti-discrimination laws in the first place, as we should. Where I depart from the fold is in the assumption that if a given group of [fill in name of profession or whatever] doesn't match the demographics of the population at large, it can only be because of discrimination at the highest levels; Murray got into this by suggesting that there might be biological and, by inference, genetic factors.

My own position — that the demographics of those small subpopulations are largely irrelevant — does not coincide with Murray's: Murray argues that these differences exist and ought to be taken into account where they matter, while I argue that these differences exist but don't matter that much. Matt's position is that the differences seen by Murray are largely illusory — or, more precisely, that the differences seen by Murray can be explained by socioeconomic factors that Murray doesn't take into account.

(Does that help?)

Posted by: CGHill at 8:04 AM on 29 August 2005

More precisely, my position is that Murray used cooked science to "prove" that these differences existed at all, asserting that some characteristics were an immutable part of a person's genetic makeup when, in fact, they're highly affected by socioeconomic development, particularly during the education years.

I still think it's a straw man that, as CG puts it, "The liberal objection to this sort of thing is rooted in the quite-reasonable fear that people will use any and all differences among people as an excuse for discrimination." There are differences among people, and liberals have long recognized that. Liberals are the ones who like special education, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and so on.

Liberals want to make sure everyone gets what they need to do as much as they can, whether that's special kinds of teaching in schools, or a wheelchair ramp on the courthouse so someone who can't walk can be an attorney. It's conservatives who have argued these are bad ideas. "No Child Left Behind" requires special-needs students to meet the same standards as all other children, and the Bush Administration argued this year that a man should lose his court case for not showing up, even though he is wheelchair-bound, and the courtroom was on the third floor of a courthouse with no elevator. The administration argued the ADA didn't require the courts to grant him access.

In general, I think this bit about "Liberals are afraid that people will use differences for discrimination" is just a blanket response to attempts to use alleged "racial" differences to create social policy, when liberals have used real differences to create social policy for years. It's an empty argument, trotted out only to support The Bell Curve's racist attempts to create differences with pseudo-science.

The liberal response is not "You can't pretend all people aren't equal." The liberal response is "quit trying to blame us for not paying serious attention to a fact-free argument." It's like saying that liberals are afraid of what it might mean for the teachers' unions if we admitted that two plus two might really be five. We don't have to worry about the impact - two plus two is not five. It's not going to be five. Even if some people want it to be five, there is no serious debate on the topic.

Posted by: Matt at 11:40 AM on 29 August 2005

Certainly not here. I mean, it's a far greater jump than I'd ever risk to go from "These do not exist" to "These cannot possibly exist."

Posted by: CGHill at 1:22 PM on 29 August 2005

The Left is basically arguing that evolution in response to natural selection to local conditions ended for the human brain 50,000 or so years ago. Never mind that natural selection selected for all the functionally different alleles between the races and subracial groups for other parts of the body including hair, skin, liver enzymes, and lots of other differences. Never mind that 3 different human populations evolved 3 different sets of adaptations to high altitude (the adaptations in the Himalayas appearing to be most refined).

Obviously a few tens of thousands of years is enough time to produce local adaptations in humans. But the Left is taking a position on intelligence that amounts to what I call "Neo-Cartesian Dualism" where the genes that code for the brain are held by magical powers to be above the forces of natural selection.

Effectively the Left is rejecting Darwinism where it most matters in politics: For human nature. They deny they are doing this and deny they are being anti-empirical. For some that denial is due to ignorance. For some it is due to stupidity. To grasp the evidence of psychometric research requires a subtle mind. But some deniers are just liars defending their ideology. Their ideology is the biggest Bright Shining Lie of our era.

Posted by: Randall Parker at 3:30 AM on 31 August 2005