“Like the validity of intelligence testing, the heritability of intelligence is no longer scientifically contentious.”

That headline is taken from this piece on Vox, by  advocating a third way between “race realist”-style racism and liberal blank slatism. I’ve chosen it as the title for this post because I thought the reaction on social media showed the power of a headline for shaping popular perception of an argument.

Yesterday was an interesting day for me, watching that piece get passed around approvingly on Twitter and Facebook. Interesting because I wrote a post that made substantially the same argument as the Vox piece – that intelligence testing is predictively valid and that genes account for some of the individual variation in that testing, but that racial groupings are socially constructed and arguments about inherent racial inferiority are invalid (and bigoted). Yet I got a lot of heat for my post while the Vox piece was roundly praised. In particular, I was told often that a) IQ and its proxies are not valid and b) that there is no genetic influence on psychological and cognitive outcomes. Both of these ideas are strenuously denied by the authors, who are (unlike me) experts in the relevant fields. Yet because the piece was pitched as anti-Charles Murray (and Sam Harris), objections to these points were muted to nonexistent. Still, it’s essential that progressive people recognize the most important contention of the Vox piece: that rejecting pseudoscientific racism does not undermine the predictive validity of IQ testing or the overwhelming evidence of polygenic heritability of cognitive outcomes. As they say,

a realistic acceptance of the facts about intelligence and genetics, tempered with an appreciation of the complexities and gaps in evidence and interpretation, does not commit the thoughtful scholar to Murrayism in either its right-leaning mainstream version or its more toxically racialist forms.

Obviously, when topics are as sensitive as these, first impressions are incredibly important. Still, it was simultaneously gratifying and aggravating to me. For example, I was accused of “cosplaying as Charles Murray” at Lawyers, Guns, and Money for my initial post on these topics, but a blogger there approvingly shared the Vox piece that made the same argument yesterday as a rejection of Murray. Such a fine line between imitation and rejection, when you don’t read carefully! Like I said in a brief post on Medium, same planet, different worlds.

In any event, I am encouraged by the success of that essay, the authors deserve credit for laying out the case so persuasively, and I think the worm is finally turning against blank slatism or IQ denialism as default progressive opinions. It is not necessary to embrace blank slate thinking to fight racism, and in fact our efforts to do so will be strengthened by our willingness to embrace genetic behaviorism.

Why It Matters

Some people ask me, why bother? Why not just leave this stuff alone, given that some have taken ideas in the same general orbit to truly noxious ends?

It matters that progressive people reject blank slatism because blank slatism is incorrect and we should tell the truth. But even from the most pragmatic or consequentialist perspective, we should accept the contemporary science on intelligence and heritability because doing so is the only way to effectively fight racism and white supremacy. By refusing to engage with the extant science on individual variation, we leave that field of argument entirely to those who would use it for the worst possible ends. As the authors say,

The left has another lesson to learn as well. If people with progressive political values, who reject claims of genetic determinism and pseudoscientific racialist speculation, abdicate their responsibility to engage with the science of human abilities and the genetics of human behavior, the field will come to be dominated by those who do not share those values. Liberals need not deny that intelligence is a real thing or that IQ tests measure something real about intelligence, that individuals and groups differ in measured IQ, or that individual differences are heritable in complex ways.

This is precisely my position. Don’t play to the alt-right frame; don’t help them make the case that progressives are anti-science or resistant to facts. Fight bad science with better. It is also my position, as readers of this blog know, that the assumption that all human beings have equal academic potential produces bad educational policy and leads inevitably to conservative “just deserts” economic attitudes and the social inequalities inherent to meritocracy.

As the authors note, the heritability of cognitive outcomes does not imply that they are not mutable. My position is not, and has never been, genetic determinism, which suggests that genes are destiny and that there are no other meaningful factors. But the influence of genes has to be part of a frank discussion about the fact that, summatively speaking, we have overwhelming evidence that not all individuals have the same academic potential. I have always actually been mechanism agnostic about this; that is, I am not sure to what degree the persistence of academic inequality is about genes or parenting or environment or resources or pure luck. I’m just sure that when we look at scale, the obvious conclusion has to be that not everyone has the same level of potential in all academic endeavors. (We should bear in mind that just as genetic influence does not make an outcome immutable, environmental influence does not mean it’s necessarily changeable.)

As someone interested in education policy, the obvious analytical conclusion is that we should stop trying to force students to reach universal arbitrary performance goals, as No Child Left Behind mandated and test mania encourages. As a socialist, the obvious moral conclusion is that we should move more and more material needs outside of the market economy and guarantee them via government, as our own inability to fully control our academic outcomes means that they cannot morally be used as justification for increased risk of poverty, hopelessness, and marginalization. As I’ve said many times, I believe the racial academic achievement gap will be closed, precisely because I don’t think races are meaningful categories or that they express intrinsic differences in human value. The question is, what happens after we close the racial achievement gap? Would it imply that a bigotry against those not blessed with strong academic potential would be justified? That’s what “meritocracy” argues, and I believe it’s a moral error. I believe that this tendency, called the hereditarian left by some, will only grow in a world where the logic of meritocracy has brought us spiraling inequality, the division of our country into essentially two different societies with profoundly different qualities of life.

To fight against it, we have to talk clearly and openly about these issues, and I think that Vox piece was strong step in that direction. The Genetics & Human Agency project, which is led by Turkheimer and Harden, is a step in the right direction too. There are big moral and political questions here, and it’s up to us to answer them in a fair and humane way.