Pinker, research, and race

Steven Pinker has changed. In The Language Instinct he wrote brilliantly about the evolution of language and the means by which humans came to be the only thinking animals. He wrote about how the similarities that bind the different races of humans were vastly more common and interesting than a few paltry racial differences.

A few years later, when he wrote How the Mind Works, the emphasis had begun to show signs of movement. He was writing much more about IQ differences, but still these chapters consisted of just a fraction of the book.

I haven’t read The Blank Slate, but from what I’ve heard, it “progresses” even further in the same direction. Now he’s giving lectures about Jewish intellectual superiority. I understand that in every case, he’s careful to point out that racism is wrong, but still, I wonder why he’s now devoting so much time to those differences he once dismissed as insignificant.

Take a look at yesterday’s post in Cognitive Daily. Like most psychology research, this study found no racial differences. Like many studies, this one actively tried to find differences, but observed none. It found that as we age, whether we’re black or white, emotion begins to color our memory and reaction to faces. Black or white, our behaviors are the same, as they are in countless other studies. But Pinker chooses to focus on one study that tries to explain why there are so many Jewish lawyers and doctors. Did Pinker suddenly learn that Jews tend to score better on IQ tests than other racial groups? I’d submit that he didn’t — he’s just talking about it more now.

And why shouldn’t we talk about it? After all, it’s true.

Well, it’s also true that New Yorkers are better at navigating the subway than Kansans, and that sons of cellists are likely to be better cello players than sons of bricklayers. Maybe we should talk about that. It’s true. Boring, but true.

Even if IQ is largely inherited, and even if IQ really predicts future success, I’m still unclear as to why so many resources get devoted to studying IQ differences. Shouldn’t we be focusing on the things we can reasonably be able to impact? Even if IQ was 100 percent genetic (it’s not), how does that affect the way we should run schools or make hiring decisions? Surely Pinker’s not arguing that we should just do a gene test and slot everyone into their ideal career track at age 4.

Does an 85 IQ really mean you’re slated to be a truck driver, while, say, a 110 qualifies you for middle management? What about football players, or artists? What does IQ say about them? And despite her gloriously high IQ, why is Marilyn vos Savant such a lousy advice columnist? IQ is such a lame, crude measure of ability that it shouldn’t be shocking that so many people with high IQs give it so much credence.

I just wish Steven Pinker was better than that.

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2 Responses to Pinker, research, and race

  1. I think Dr. Pinker has become the reluctant spokesperson for genetic differences in intelligence not because he necessarily believes in the importance of the inheritability the differences but because he believes in defending the scientific merit of the study of these differences. Much of The Blank Slate is devoted to criticizing “scientists” who dismiss evolutionary biology off-hand, without even viewing the evidence, because the very discussion is contrary to their political beliefs. Science must be open to exploring ideas that can be uncomfortable.. . . and I agree with you Marilyn vos Savant is a terrible columnist.

  2. Doug Hoffman says:

    Dave, is there even an agreed upon definition for “intelligence” (other than the tautological, “That which is measured by an IQ test”)?

    Gadzooks. Marilyn vos Savant. I can’t read her stuff because I scream myself hoarse every time.