Monday, August 29, 2005

Straw Men

I do wish we could get off this topic, honestly, but it's one which brings out the stupids in a way which drives me nuts.

In discussing the Bell Curve, supporters of it invariably trot out all kinds of straw men to argue with. Let's deal with some of them.

First: Critics of the Bell Curve believe there is no link between the gentic code of parents and the potential intellecutal abilities of their offspring.

Some critics may think that, but I'm not aware of any of them.

Second: Critics of the Bell Curve believe all differences are environmental.

Some critics may think that, but I'm not aware of any of them.

Third: Critics went after M&H because they were exploring a "taboo" subject.

The subjects they were exploring are certainly sensitive ones, for good reason, but certainly not taboo. The existence of and reasons for gender and racial differences in life outcomes have and continue to be widely studied. M&H came under fire because their work was crap and because it had clear racist content. Similarly, Larry Summers came under fire not because he broached a taboo subject, but because he broached an understandably sensitive subject in a room full of people who had actually done research on that "taboo" topic and knew that Summers was talking out of his ass.

Fourth: Critics of the Bell Curve don't believe in race.

Well, critics of the Bell Curve don't believe that the cultural concept of race has much to do with the genetic concept of population. That doesn't mean that one cannot do any studies involving race - it is, in fact, a reason why we tend to support keeping statistics which include data on race - but it does mean that one should be more than a little careful when linking discussions of population genetics with discussions of race.

Fifth: Heritability necessarily implies genetic heritability.

We "inherit" much from our parents, and only some of that is genetic. Teasing out the different sources of heritability using tests taken relativey late in life and a needlessly crude measure of socioeconomic status does is not really possible, at least not in the crude way M&H approach the subject.

Sixth: The Bell Curve says whatever it is I, as a fan of it, think it says.

Many people seem to see support for the Bell Curve as either a symbol of openmindedness or as simply a statement of belief in some personal idiosyncratic views on race and intelligence. The Bell Curve is a specific book, which used specific data, specific methodology, specific arguments, specific sources, and specific rhetoric. Criticizing The Bell Curve is criticizing the Bell Curve, not criticizing some other actual or imagined alternative study, or theory, or empirical result, or anything else.

Seventh: Critics of the Bell Curve believe "IQ tests" are meaningless or that "IQ" isn't real.

IQ tests certainly measure something. That something is in some studies correlated with life outcomes. However, in no way do IQ tests, or many other tests which frequently serve as a proxy for IQ tests, provide a quality measure of innate intelligence or reflect some sort of immutable characteristic obtained at birth or conception (part of heritability, of course, has to do with what happens in utero, and not just early childhood).

There are more, but I'm getting bored as are the rest of you. I warn people away from the bell curve because I have the education to understand the shoddy "science," though there is more there worthy of criticism than simply shoddy methodology.

Finally, I'm often curious about what Bell Curve supporters, many of whom are clearly mostly unaware of what's actually in the book, think the book has "proven." Why do they get so upset when people point out it's full of crap? Which empirical results, logical conclusions, or policy recommendations found within do they support? It's weird, because they rarely discuss it in those terms. They seem to mostly believe the book supports some particular view they have, whether or not it actually does.