Lunchtime Links

  1. David Reich’s essay in the New York Times on genetics, race, and IQ
  2. Henry Farrell’s essay at Crooked Timber on genetics, race, and IQ
  3. Ezra Klein’s essay at Vox on genetics, race, and IQ
  4. Chris Dillow’s essay at Stumbling and Mumbling on genetics, race, and IQ
  5. Andrew Sullivan’s essay at Daily Intelligencer on genetics, race, and IQ

Andrew’s essay is a must read. It’s careful, well thought out, and bolder than the other ones. All are well-worth reading, though.

Reich’s essay has sparked an important dialogue in the Anglo-American world (props to the NY Times). Globally, I think conceptions of race, genetics, and IQ in the non-Anglo world are based on pseudoscience (at best), so it’s nice to see this debate unfold the way it has (so far).

I don’t think any of them have done a good job grappling with Charles Murray’s argument. (More on that later.)

Thanks to Uncle Terry for bringing this to light in the first place.

Stifling Charles Murray

Since I’ve been concerned with the status of speech on university campuses, I started looking into the actual speakers who have received the most flak. I’ve been familiar with Milo Yiannopolous for quite a while, and there’s really nothing to comment on there. Ann Coulter is nothing unique. Charles Murray, however, does prove an interesting case; with professional credentials, connections to indicate his in-group status, and the high-profile articles written to counter him, his utter condemnation is a little more peculiar.

I haven’t had time to read The Bell Curve, but I did tune into the podcast with Sam Harris and some of the counterarguments online. Based on the two hour conversation alone, Murray seems honest, well-informed and humble. His field is a controversial one, and so one should expect these qualities. His field is also an academic one with empirical and statistical methods, and for that very reason alone, without an extensive treatment the general population is going to lag behind in comprehension. Lots of the viewpoints Murray espouses are not so easily countered or adopted without background knowledge in psychometrics, and so most of the audience for Waking Up probably walked away with a predestined opinion.

When I listened to the episode, knowing beforehand only that Murray had been subject to endless criticism and condemnation on campus and in research (e.g. by Stephen Jay Gould), I was surprised by how lucid he sounded. The man seems far from a white nationalistracist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist; instead, he presents himself as interested in the same concerns as those on the left (his findings, he says, indicate the need for a basic income. He also supports gay marriage). Sam Harris is also constantly derided, often for his criticism of Islam, and after hosting Murray received some of the same ugly labels. One critique of the podcast is that Harris was too charitable and unquestioning on Murray’s presentation, and I can agree with that, but that may have been because Harris was already familiar with his work. (Also, around the hour-fifteen mark, Murray launches into a domain Harris is clearly less comfortable with, and Harris does explore his guest’s views a little more critically — though it could be said, not enough.)

The experience, for me, made concrete a maxim often championed by defenders of speech. Inaccurately attaching our most powerful labels of evil — fascism, racism, sexism, Nazism, supremacy — means that when faced with the real thing, we will be powerless. Placing genuine bigots and totalitarians in the same word pool as controversial scientists is a bad move for critique. I listened to Murray and thought: so this is the big bad wolf? These are the opinions of the man orthodoxy has eschewed? The man could be wrong about everything, as the internet says, but he does not seem to be motivated by something other than obtaining the facts. If he is wrong, by God, let us challenge his and Herrnstein’s methods and underlying assumptions; let us not push this into a dark corner of human thought it does not fit in with. Some well-established professors writing for Vox say Murray argues from insufficient evidence and this debate ought to be over with already (having gone on since 1994); but they explicitly advocate calling out incorrect ideas rather than stifling them by violent protests.

That is indeed the way to go, because not only did I experience the solidification of the above maxim, but by the end of the interview I was experiencing a curiosity that could easily turn morbid. I imagine it is even stronger for younger people tuning in to Harris. The thought arises, “If this is ‘forbidden knowledge’ — this reasonable, ostensibly well-grounded argument — then what else is there? What else do our global intellectuals call pseudoscience that might be true? If the community labels this racist, what other things do they label racist which are not?” We need to be able to trust each other to keep labels in check. Is it too much of a slippery slope to fear that, once people discover Murray is not a racist, they will seek out other less savory iconoclasts who have also been dubbed white supremacists, looking for what knowledge they might have?

Yiannopolous presents no arguments. Murray does: shutting him down without confrontation only creates an allure of forbidden knowledge, leading those explorers who find Murray digestible to trust established scientific facts less and less. I am not versed in cognitive studies enough to come to an opinion on who is right in this matter; it’s only clear that Charles Murray is arguing from what he thinks is scientifically-validated information. Placing his research into the same domain as David Duke’s ramblings can only lead the curious into an unpleasant trap when they realize their intellectual elders lied to them.

Libertarian IQ

I recently stumbled across an old essay from the early 1990s written by a libertarian activist that is absolutely fascinating. The activist is a computer scientist currently at the University of Washington, Stuart Reges, and the essay is on the connection between intelligence and libertarianism.

Suffice it to say, many people cannot understand libertarianism simply because they cannot think in abstractions the way that libertarians seem to do. Computer programmers are another group characterized by high intelligence and Mr. Reges makes an important connection in his essay between the two, with logic bringing the two together.  He writes:

The student in my hypothetical story displays the classic mistake of treating symptoms rather than solving problems. The student knows the program doesn’t work, so he tries to find a way to make it appear to work a little better. As in my example, without a proper model of computation, such fixes are likely to make the program worse rather than better. How can the student fix his program if he can’t reason in his head about what it is supposed to do versus what it is actually doing? He can’t. But for many people (I dare say for most people), they simply do not think of their program the way a programmer does. As a result, it is impossible for a programmer to explain to such a person how to find the problem in their code. I’m convinced after years of patiently trying to explain this to novices that most are just not used to thinking this way while a small group of other students seem to think this way automatically, without me having to explain it to them.

Let me try to start relating this to libertarian philosophy. Just as programmers have a model of computation, libertarians have what I call a model of interaction. Just as a programmer can “play computer” by simulating how specific lines of code will change program state, a libertarian can “play society” by simulating how specific actions will change societal state. The libertarian model of interaction cuts across economic, political, cultural, and social issues. For just about any given law, for example, a libertarian can tell you exactly how such a law will affect society (minimum wage laws create unemployment by setting a lower-bound on entry-level wages, drug prohibition artificially inflates drug prices which leads to violent turf wars, etc.). As another example, for any given social goal, a libertarian will be able to tell you the problems generated by having government try to achieve that goal and will tell you how such a goal can be achieved in a libertarian society.

I believe this is qualitatively different from other predictive models because of the breadth of the model and the focus on transitions (both of which are also true of programming).

Indeed. I should note here that ‘libertarian’ in the Reges definition means libertarian and not Ron Paul Republican, self-declared Austrian economist, or dedicated follower of some dead economist. Those people give the rest of us a bad name by hiding behind the libertarian moniker to make flawed arguments and baseless assertions, knowing full well that if they made the exact same argument under the moniker of a conservative nobody would take them seriously.

You can read the essay in its entirety below the fold. Continue reading