addressing some complaints

There was a lively discussion about my last post on Facebook yesterday. There was a lot of enthusiastic people participating. Let me address some common complaints.

I am mad because I believe something that you expressly agree with. The most depressing response was all of the people who made claims that I had myself made in the post and then represented that as criticism. That is, dozens of people made statements that they imagined contradicted me, even though those statements were points I had made in the very piece the were attempting to critique. This problem can generally be avoided if you take the radical step of reading what you are responding to.

Things people floated as disagreements that I explicitly said in the original piece include:

  • Race is a social construct
  • Genetics do not explain all the variation in IQ tests and other quantitative measures of academic ability
  • The precise amount of variation explained by genetics is contested
  • IQ tests are not complete or comprehensive measures of human mental capacity or human worth
  • Other things than IQ are valuable and important predictors of student success
  • The definition of academic success is socially mediated and influenced by capitalism
  • There are methodological criticisms of twin studies
  • Some established researchers disagree with this line of thinking
  • More research is needed

I could go on. To each of these “criticisms,” the answer is the same: yes, I agree, that’s why I said them in the essay that you’re criticizing and clearly didn’t read.

[voice of a New England blueblood wearing a blazer with brass buttons, Nantucket Red pants, and an ascot while swirling a glass of port] “Sirrah! What are your qualifications!” My qualifications are in fact irrelevant here. I would defend them if I thought it was relevant. But I’m not doing primary research. I didn’t disappear into a lab and emerge with a new model of human cognition. I’m reading studies and books, which is what I do all day, and faithfully reporting back what I find. And what I find, and have reported, is that in the fields of genetic behaviorism and developmental psychology there is a broad agreement that academic and cognitive outcomes are significantly influenced by genetics.

That’s not really a consensus. I do not agree. I’m afraid there is no system of consensus points that I could assemble to establish this point objectively. However, given how many people within the relevant fields discuss those fields, I find it hard to dispute that there is broad agreement. Consider this from the Plomin piece I linked to:

Finding that differences between individuals (traits, whether assessed quantitatively as a dimension or qualitatively as a diagnosis) are significantly heritable is so ubiquitous for behavioural traits that it has been enshrined as the first law of behavioural genetics. Although the pervasiveness of this finding makes it a commonplace observation, it should not be taken for granted, especially in the behavioural sciences, because this was the battleground for nature-nurture wars until only a few decades ago in psychiatry, even fewer decades ago in psychology, and continuing today in some areas such as education. It might be argued that it is no longer surprising to demonstrate genetic influence on a behavioural trait, and that it would be more interesting to find a trait that shows no genetic influence….

For some areas of behavioural research—especially in psychiatry—the pendulum has swung so far from a focus on nurture to a focus on nature that it is important to highlight a second law of genetics for complex traits and common disorders: All traits show substantial environmental influence, in that heritability is not 100% for any trait.

Or this from the Turkheimer I linked to:

I too am a behavior geneticist, so it is important to conclude this response with a “lest I be misunderstood” paragraph. It is remarkable that in this day and age there continues to be a school of thought maintaining that behavior genetics is fundamentally mistaken about even weak genetic influence, that the nearly universal findings of quantitative genetics can be dismissed because of methodological assumptions of twin studies (Joseph, 2014) or contemporary findings in epigenetics (Charney, 2012). Those arguments can be evaluated on their own terms, but my point of view must not be cited in their support. Genetic influence is real and has profound methodological implications for how human behavior is studied.

Note that many people cited Turkheimer to me as a skeptic of behavioral genetics writ large. You could take The Blank Slate, which is now rather out of date but which functions as a book-length exploration of these topics. Or you could read The Nurture Assumption which had a new edition come out in 2009. There is a lot of literature out there for you to consider. Does this mean that nobody disagrees? Of course not! And I specifically that there is controversy here. But the existence of dissenters does not mean that there is not broad agreement. They could all be mistaken. But I’m not mistaken for saying that this is a widespread belief in the relevant fields. Please stop saying I’m making this up.

This blog post is not an exhaustive literature review! No. That’s true. I’m afraid I don’t have it in me to conduct one when I’m never going to be able to stick it in a tenure review. (I mean, I’m not even in a tenure track job.) Luckily, other people who receive more direct professional incentives for doing literature studies have already put them together. I linked to the Plomin article because it is a very recent review that includes citations to dozens of papers that establish a long research record. I write a lot, and I enjoy it, and I remain your humble servant, but give me a break, please.

IQ tests don’t measure anything. I’m sorry, you guys, but you have to drop this one. It is not true. The predictive power of IQ tests has been replicated over and over again. If I take a group of 8 year olds, or a group of 12 year olds, or a group of 16 year olds, and give them high-quality age-appropriate IQ tests, those results will be strongly predictive of various academic outcomes. Not perfectly! No one ever said they were perfectly predictive. We live in a world variability. But in the world of social science and human research, they are remarkably well validated. If I want to know if someone will pass high school algebra, yes, IQ tests tell me something. If I want to know if someone will graduate from high school on time, yes, IQ tests tell me something. If I want to predict how selective of a college someone will go to, yes, IQ tests tell me something. They also predict a number of social and life outcomes that are not academic, although generally less well than they do academic outcomes. Click the Slate link above. The evidence is out there. This one is really a kind of know-nothingism. It’s casually destructive to keep saying that without consulting the evidence.

Now: is there something tautological about this? I think so, yes. Does this reflect assumptions about value and human worth that stem from capitalism and ideology and such? Yes, and I said so. Should we prefer a society where these things are less valued? Yes, and I said so. Are there strong objections to the manner of thinking that created the tests, and the hierarchical systems which we sort people into? Of course. I am a socialist in part because I want to tear down those systems. But if you want to attack IQ tests, attack their weaknesses, not their strengths. That is, don’t attack their predictive validity; attack the social and economic framework in which they are potentially destructive. That leads to the next complaint.

You invented capitalism, “meritocracy,” and test mania. Uh, I in fact did not. So many of the complaints I’ve received have been about systems and ways of thinking that I openly oppose. Yes, it’s true that it’s bad to reduce human value to test scores – but I am against that and I said so. Yes, it’s true that this kind of thinking can lead to pernicious tracking systems and restrictions on opportunity – but I’m against that and I said so. I am attempting to describe problems with a system from within that system. That does not imply my endorsement of that system, only my understanding that we are currently in it.

The fact of the matter is that American education policy is being written by people who are obsessive about quantitative metrics of academic performance generally and test scores particularly, and who believe against all evidence that all students can reach the same arbitrary performance standards. That is a recipe for disaster for our public schools. To mount an argument against this situation, I have to be able to address the problems in a way that does not preemptively assume a radical critique that people with power in our education system are unlikely to share. Does that make sense?

I cherry-picked this one study that disputes what you’re saying. You can do that. I will read those studies with interest if I haven’t already, when I find the time. As I said, repeatedly, there is still work to be done and there are still controversies here. My mind is not closed. My honest take on the extant evidence is that these dissenting studies, while interesting and valuable, are not sufficient to counter the general trend. I could be wrong. But I’m laying out a case here and particularly citing a lot of qualified people who have made the same case.

Only twin studies have shown this result. Nope.

A belief in genetic influences on academic performance is incompatible with a belief that the racial achievement gap is the product of socioeconomic inequality. Not so. Let me argue by analogy.

Suppose I wanted to study what variables impact how high people can jump. Most people would not dispute that your genetics has an impact. We are not all equal when it comes to our natural talents for physical activities like jumping. Children of high jump Olympians will tend (tend!) to jump higher than the average person. Of course, there’s also substantial non-genetic variation in play – the amount you train, your diet and nutrition, etc. To say that jumping ability is substantially genetic is not the same as saying that it is exclusively genetic. And in fact most children of Olympic high jumpers will not go on to be Olympic high jumpers themselves, just as most geniuses do not have genius parents or children even though there is a significant genetic influence on intelligence.

Now, let’s suppose that a certain portion of society – like, say, black and Hispanic people – are fitted by society with heavy weight belts at birth. These weight belts would, obviously, constrain the ability of black and Hispanic people from jumping high. If you simply looked at the average heights of jumps by racial groups, you might conclude that black and Hispanic people are genetically predisposed to being bad jumpers. But of course, when you’re wearing a weight belt, it’s hard to jump high.

Now: does arguing that the weight belt is creating a perceived difference in jumping ability mean that genetic explanations are invalid? Of course not. It means that whatever genetic predisposition individuals have is being washed out by the weight belt. The existence of the weight belts is not an argument against genetic influence on jumping ability. It’s instead a non-genetic variable that produces a group difference. Were the weight belts to be removed from black and Hispanic people, there would still be substantial genetic variation between individuals in their ability to jump. We would just find the average to be higher relative to other groups.

Of course, in this silly analogy, white supremacy and its many manifestations are the weight belt. Yes, as Charles Murray types always insist, income band alone does not sufficiently explain various aspects of the racial achievement gap. But then, who ever said racial inequality is only about income gaps? Racial inequality is a profoundly multivariate phenomenon. It manifests itself in all sorts of ways. And I don’t believe that the “human biodiversity” types have come close to accounting for the influence of all of those variables.

My belief is that, if and when we remove the weight belt of white supremacy from black and Hispanic people, the racial achievement gap will disappear, and at scale we’ll seen equivalent academic performance across groups. But we’ll still also see substantial variation between individuals; the racial groupings will be proportionately arranged around performance bands, but there will still be people who do better or worse in school/on IQ tests. And that variation, the evidence suggests, is significantly (but not completely, of course) influenced by genetics.

Other factors complicate and attenuate the genetic influence on IQ and academic performance. Of course they do. I said so in the piece! The presence of other variables does not imply that there is no variation influenced by genetics. Some have cited Angela Lee Duckworth and the important of conscientiousness as a counter to my post, but Duckworth herself explicitly says IQ/g/native intelligence are also important. I never disputed that. In fact, I wrote 2000 words on a study exploring this connection literally last week!

You’re a genetic determinist! This is eugenics! No I’m really, really not, and it really, really isn’t. In fact, I embedded that post with so many caveats and qualifiers that I am absolutely amazed that people are so affronted by it. I’m making a very mild version of a generally uncontroversial argument.

Here is what I am saying. Biological children tend to resemble their biological parents in all manner of academic outcomes, and this similarity increases over the course of life. This relationship is not perfect and no one has ever claimed that it is. However, it is powerful, particular in the context of studying human variation. In contrast, adoptive children are not much more like their adoptive parents than they are like random strangers. Identical twins reared apart are more like each other than they are like adoptive siblings; adoptive siblings are not much more like each other than they are like random strangers. These observations have proven to be durable in a variety of studies over the course of decades conducted by established researchers at respected institutions. Perhaps new evidence will cast them into doubt; we’ll see. For now I can only work based on the information available. I think that these observations have obvious and important consequences for our educational policy, and I think it’s a good idea for progressive people to think about them. Yes, they have some potentially disturbing implications. But that’s all the more reason to be able to confront them clearly and rationally as we think about what kind of society we want to be.