Monday, November 2, 2009

Too Clever By Half

Is race and intelligence the last taboo? Not any more, at least judging by the inconsequential ramblings of Channel 4's recent documentary on same. It pointed out the well established finding that European whites have, on average, a higher IQ than African blacks, but a lower IQ, on average, than East Asians. Which sort-of-suggests to me that IQ might not be that big a deal as it was the in-betweenie Europeans who built Western Civilisation. I guess there were a few other factors at play? And what about the Irish, apparently we have an average IQ below that of the rest of Europe, but we've done alright for ourselves. Okay, until fairly recently anyway.

Channel 4's documentary did make some attempt to explore the perennial problem of clarifying what it is that IQ tests measure. As the New Scientist reminds us, there is more to cognitive competence than IQ alone: George Bush has an IQ of 120 but some how he never did convince most people he was a man who had complete mastery of his brief.

But I did chuckle at Channel 4's Rageh Omaar as he tiptoed gently around the one remaining taboo he was definitely not going to talk about, namely the role of family structures in children's educational success (including higher IQs). As he went from one American expert to the next we learned that children - including black children - from 'middle class' type families (their phrase not mine) were more likely to do well at school, and get the kind of jobs associated with cognitive skills. 'Middle Class Type Families' - you understand - is now the politically correct code phrase for families where children are raised by both their married, biological parents. And with two thirds of all black households headed by a single parent (nearly three times the white rate and twice the Hispanic rate) then it is obvious whom Rageh and others feel are lacking in 'middle class' virtues. All of which is terribly insulting, of course, to black and white working class families that manage to practice the seemingly borgeoise habit of marrying and having children together. Though at least China and Russia have no qualms calling for a middle class future for all their citizens.

But it seems some taboos are easier to talk about than others. Race and intelligence - no problem. Families and marriage - what, are you trying to cause trouble?

3 comments:

  1. These are not well established facts. Cross-country & cross-race comparisons of intelligence are plagued with profound measurement problems. The best known such study is Lynn & Vanhanen's work which is widely criticized by many scholars not because of any taboo but because there are huge problems with the measurements which are basically a mish-mash based on many arbitrary assumptions, different estimation methods, sampling frames etc. Some of the these estimates for sub-Saharan Africa put average IQ below 70, which is usually used as the cut-off for mental retardation. This does not seem plausible. Moreover the IQ for black Americans is significantly higher and the gap with American Caucasians is falling. All of this cautions against simplistic generalizations based on dodgy data even if it makes for good TV. I have a paper forthcoming in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology which discusses some of these issues although there are many better sources.
    Try http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IQ_and_the_Wealth_of_Nations

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  2. Too right Gerard, the documentary was so lazy and simplistic my IQ of 148 was barely able to cope!

    I don't know enough to judge if reported cross-race IQ differences are genuine. But even if they are true they won't mean very much, and won't have the dire social consequences that leads to the taboo on discussing their very existence.

    All it would mean is that someone's ethnicity would be a very poor predictor of their IQ. I certainly couldn't see any sensible employer using it as a selection device given the amount of other data on potential employees they are likely to have to hand.

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  3. Race is a better indicator of IQ than any other factor, including income. Carry on.

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