Who believes in I.Q.?

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanSep 7, 2012 10:49 AM


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There are many things that a given individual believes which are 'heterodox' in their social circle. For example, I have long thought that intelligence tests are predictive of life outcomes, and somewhat heritable in a genetic sense (these are both true, the objection of skeptics usually rests on the fact that they are skeptical of the construct itself). As I have explained here before I did not always hold to these views. Rather, when I was in seventh grade a teacher who mentored me somewhat took me aside after class, and suggested that perhaps some of my slower classmates were not quite as lazy as I obviously presumed (I tended to get impatient during mandatory group projects). When I was 5 years old and starting kindergarten my command of English was rather weak, and my mother explained to me that Americans were a very smart people. By the end of the year I was excelling. Throughout my elementary school years I frankly had a smugness about me, because I accepted what my parents told me, that academic outcome is a function of the virtue of effort. And I had quite a bit of virtue if the results were any gauge. But as I said, it is the fashion today to reject I.Q. Usually people put intelligence in air quotes. The converse of intelligence, stupidity, is also not well acknowledged. Just as I took my realized intelligence to be a mark of my virtue (false, my virtue and moral compass are distinct, and perhaps even at some cross-purposes, with my analytic powers), I perceived stupidity as evidence of sloth and low moral character. This is just not so. I.Q. is probably a hot-potato topic because of its associations with realized group differences, mostly race, but to some extent class. I think that the phenomenon is real and important, but that may not matter. I've been sobered by the realization recently that Soviet Communism persisted for 70 years. I don't bring this example up to analogize skepticism of I.Q. with Communism, but to illustrate even patently grotesque and false views can persist for decades beyond their "sell-by" date. And yet sometimes it turns out that I'm not the only person out there who thinks that some people are smart, and some people are stupid. Here's Felix Salmon, Who is speaking for the poor?:

My professional life is largely spent in a world of highly-numerate and highly-intelligent people, many of whom blow up spectacularly in the financial markets. And looking at hedge funds in particular, it’s very easy to find genius-level investors who have lost astonishing amounts of money: there’s clearly more to getting and holding on to vast sums than simply being off-the-charts smart. But the fact is that if you zoom out from the tiny group at the top, there’s a very strong correlation between numeracy, or intelligence, or financial literacy, on the one hand, and having a solid financial footing, on the other. ... The distribution is clear: the smarter you are (as measured by IQ), the more likely you are to be invested in the stock market. And this distribution is independent of wealth: it applies to the rich as much as it does to the poor. Or, as the paper puts it, “IQ’s role in the participation decisions of the affluent is about the same as it is for the less affluent. The definition of affluence—net worth or income—does not affect this finding.” ... There are various conclusions to be drawn here, one of which is that if we do a better job of financial education, then Americans as a whole will be better off. That’s true. But at the same time, financial illiteracy, and general innumeracy, and low IQs, are all perfectly common things which are never going to go away. It’s idiotic to try to blame people for having a low IQ: that’s not something people can control. And so it stands to reason that any fair society should look after people who are at such a natural disadvantage in life.

Let's admit first that there's more than just I.Q. Time preference matters, and that's not perfectly correlated with intelligence. Though I suspect it too has a strongly heritable element. Second, is being stupid really a disadvantage? Frankly some of the most self-satisfied people I know are the stupid affluent. They are stupid enough that they can unreflectively enjoy their affluence. The correlation between income and intelligence is weak enough that there will be many stupid affluent and intelligent poor. The former are probably the happiest, and the latter the most miserable. Also, see Matt Yglesias:

Unfortunately, what's harder to see is how these trends are going to benefit the marginal college student in the United States. The kind of person, in other words, who these days tends to start a college career—typically at an unselective school—but all-too-often ends up dropping out. These are people who typically haven't been incredibly well-prepared by their K-12 experience, who probably aren't in the IQ elite, whose social and family networks aren't full of college graduates, and who are only average in terms of motivation and discipline. That's why they're dropping out under present conditions. And they're ending up not just with student debt, but with student debt that hasn't purchased them much of anything in terms of valuable skills or credentials. Developments that help people like that are a real game-changer, but it's not clear to me that anything that's happening in the education technology space right now will really get us there.

The reality is that attitudes toward intelligence and I.Q. are rather flexible and situation dependent. People who deny the reality of I.Q. don't believe that someone who has a low I.Q. should be executed (and conversely, those who accept I.Q. may still demand the execution of those with low enough I.Q.'s to be classified as mentally retarded!). I.Q. is just a social construct for some when it comes to the black-white difference, but they become more open to it when it is shown that conservatives have lower I.Q.'s.

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