Monday, January 29, 2007

IQ

Just finished reading Brandon Berg's quick hit on leftists and their inconsistencies on IQ. I'm not so terribly sure that Brandon's point is particularly fair, but I'm willing to look the other way on that one. After all, I do know plenty of people on the left who made much of President Bush's IQ but who would be horrified at the thought of, say, writing off some of their students as just being not all that bright. That's pretty anecdotal, but hey, it's a blog hit.

More interesting, though, is the extent to which both sides in the IQ debate interpret the results in accord with their ideology. Now I'm not usually one to make a post-modernist sort of point, but it does strike me as pretty glaringly obvious in this case that people's preconceived notions very heavily influence their interpretation of supposedly "objective" facts.

Here's the skinny. IQ correlates strongly with poverty, with social mobility, and with race. These just are facts. Like them or not, they just are true. But that's as far as the facts really take us. They get us a correlation. A strong one. What, then, are we to do with that correlation?

Well, good scientists tend to look at correlations, especially strong ones, and make some preliminary sorts of assumptions. When A and B correlate strongly, it's a good bet that there is some sort of causal relationship, some sort of reason for the correlation. It could be pure chance, but that seems less likely. So the starting assumption is that there is some sort of reason why A and B correlate strongly. Of course, there are actually three options for a causal link. A could cause B. B could cause A. Or A and B could both be effects of another cause C.

So how does ideology enter the picture when we discuss IQ? Well, leftists are, generally speaking, committed to egalitarianism. That is, leftists believe that people are, at bottom, all created more or less equal and that differences between people are typically a product of socialization. A leftist, confronted with the bald fact that poor people and dumb people are frequently the same people, will naturally assume that being poor leads to being dumb (or, more politely, that standard intelligence tests exhibit some bias toward middle and upper-class test takers). A leftist will, in other words, assume that B causes A.

Those of a more libertarian (or more generally marketist) bent see the world differently. Libertarians are fundamentally committed to the inherent goodness of free markets. So, confronted with the bald fact that people who fare badly in the market end up having lower IQs, libertarians naturally take this fact as confirmation of their views: poor people have only themselves to blame for being poor. For a libertarian, it's obvious that A causes B.

This division results in, well, it results in the debates that take place all around the blogosphere. Leftists accuse libertarians of distorting data. Libertarians accuse leftists of ignoring evidence. In reality, both criticisms are correct. And both are wrong. The data itself doesn't show anything. It shows only correlation. We have no evidence that A causes B. We also have no evidence that B causes A. And as far as you'd know from the blogosphere, there's no one even considering the possibility that C causes both A and B.

What's needed right now is more study on the issue. And less "I told you I was right all along" smirking. As well as less I-can't-hear-you-fingers-in-the-ear denialism.

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