The Flynn effect

by John Quiggin on February 8, 2004

Since the discussion on Chris’ post on mumbo-jumbo went straight from the ludicrous Edward de Bono to the Flynn effect, I thought I’d repost a lightly edited version of a piece on the Flynn effect and The Bell Curve that was on my own blog a couple of months ago, but might be of interest to CT readers.

The Bell Curve got a thorough hammering on statistical grounds when it came out (this review by conservative economist Jim Heckman in Reason is damning, and it was one of the polite ones). But the thing that most annoyed me when I read it was their discussion of the Flynn effect, namely that average scores on IQ tests have risen steadily over time, by amounts sufficient to wipe out the differences between racial groups on which Murray and Herrnstein rely. As Thomas Sowell points out in this review (reproduced by Brad de Long), it’s hard to see how any claim that differences in IQ test scores observed in Western societies are mostly due to genetic factors can stand up in the face of this observation. But Murray and Herrnstein slide straight past it, saying that they are concerned with contemporary inequality, not with time trends. This is about as reasonable as a “nurturist” deciding to ignore twin studies on the grounds that most people aren’t twins.

I think there are two reasonable interpretations of the Flynn effect. One is to agree with Murray and Herrnstein that IQ test scores measure “intelligence” and to conclude that intelligence is primarily determined by environmental factors, and particularly by education.

The second is that IQ tests scores do not, in fact, correspond to what we normally mean by intelligence but to something narrower, and more environmentally malleable. The simplest version of this would be to suppose that IQ tests measure the capacity to solve IQ test problems and to attribute the Flynn effect to “test sophistication”, the fact that people who have done IQ tests in the past do better. The problem is that the administration of IQ tests to kids was probably more common 50 years ago than today.

A more plausible claim is that IQ tests are essentially academic achievement/aptitude tests. They are ‘content-free’ in that they don’t rely on information from specific courses in the manner of school assessments, but they do test skills that are promoted by school education and by an environment where most people have high (by historical standards) levels of education. They are good predictors of university performance (thanks for this link to Jack Strocchi). Since academic aptitude naturally rises with education we would expect to get the obvious virtuous circle – the more schooling there is, the higher is IQ and the more kids are capable of benefitting from a university education.

While it’s implausible that the population is massively more intelligent than it was a couple of generations ago, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that capacity for academic achievement has been rising steadily. Fifty years ago, someone who suggested that the majority of people were capable of getting a university degree would have been regarded as utopian. And despite the dumbing down of the last decade or so, the content of the average degree is probably tougher now than fifty years ago.

On the other hand, I imagine that, if there were tests that depended, even subtly, on familiarity with agriculture, scores would have plummeted over the same period.

I’m happy with the idea that intelligence is more than IQ. But of course, the evidence on which Murray and Herrnstein rely is all about IQ scores. This evidence shows, about as unambiguously as is possible, that changes in the environment can substantially increase the average IQ score of a population with a broadly constant genetic endowment.

{ 34 comments }

1

Jacques Distler 02.08.04 at 6:36 am

They are ‘content-free’ in that they don’t rely on information from specific courses in the manner of school assessments, but they do test skills that are promoted by school education and by an environment where most people have high (by historical standards) levels of education.

The particular set of skills tested by IQ tests are much more emphasized today than they were in decades past. Other skills have been comparatively de-emphasized.

One of the things that struck me when trying to read Beatrix Potter to my children is that no one today would dream of writing childrens’ stories with that sort of vocabulary and complexity of sentence structure. A century ago, it was commonplace.

One can easily imagine an alternate sort of “IQ” test, exercising a different set of skills, which would reveal an “anti-Flynn Effect” — steadily dropping test scores over time.

2

amos 02.08.04 at 7:12 am

blah, bl’blah-blah, blahblah, blah.
taking these assholes seriously
is giving ’em too much credit.
the proper form of address for
slime that’re beneath contempt
is “fuck you”. can’t you find
something worth talking about?
hint: millions of americans
locked up for crimes that’re
no crime at all; nuclear war
killing god alone knows how many;
television destroying democracy;
anything in the world but this
meaningless fucking horseshit.
get a grip here people.

3

Alan 02.08.04 at 7:40 am

The questions used in IQ tests are not found in holy writ: someone made ’em up. More particularly, they tested the questions before releasing them to an approving world. And why do I say “approving”? Because an IQ test that says “Sorry pal, you ain’t as smart as you thought you were” is not going to be widely adopted. And Amos has a point. A lot of this debate is the usual petulance and pedantry directed at anyone who says unkind things about colored folks.

4

msg 02.08.04 at 7:50 am

You want there to be no difference; you want there to be a difference. Big surprise you find what you wanted. Or you get all upset.
There is no difference, between the races, genetically, in the mind, but in the body of course there is. That’s why they’re distinct races. Or if there is a difference in the mind it’s not quantifiable. Or if it’s quantifiable, it has nothing to do with the value of the individual being measured.
It’s not something you can say well, they’re dumber than we are. They may be bigger or smaller, they may be stronger or faster, or they may be lighter in build, darker or lighter in skin, but not in the mind; in the mind we’re all the same, even if we’re not. Because in the bizarre world we inhabit the mind is all that matters.
What difference, outside the arena and the bar, does physical prowess make? Even though the buff dude in the three-piece suit makes his presence felt in the elevator.
Where is the ability to lift great weight valued? In the ditch, on the roof, in the building trades. At the bottom of the economic food chain. Big money’s on the mind in that contest.
The physical differences are culturally tangential because physical excellence is secondary.
Even celebrity athletes are secondary. It’s always very important when these questions are discussed that the fundamental cultural assumptions, in this case the superiority of the mind over the body, are never fully explored, much less investigated. The same social pathologies that separated us from the natural world have separated us from the physical nature of our selves in the world, though there’s this weird narcissistic return, through the mirror of the health club and the gym.
It’s astonishing to me that there’s so much resistance to the idea that there may be cognitive differences as well as muscular, skeletal, and dermal differences among the races.
Because if there’s a negative value inherent in saying there are intellectual differences in the races, then that negative is already there, though its expression is taboo, in the differences in mental ability within the races. You can’t have it both ways.
My sort of brief point would be, the cultural valuing of intellect to the practical exclusion of physical ability, except as entertainment, is a symptom of a much greater pathology. The intellectual differences among the races don’t prove the case for bigotry. By forcing the same devaluation of an entire race that we already burden individuals with, they make too clear for comfort our distorted veneration of the disembodied mind.

5

mc 02.08.04 at 8:10 am

What’s astonishing to me is that there’s still so many taking the concepts of “IQ tests” and “race” seriously.

They’re _both_ entirely made up, artificial, arbitrary things of no value at all.

As far as I know, there’s no test to measure common sense, emotional intelligence, practical problem solving skills as opposed to abstract “pick the next square in sequence” bollocks. No test measurig that except life itself, that is.

6

msg 02.08.04 at 8:59 am

That was kind of my point as well, except that life as we live it now is kind of inside that artificial construct. So that those bogus tests measure real things, because we’re in this bogus reality. But it’s real.
It’s not some romanticized nostalgia that the indigenous people who have been so throughly and systematically evicted from their traditions and traditional ways of being were more real, they were. And that’s not an aesthetic judgement. They were lighter on their feet in a cultural sense, more adaptable, capable of withstanding greater shocks, though obviously not the implacable shock and awe of progress.
There’s a reason the aboriginal Australians were still there when white people showed up. They were very good at what they were doing. The Bushmen of the Kalahari likewise. The Inuit. They had been living like that for longer than we have like this.
It’s coarse, brutal living, yes. A lot like post-disaster living.

IQ measures real things, and they’re important things too, but they’re not all. That’s where it breaks down. There’s no test for wisdom but time.

7

Keith M Ellis 02.08.04 at 10:34 am

There is no difference, between the races, genetically, in the mind, but in the body of course there is. That’s why they’re distinct races.“—msg

Perhaps you’re not aware that this isn’t true. There is no sense in which “races” are distinct. If “race” were a scientifically valid concept with regard to the body, then it could be a valid concept with regard to the mind. However, neither is true. The features upon which we rely to define “race” are so superficial and haphazard that they do not reliably cross-correlate to genetic differences. It’s like trying to differentiate populations genetically on the basis of how they dress—there very well may be (in certain populations for a variety of reasons) a loose relationship between dress and genetic relatedness; but of course two unrelated people can dress alike.

If genetic divergence of isolated populations were to have produced what we imagine different races to be, then it very well could have resulted in mental divergence. But since race doesn’t mean what we think it means, it can’t mean this in regards to mental differentiation, either.

8

Keith M Ellis 02.08.04 at 11:11 am

On the general topic of IQ, I have mixed feelings.

Not only do I agree with the ideas like Gardner’s “multiple intellgences”, but even the abstract reasoning ability that is most commonly associated with “general intelligence” is very likely a composite of traits and not at all like a general-purpose computational unit. (Here I am referring to work like Cosmides and Tooby’s “Wason selection task” experiments, which are very interesting and usually quite surprising to most people.)

On the other hand, even if “mental competency” is a composite of a very large cluster of skills—some quite unrelated to each other (even within the restricted category of “abstract reasoning”)—the idea of “overall intelligence” can still be meaningful. For example, athletic activity varies quite widely: what makes someone a good sprinter is quite unlike and mostly opposed to what makes someone a good sumo wrestler. On the other hand, someone with a severe heart condition is disadvantaged in both activities, someone with a strong heart is advantaged. And we do talk sometimes about “natural athletes”, people who seem to excel across a broad range of athletic skills—some quite distinct from each other—and perhaps such people are outliers in some fundamental physiological characteristics such as oxygen carrying capacity of the blood, efficieny of toxin elimination, or just an unusually strongly integrated body sense.

Clearly, some people are better athletes—overall—than other people. In this sense, I don’t doubt that some people are “smarter” than others.

But the athetic analogy is apt because, for the most part, pentathlons and other such “overall” competitions of athletic ability are of limited interest. I think the reason for this is that it is extremely unlikely that any one person will greatly differ across all these traits (excepting disablement) that we can reliably measure, via competition, such differences.

Similarly, intellectual activity—both in common, daily activity and among the exceptional—is almost certainly very unevenly exerting the mind across all these skills. This is especially true with any specialized activity that we strongly associate with mental ability: a physicist is far more like a high jumper than a pentathlete. So is a philosopher. The more narrowly we measure these abilities, the more likely we are to be able to reliably do so…and to get results that are meaningful.

I personally think that modern IQ tests are relatively well-suited to the purposes they serve. They are measuring a specific set of intellectual traits; but those traits are (usually, but not always) relevant for the purposes to which these tests are put.

But given that we understand so poorly what we are measuring, and that what we are measuring is complex, such testing for the purposes of population studies is, well, stupid.

9

Mrs Tilton 02.08.04 at 1:39 pm

nuclear war killing god alone knows how many

God alone may know; certainly I don’t. It is doubtless down to the extreme isolation of my life, but I was unaware that anybody has ever been killed in a nuclear war. (One might count the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though a pedant could object that those were atomic rather than nuclear bombs. Even allowing these two instances, I think we might arrive at an estimates of deaths that, though not of divine precision, would be good enough for government work. But who has been killed in a nuclear war since then?)

10

Keith M Ellis 02.08.04 at 2:28 pm

One might count the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though a pedant could object that those were atomic rather than nuclear bombs.—mrs. tilton

Said pedant would be mistaken. “Atomic bombs” are surely “nuclear bombs” since this is a release of energy bound up in the nucleus. The distinction you are looking for would be between fission and thermonuclear bombs; the “nuclear” in the latter perhaps led you astray. A fission bomb works by getting a bunch of really huge and unstable atomic nuclei close enough together so that the spontaneous decay of radioactivity and subsequent release of neutrons that impact other nuclei will, in a near instantaneous chain-reaction, induce almost all of them to decay, thus releasing a whole bunch of energy as photons, mostly as x-rays.

A thermonuclear bomb is a fusion bomb which, through extraordinarily high temperature and pressure, forces two very light nuclei together to form a heavier nuclei, which also releases a tremendous amount of energy (much more, in fact). The high temperature and pressure are achieved with a fusion bomb acting as an initiator.

No one has died as a result of a fusion device being used in an act of war. But of course a great many people died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Those two bombs, by the way, had fundamentally different designs and nuclear fuel.)

Did someone mention pedantry?

11

Barry 02.08.04 at 2:46 pm

“The problem is that the administration of IQ tests to kids was probably more common 50 years ago than today. “

True, but standardized multiple-choice tests could be much more common.

And differences between group means could well be caused by differences in particular sub-groups[1]. For example, imagine the worst 10% of neighborhoods (and to a strong degree, schools) *now*, in the US/UK. Now, imagine what the worst 10% were like in 1950.

12

mc 02.08.04 at 2:49 pm

msg: I’m not sure I follow you there, but you didn’t quite get my point. I meant what Keith Mc Ellis wrote, ie. that, *literally*, there is no such thing as “race”. It’s a bogus concept, an arbitrary classification for research which spilled over onto political and ideological fields.

As for what you say about indigenous people, well, that’s a very romanticised view. Living in a non-technological society doesn’t mean you’re more “real”. You’re just in a different environment, with different needs. They’re different realities, just like living in the countryside is different from living in the city, and living with lots of money is different from living with little, or living in an expensive city centre loft is different from living in some Brazilian favela… You can’t say one situation is “more real” than the other. They both are.

And my point is, IQ tests do *not* measure real skills in real life, even in a technologically advanced modern and wealthy consumer society, or whatever you wanna call it. There’s nothing unreal about living and working and studying in London or New York as opposed to living in the heart of the Amazon forest. But those tests don’t measure anything involved with it.

They measure some very specific cognitive skills that can be learned and trained and improved, just like doing weights in the gym. They’re mostly mathematical and logical skills you learn in school (so if, say, you’ve never gone to school you won’t perform well on them) and they are reduced to such abstract levels, in those tests, that they cannot measure anything practical.

Perhaps they’re useful for academic purposes, I don’t know – but I’ve never known any serious academic instutution to _require_ IQ tests. What they rely on is previous results or specific tests targeted at that field of study. Which makes more sense to me.

13

Keith M Ellis 02.08.04 at 3:07 pm

Perhaps they’re useful for academic purposes, I don’t know – but I’ve never known any serious academic instutution to require IQ tests. What they rely on is previous results or specific tests targeted at that field of study. Which makes more sense to me.“—mc

Me, too. But I think you’re overstating your case when you (imply?) that IQ tests measure nothing relevant.

A big exception to the point you make above is that law schools require the LSAT, and the LSAT has many things in common with an IQ test. I suspect that’s because what is being tested and what they’re looking for is, in this case, closer than you think. It’s also the case because, unlike most other specialties, there is very little expectation of prior study in this field.

I quite understand and sympathize with the backlash against the (misuse of the) IQ test. But I think it is erring in the other extreme to claim that what IQ tests measure is completely arbitrary and irrelevant to any real-world cognitive activity.

It measures what it measures.

14

Mrs Tilton 02.08.04 at 6:21 pm

Keith,

my hypothetical pedant bows to both your greater pedantry and your greater knowledge of the physics of mass destruction.

As an aside, though, and whatever about the technicalities, is not a distinction between ‘atomic bombs’ (à la Hiroshima) and ‘nuclear bombs’ (the ones that have killed God only knows how many) pretty common and accepted in non-technical parlance?

15

Keith M Ellis 02.08.04 at 6:36 pm

Mrs. Tilton,

That’s not my impression. But if that’s your experience, I’ll keep it in mind. Here’s where we get into some sticky descriptivist vs prescriptivist arguments. In technical parlance, a “nuclear” bomb assuredly is a fission bomb; and it’s probably better that popular usage tend toward making the fission/fusion distinction clear in transparent and not misleading ways, such as “h-bomb” or “thermonuclear bomb” as distinct from “mere” atomic bombs. Fission and fusion bombs are both atomic and nuclear bombs, essentially, so that’s (“atomic” and “nulcear”) a very bad choice of a pair of words to use to make the distinction.

Anyway, if this is your actual experience of usage and not merely a misunderstanding on your part, I’ve duly made a note of this usage. I’d avoid it, though, if I were you.

16

Mrs Tilton 02.08.04 at 7:18 pm

Well taken, Keith. That is in fact my experience of how these terms are used; but as for myself, I shall try in future to strive for technical precision.

That’s the nuclear bombs settled, then. But what’s all this about those nucular bombs your president keeps going on about? They must be terrible things altogether. I’d rather be blown up by the nuclear sort any day.

17

paul 02.08.04 at 7:33 pm

One of the little tidbits that may be useful here is the (sometimes reported) result that the Flynn Effect is strongest in tests that supposedly are the purest measures of G (general intelligence), which in turn tend to be the most visually-oriented tests. The notion that the average child’s visual environment has gotten steadily more complex (richer, faster-moving, with more spohisticated interrelationships) in the past half-century seems undeniable.

18

Keith M Ellis 02.08.04 at 8:02 pm

When I was a little kid, I said nukular and not nuclear. This was because I had first become familiar with the pronunciation of “nuke”, and, somehow, nukular seemed right. Or, perhaps I heard that mispronunciation. Here again we get into descriptivist vs. prescriptivist waters. I’m sure linguists are well familiar with nukular and consider it valid. (Well, of course they do—they are pure descriptivists.)

A former governor of New Mexico would say “physical” for “fiscal” and that drove me nuts. Then I learned that it was deliberate on his part—an intentional retention of a regional dialect that was an important part of his political persona. I suspect that the same is true of George W. Bush. His Texan dialect is a political asset, not a liability.

I live in Austin, Texas, and hardly no one here has much—if any—of a Texan accent. You don’t see many cowboy hats and boots, either.

A childhood friend of mine, formerly a molecular biologist and now a Wall Street analyst, who, growing up in our small eastern New Mexico farming town, subscribed to New Yorker, was, like me, emphatically not a redneck in any sense whatsoever. Upon moving to New York, he promptly bought his first pair of cowboy boots.

From my mother I inherited a mysterious “r” after the “a” in “wash”; and I have retained, mostly, this oft-derided pronunciation mostly as an affectation.

Funny how these things work.

19

msg 02.08.04 at 10:51 pm

msg: I’m not sure I follow you there…

Clarity is maybe not my strong suit, sorry. I’ll try harder on this one.
John Quiggin calls them “racial groups” in the post, which I suppose is more accurate. I was working within that context; in the real world of course each individual is a distinct “thing” and any larger grouping will of necessity be increasingly false toward its artificially drawn boundaries.
The accuracy of racial distinction seems to be inescapably clear in the NBA.
The absurdity of racial distinction is nowhere more clear than in Condoleeza Rice’s flagship presence in the Bush White House, as a black woman. But it’s made more complex, and valid, by the fact that outside the arena of mediated social flux, in the yet more “real” world, she’s treated as a black woman, with all that that implies, however modern and accepting its form. She is a black woman, yet she obviously isn’t as well.
The same monochromatic flattening happens in the gender controversies over gay marriage. Transvestites, transsexuals, and most especially intersexuals, the former “hermaphrodites” of mythology and freak show, all get thrown into the same social box cars as garden-variety homosexuals, and off they go.
It’s the prejudice that originates these false distinctions, and their equally false conflation. It’s the prejudice I’m attacking. It’s real and it isn’t. In the sense that flawed logic is still logic.
“Race” may not exist biologically with any accuracy, but if you don’t think The Bell Curve was a racial argument you’re not working with the same material I am. That it was used for even more egregious racist arguments,and the continuation of racially biased attitudes and behavior, as well as sparking the aghast backlash of anti-racists, is indisputable.
So, yes, there are no races. But there is racism.

As far as “romanticized” views of indigenous ways of living, I thought I anticipated your objection. But, okay.
The distinction isn’t “non-technological” versus technological.
It’s closer to prosthetic I think, prosthetic-dependent versus prosthesis-as-option. Once you can see the automobile as nothing more than a massively potent wheelchair, what I’m saying will make more sense.
I’m talking about people who had a wisdom we’ve never been allowed to even hear about.
Who were capable of evaluating technology from a much wider perspective than exclusively immediate advantage. Having to have proof of negative outcome in order to accurately decide whether to adopt some new tool or weapon is dysfunctional. It’s an open invitation to complete destruction. The moral version of that principle is that anything that isn’t provably wrong is automatically all right. That’s horseshit, pure and simple.
This argument is very alive among Circumpolar people. The obvious advantages of spotting scopes and snowmobiles are contrasted with their obvious, as well as their potentially hidden, costs.
Your position of response is from within the safety of triumphantly successful western technology. To you it must seem inevitable and inarguably better.
I’m thinking that attitude will soon begin to shift toward a nostalgia of its own.

20

mg 02.09.04 at 12:38 am

msg:
I’m talking about people who had a wisdom we’ve never been allowed to even hear about
Excuse me, but how do you know anything about that wisdom without being allowed to even hear about it?

21

msg 02.09.04 at 1:03 am

I’m talking about it. I didn’t say specifically I knew about it. Though semantics aside I’ll say firmly that it existed.
This “received wisdom” on the other hand, that anything before the middle 19th century was ignorant superstition at best is pure bunk.
The timeline says we existed in our present form, as a species, for what? a hundred thousand years? more? not less.
The idea that until a few thousand years ago we were nothing but a bunch of incompetent grunting morons is ludicrous. That same vicious desperation is behind all the nonsense about indigenous people. It’s still hard for a lot of intelligent people to work with the idea of complex moral and ethical systems being in place in pre-Columbian America.
As long as you keep the debate firmly in urban environments you’ll win.
Take it into the jungle for a month or so and you might not feel so smug about it.

22

mg 02.09.04 at 1:59 am

Though semantics aside I’ll say firmly that it existed
And you say this without ever having heard about it?

The idea that until a few thousand years ago we were nothing but a bunch of incompetent grunting morons is ludicrous
Is it? Some of us are still exactly that. It is only logical to conclude that without books and enlightening blogs like CT, the condition would be far more prevalent.

As long as you keep the debate firmly in urban environments you’ll win.
Take it into the jungle for a month or so and you might not feel so smug about it.

Since neither of us is likely posting from the jungle, I take it that you can’t win?

23

msg 02.09.04 at 7:25 am

If you can find the courage necessary to actually take a stand yourself, which is to say, to speak from your own convictions, if you have any, as opposed to parasitically attaching rhetoric to what I’ve said in earnest, please do so. I’ll tear you a brand new asshole. On any subject you want.

24

mc 02.09.04 at 7:53 am

keith: you’re right, I was overstating the case against the IQ tests. I have an aversion to that kind of thing when taken too seriously, especially if it’s connected to the whole “race” debate.

I do agree that they measure some specific skills, yes, that may be very relevant to certain academic/teaching purposes.

My point is, those skills, and even academic and school results overall, are not enough to “define” one’s intelligence. I take intelligence to mean a lot more than those skills that can make you successful in an IQ test and/or in school and university. In life, “success” means something very different than scores. Emotional intelligence, adaptation skills, communication abilities, sociability, character etc. those are undefinable gifts that are a lot more precious.

Which I guess is what everyone here was implying already so, nothing shockingly original for me to say :)

25

Keith M Ellis 02.09.04 at 8:52 am

mc: fair enough. My position on this, as it is on many things, is that when we say someone is “smart” we’re saying something meaningful, but very likely not meaningful in the way that we expect. That may sound like I’m splitting the difference, but what I’m really trying to do is be both accurate and precise.

It seems to me that since the gestalt quality “smartness” is commonly perceived—and even more recognized in its extreme absence—that we don’t have to throw the entire concept overboard. It probably means something.

Really, this is very much like the debate about “race”. People like msg are put off by blanket denials of the validity of “race”, and rightly so. “Race” does mean something in the contemporary world; and, at the risk of repeating myself, it means what it means. However, it doesn’t mean what people explicitly claim that it means. That is, it doesn’t correspond to genotype.

Furthermore, it just so happens that the overwhelming majority of black Americans share a few common ancestors, and thus they are, in fact, genotypically distinct. In the context of black Americans, “race” actually comes relatively close to meaning what people suppose it means. Thus, forensic scientists can make accurate generalizations about “negroid” skeletal features; and a connection can be made between race and a genetic condition such as sickle-cell anemia. Which misleads a lot of people into believing that the apparent accuracy of race=genotype within the context of American racial distinctions validates it in all population contexts. Which of course is a mistake and is not the case.

You can see where I’m going in comparing the IQ debate to the race debate.

“IQ” is an attempt to measure what in American society is perceived as general “smartness”. No doubt said intelligence is far more specialized than is supposed; but within this narrow context it may mean closer to what people suppose it means than you are willing to admit. That is, it well may reasonably accurately measure what is commonly perceived as “smartness”, yet it also may be the case that “smartness” simply doesn’t mean what we commonly suppose it means. And yet, it means something. It’s quite useful to say, “She’s a really, really smart person.” It will continue to be useful to say that.

26

mc 02.09.04 at 8:55 am

msg: well, now it’s even less clear than before! :D

“So, yes, there are no races. But there is racism.”

Yes. So…?

I kind of get what you mean when you say “it’s real and it isn’t at the same time”. But… I wasn’t touching on the ways the idea of “race” has been used for political, ideological, social ends. It’s the concept itself, that was born as completely arbitrary and has been discredited, not just for the aberrations it brought about, but for its nature. Like Keith said, basically.

OF course classifications can be useful, but I don’t think “racial groups” is the right definition either. Maybe “ethnic groups” is more correct, because that includes everything from culture to religion to traditions to origins to language and nationality and all that combined is what makes up a “people”. I belong to a group as long as I can say “people of my kind”, but it’s not a biological thing. It can be in part, but it’s mostly a cultural thing.

You’re right, the individual comes before a group. Then, I can identify more or less strongly with my ethnic background, whether or not I have the physical signs that show it, whether I look African, Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, whatever. It depends on every individual, as well as the society they live in, how much they take their ethnic identity to be relevant. But the “border” there cannot be race cos it’s an absurd concept. Take the classic “white Caucasian” definition. It’s supposed to include everyone from Norwegians to Spanish, and it doesn’t take much to see there’s a whole lot of differences not just in physical traits but in culture, mentality, language, nationality, between a Norwegian and a Spanish person. If I’m Spanish, I’m Spanish. I’m not “white Caucasian” even if my skin is “white”. We might as well classify people by the color of their hair or eyes, which is at least something more precise than “race”. “Race” is not an identity. It’s too restrictive and too broad at the same time. It’s superficial, it focuses only on physical traits and does a horrible job of simplifying differences too.

I’m not really sure what you mean by the example of Condoleeza Rice in the White House… You say, “She is a black woman, yet she obviously isn’t as well.” Yes, but again, I don’t get the conclusion there? If I’m black, of course it does matter, to me, to everyone else, up to a degree, it just shouldn’t matter more than being Spanish or Norwegian or Brazilian, ie. it shouldn’t be a definition of a “border”. Even if being black in the US has a specific history it doesn’t have elsewhere, not in the same way, so it’s also a cultural or ethnic identity. But if you speak the same language, you’re the same people – that to me is the “classification”. I’m not American, so to me Rice is first of all an American. That’s the difference.

I don’t quite understand your parallen with the instance of gays and transexuals, as far as I know, that’s the _chosen_ grouping for most gay rights organization, to bundle gay-lesbian-bi-trans those together for advocacy purposes, and clearly there’s a common interests there plus we’re talking sexual preferences here so it’s entirely another field.

It gets confusing to mix that in here…

Re: your insistence on “indigenous living” – well, how is your definition of people “who had a wisdom we’ve never been allowed to even hear about; who were capable of evaluating technology from a much wider perspective than exclusively immediate advantage” *not* romanticised?

And mind you, me saying that does not mean what you inferred, ie. that my “position of response is from within the safety of triumphantly successful western technology” and that to me “it must seem inevitable and inarguably better“.

I don’t see a “better vs. worse” paradigm there in some absolute moral sense. It’s a practical difference. it’s you who brought up “indigenous living” as opposed to modern technological society, I’m just trying (hard) to understand what’s your point there. I’m not dismissing a style of living – chosen or not, past or present – that may be radically different from the western, wealthy, industrial, capitalist one (call it how you like).

To me, “technologically advanced” simply means we can use electric cookers instead of fire to cook an egg, cars instead of horses, and planes instead of… nothing.

It’s not a “triumph”, I don’t see it under any ideological tint, it’s just how things evolved in human history. It doesn’t necessarily means it’s worse or better in some abstract, absolute sense. It’s more comfortable, but worse or better in some “moral” sense, who can say that? You’re the one saying from a moral point of view, living in a “post-disaster-like” setting like you said, is worthier, brings more wisdom, etc.. But I think you’re wrong on the assumption on the process of technological choices – when you say:

Having to have proof of negative outcome in order to accurately decide whether to adopt some new tool or weapon is dysfunctional. It’s an open invitation to complete destruction. The moral version of that principle is that anything that isn’t provably wrong is automatically all right. That’s horseshit, pure and simple.”

Well, you don’t think that the first human uses of fire worked the very same way? Humans had to see what fire did, and get the proof of negative outcome, to understand how it could work to a positive outcome. They had to see it burned things, before they used it to cook, no? Ditto for man-made tools. Someone had to discover a rock or a pointed object could kill living beings, before they used it to hunt, and make war – and before they improved existing objects and went from sticks and stones to spears and arrows.

It is totally functional! you can’t use something til you know its negative effects. as kids we learn at an early age that putting your fingers on the cooker or in boiling water is not a clever thing to do _because it hurts_. That’s how we learn to use things properly.

The _basic_ workings of the human mind are the very same, the _basic_ needs are the same, now the fact we have a lot more superfluous or induced needs is another matter. I can live without the mobile phone, even if, in a urban environment, it has become as useful as a car – but whether I live in the city or in a virgin forest, I can’t live without food or water, just like 30 thousand years ago… If I was shipwrecked on a desert island, survival would be my first concern. Of course, if I also had a mobile, I could also call rescuers instantly and not have to worry about food :) Which, whatever kind of moral judgement you want to give about it, is indisputably an advantage. Just like being able to survive diseases that were deadly only 300 hundred years ago is. Purely on a practical level, which is, after all, what drove technological progress, at least at its core (its aberrations being another topic entirely).

So I really don’t get what you’re driving at there.

And, erm, now I also lost track of why we’re discussing this and where it’s supposed to connect to the original topic…

27

mc 02.09.04 at 10:45 am

PS – msg: I hadn’t read the last comments yet, ok, I get it and I think you’re absolutely right when you say “This “received wisdom” on the other hand, that anything before the middle 19th century was ignorant superstition at best is pure bunk“.

There’s not always such a received widsom though, consider that “main” religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hunduism and Buddhism are all from way back before the 19th century.

(And perhaps could do with a little updating in certain areas…)

But what I mean is, regardless of what we each think of religions in general or specific religions, they are still a part of public life, and not often dismissed as mere superstition.

Anyway that’s a whole other field to me, when you brought up the contrast with “indigenous” living I was thinking essentially of the practical aspects and impact of modern technology, not systems of belief, social organization, traditions, arts, etc.

I don’t think we can measure any “collective intelligence”, much less by relying on those aspects. I think it’s more useful to try and understand the innner workings of any society at any place and time in history, than put it up against some supposed model. So if what you meant is that technological advancement is not enough to “advance” intelligence, I agree there. If you meant something else, well, then I’m too dumb to get it :)

28

mc 02.09.04 at 11:03 am

keith mc ellis:

It seems to me that since the gestalt quality “smartness” is commonly perceived—and even more recognized in its extreme absence—that we don’t have to throw the entire concept overboard. It probably means something.

Yes, of course. But smartness (or intelligence – and that’s already two different ideas) is not an IQ test. Is not measured by it cos it’s something much more diversified, and can contain a lot more things.

Someone could have performed badly or not particularly well in an IQ test, and still, they could be very smart in every common meaning of the word.

“Race” does mean something in the contemporary world

Yes, I understand what you mean there, but when I think of what a certain group has in common, and what differentiates it from another, I think of a lot more than physical traits or common ancestors. To be honest, most of the time, I don’t hear often, and wouldn’t expect to hear often, the word “race” used _seriously and literally_ today, apart from within a racist context.

Probably for statistical purposes, that may be still a useful classification in some areas – but even when it’s used so neutrally, even when I do understand the context in which it’s used neutrally, well… to me at least, all the implications of the concept of “race”, from the most “neutral” to the most charged ones, are all in there, in that word, they’re bundled in it. They can’t be escaped. The first things it calls to mind are not pleasant or neutral at all.

In the context of black Americans, “race” actually comes relatively close to meaning what people suppose it means.

Yes, in a sense, but it’s a specific context, and a specific history, it’s not exactly the same elsewhere. And it has to do with other factors. Plus, origins or ethnic identity is not “race”.

In other words, I do accept that it can be used neutrally as a synonym for that, but I think it shouldn’t.

A difference between groups with different origins, some different recognisable physical traits, and, as is the case, maybe even culture or language etc., does exist, that’s why it’s perceived, so we shouldn’t dismiss it – but I’m more familiar with it being described as “ethnic”, than a “racial” difference. “Race” has always been used soo arbitrarily since the start, it’s a joke.

Thus, forensic scientists can make accurate generalizations about “negroid” skeletal features; and a connection can be made between race and a genetic condition such as sickle-cell anemia. Which misleads a lot of people into believing that the apparent accuracy of race=genotype within the context of American racial distinctions validates it in all population contexts. Which of course is a mistake and is not the case.

Exactly… That’s why perhaps another word should be used, not just for the sake of language, not for “correctness”, but because that term is so loaded, it’s impossible (I think) to separate it from its negative connotations and its inherent arbitrariness and vagueness.

You can see where I’m going in comparing the IQ debate to the race debate.

Yes, I understand. I do have a problem with both concepts because of their arbitrary nature, still, I’m more inclined to accept the _specific_ usefulness of the IQ tests to _specific_ purposes, than even the most specific use of the term “race”…

My objections are not based on some idea of equality or absence of differences. It’s that those differences – of “smartness” and intelligence, or of ethnic origins and background and culture etc. – are a lot more diversified.

“IQ” is an attempt to measure what in American society is perceived as general “smartness”.

There you go – it’s probably more of an American thing, isn’t it? Or “Anglo” at large, maybe. Probably because that’s where the idea of IQ was developed (if I’m not wrong?).

I don’t get the idea there’s the same level of interest or focus on IQ tests elsewhere.

29

mc 02.09.04 at 11:12 am

Correction: when I wrote “My objections are not based on some idea of equality or absence of differences” – I meant, I don’t deny there are differences in intelligence and smartness among different individuals, obviously, just like I don’t deny there are differences that can be conveniently identified as “racial”, or better, ethnic (which I believe is a more complete and at the same time accurate concept).

So the phrase should have been “My objections are not based on some idea of equality as absence of differences”.

(Which wouldn’t be a proper idea of equality…)

Obviously the recognition of evident (ie. physical aspect – or even gender, say) or even less evident or instantly identifiable differences (ie. intelligence) doesn’t deny equality in the “right” sense of the term, ie. being equal as humans, having equal rights, etc..

Just in case my previous wording was a bit ambiguous…!

30

Keith M Ellis 02.09.04 at 1:39 pm

There you go – it’s probably more of an American thing, isn’t it? Or “Anglo” at large, maybe. Probably because that’s where the idea of IQ was developed (if I’m not wrong?).“mc

You’re right. That’s why I have specified “American” several times in this context. The more you take this IQ thing away from that context, the less reliable it is, I’d wager.

But I still assert that some kind of test that measures what other people evaluate as “smart” is possible. But it will be normalized to that common notion of “smart” which quite emphatically may be far, far from some sort of universal quantification of intelligence that it might be thought to be.

So, I suppose I’m repeating myself. :) I think it’s relevant and measureable, but I’m quite agnostic on what “it” is. The only thing I’m pretty sure of is that it’s almost certainly not what we conventionally think “it” is. And while it may have a great deal of meaning within a certain context, that context may be far narrower than we expect.

31

Keith M Ellis 02.09.04 at 1:44 pm

Oh, and on the matter of “race”, I agree wholehearedly. It’s a terribly misleading term and should be fought wherever it appears. However, I was arguing for some sort of validity to “race” because since the word is still useful to many people, it necessarily is valid in some sense. To successfully argue that people forgo that usage requires recognition of this—otherwise they won’t listen at all. So, my strategy is to aknowledge what “race” actually does mean, and then guide them toward an alternate word on the basis of demonstrating that it doesn’t mean some other things that it is commonly supposed to mean and is thus misleading. My experience is that if you just start off with “race has no scientific basis”, the majority of people will tune you out since they will believe you are contradicting manifest reality—they will believe you are asserting the word is entirely without meaning, which it clearly is not.

32

Tom 02.09.04 at 7:19 pm

Trivia: those on the eugenics side of the IQ debate often refer to the Flynn effect as the Lynn-Flynn effect.

[After the ludicrous Richard Lynn of the University of Ulster, who argues that dysgenics is a pending crisis through lowered IQ (while claiming credit for Flynn’s discovery of increasing IQ over time), and argued that exposure to Irish Gaelic lowered measured IQ’s in the Republic of Ireland relative to the UK (this was before he discovered the Pioneer Institute’s gravy train, BTW, and was going on his good Ulsterman prejudices).]

33

crystal 02.15.04 at 3:55 am

What about tests that are [ostensibly] culturally-unbiased?

Here, for example is an image-based test:
http://www.geocities.com/brainforce2/

34

MKHackensack 02.16.04 at 9:28 pm

Based on my study of Dennis Miller, and extrapolating to the general population, I’m forced to conclude that IQ’s are actually declining.

Comments on this entry are closed.