Until now I’ve resisted commenting on the controversy that was created last week when Harvard 3L Stephanie Grace’s private email saying she “does not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent” came to light.
But now I see that Andrew Sullivan is having a related conversation about race and intelligence, and I want to reply to one of the reader comments that he cites:
I would also like to take issue with your readers who argue that IQ is meaningless. Precisely the opposite is true: The central message of the Bell Curve is that IQ scores have *high predictive validity* for all kinds of things, including income. Anecdotes about purportedly dumb people that have been very successful or amazingly bright individuals that have failed in some way are meaningless behind the mountain of data that point to a key role for IQ, whatever that may be, in individuals’ life outcomes.
This is really, really bad reasoning. It ignores the possibility, indeed I would say the strong probability, that IQs have high predictive ability for various social outcomes because they are part-and-parcel of a whole system of determining “merit” that has been shaped by and for white people, both with and without malicious intent. (That’s a strong claim, but one need only believe that the system of determining merit has been socially constructed by someone… unless you mock anyone who uses the phrase “socially constructed,” as many contributors to this discussion seem inclined to do.) That is, it is only because people have decided that IQ and SAT scores should matter that they do matter for “individuals’ life outcomes.”
In order to justify assessments of “merit” where blacks and whites perform differently from one another, you have to assume that they perform differently because they actually are different and immutably so: because blacks are dumber, or less cut-out to be firefighters, or what have you. In order to critique those assessments of “merit,” you have to assume that blacks and whites have basically equal capacities, and that differential outcomes on certain assessments are attributable to differences in cultural background, education, social class, etc.
I don’t believe that science has conclusively proven that one assumption or the other is true. But I know that I’m going with the latter assumption until someone proves it wrong. By all means, let’s do the experiments, as Stephanie Grace suggested. (Let’s not, though, allow her to design the experiments. Experimenter’s bias, anyone?)
But until we get some conclusive results, I’m going to go with the assumption that doesn’t write off an entire class of people as stupider (rather than differently intelligent) and lazier (rather than educationally deprived) than another.
Update: In light of Jeremy’s point in the comments below, I should say that my interpretation of what Sullivan’s reader was saying is just that — an interpretation. In my view, what he or she is saying in the above paragraph is that, contrary to the view that IQ is meaningless (because it’s only a social construct), IQ is actually quite meaningful (because it’s highly predictive of certain outcomes). My point is that IQ can (and I believe is) both highly predictive and a social construct, and in fact is highly predictive BECAUSE it’s a social construct.
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