Ancel Keys, One of Lewis Terman’s Termites

Unless you are seriously interested in diet and nutrition, you’ve probably never heard the name of Ancel Keys (1904-2004). Yet he was one of the most influential men of the 20th century, at least within the area of nutrition studies, government food policy, and official dietary recommendations. He developed the so-called ‘Mediterranean diet’, although it could more accurately be called a post-war scarcity and austerity diet, since we now know it has little in common with the pre-war traditional Mediterranean diet that prioritized lard and not olive oil. Because of his public campaign against animal fats and his research on heart disease, he was sometimes referred to in the press as ‘Dr. Cholesterol’, despite not being a doctor. He was academically successful and had a scientific background, but oddly considering his career path he had absolutely zero formal education and professional training in nutrition studies or in medicine. Instead, his extended higher education included chemistry, economics, political science, zoology, oceanography, biology, and physiology.

His career as a scientific researcher started in 1931 with a study on the physiology of fish and eels, his main area of expertise at the time, whereas his first work in diet and nutrition happened later on by the accident of historical circumstances. The US military sought to develop prepared rations for soldiers and, as no one else at the University of Minnesota wanted this lowly assignment, Keys at the bottom of the totem pole saw it as an opportunity and took advantage of it to promote his career. In his lack of requisite knowledge and expertise, according to his colleague Dr. Elsworth Buskirk, “he was told to go home and leave such things to the professionals,” but he persisted in obtaining funds and came up with something that met specifications (From Harvard to Minnesota: Keys to our History). This became what is known as the K-Ration. During the Second World War, he did much other work for the military and that paved the way for his entering the field of nutrition studies. It was through the military that he did research on humans with much of it focusing on extreme conditions of stress, from high altitudes to starvation. This led to a study on vitamin supplementation during that time period and after the war a prospective dietary study in 1947.

Yet Keys wouldn’t fully enter the fray of nutrition studies until the 1970s. He was about 70 years old when, in his battle with the British sugar researcher John Yudkins, he finally became a major contender in scientific debates. His controversial Seven Countries Study, although done in 1956, wasn’t published until decades later in 1978, almost 40 years after his first involvement in animal research. The height of his career extended into his 80s, having given him many decades to have mentored students, allies, and followers to carry on his crusade. He had a towering intellect and charismatic personality that gave him the capacity to demolish opponents in debate and helped him to dominate the media and political battlefield. Think of Keys as a smarter version of Donald Trump, as seen in an instinct for media manipulation of public perception, maybe related to Keys’ geographic and familial proximity to Hollywood: “As the nephew of silent screen star Lon Chaney, Keys also filmed all of his scientific work and was a first-rate publicist, frequently writing for popular audiences” (Sarah W. Tracey, Ancel Keys). He was a creature of the mass media that took hold during his lifetime.

Though now largely forgotten by the general public, Keys once was a famous figure whose picture was found on the covers of national magazines, from Time to Life. He personally associated and politically allied himself with many powerful politicians, health experts, and leading scientists. Whether or not you know of him, his work and advocacy shaped the world most of us were born into and he had a direct impact on the modern food system and healthcare practice that has touched us all. A half century ago, his fame was comparable to that of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943), a Seventh Day Adventists and eugenicist from an earlier generation who also worked in the field of diet and nutrition in having been one of the earliest vegans, in having invented breakfast cereal, and in having operated a sanitorium that was popular among the elite: politicians, movie stars, writers, and artists. Dr. Kellogg preached against race mixing, and warned of race degeneracy, and to promote eugenics he co-founded the Race Betterment Foundation that held several national conferences. He advocated the development of a “eugenic registry” to ensure “proper breeding pairs” that would produce “racial thoroughbreds,” but for inferior couplings he advised sterilization of “defectives.” Though coming from different ideological perspectives, Keys and Kellogg were the twin forces in shaping anti-fat ideology and, in this scapegoating of animal fats, shifted the blame away from sugar which was the actual cause behind metabolic syndrome (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver, etc). That misdirection sent nutrition studies down a blind alley and misled public policymakers, a quagmire we are still in the middle of.

To be fair, it must be clarified that Keys never showed any proclivities toward eugenics, but I bring it up because there is a connection to be explored. As a child, he had tested as high IQ. After Keys’ parents “signed him up while he was a student at Berkeley High School,” according to Richard C. Paddock (The Secret IQ Diaries), he was given entrance into a study done by Lewis Terman (1877-1956) who was a noted psychologists and, like Dr. Kellogg, was an early 20th century racist: “He joined and served as a high ranking member in many eugenic organizations (the Human Betterment Foundation, the American Eugenics Society, and the Eugenics Research Association), and worked alongside many others (such as the American Institute of Family Relations and the California Bureau of Juvenile Research)” (Ben Maldonado, Eugenics on the Farm: Lewis Terman). In studying and working with gifted youths like Keys, Terman sought to prove the hypothesis of social Darwinism through eugenics (‘good genes’). He believed that such an ideological vision could be made manifest through a genetically superior intellectual elite who, if promoted and supported and given all the advantages a society could offer, would develop into a paternalistic ruling class of enlightened aristocracy with the potential of becoming humanity’s salvation as visionaries, creative geniuses, and brilliant leaders. It was a humble aspiration to remake all of society from the ground up.

This attitude, bigoted and socially conservative (e.g., prejudice against “sexual deviancy” in seeking to enforce traditional gender roles), was far from uncommon in the Progressive Era. Keep in mind that, at the time, ‘progressivism’ wasn’t solely or even always primarily identified with social liberalism. Among the strongest supporters of Progressivism were Evangelicals, Mormons, Klansmen, Jim Crow leaders, white supremacists, WASP elites, military imperialists, and fascists — think of one of the most famous of Progressive leaders, President Theodore Roosevelt, who was a racist and imperialist; and even his distant cousin, the Progressive President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was not without racist and imperialist inclinations. Progress back then had a different connotation, and many of these American eugenicists were a direct inspiration to Adolf Hitler and other Nazi leaders. After all, the enactment of progressive Manifest Destiny was still playing out in the last of Indian Wars all the way into the 1930s, before the remaining free Indians were finally put down. The proto-neocon Civilizing Project was long and arduous and more than a bit bloody. This ideology continued even after the defeat of the Nazis, as sterilization of perceived inferiors in the United States was still practiced for decades following the end of Second World War, all the way into the 1970s. Eugenics has been persistent, to say the least.

Inspired by this idealistic, if demented and distorted, ideology of evolutionary advancement and Whiggish progress, Terman invented the Stanford-Binet IQ Test. During the First World War, he worked in the military to implement the first mass testing of intelligence. His own IQ test was the initial attempt to scientifically measure what is now called general intelligence or the g factor but for which he coined the term “intelligence quotient” (IQ), a mysterious essence that many at the time believed to be inherent to the individual psyche from birth, as genetically inherited from one’s parents. The Stanford-Binet was a measure of academic ability or what today we might think of as ‘aptitude’ — specifically having assessed attention, memory, and verbal skill in measuring ability in arithmetical reasoning, sentence completion, logics, synonyms-antonyms, symbol-digit testing, vocabulary, analogies, comparisons, and general information. The focus was on crystallized intelligence, but it was also culturally biased and coded for socioeconomic class.

The Stanford-Binet was modeled after the intelligence test of the French psychologist Alfred Binet. There was a significant difference, though. Binet used his test to identify those most in need in order to help them improve, whereas Terman saw these ‘deficient’ children as a danger to society that should be eliminated, quite literally with sterilization — this had real world application and consequences: “Terman’s test was also used regularly to determine who should be sterilized in the name of eugenics: individuals with an IQ of under 70 (deemed feebleminded) were targeted for sterilization by the state, such as in the famous case of Carrie Buck. In the United States, over 600,000 people were sterilized by the state for eugenic reasons, often because of IQ test results. For many eugenicists, Terman’s research finally presented a way to efficiently and “objectively” judge the eugenic worth of human lives” (Ben Maldonado, Eugenics on the Farm: Lewis Terman). Instead of helping the poor and disadvantaged, he hoped to use his own adaptation of Binet’s test to identify the smart kids so as to ensure they would become high achievers in gaining the success and respect they supposedly deserved. This was a response to his own childhood struggles as a sickly nerd growing up among other farm kids in rural Indiana.

By the way, this was the specific area that later on would become the stronghold of the Second Klan with the Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson having set up base in Terman’s old hometown. The Second Klan rose to power at the very moment the adult Terman, having left Indiana, began his eugenicist project of IQ testing. That was no coincidence. Following upon a period of moral panic, there was a mix of fear and hope about the future and, central to public debate, threats to the survival of the white race was a major concern (The Crisis of Identity). The purpose of eugenics was basically to show that the right kind of people were a special breed of humans that, in eliminating what held back their genetic potential, would rise up to make America great again and so return Western Civilization to its previous glorious heights. The agenda, of course, wasn’t to create a fair and objective measure of human worth and human potential for the assumptions it was built upon presupposed the race and class of people who, by definition, were the best of the best. Terman was simply seeking to prove what he already ‘knew’ as a true believer of social, moral, mental, and racial hygiene.

With this hope in mind, Terman began in 1921 to gather a large group of children who scored high on his IQ test, a total of 1,521 subjects, including the teenage Ancel Keys. His selection process was highly subjective and idosyncratic. It just so happened that, among a total sample of 168,000 students, Terman included only 6 Japanese-Americans, 2 African-Americans, 1 Native American, and 1 Mexican-American. The vast majority of those chosen were white, urban, and middle class boys largely drawn from the college towns and suburbs of Northern California. These were known as Terman’s kids or ‘Termites’. Betraying scientific objectivity, he intervened in the lives of his subjects, sometimes openly but also behind the scenes. He followed these subjects into adulthood to find out how they turned out and to ensure they gained advantages, such as his having written letters of recommendation for college entrance, job applications, and professional contacts. The eugenics project was not a passive endeavor of neutral scientific observation.

Whatever is to be thought of it, there is no doubt that the study of Terman’s children was the first and maybe only time a hypothesis of social Darwinian eugenics was so fully tested at such an ambitious level. In general across all scientific fields, there is no other longitudinal study that lasted so long and, as some of the subjects remain alive, there are scientists carrying on the work to this day with the last of the surviving Termites still dutifully filling out the surveys sent to them (Ancel Keys remained a participant into his 90s until his death in 2004, two months shy of his 101st birthday). One has to give Terman credit for having dared to scientifically test his belief system in a falsifiable study, ignoring the problems with confounding factors. He put his convictions on the line, although Hitler was even more ambitious in using war as a test of sorts, forcing an end result of either total domination or total destruction, to prove or disprove the hypothesis of German racial supremacy. I guess we can be grateful that Terman took a less violent approach of scientific analysis that didn’t require vast desolation of battlefields and doctors experimenting on unwilling victims in concentration camps.

Terman’s decades-long experiment, continuing as it did into the post-war period, ended in failure by his own standards of expectation. Before his death in 1956, he was able to see how few of the children grew up to amount to much, beyond many of them becoming moderately successful middle class professionals, although a few attained some prominence: “Among some of the original participants of the Terman study was famed educational psychologist Lee Chronbach, “I Love Lucy” writer Jess Oppenheimer, child psychologist Robert Sears, scientist Ancel Keys, and over 50 others who had since become faculty members at colleges and universities” (Kendra Cherry, Are People With High IQs More Successful?). In Cradles of Eminence, Victor and Muriel Goertzel analyzed the Termites according to eminence, defined as having multiple biographies written about someone without their being either royalty or a sports star. It turns out none of Terman’s subjects had even a single biography written about them. Crystallized intelligence, at best, moderately predicted being professionally successful and conforming well within the social order. However, once later tests removed the cultural and class biases, IQ tests stopped even being useful for predicting even this much. When environmental factors and family background are controlled for, almost all IQ differences disappear. A lower IQ rich person is more likely to be successful than a higher IQ poor person. Surprise, surprise!

Interestingly, in comparing the Termites to their peers, “two children who were tested but didn’t make the cut — William Shockley and Luis Alvarez — went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. According to Hastorf, none of the Terman kids ever won a Nobel or Pulitzer” (Mitchell Leslie, The Vexing Legacy of Lewis Terman). It’s ironic that Shockley later followed Terman’s example by also having become a eugenicist and, through his friendship with Terman’s son Frederick, was hired on as a professor at Stanford where the senior Terman had done his scientific work, the reason his IQ test was called the Stanford-Binet. Shockley and Frederick Terman came to be known as the fathers of Silicon Valley in having developed the high tech start-up model and in having played a central role in bringing in the massive Pentagon funding that has defined and dominated the American tech industry ever since (e.g., Jeff Bezos sitting on a Pentagon board and with numerous government contracts). Social Darwinism, intellectual elitism, and paternalistic technocracy remains the ascendant ideology of Silicon Valley tech bros and the capitalist class of entrepreneurial philanthropists who seek to shape society with their gifted genius, not to mention their wealth (e.g., Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation).

Lewis Terman privately admitted that some of his strongest bigoted views were wrong, but unlike many other eugenicists he never publicly recanted his earlier racism. Nonetheless, he was honest enough to conclude that a pillar of eugenicist dogma was flat-out wrong, in having stated that, “At any rate, we have seen that intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated.” Of the 730 subjects he was able to follow into adulthood, he divided them into three groups: In Group A of those he deemed successful, only 20% of the kids were categorized. He judged an equal number, 20%, to fall into a Group C of failures. Most of them fell into the middle Group B that included those working in positions “as humble as those of policemen, seaman, typist and filing clerk.” That is rather unimpressive. Writing about this, one person noted that, “The ones among Group A overwhelmingly were from the upper class. The Cs were majorly from the lower class. Majority in the group had careers that were quite ordinary. […] Sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, in his critique of the study, argued showing that Terman’s selected group of children with high IQs did about as well as a random group of children selected from similar family backgrounds would have done.”

Beyond the unsurprising prediction that wealthier people with better chances have better outcomes, the predictive ability of his IQ test was completely off the mark. The Termites, for all their test-taking ability, showed no advantages over the general population. The IQ test did demonstrate academic ability, for whatever that is worth. Among Termites, the rate of college graduates was extremely high (70%, ten times that of their peers), but on average they still were only getting B grades in their classes and a college degree didn’t translate to greater real world accomplishment. They were smart, even if no more successful than their socioeconomic equivalents. If they were wealthy, they did as well as other wealthy people. And if they weren’t wealthy, then they followed the typical path of underachievement. Supposed superior genetics offered no protective advantages beyond the social, racial, and economic privileges given or denied in the lottery of birth.

Even among the successful Termites, there was nothing unusual to be praised. “Rebels were scarce among the Termites, and Henry David Thoreau’s different drummer would have found few followers,” wrote Shurkin in Terman’s Kids. “They did not change life; they accepted it as it came and conquered it.” As good test-takers and students, they were the ultimate conformists, well-lubricated cogs in the machine. They knew how to play the game to win, but the game they played, that of mainstream success and conventional respectability, had rules they followed. These weren’t the types to rock the boat. Rather, Termites were simply well-educated sheep (see: A Ruling Elite of Well-Educated Sheep; & William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep). “This is unsurprising,” Elizabeth Svoboda points out, “given that the kinds of people who ace aptitude tests are, by definition, those specialising at jumping through the hoops that society has set up. If you believe that your entire purpose on Earth is to finish the course, chances are you’ll remain within its boundaries at all costs” (The broad, ragged cut).

As expected, the single greatest factor is environment. It’s not so much who we are, as if we have an inborn psychological profile where character is fate, since who we are is dependent on where we are (Dorsa Amir, Personality is not only about who but also where you are), although we know from epigenetic research it also matters where were our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and on back as environmental factors carry forward in our family inheritance, such as the grandchildren of famine victims having higher rates of obesity. The world is complex and humans are shaped by it. Despite Terman’s ideological failure, many aptitude tests were based upon this model. Our entire education system has since been redesigned to teach to such tests and as a filtering process for educational advancement, in an assumption of a pseudo-meritocratic dogma not all that different from Terman’s eugenicist dream of a better humanity.

As with fascism, the dangers and harms of eugenics linger on within our institutions and within our minds. We are trapped within false and misleading systems of ideological realism. That isn’t particularly smart of us, as individuals and as a society. We’d be better off promoting the development and opportunities of the majority (James Haywood Rolling, Jr., Swarm Intelligence), rather than investing almost all of society’s resources in a privileged elite who we desperately hope will be our salvation. Considering the national and global failure among the ruling class and capitalist plutocrats, maybe we should create a citizenry that can solve their own problems. Basically, maybe we should take seriously democracy, really and fully try it for the first time, not as superficially inspiring rhetoric to cling to in the darkness but as a lived reality. As ambitious experiments go, democracy is definitely worth attempting.

Up to this point, the democratic experiment has been more of a hypothesis waiting to be tested. The oligarchic and filthy rich American ruling elite, for some reason, have never been in favor of testing the potential for self-governance among the American people. Eugenics has been more thoroughly researched over the past century than has liberty and freedom. That speaks volumes about American society. But it isn’t only about eugenics, as authoritarian elitism and paternalism has taken many other forms. Let’s bring it back to Ancel Keys. Even though he was one of the Elect personally groomed by Lewis Terman to be a leading member of the master race, Keys rejected “Terman’s hereditarian bias” and thought that “personal will. . . is a greater factor in success than inherited intelligence” (Richard C. Paddock, The Secret IQ Diaries).

Even so, it appears that Keys carried on the sense of personal superiority that Terman helped instill in him. As part of the supposed meritocracy, he didn’t feel a need to humbly seek to make scientific advancements in workman-like fashion of careful research and cautious analysis. He had such immense confidence in knowing he was right and that inferior minds were wrong that he saw no need for scientific debate and, instead, used his political power and media influence to effectively shut down debate by silencing his opponents. As a self-identified genius imbued with noblesse oblige (with great power comes great responsibility), he wanted to change the world and had the zealous conviction to enforce his will upon others. It was irrelevant that he dismissed the idea that his elitist worth was based on genetics, as it was the same difference no matter what he believed was the justification for his dogmatic mission of dietary evangelism (The Creed of Ancel Keys). Following in the footsteps of Lewis Terman, he aspired to be a paternalistic technocrat who would save the lesser folk from their wrong thinking and behavior. He simply knew what was right.

Ancel Keys, in embracing his role as part of the wise ruling class, ended up being the greatest success story of Lewis Terman’s eugenics project. He also demonstrated its failure, in that it turns out that being smart is not enough. He was brilliant in his aggressive displays of intellectual prowess and he was successful in his professional achievement by climbing the ladder of power and prestige, but he was neither a creative genius nor a a visionary leader. Instead of thinking outside of the box, he forced everyone else into the box of his ideological biases that commanded the stunting effect of groupthink among several generations of scientific researchers and health experts, nutritionists and doctors. Maybe we should be unsurprised by this unhappy result (Quickie Post — Young Prodigies Usually Do Not Turn into Paradigm-Shifting Geniuses).

It could be argued that, at least in this case, the name of ‘Termite’ was aptly descriptive of the harm caused society. Now we are all suffering for it in the tragedy of our ever worsening public health crisis. And as if that weren’t bad enough, we have a new generation of paternalistic overlords who are repeating the same mistake in once again trying to enforce dietary dogma from up on high (Dietary Dictocrats of EAT-Lancet), in being led by Walter Willett who is the direct heir of Ancel Keys. The experiment of elite rule goes on and on.

* * *

The broad, ragged cut
by Elizabeth Svoboda

Despite initial resistance, the public accepted the notion of a test-driven meritocracy because it twined together two established strands of thought: first, that the spoils should go to the declared winner, and second, that high-performers’ abilities should be harnessed for the good of the nation. ‘To each according to their ability’ became the tacit watchword, a neat variant of the Marxist injunction ‘to each according to their need’.

The first aptitude-testers promoted the idea that each person had an innate, more-or-less fixed intellectual capacity. In the context of the early 20th century’s growing eugenics movement, the tests were often deployed to justify widespread racial discrimination. Terman claimed that what he called borderline deficient scores on the Stanford-Binet were ‘very, very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among Negroes’. ‘Children of this group should be segregated into separate classes,’ he wrote in 1916. ‘They cannot master abstractions but they can often be made into efficient workers … From a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.’ In Terman’s mind, then, low IQ scores were simply and unarguably the result of objective deficiency.

We now understand just how wrong that notion was. Today, many psychologists understand IQ and aptitude tests to be ‘culture-bound’ to one degree or another – that is, they evaluate abilities prized in the dominant Western culture, such as sorting items into categories, and can privilege those raised in that milieu. Such inequities have persisted despite attempts to make the tests fairer to those from non-dominant cultures.

As the US marinated in social Darwinism after the First World War, the government began devising its own sinister solution to the ‘grave problem’ of which Terman had warned. The US Supreme Court case Buck v Bell in 1927 ruled for compulsory sterilisation of the ‘feeble-minded’ in the name of public welfare. For more than four decades thereafter, US states sterilised thousands of people with low IQ scores; a disproportionate number of victims were nonwhite. In later years, though aptitude tests’ eugenic roots would fade from view, the ranking of test-takers according to perceived social value would continue unabated.

The History of Eugenics in America, Part II
by Steven Vigdor and Tim Londergan

In light of our current knowledge of nutrition and fitness, we now view J.H. Kellogg’s practices as a combination of exceptional insight, mixed with positively bizarre notions on medicine and health. The field of eugenics also combined significant advances in applied science with a set of misguided, and in some cases tragic, biases and prejudices.

J.H. Kellogg was an enthusiastic proponent of eugenics, and in 1911 he established the Race Betterment Foundation in Michigan. That Foundation held three national conferences on Race Betterment in 1914, 1915 and 1928. The Race Betterment congresses allowed advocates of eugenics to share their suggestions for the most effective practices that would lead to maintaining or improving ‘racial purity.’ Kellogg himself had a complicated relationship with the notion of racial purity, particularly with respect to blacks. He and his wife had no children, so over the course of their lives they raised a large number of foster children; this included a number of black youths.

On the other hand, Kellogg was a strong supporter of segregation and a firm believer that different races should not mix. Here Kellogg adopted a common theme from the eugenics movement that Nordics, Mediterraneans, Alpines, Mongolians and blacks all represented different ‘races.’ Kellogg warned of “the rapid increase of race degeneracy, especially in recent times,” and urged the adoption of steps that he claimed would result in the “creation of a new and superior human race.”

With his characteristic energy and ambition, Kellogg proposed a multi-step plan to save the U.S. from a calamitous fate. His plan included “a thoroughgoing health survey to be conducted in every community every five years, free medical dispensaries for the afflicted, the inspection of schools and schoolchildren, health education, prohibition of the sale of alcohol and tobacco, strict marriage laws in every state, and the establishment of experiment stations [devoted] to investigating the laws of heredity in plants, animals, and humans.”

A central feature of Kellogg’s plan was the creation of a ‘eugenic registry’ that would establish criteria for ‘proper breeding pairs.’ The idea was that individuals would provide their credentials to a central clearinghouse. Males who met the highest standards for racial ‘fitness’ would be paired with similarly ‘fit’ females and encouraged to marry (the idea was clearly inspired by similar matings with ‘pedigreed’ dogs and ‘bloodlines’ for horses).

Kellogg proposed central record-keeping offices for family pedigrees and the establishment of contests for ‘best babies’ and ‘fittest families.’ A few years later, such contests became common at state fairs across the U.S., as we will describe in the next section. In addition to the fairly sinister aspect of ‘racial purity,’ such contests also placed an emphasis on wellness, and offered useful tips on healthy diets and nutrition for young children. […]

The study of intelligence testing was then taken up by scientists such as Lewis Terman and Robert Yerkes. Terman, a psychologist at Stanford, made major revisions in Binet’s tests. He organized the tests into two parts. Part A included sections on arithmetical reasoning, sentence completion, logics, a synonym-antonym section, and a symbol-digit test. Part B included sections involving sentence completion, vocabulary, analogies, comparisons, and general information. Terman and associates tried out their tests on numerous cohorts of school children. Their aim was to determine the average performance of children in each grade from 3 to 8, and to administer the test to as many students as possible. They also performed numerous statistical tests, and arranged the grading to achieve an average of 100 for every grade, with a standard deviation of 15. The resulting “Stanford-Binet” test fairly rapidly became the standard in the field.

Terman was quite candid about his motives for universal testing. “It is safe to predict that in the near future intelligence tests will bring tens of thousands of those high-grade defectives under the surveillance and protection of society. This will ultimately result in curtailing the reproduction of feeble-mindedness and in the elimination of an enormous amount of crime, pauperism, and industrial inefficiency.” So, while Binet had insisted that his tests be administered only to provide assistance in improving the skills of slow learners, Terman and his hereditarian brethren were determined to identify, isolate and stigmatize precisely this group of children. Terman had no doubt that his tests represented measurements of innate intelligence, and that intelligence was almost entirely determined by heredity. “The children of successful and cultured parents test higher than children from wretched and ignorant homes for the simple reason that their heredity is better.”

Terman also recommended that businesses use IQ tests in hiring decisions. He argued that “substantial success” as a leader required an IQ of at least 115 to 120. Furthermore, people with IQs below 100 should not be hired for demanding or high-paying jobs. Terman was even more specific: people with IQ below 75 should only be qualified for menial tasks, and the 75-85 level for semi-skilled labor. People with an IQ of 85 or lower should be tracked into vocational schools, so that they would not leave school and “drift easily into the ranks of the anti-social or join the army of Bolshevik discontents.”

The Vexing Legacy of Lewis Terman
by Mitchell Leslie

Terman, who had grown up gifted himself, was gathering evidence to squelch the popular stereotype of brainy, “bookish” children as frail oddballs doomed to social isolation. He wanted to show that most smart kids were robust and well-adjusted — that they were, in fact, born leaders who ought to be identified early and cultivated for their rightful roles in society.

Though the more than 1,000 youngsters enrolled in his study didn’t know it at the time, they were embarking on a lasting relationship. As Terman poked around in their lives with his inquisitive surveys, “he fell in love with those kids,” explains Albert Hastorf, emeritus professor of psychology. To the group he always called “my gifted children” — even after they grew up — Terman became mentor, confidant, guidance counselor and sometimes guardian angel, intervening on their behalf. In doing so, he crashed through the glass that is supposed to separate scientists from subjects, undermining his own data. But Terman saw no conflict in nudging his protégés toward success, and many of them later reflected that being a “Terman kid” had indeed shaped their self-images and changed the course of their lives. […]

A story of a different kind emerges from Terman’s own writings — a disturbing tale of the beliefs of a pioneer in psychology. Lewis Terman was a loving mentor, yes, but his ardent promotion of the gifted few was grounded in a cold-blooded, elitist ideology. Especially in the early years of his career, he was a proponent of eugenics, a social movement aiming to improve the human “breed” by perpetuating certain allegedly inherited traits and eliminating others. While championing the intelligent, he pushed for the forced sterilization of thousands of “feebleminded” Americans. Later in life, Terman backed away from eugenics, but he never publicly recanted his beliefs. […]

Many who did well in their fields had received no boost from Terman beyond an occasional pat on the back and the knowledge that they’d qualified for his study. For others, like Dmytryk, Terman’s intervention was life-changing. We’ll never know all that he did for his kids, Hastorf notes. But it’s clear that Terman helped several get into Stanford and other universities. He dispatched numerous letters of recommendation mentioning that individuals took part in his project. And one time, early in World War II, he apparently pulled strings on behalf of a family of Japanese-Americans in his study. Fearing they were about to be interned, they wrote to Terman for help. He sent a letter assuring the federal government of their loyalty and arguing against internment. The family remained free.

From a scientific standpoint, Terman’s personal involvement seems foolish because it probably skewed his results. “It’s what you’d expect a mentor to do, but it’s bad science,” Hastorf says. As a conscientious researcher whose work got him elected to the National Academy of Sciences, Terman should have known better — but he wasn’t the first or last to slip. Indeed, the temptation to meddle is an occupational hazard among longitudinal researchers, says Glen Elder Jr., a sociologist at the University of North Carolina. A certain degree of intimacy develops, he explains, because “we’re living in their lives and they’re living in ours.”

It’s difficult to gauge Terman’s influence on the kids because so many are deceased or still anonymous. One survivor willing to speak on the record is Russell Robinson, a retired engineer and former director of aeronautical research at NASA Ames. He was a high school student in Santa Monica when, he recalls, “someone in the school system tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Dr. Terman would like to test you, if you’re willing.'” Robinson, now 92 and living in Los Altos, doesn’t think being in the study significantly changed his life, but he did draw confidence from knowing that Terman thought highly of him. Several times during his career, he mentally invoked Terman to shore up his self-image. “Research is a strange business — in a sense, you’re out there alone,” he says. “Sometimes, the problems got so complex I would ask myself, Am I up to this? Then I would think, Dr. Terman thought I was.”

Others have echoed that sentiment, Hastorf says. In fact, the study meant so much to some of the subjects that the Terman project now runs entirely on their bequests.

Several Terman kids have cited a negative impact on their lives. Some complained of being saddled with an unfair burden to succeed, Hastorf says, while others thought that being dubbed geniuses at an early age made them cocky and complacent. For better or worse, a quarter of the men and almost a third of the women said they felt that being a Terman kid had changed their lives. And since Terman often did his meddling behind the scenes, others may have been influenced without ever realizing it.

His support of the gifted was heartfelt, but an equally fundamental part of Terman’s social plan was controlling the people at the other end of the intelligence scale. Both were aims of eugenics, a movement that gained momentum early in the 20th century.

The eugenicists of Terman’s day held that people of different races, nationalities and classes were born with immutable differences in intelligence, character and hardiness, and that these genetic disparities called for an “aristogenic” caste system. Traits like feeblemindedness, frailty, emotional instability and “shiftlessness,” they believed, were controlled by single genes and could be easily eliminated by controlling the reproduction of the “unfit.” In the United States, the movement peddled a topsy-turvy form of Darwinism, claiming that the “fittest” (defined as well-to-do whites of Northern European ancestry) were reproducing too slowly and in danger of being overwhelmed by the inferior lower strata of society. America was jeopardized from within, eugenicists warned, by the rapid proliferation of people lacking intelligence and moral fiber. From without, the threat was the unchecked arrival of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Together these groups would drag down the national stock.

Terman’s letters and published writings show that he shared these beliefs and argued for measures to reverse society’s perceived deterioration. He was a member of the prominent eugenics societies of the day. “It is more important,” he wrote in 1928, “for man to acquire control over his biological evolution than to capture the energy of the atom.” Yet he wasn’t a renegade howling from the fringe. Eugenics was “hugely popular in America and Europe among the ‘better sort’ before Hitler gave it a bad name,” as journalist Nicholas Lemann puts it. Luminaries who supported at least part of the early eugenic agenda include George Bernard Shaw, Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, Calvin Coolidge and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. In fact, Terman sat on the boards of two eugenics organizations with Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan.

Early eugenicists managed to push through several laws. Thirty-three states, including California, passed measures requiring sterilization of the feebleminded. As a result, more than 60,000 men and women in mental institutions were sterilized — most against their will and some thinking they were getting an emergency appendectomy. In 1924, Congress set quotas that drastically cut immigration from eastern and southern Europe. Though pressure to stem immigration had come from many sources, including organized labor, the quotas had an undeniably racist taint. Terman cheered these efforts.

During the 1930s, as the brutality of Nazi policies and the scientific errors of eugenic doctrines became clearer, the eugenics movement withered in the United States and Terman inched away from his harshest views. Later in life, he told friends he regretted some of his statements about “inferior races.” But unlike several prominent intelligence-testers, such as psychologist Henry Goddard and sat creator Carl Brigham, Terman never publicly recanted.

At least one eugenic measure proved as stubborn as he was. News of the Nazis’ mass sterilization program did not put an end to the practice in the United States, where sterilizations of the mentally ill and retarded continued well into the 1970s.

Terman left a difficult legacy. On one hand, his work inspired almost all the innovations we use today to challenge bright students and enrich their education. As he followed the lives of intelligent kids, he also became their best publicist, battling a baseless prejudice. As a scientist, he devised methods for assessing our minds and behaviors, helping put the field of psychology on an empirical and quantitative foundation. He was one of Stanford’s first nationally prominent scholars, and as a department chair for two decades, he transformed the psychology department from a languid backwater into an energetic, top-ranked program. He established the longitudinal method and generated an archive of priceless data. Longitudinal studies have “become the laboratory of the social sciences” and are growing in importance as the population ages, unc sociologist Elder observes.

On the other hand, as biographer Minton points out, the very qualities that made Terman a groundbreaking scientist — his zeal, his confidence — also made him dogmatic, unwilling to accept criticism or to scrutinize his hereditarian views. A similar paradox existed in his social agenda. Terman was a visionary whose disturbing eugenic positions and loving treatment of the gifted grew out of the same dream for an American meritocracy.

“He was a very nice guy, but I have some things I would argue with him about,” Hastorf declares. His conclusion is that Terman was as much a product of his time as a force for change — and that, like many powerful thinkers, he was complex, contradictory and not always admirable.

The Parable of the Talents
by Scott Alexander
from comment section:

Harald K says:
“The IQ pioneers were social reformers who wanted to reduce human suffering.”

Oh sure. By turning as much as possible of decision making over to them, or resisting efforts to take away the privileges they already had, i.e. egalitarian efforts. I don’t hold much faith in the good will of US eugenicists, any more than their German cousins. The decision of which of other people’s genes deserve to survive to the next generation, is one which every human is hopelessly biased, and every decision is hopelessly corrupt.

Sure, many socialists were fooled too by the eugenicists’ crocodile tears for humanity, but it’s an inherently and irreparably selfish practice, only morally compatible with every man for himself/might makes right morality. I could have told them (and many DID tell them).

Binet can get a pass, sort of. His concern was mainly about who would do well in the French school system. Goddard imported the Binet test before Terman turned it into the first IQ test, so hardly “the man who brought IQ tests to America”. I wonder who can look at Goddard’s wikipedia page for arguments that he had such noble intentions, and overlook how he argued that Americans were unfit for democracy, or how he let first and second class skip the intelligence testing for immigration demand on Ellis Island.

IQ tests were invented in America, by Lewis Terman. From the moment Terman touched the test, it was conscripted to the service of racism and elitism.

“Does that sound like radical antihumanism? Nope.”

Yes, it does. Note how it promotes the welfare of humanity in the abstract, at the expense of concrete humans living here and now. But as I’ve argued, even that is just a fig leaf for the crudest power-grab a biological human can possibly make.

Harald K says:
“And ended up making a tool that predicts that the Chinese and Jews should be doing it instead of them.”

Ah, here it becomes relevant that the IQ of today isn’t really Terman’s IQ. Today’s test make Chinese people look good, but Terman’s test didn’t. It didn’t try to be culturally independent at all, so if you administered it to a Chinese person, he’d score horribly. There were even questions which obviously coded for social class, like where would you go to buy certain products.

It was in response to such criticism that they gradually tried to make the tests more independent of culture and language. It was not such a great sacrifice for them to open up for the possibility that some groups may on average do slightly better than your group, once the tests had scientifically established that they, individually, were superior beings.

But as they did so, the tests became less useful for prediction of success. (It turns out upper class white kids are more successful than kids who go to the liquor store to buy sugar, even if the latter kids are otherwise clever. Who knew?).

Elof Carlson says:
There are several difficulties with using a single number to measure intelligence, in a spectrum running from retarded to genius. Issue one is the diversity of talents. As you point out musical genius is not correlated to IQ test genius because there are many people in the 160 plus range who have little music appreciation n or talent. My mentor, HJ Muller, had a 165 IQ measured by Anne Roe, but he had no ear for music. The same might be true for artistic expression among museum quality artists. It might also be true for creativity. The second issue is the role of home environment. This varies a lot. In general those in poverty have lower IQ scores than those who have wealthy home environments. Premeds who take MCAT Kaplan courses do better than those who do not. Those who go to elite private schools do better than those who go to public high schools. Having a private tutor helps even more. The wealthy can afford such luxuries for their children. The poor cannot.

A book that changed my mind about the usefulness of IQ scores was Cradles of Eminence by Victor and Muriel Goertzel. They wanted to compare Terman’s study of 1000 high IQ California kids with eminence. They defined eminence as having two or more biographies written about a person who is not royalty or a sports figure. They found that none of the Terman kids had biographies written about them. They mostly became health professionals, CEOs, lawyers, engineers and solid middle class and contented adults. They found that those who had biographies written about them often had unstable middle class homes (e.g., a neurotic or psychotic parent, an alcoholic parent, a financial collapse in business leading downward in social class, a parent who was a zealot for a cause). They argued that it was the conflict at home (the parents were nevertheless loving to their children) that led these students to creative activities that set them apart. The Terman kids were teachers’ pets, loved school, and aced all their tests. The Goertzel biographees often disliked school (they were bored by it), were often misinterpreted by their teachers as lazy or mentally disturbed or nonconforming. Very few of the high IQ Terman kids were in the arts or wrote fiction. Many of the Goertzel biographees had careers in the arts (but about a majority of both groups chose science careers). None of the Terman kids won a Nobel or Pulitzer. Numerous of the Goertzel biographees did win Nobels and Pulitzers.

I hope you will read that book and comment on it. I believe IQ measures effectiveness in test-taking. That may be innate. It certainly has value in who gets into medical school or who succeeds academically. I believe creativity is independent of IQ score and no one has developed an objective quantitative measure of that creativity in whatever field people excel.

Genetically-Determined Cognitive Ruling Elite

I occasionally read articles from Mauldin Economics, a financial website. That is because my dad sends me them. Much of the economics has a neoliberal bent with that slight edge of right-wing libertarianism. But there is also a large helping of the cynical realpolitik of game theory and geopolitics (George Friedman is partnered with Mauldin Economics). Some of the pieces are better than others, occasionally venturing into more socio-cultural territory such as generations theory. I read them partly out of curiosity.

The last piece my dad sent me is Geek Squad by Jared Dillian. I totally get why my dad liked it, as he is a social and fiscal conservative. Dillian brings up Charles Murray’s infamous take on intelligence, which is the kind of thing that resonates for my dad. Older white male middle class conservatives (specifically of the Silent Generation) have much in common beyond just demographics, as the period of their youth was highly conformist — although that same generation, on the other side of the aisle, produced some of the most radical leaders of the anti-war, anti-nuclear, and civil rights movements; e.g., Martin Luther King, jr.

I’ve written about Jared Dillian before (Frrrreeeeeddoommmm?????) and I can’t say that I’m overly impressed. He is of my generation, maybe a few years older than me (see the About page on his website). That generational detail does seem relevant.

Certain kind of older white conservatives have more of a paternalistic undertone that can soften their ideological stances, such as Murray’s paleolibertarianism that leads him to both condescendingly criticize the poor and argue for a basic income to take care of those who are genetically or culturally inferior, an interesting mix. It’s for similar reasons that my dad donates money and volunteers his time to help the those in need, even as he argues that they don’t deserve his tax money — unless it is to either put them in prison or send them off to war (my dad hasn’t yet quite been convinced by Murray’s far greater paternalism). It’s a concern of moral accounting that is of less of a priority to the the more neoliberal Republicans of Generation X who came of age under the Reagan administration. Someone like Dillian represents more of what the conservative movement has become in recent decades.

Here is the main thing that caught my attention in Dillian’s piece, a point where he finds agreement with Murray, despite other conflicts between the worldviews of neoliberalism and paleolibertarianism:

“Years ago, Murray predicted that society would become stratified by intelligence, and that we would be ruled by a “cognitive elite.” All of this has come to pass.”

It’s sad that people still believe that. Intelligence hasn’t been stratified, at least not in the way that is being implied. Rather the class-based and race-based conditions that promote and suppress neurocognitive development have been stratified. This is not even up for debate and very little speculation is required. We have the historical record to explain what happened and the social science research to explain its implications (research has proven that poverty, especially in a society of high inequality and segregation, stunts/alters brain development and functioning; because of social stress, lack of learning resources, nutritional deficiencies, lead toxicity, limited healthcare, etc).

Speaking of a “cognitive elite” is pseudo-meritocracy on steroids. Conservatives are always blaming liberals for wanting an intelligentsia to rule the world, but some conservatives not so secretly fantasize about an intellectual elite, even if they imagine these inellectually superior people coming from the business sector.

Here is more of Dillian’s wisdom:

“Rewind to a few decades ago. Colleges suddenly became more meritocratic, admitting people on the basis of grades and test scores, instead of other criteria. So the smartest people got into the smartest schools, the less smart people got into the less smart schools, and dumb people didn’t get into schools at all. The results of that sociology experiment are fascinating: the smart people in smart schools started marrying each other and having smart children…”

Tell that to the vast majority who aren’t legacies into ivy league schools, no matter how smart they are. Tell that to the vast majority of kids with immense genetic and neruocognitive potential but were forced to struggle against poverty, racism, segregation, oppression, violence, school-to-prison pipeline, heavy metal toxicity, etc. I’m sure that Dillian considers himself as part of the “cognitive elite” and so that makes his ignorance all the more inexcusable and morally reprehensible. As one commenter put it (Garret Batten):

“Jared – I really enjoy The 10th Man. You have excellent insights into the markets and related issues. However, as a trained sociologist, I must object to your analysis of class, college selection, elties, and intelligence. You extrapolate from a claim about education being more meritocratic (more maybe at the college level but not even close to meritocratic and what about high school and middle school), but the increasing lack of mobility in the United States cannot be explained by smart people marying other smart people. As with Murray, these are highly problematic claims with the implication being that the very wealthy deserve as well as the poor derve their lots in life. I would urge you to stick with markets etc.”

To continue with the article:

“People don’t talk about this. We are obsessed with racism, but people of differing socioeconomic status just do not mix.”

He maybe should actually read Charles Murray’s Losing Ground and put it in context by reading Robert Putnam’s Our Kids. Then put both of those books in an even larger context of info. But the point is that both Murray and Putnam grew up in small factory towns where the poor and wealthy lived together as neighbors — going to the same stores and churches, sending their kids to the same schools, and having the same access to cheap higher education. Is it surprising that socioeconomic mobility was higher at that time? No. Is it surprising that so many poor kids of low IQ, uneducated parents got high school degrees and went off to college? No.

I’ve explained all of this before:
Who Are the American Religious? (comment)

Freedom From Want, Freedom to Imagine
Stranger Danger and Our Kids

Writing about Putnam, Richard Reeves stated that,

“The concatenation of advantages and disadvantages is visible in economic sorting at the neighbourhood level, leading to social sorting in terms of schools, churches and community groups. Putnam writes: “Our kids are increasingly growing up with kids like them who have parents like us.” This represents, he warns, “an incipient class apartheid”.”

That’s a different perspective. Putnam is making the point that this stratification didn’t happen by divine decree or according to the laws of physics. These are social results of social causes. Not all societies have seen such stratification. In fact, the high levels of stratification in the US are extremely unusual, one might even say abnormal. Using the word ‘apartheid’ is not hyperbole, as a permanent underclass (or undercaste) is forming. We don’t yet have eugenics-level of stratification. But if this trend is allowed to continue over centuries, eventually there would be ever more genetically distinct populations. The eugenics vision of a cognitive elite is not a description of reality but more of a rationalization and an aspiration. It doesn’t seem like a direction we would want to head toward as a society.

Sara D. Sparks articulates Putnam’s central point:

“Mr. Putnam, whose 2000 book Bowling Alone looked at declining civic ties among adults, argues that students in poverty growing up in the middle of the last century had greater economic and social mobility than their counterparts do today in large part because adults at all socioeconomic levels were more likely then to see all students as “our kids.””

It’s a bit of a chicken or egg dilemma. Did the increasing inequality/stratification and segregation/apartheid cause our society to become a culture of mistrust that no longer had a shared vision of public good, as once was seen in functioning communities of neighbors who cared about each other’s children? Or did changing values in our society cause the worsening divides and divisiveness?

I’d argue that it is both, as part of a vicious cycle. American society was built on a problematic social order of genocide, indentured servitude, slavery, etc and so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the long term consequences. American history has had a clear trajectory of ever greater concentration of wealth and power, with a momentary blip of equalization because of two world wars and a major depression. It’s not like the colonial aristocracy wielded so much power in the early federal government because they earned their social position through meritocracy nor that Africans were enslaved because they didn’t go the best schools with other smart kids. School tracking is probably not a useful metaphor for understanding the worsening stratification that began during the colonial era.

More from the article:

“This all came to a head in the 2016 election, where we threw out the smart people in academia and journalism and finance and technology and politics—the so-called “experts.””

One thing research shows is that smart people aren’t smart in all ways. For example, high IQ people are worse about certain areas of personal finance. They tend to overspend. This also relates to the smart idiot effect, which is called that because smarter people are more prone to this bias. I’d also throw in how upper class people have less cognitive capacity for certain basic skills, such as being able to accurately discern and empathize with what others experience.

So, smart upper class people are like Trump in that they tend toward being sociopaths that lack many basic practical and social skills, as they are used to others taking care of their problems for them. Those aren’t the kind of people that should be ruling a society. It’s important to note that most Americans didn’t vote for either choice of plutocrat, Clinton or Trump.

Here are some commenters to the article who made similar points:

funderbj@riflemag.com: “I am a physician, graduated MIT in 1966, Ohio State Med school in 1970. My observation about the smartest of the smart, insofar as medicine is concerned, is that being too smart can be a serious handicap. The uber performers often missed the common ailments while exploring the more esoteric diagnoses. We called it “thinking zebras, when hearing hoof beats.” I agree wholeheartedly that the next months and years will be interesting, but I doubt that the elite will be any more successful in the long run.”

ciaran.keogh@xtra.co.nz: “interesting post – however there is one shortcoming with the most “intelligent” will rule effect (which I agree is definitely happening) is that being learned and being wise are two entirely different things. Also it is my observation that the ability to learn comes at the expense of the ability to think. The more “learned” people (and systems) there are running the planet seems to result in less sensible (and moral) people running it. If you said that higher tendency for sociopathy was becoming stratified at the top I think you would need to look no further than Washington or Wall St for convincing proof”

Back to the article:

“Mark Zuckerberg, who is probably going to run for president, made a splash in his Harvard commencement speech when he called for a universal basic income. But I don’t think you’re doing anyone any favors when you give them free money to sit at home and play Xbox.”

Yet more ignorance. This is actually a good example of smart idiot effect. Dillian thinks he is so smart that he perceives his opinion as so worthy as not to require informing himself about the topic before coming to a conclusion. He just knows, because he is smart and educated. He is one of the “cognitive elite,” after all.

But if he were to inform himself, he’d find out that universal basic income experiments have shown that it doesn’t increase unemployment. That is because most people want more than barely surviving and making ends meet while sitting on the couch picking their nose. This is the problem of rich people who actually believe this is an accurate view of poor people. It demonstrates how disconnected from reality they are.

He goes on:

“Cognitive stratification is not stopping any time soon. Cities will get richer, towns will get poorer, a handful of companies will get even more powerful. If you feel like you don’t have a say in any of this… that will probably continue. I wonder about what it will be like to live in a world ruled by people who have won the genetic lottery.”

Dillian admits that our response to this problem matters. Yet he acts as if fatalistically there is nothing we can do about it.

About stratification of intelligence, you’d think smart people talking about such a topic would at least know some basic info that is relevant to the opinions they offer. Consider the following bit from a book I was reading yesterday, although the research mentioned is something I’ve come across many times before (by the way, do I have well informed opinions because I’m smart or because I read books to inform myself before opinionating?).

The book is Linguistic Relativity by Caleb Everett (he is the son of the infamous Daniel Everett, the family having spent several influential years among the Pirahã). The book is specifically about linguistics and the quoted passage is discussing culture, but what is being pointed to are the complex web of causal and contributing factors within the larger environmental conditions. Here is the relevant part (p. 44):

“As a final example of cross-population variation in cognition, consider the example of IQ heritability. There is a strong assumption among some that measures of IQ are primarily determined by genetic factors rather than those associated with family environment. Even within American society, however, socioeconomic status appears to play a significant role in the extent to which IQ is heritable. Turkheimer et al. (2003) present data on twins representing divergent socioeconomic statuses, and these data suggest convincingly that genetic factors play a much more prominent role in IQ variation among members of higher socioeconomic status, whereas factors associated with family environment play a comparatively greater role in those of lower status. The influence of socioeconomic status on heritability of IQ suggest that even cognitive processes with clear genetic influences remain susceptible to contextual influences and, more specifically, that IQ is affected by environmental factors with a western culture. The latter point is perhaps unsurprising but nevertheless worth stressing. If something like IQ, which is associated with an assortment of cognitive processes, can be affected by contextual factors within a given culture, it seems fair to assume that the cognitive processes in question would vary in accordance with the even-wider range of contextual factors evident in multiple cultures. After all, the differences between the childhoods of Americans from lower and higher socieconomic statuses, respectively, pale in comparison to those between childhoods in western industrialized societies and, for example indigenous societies.”

This would be wisely framed within another point made by the author, in quoting from “Beyond Human Nature” by Jesse Prinz (the quote is on p. 48 of Everett’s book). Prinz states that, “Human beings are genetically more homogenous than chimps, but behaviorally more diverse than any other species.” That is to say that the vast social and individual differences seen within human populations can’t be solely or primarily blamed on genetic variation. The just-so stories of arrogant elitists, race realists, and human biodiversity advocates don’t offer any real understanding — just more dogmatic ideology to obfuscate public debate and undermine political action.

It is hard for me to understand how articles like Jared Dillian’s are still being written and taken seriously. Yet hundreds of such articles pop up on the internet on a daily basis. Considering Mauldin Economics is apparently operated as a business, obviously there is profit to be had from pushing genetic determinism. Rationalization as it is, these just-so stories are simply too compelling in how they explain away the oppression and injustices of our society. It might not be so bad if all such genetic determinists were paternalistic enough as Charles Murray to promote basic policies of social democracy and a social safety net, such as a basic income. But most people who are attracted to Murray’s argument aren’t willing to follow it to his conclusion.

I’m not sure how to read Dillian’s conclusion: “I wonder about what it will be like to live in a world ruled by people who have won the genetic lottery.” Does that express doubt about a world dominated by genetic determinists or an earnest sense of curiosity to see such a world play out? Is he feeling uncertainty or anticipation about his role as one of the potential ruling elite who has won the genetic lottery?

* * *

If you’re interested in Eric Turkheimer, I’ll share some previous posts of mine where he is discussed. I’ll also include an article by him and some relevant passages from two books.

The IQ Conundrum
Heritability & Inheritance, Genetics & Epigenetics, Etc
Using Intelligence to Assess Intelligence

Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ
by Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, & Richard E. Nisbett

Murray takes the heritability of intelligence as evidence that it is an essential inborn quality, passed in the genes from parents to children with little modification by environmental factors. This interpretation is much too strong — a gross oversimplification. Heritability is not a special property of certain traits that have turned out to be genetic; it is a description of the human condition, according to which we are born with certain biological realities that play out in complex ways in concert with environmental factors, and are affected by chance events throughout our lives.

Today we can also study genes and behavior more directly by analyzing people’s DNA. These methods have given scientists a new way to compute heritability: Studies that measure DNA sequence variation directly have shown that pairs of people who are not relatives, but who are slightly more similar genetically, also have more similar IQs than other pairs of people who happen to be more different genetically. These “DNA-based” heritability studies don’t tell you much more than the classical twin studies did, but they put to bed many of the lingering suspicions that twin studies were fundamentally flawed in some way. Like the validity of intelligence testing, the heritability of intelligence is no longer scientifically contentious.

The new DNA-based science has also led to an ironic discovery: Virtually none of the complex human qualities that have been shown to be heritable are associated with a single determinative gene! There are no “genes for” IQ in any but the very weakest sense. Murray’s assertion in the podcast that we are only a few years away from a thorough understanding of IQ at the level of individual genes is scientifically unserious. Modern DNA science has found hundreds of genetic variants that each have a very, very tiny association with intelligence, but even if you add them all together they predict only a small fraction of someone’s IQ score. The ability to add together genetic variants to predict an IQ score is a useful tool in the social sciences, but it has not produced a purely biological understanding of why some people have more cognitive ability than others.

Most crucially, heritability, whether low or high, implies nothing about modifiability. The classic example is height, which is strongly heritable (80 to 90 percent), yet the average height of 11-year-old boys in Japan has increased by more than 5 inches in the past 50 years. A similar historical change is occurring for intelligence: Average IQ scores are increasing across birth cohorts, such that Americans experienced an 18-point gain in average IQ from 1948 to 2002. And the most decisive and permanent environmental intervention that an individual can experience, adoption from a poor family into a better-off one, is associated with IQ gains of 12 to 18 points.

These observations do not undermine the conclusion that intelligence is heritable, but rather the naive assumption that heritable traits cannot be changed via environmental mechanisms. (Murray flatly tells Harris that this is the case.)

Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined
by Scott Barry Kaufman
pp. 6-9

In 1990 the behavioral geneticist Thomas J. Bouchard Jr. and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota published a striking finding: about 70 percent of the differences in IQ found among twins and triplets living apart were associated with genetic variation. 8 What’s more, the identical twins (whose genes were assumed to be 100 percent identical * ) were remarkably similar to identical twins reared together on various measures of personality, occupational and leisure-time interests, and social attitudes, despite spending most of their lives apart.

This study, and the hundreds of twin and adoption studies that have been conducted since then, have painted a consistent picture: genetic variation matters. 9 The studies say nothing about how they matter, or which genes matter, but they show quite convincingly that biological variation does matter. Genes vary within any group of people (even among the inhabitants of middle-class Western society), and this variation contributes to variations in these people’s behaviors. The twin findings shouldn’t be understated; it counters many a prevailing belief that we are born into this world as blank slates, completely at the mercy of external forces. 10

The most important lesson researchers have learned from over twenty-five years’ worth of twin studies is that virtually every single psychological trait you can measure— including IQ, personality, artistic ability, mathematical ability, musical ability, writing, humor styles, creative dancing, sports, happiness, persistence, marital status, television viewing, female orgasm rates, aggression, empathy, altruism, leadership, risk taking, novelty seeking, political preferences, television viewing, and even rates of Australian teens talking on their cell phones— has a heritable basis. * Because our psychological characteristics reflect the physical structures of our brains and because our genes contribute to those physical structures, it is unlikely that there are any psychological characteristics that are completely unaffected by our DNA. 11

Unfortunately there is frequent confusion about the meaning of heritability. The most frequent misunderstanding is the purpose of twin studies. Heritability estimates are about understanding sources of similarities and differences in traits between members of a particular population. The results apply only to that population. The purpose is not to determine how much any particular individual’s traits are due to his or her genes or his or her environment. Behavioral geneticists are well aware that all of our traits develop through a combination of both nature and nurture. Heritability estimates are about explaining differences among people, not explaining individual development. The question on the table for them is this: In a particular population of individuals, what factors make those individuals the same as each other, and which factors make them different?

Therefore, twin studies aren’t designed to investigate human development. In recent years developmental psychologists, including L. Todd Rose, Kurt Fischer, Peter Molenaar, and Cynthia Campbell, have been developing exciting new techniques to study intraindividual variation. 12 Intraindividual variation focuses on a single person and looks at how an integrated dynamic system of behavioral, emotional, cognitive, and other psychological processes change across time and situations. New intraindividual techniques allow researchers to focus on a single twin pair and see how nature and nurture interact in nonlinear ways to explain both their similarities and their differences. 13 Both levels of analysis— twin studies and developmental analysis— are informative, but the results from the one do not apply to the other. 14

Many people also confuse heritability with immutability. They hear the word “heritable” and immediately think of “genes,” which then conjures up pictures of a fixed trait that can’t be altered by external forces. In contrast, many people hear the word “environment” and breathe a sigh of relief, thinking the trait is easily modifiable. This requires quite a strong faith in social engineering!

Just because a trait is heritable (and virtually all of our psychological traits are heritable) doesn’t necessarily mean that the trait is fixed or can’t be developed. Virtually all of our traits are substantially genetically influenced and are influenced by environmental conditions. Even though television viewing has a heritable basis, 15 most people don’t think of the activity as being outside our personal control. Indeed, parents frequently control (or try to control) the length of time their children spend sitting in front of the tube.

Another source of confusion is the role of parenting in the development of traits. A common finding in twin studies is that the environments experienced by twins (or any two siblings) do little to create differences in intelligence and personality as adults. In other words, the heritability of traits tends to increase as one ages and escapes the influence of parents. 16 Judith Rich Harris showed that peers exert a greater influence in creating differences in personality among adolescents than parents. 17 But do these findings mean that parents cannot effectively help their child develop their unique traits? Absolutely not. That’s like saying that water has no influence on a fish’s development because all fish live in water. A nurturing family environment is a necessity to help the child flourish, just as a fish needs water to swim and survive.

Just because a variable doesn’t vary doesn’t mean it has no causal impact on a particular outcome. Genes could “account for” 100 percent of the variability in a trait in a particular twin study, but this does not mean that environmental factors, including parental quality, are therefore unimportant in the development of the trait. Instead it turns out that parenting matters in a way that is different from what was originally assumed: Parents matter to the extent that they affect the expression of genes. Parents can exert important influence in the child’s development by nurturing productive interests and helping the child channel destructive inclinations into more productive outlets.

The importance of parenting becomes more salient when we look at a wider range of environments. Only a few of the twins in Bouchard’s original study were reared in real poverty or were raised by illiterate parents, and none were mentally disabled. This matters. Consider a recent study by Eric Turkheimer and colleagues. They looked at 750 pairs of American twins who were given a test of mental ability when they were 10 months old and again when they were 2 years. 18 When looking at the group of kids aged just 10 months, the home environment appeared to be the key variable across different levels of socioeconomic status. The story changed considerably as the children got a bit older and differences in education became more pronounced. For the 2-year-olds living in poorer households, the home environment mattered the most, accounting for about 80 percent of the variation in mental ability. For these kids, genetics played little role in explaining differences in cognitive ability. In wealthy households, on the other hand, genetics explained more of the differences in performance, accounting for nearly 50 percent of all the variation in mental ability.

Prominent behavioral geneticists, including Bouchard, eventually realized that it was time to move on from simply calculating heritability estimates . In a 2009 paper entitled “Beyond Heritability,” researchers Wendy Johnson, Eric Turkheimer, Irving I. Gottesman, and Bouchard concluded that “given that genetic influences are routinely involved in behavior,” “little can be gleaned from any particular heritability estimate and there is little need for further twin studies investigating the presence and magnitude of genetic influences on behavior.” 19

The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ
by David Shenk
Kindle Locations 1003-1031

But the nature of that genetic influence is easily— and perilously— misinterpreted. If we are to take the word “heritability” at face value, genetic influence is a powerful direct force that leaves individuals rather little wiggle room. Through the lens of this word, twin studies reveal that intelligence is 60 percent “heritable,” which implies that 60 percent of each person’s intelligence comes preset from genes while the remaining 40 percent gets shaped by the environment. This appears to prove that our genes control much of our intelligence; there’s no escaping it.

In fact, that’s not what these studies are saying at all.

Instead, twin studies report, on average, a statistically detectable genetic influence of 60 percent. Some studies report more, some a lot less . In 2003, examining only poor families, University of Virginia psychologist Eric Turkheimer found that intelligence was not 60 percent heritable, nor 40 percent, nor 20 percent, but near 0 percent —demonstrating once and for all that there is no set portion of genetic influence on intelligence. “These findings,” wrote Turkheimer , “suggest that a model of [genes plus environment] is too simple for the dynamic interaction of genes and real-world environments during development.”

How could the number vary so much from group to group? This is how statistics work. Every group is different; every heritability study is a snapshot from a specific time and place, and reflects only the limited data being measured (and how it is measured).

More important, though, is that all of these numbers pertain only to groups— not to individuals. Heritability, explains author Matt Ridley , “is a population average, meaningless for any individual person : you cannot say that Hermia has more heritable intelligence than Helena. When somebody says that heritability of height is 90 percent, he does not and cannot mean that 90 percent of my inches come from genes and 10 percent from my food. He means that variation in a particular sample is attributable to 90 percent genes and 10 percent environment . There is no heritability in height for the individual.”

This distinction between group and individual is night and day. No marathon runner would calculate her own race time by averaging the race times of ten thousand other runners; knowing the average lifespan doesn’t tell me how long my life will be; no one can know how many kids you will have based on the national average. Averages are averages— they are very useful in some ways and utterly useless in others. It’s useful to know that genes matter, but it’s just as important to realize that twin studies tell us nothing about you and your individual potential. No group average will ever offer any guidance about individual capability.

In other words, there’s nothing wrong with the twin studies themselves. What’s wrong is associating them with the word “heritability,” which, as Patrick Bateson says, conveys “the extraordinary assumption that genetic and environmental influences are independent of one another and do not interact. That assumption is clearly wrong.” In the end, by parroting a strict “nature vs. nurture” sensibility, heritability estimates are statistical phantoms; they detect something in populations that simply does not exist in actual biology. It’s as if someone tried to determine what percentage of the brilliance of King Lear comes from adjectives. Just because there are fancy methods available for inferring distinct numbers doesn’t mean that those numbers have the meaning that some would wish for.

Kindle Locations 3551-3554

“The models suggest,” Turkheimer wrote, “that in impoverished families, 60% of the variance in IQ is accounted for by the shared environment, and the contributions of genes is close to zero; in affluent families, the result is almost exactly the reverse.” (Italics mine.) (Turkheimer et al., “Socioeconomic status modifies heritability of IQ in young children,” p. 632.)

Hidden Abilities

There are some human abilities that are equivalent to superpowers, in that they seem superhuman. The most obvious examples are certain kinds of athletes and performers. Some of these people can do things that are hard to believe a human can do. In watching acrobats and contortionists, one worries they might hurt themselves.

I have some athletic ability. I’ve played sports and I’m decent at juggling. My greatest physical skill was hacky sack or, if you prefer, footbag. I played all the time and even invented tricks that were quite impressive. But even then there were surely thousands of other people just here in the Midwestern United States that were at least as good as I and probably far better. My skills, as great as they were, were not at the level of the superhuman. I’m not a genius in physical ability, just above average.

That is fine. Most people don’t mind having limited athletic skills or whatever. We live in a society that only moderately admires and rewards such abilities. For all the wealth a professional athlete can accrue, a popular movie star or powerful CEO will still make vastly more money, and no one even cares to watch the CEO. Besides, the movie star or CEO doesn’t have to worry about potential physical injury and permanent brain damage that might lead to chronic pain and a shorter lifespan.

What gains respect in our society, more than anything, is cognitive ability. Even the entrepreneurial businessman is largely admired because his success is supposedly a sign of intelligence and innovation, whether or not that corresponds to book smarts. It’s a different kind of cognitive ability than a professor or scientist, but it’s the same basic quality that compels respect in a society such as this.

Yet, at the same time, Americans tend to only appreciate outward forms of intelligence as they manifest in worldly achievements and positions of authority. A scientist, for example, will be much more respected if he invents a new medicine or technology. It’s the rare scientist, such as Albert Einstein, who is respected for merely developing a new theory.

That is the rub. Intellectual capacity is rarely obvious. The most brilliant people, even geniuses, don’t get much respect or reward for all their talents, no matter how hard they work. It’s partly because the greatest thinkers don’t tend to have an immediate and spectacular impact on the world around them, as any society will be resistant to change. To appreciate the impact of a great thinker might take centuries, until the rest of society catches up.

Plus, many people with immense cognitive abilities have their talent wasted. They are working at jobs that don’t make use of their intelligence, creativity, etc. I suspect more geniuses are never discovered than those who get the opportunity to live up to their potential. Working class jobs, poor communities, homeless shelters, prisons, etc are filled with lost and wasted human potential.

It’s not unusual to meet people with all kinds of talents and abilities. Rarely are these people doing much with what they have, partly because life is tough and most people are simply trying to get by. Being smart most often won’t do you much good if you live in isolated, desperate poverty with few positive outlets of intellectual achievement. But it doesn’t require poverty to obscure human potential. Let me give an example.

My friend’s father is a bookdealer, although he collects books more than he sells them. This guy easily could be doing greater things than running a practically nonprofit book business. He is smart, clever, witty, and has a near perfect memory filled with vast information. He was working on his dissertation when stress and a psychological breakdown caused him to drop out. Despite his being well respected by other bookdealers, few others would suspect that this slovenly guy is anything special.

There are many people like that.

I live in a town filled with smart and well educated people. A large part of the working class around here has college degrees. Many people I know don’t do anything with their education: someone with an architecture degree who is a busdriver, someone with a psychology degree who is a postal worker, someone with a history degree who is a bartender, someone with a religious studies degree who is a baker, someone with an art degree who is a maintenance worker, etc. One of my coworkers who works as a cashier has a PhD. Even the homeless population around here is far above average.

That’s just talking about the well educated. Genius is a whole other level. If you met a mental genius, how would you know? Someone could be having genius thoughts right in front of you and you’d probably not notice anything unusual was happening. It’s harder for a physical genius to hide their talents while using their talents because, well, they are physically apparent. You might not pay close attention to the street juggler as you pass by, but you most likely will at least notice that juggling is happening within your vicinity.

In reading books, I sometimes come across a writer who has amazing knowledge, understanding, and insights. Most of the time, such people aren’t famous and well paid authors. There seems to be a negative correlation between how brilliant a writer is and how well they are rewarded in their profession. The more brilliant a writer is the far fewer readers there will be to appreciate their brilliance. It takes above average intelligence to even recognize brilliance, much less fully appreciate it.

That is the difference. Anyone can watch physical ability and be awed by it. Cognitive ability, at the extremes, tends to just go over people’s heads or else is ignored. A scientist doing cutting edge research often would have a hard time explaining the research to most people in a way that would make it both comprehensible and interesting. The fact of the matter is most scientific research is boring and, besides, it happens in laboratories few people ever see. Scientists are hidden away while doing their scientific work. That is the nature of most intellectual pursuits. They are outwardly unimpressive and not easily seen, at least until some worldly result is achieved, which comes out long after all the hard intellectual work was done.

The work and thought being done that will change the world in the future is happening all around us. Knowledge, ideas, and inventions slowly percolate through society. Meanwhile, a large part of the population is watching sports.

Immoral/Amoral Flynn Effect?

There is a BBC article about intelligence, The surprising downsides of being clever by David Robson. Like many others before, the author questions our obsession with being super smart. Some of the typical data is trotted out and I don’t deny any of it. But I do wonder about the best interpretation.

The question may seem like a trivial matter concerning a select few – but the insights it offers could have ramifications for many. Much of our education system is aimed at improving academic intelligence; although its limits are well known, IQ is still the primary way of measuring cognitive abilities, and we spend millions on brain training and cognitive enhancers that try to improve those scores. But what if the quest for genius is itself a fool’s errand?

It is fair to correlate increasing education rates with increasing average IQ. Part of what IQ tests focus on, after all, is book learning (e.g., crystallized intelligence). The problem with this line of thought is that the greatest increase in IQ has come from an entirely different area, visuospatial problem solving (e.g., fluid intelligence).

Some of that is picked up from school as well, although much of it is gained from general changes in society and culture. Literacy rates have increased since IQ testing began and so there are more people reading, even outside of school. Urbanization rates have increased and, along with it, the kind of urbanized work and daily activities that requires more abstract thinking skills.

This involves a whole host of changes at a mass level that has never before existed in all of human history. In the US, the majority of whites were fully urbanized about a century ago and the majority of blacks about a half century ago. For all the millennia before that, human society was always primarily rural and most work was manual labor requiring concrete thought. Increasing education was a result of urbanization, not its cause.

As always, correlation doesn’t prove causation. Ignoring that for a moment, the author does make a good point when he observes that, “The harsh truth, however, is that greater intelligence does not equate to wiser decisions; in fact, in some cases it might make your choices a little more foolish.” He offers several examples of smart people not always thinking smart. That shouldn’t be surprising for anyone who has come across the “smart idiot” effect. That is the result of a lack of intellectual humility, something I’ve often thought about. For those who education has come easy, it could create an overconfidence in one’s intellectual ability, including in areas where one lacks experience and expertise.

Being smart in one area doesn’t mean being smart in all areas, not as rational or well informed or capable as might be expected. One example the author gives is that high IQ people can in some ways be worse in managing their money, e.g., overcharging credit cards. There might be an inverse relationship, at least in some cases, between abstract thinking and concrete thinking. I know, for example, that research shows it is hard to be emotional and rational at the same time. Parts of our brain and nervous system can to varying degrees act independently, and this can get expressed in our behavior. Humans are notoriously divided, as studies on dissociation have shown. Also, being smart may have little to do with being self-aware, at least beyond a certain point.

There are some other areas the author missed.

I came across an article recently. It was about kids and technology use. It is altering how they think, unsurprisingly.

It should be noted that games and stories made for the present generation of children are so much more complex than in the past. In certain areas, kids are brilliant these days. Take visual problem solving (fluid intelligence), a skill that has increased more than any other area of intelligence, according to IQ tests. Yet there is research that shows delays in other areas of development, such as reading skills.

Many things in life are a trade off. Socrates complained about literacy because it does change people, not just in how they think but also in how they relate to others and perceive the world. Some argue that increasing abstract thinking is what allowed more universal ideas and ideals, such as Christian universal love. Transforming the mind can transform the world.

The thing is we don’t know the consequences of such changes until after they’ve been happening for a long time, sometimes centuries.

All of that is fascinating. But there is an issue that so rarely gets discussed in these kinds of articles. There are complications involved that go far beyond any of this.

Most of the things that raise intelligence are related to what increases health in general, such as better nutrition and healthcare—all things directly related to increasing urbanization, I might add. Better physical health obviously leads to improved brain and cognitive development. This is also seen in other things like decreasing lead toxicity.

Yet there are other things that have the opposite impact. Mercury toxicity, which has become a common pollutant, is known to cause all kinds of mental health and behavioral problems while oddly increasing IQ test scores. Studies have found a connection of mercury to issues like increasing rates of autism. And in such things as aspergers there simultaneously is higher cognitive functioning in some areas and deficits in other areas.

There are some even stranger examples.

Infection by the parasite toxoplasma gondii has probably increased over the past century, because of an increase of people keeping cats in their homes. In some countries, much of the population is infected. This parasite alters brain functioning. Besides causing mental health problems, it increases intelligence in women while decreasing intelligence in men. It also increases the personality trait of neuroticism, which has been correlated both with higher and lower IQ, but not middle range IQ.

It might be relevant to note that one of the mental illnesses correlated to this parasite is schizophrenia. The same area of the brain related to math ability is also related to schizophrenia.

Anyway, my point is that the source of causality is important. Just because mental health issues sometimes are correlated with higher IQ, it doesn’t follow that educating people to be smarter is what is causing those mental illnesses. In many cases, there is a third factor involved, often physical and environmental.

This goes back to the post I recently wrote about the microbes and parasites we inherit from the people around us. I discussed that specific parasite and I noted, in the comments section, that at the large scale this might shape entire cultures.

All of civilization is a vast experiment. Our environments are constantly being altered, by our own actions and by outside forces. We are normally oblivious to all of this. But the factors we don’t see still can have immense effect on us.

We know that the average IQ has risen over the generations. And we know many other things have gone up over the same period. What we don’t entirely know is what are all of the causes behind these changes.

I’ve previously discussed the Flynn effect. One aspect of this is what has been called the moral Flynn effect. But considering some of the factors that can sometimes increase IQ while leading to other detrimental results, maybe we should also consider that parallel to this there is also an immoral/amoral Flynn effect. Not all things that increase intelligence are entirely beneficial for either the individual or society.

 

Group Psychology For All, Experts And Non-Experts Alike

I’ve been reading a book I had seen over the years, but had ignored until a friend recommended it. It is The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. I guess I didn’t pay it much heed because of an assumption that it was likely lightweight pop psychology. I was wrong.

It is an intriguing book, although more of an introductory text and so can be not quite fully satisfying in that it entices the reader’s curiosity to learn more. The ideas in the book are quite radical, but the author doesn’t emphasize that aspect. There are so many directions that could be taken and that would require many other books. This particular book, however, accomplished what it sets out to do which was ambitious enough.

A number of things are covered in the text. It’s not really about crowds, the title being unfortunate. Rather, it’s about group psychology and all that relates to that.

The author discusses the conditions under which any group will operate well or not. It could be a group of average citizens, a school board, or a grassroots organization. But it also could be a group of scientists, investors, or politicians. All humans are social animals, and so the same group psychology applies to all people and all groups. Even the paternalistic elites of Scandinavian countries, for example, are dependent on and interdependent with, built upon and inseparable from the constructive group dynamics of a culture of trust.

This would apply even to effectively ruling an authoritarian regime. That said, the conditions when fulfilled to their utmost would inevitably tend toward democratization, no matter the intent. This is true in all spheres to which these conditions could be applied. It isn’t just about politics. Far from it.

In reading reviews of the book, I realized many people didn’t understand the central point the author was communicating. He isn’t opposing crowds against experts. As I said, group psychology is a universal human reality, even for experts. Much of what the author discusses is experts themselves, when they are useful and when they are not. I found it odd that some reviewers thought the book had nothing to do about experts. Either they didn’t actually read the book or the unfortunate title biased their reading experience.

The term ‘expert’ was mentioned 92 times in The Wisdom of Crowds. Expertise is discussed in numerous chapters throughout the book. I’ll offer a few examples of it being discussed, but other examples not included below go into much more detail about examples and research.

(I’d also suggest the even more recent book, The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller. He also has useful discussion of groups and experts, both separately and as they interact, including some fascinating research. There are some other books I’m reading that may be relevant. I’ll probably write more about this topic later. I specifically have in mind a post about democracy in the city I live in, as analyzed according to Surowieki’s conditions of a wise crowd.)

 * * * *

The fact that cognitive diversity matters does not mean that if you assemble a group of diverse but thoroughly uninformed people, their collective wisdom will be smarter than an expert’s. But if you can assemble a diverse group of people who possess varying degrees of knowledge and insight, you’re better off entrusting it with major decisions rather than leaving them in the hands of one or two people, no matter how smart those people are. If this is difficult to believe—in the same way that March’s assertions are hard to believe—it’s because it runs counter to our basic intuitions about intelligence and business. Suggesting that the organization with the smartest people may not be the best organization is heretical, particularly in a business world caught up in a ceaseless “war for talent” and governed by the assumption that a few superstars can make the difference between an excellent and a mediocre company. Heretical or not, it’s the truth: the value of expertise is, in many contexts, overrated.

Now, experts obviously exist. The play of a great chess player is qualitatively different from the play of a merely accomplished one. The great player sees the board differently, he processes information differently, and he recognizes meaningful patterns almost instantly. As Herbert A. Simon and W. G. Chase demonstrated in the 1970s, if you show a chess expert and an amateur a board with a chess game in progress on it, the expert will be able to re-create from memory the layout of the entire game. The amateur won’t. Yet if you show that same expert a board with chess pieces irregularly and haphazardly placed on it, he will not be able to re-create the layout. This is impressive testimony to how thoroughly chess is imprinted on the minds of successful players. But it also demonstrates how limited the scope of their expertise is. A chess expert knows about chess, and that’s it. We intuitively assume that intelligence is fungible, and that people who are excellent at one intellectual pursuit would be excellent at another. But this is not the case with experts. Instead, the fundamental truth about expertise is that it is, as Chase has said, “spectacularly narrow.”

More important, there’s no real evidence that one can become expert in something as broad as “decision making” or “policy” or “strategy.” Auto repair, piloting, skiing, perhaps even management: these are skills that yield to application, hard work, and native talent. But forecasting an uncertain future and deciding the best course of action in the face of that future are much less likely to do so. And much of what we’ve seen so far suggests that a large group of diverse individuals will come up with better and more robust forecasts and make more intelligent decisions than even the most skilled “decision maker.”

We’re all familiar with the absurd predictions that business titans have made: Harry Warner of Warner Bros. pronouncing in 1927, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?,” or Thomas Watson of IBM declaring in 1943, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” These can be written off as amusing anomalies, since over the course of a century, some smart people are bound to say some dumb things. What can’t be written off, though, is the dismal performance record of most experts.

Between 1984 and 1999, for instance, almost 90 percent of mutual-fund managers underperformed the Wilshire 5000 Index, a relatively low bar. The numbers for bond-fund managers are similar: in the most recent five-year period, more than 95 percent of all managed bond funds underperformed the market. After a survey of expert forecasts and analyses in a wide variety of fields, Wharton professor J. Scott Armstrong wrote, “I could find no studies that showed an important advantage for expertise.” Experts, in some cases, were a little better at forecasting than laypeople (although a number of studies have concluded that nonpsychologists, for instance, are actually better at predicting people’s behavior than psychologists are), but above a low level, Armstrong concluded, “expertise and accuracy are unrelated.” James Shanteau is one of the country’s leading thinkers on the nature of expertise, and has spent a great deal of time coming up with a method for estimating just how expert someone is. Yet even he suggests that “experts’ decisions are seriously flawed.”

Shanteau recounts a series of studies that have found experts’ judgments to be neither consistent with the judgments of other experts in the field nor internally consistent. For instance, the between-expert agreement in a host of fields, including stock picking, livestock judging, and clinical psychology, is below 50 percent, meaning that experts are as likely to disagree as to agree. More disconcertingly, one study found that the internal consistency of medical pathologists’ judgments was just 0.5, meaning that a pathologist presented with the same evidence would, half the time, offer a different opinion. Experts are also surprisingly bad at what social scientists call “calibrating” their judgments. If your judgments are well calibrated, then you have a sense of how likely it is that your judgment is correct. But experts are much like normal people: they routinely overestimate the likelihood that they’re right. A survey on the question of overconfidence by economist Terrance Odean found that physicians, nurses, lawyers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and investment bankers all believed that they knew more than they did. Similarly, a recent study of foreign-exchange traders found that 70 percent of the time, the traders overestimated the accuracy of their exchange-rate predictions. In other words, it wasn’t just that they were wrong; they also didn’t have any idea how wrong they were. And that seems to be the rule among experts. The only forecasters whose judgments are routinely well calibrated are expert bridge players and weathermen. It rains on 30 percent of the days when weathermen have predicted a 30 percent chance of rain.

Armstrong, who studies expertise and forecasting, summarized the case this way: “One would expect experts to have reliable information for predicting change and to be able to utilize the information effectively. However, expertise beyond a minimal level is of little value in forecasting change.” Nor was there evidence that even if most experts were not very good at forecasting, a few titans were excellent. Instead, Armstrong wrote, “claims of accuracy by a single expert would seem to be of no practical value.” This was the origin of Armstrong’s “seer-sucker theory”: “No matter how much evidence exists that seers do not exist, suckers will pay for the existence of seers.”

Again, this doesn’t mean that well-informed, sophisticated analysts are of no use in making good decisions. (And it certainly doesn’t mean that you want crowds of amateurs trying to collectively perform surgery or fly planes.) It does mean that however well-informed and sophisticated an expert is, his advice and predictions should be pooled with those of others to get the most out of him. (The larger the group, the more reliable its judgment will be.) And it means that attempting to “chase the expert,” looking for the one man who will have the answers to an organization’s problem, is a waste of time. We know that the group’s decision will consistently be better than most of the people in the group, and that it will be better decision after decision, while the performance of human experts will vary dramatically depending on the problem they’re asked to solve. So it is unlikely that one person, over time, will do better than the group.

Now, it’s possible that a small number of genuine experts—that is, people who can consistently offer better judgments than those of a diverse, informed group—do exist. The investor Warren Buffett, who has consistently outperformed the S&P 500 Index since the 1960s, is certainly someone who comes to mind. The problem is that even if these superior beings do exist, there is no easy way to identify them. Past performance, as we are often told, is no guarantee of future results. And there are so many would-be experts out there that distinguishing between those who are lucky and those who are genuinely good is often a near-impossible task. At the very least, it’s a job that requires considerable patience: if you wanted to be sure that a successful money manager was beating the market because of his superior skill, and not because of luck or measurement error, you’d need many years, if not decades, of data. And if a group is so unintelligent that it will flounder without the right expert, it’s not clear why the group would be intelligent enough to recognize an expert when it found him.

We think that experts will, in some sense, identify themselves, announcing their presence and demonstrating their expertise by their level of confidence. But it doesn’t work that way. Strangely, experts are no more confident in their abilities than average people are, which is to say that they are overconfident like everyone else, but no more so. Similarly, there is very little correlation between experts’ self-assessment and their performance. Knowing and knowing that you know are apparently two very different skills.

If this is the case, then why do we cling so tightly to the idea that the right expert will save us? And why do we ignore the fact that simply averaging a group’s estimates will produce a very good result? Richard Larrick and Jack B. Soll suggest that the answer is that we have bad intuitions about averaging. We assume averaging means dumbing down or compromising. When people are faced with the choice of picking one expert or picking pieces of advice from a number of experts, they try to pick the best expert rather than simply average across the group. Another reason, surely, is our assumption that true intelligence resides only in individuals, so that finding the right person—the right consultant, the right CEO—will make all the difference. In a sense, the crowd is blind to its own wisdom. Finally, we seek out experts because we get, as the writer Nassim Taleb asserts, “fooled by randomness.” If there are enough people out there making predictions, a few of them are going to compile an impressive record over time. That does not mean that the record was the product of skill, nor does it mean that the record will continue into the future. Again, trying to find smart people will not lead you astray. Trying to find the smartest person will.

Surowiecki, James (2005-08-16). The Wisdom of Crowds (pp. 29-34). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This might be okay if people only spoke when they had expertise in a particular matter. And in many cases, if someone’s talking a lot, it’s a good sign that they have something valuable to add. But the truth is that there is no clear correlation between talkativeness and expertise. In fact, as the military-flier studies suggest, people who imagine themselves as leaders will often overestimate their own knowledge and project an air of confidence and expertise that is unjustified. And since, as political scientists Brock Blomberg and Joseph Harrington suggest, extremists tend to be more rigid and more convinced of their own rightness than moderates, discussion tends to pull groups away from the middle. Of course, sometimes truth lies at the extreme. And if the people who spoke first and most often were consistently the people with the best information or the keenest analysis, then polarization might not be much of a problem. But it is.

Surowiecki, James (2005-08-16). The Wisdom of Crowds (p. 186). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

So what would the wider distribution of real decision-making power look like? To begin with, decisions about local problems should be made, as much as possible, by people close to the problem. Friedrich Hayek, as we’ve seen, emphasized that tacit knowledge—knowledge that emerged only from experience—was crucial to the efficiency of markets. It is just as important to the efficiency of organizations. Instead of assuming that all problems need to be filtered up the hierarchy and every solution filtered back down again, companies should start with the assumption that, just as in the marketplace, people with local knowledge are often best positioned to come up with a workable and efficient solution. The virtues of specialization and local knowledge often outweigh managerial expertise in decision making.

Surowiecki, James (2005-08-16). The Wisdom of Crowds (pp. 209-210). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The best CEOs, of course, recognize the limits of their own knowledge and of individual decision making. That’s why important decisions at GM, in the days when it was the most successful corporation in the world, were made by what Alfred Sloan called “group management.” And it’s why legendary business thinker Peter Drucker has said, “The smart CEOs methodically build a management team around them.” The lesson of Richard Larrick and Jack Soll’s work applies to business as much as it does to other fields: chasing the expert is a mistake. The Federal Reserve’s decisions, after all, aren’t made by Alan Greenspan. They’re made by the board as a whole. In the face of uncertainty, the collective judgment of a group of executives will trump that of even the smartest executive. Think about John Craven’s work in finding the Scorpion. A relatively small group of diversely informed individuals making guesses about the likelihood of uncertain events produced, when their judgments had been aggregated, an essentially perfect decision. What more could a company want?

Surowiecki, James (2005-08-16). The Wisdom of Crowds (pp. 220-221). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In January of 2003, 343 people, carefully chosen so that they represented an almost perfect cross-section of the American population, gathered in Philadelphia for a weekend of political debate. The topic was American foreign policy, with the issues ranging from the impending conflict with Iraq to nuclear proliferation to the global AIDS epidemic. Before the weekend, the participants were polled to get a sense of their positions on the issues. They were then sent a set of briefing materials that, in a deliberately evenhanded fashion, tried to lay out relevant facts and provide some sense of the ongoing debate about the issues. Once they arrived, they were divided up into small groups led by trained moderators, and went on to spend the weekend deliberating. Along the way, they were given the chance to interrogate panels of competing experts and political figures. At the end of the weekend, the participants were polled again, to see what difference their deliberations had made.

The entire event, which bore the unwieldy name of the National Issues Convention Deliberative Poll, was the brainchild of a political scientist at the University of Texas named James Fishkin. Fishkin invented the deliberative poll out of frustration with the limitations of traditional polling data and out of a sense that Americans were not being given either the information or the opportunity to make intelligent political choices. The idea behind deliberative polls—which have now been run in hundreds of cities across the world—is that political debate should not be, and doesn’t need to be, confined to experts and policy elites. Given enough information and the chance to talk things over with peers, ordinary people are more than capable of understanding complex issues and making meaningful choices about them. In that sense, Fishkin’s project is a profoundly optimistic one, predicated on a kind of deep faith in both the virtue of informed debate and the ability of ordinary people to govern themselves.

Surowiecki, James (2005-08-16). The Wisdom of Crowds (pp. 257-258). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

One knee-jerk reaction to the evidence of democracy’s failings is to insist that we would be better off ruled by a technocratic elite, which could make decisions with dispassion and attention to the public interest. To some extent, of course, we already are ruled by a technocratic elite, what with our republican form of government and the importance of unelected officials—for instance, Donald Rumsfeld or Colin Powell—in political life. But one would be hard-pressed to argue that most elites are able to see past their ideological blinders and uncover the imaginary public interest. And trusting an insulated, unelected elite to make the right decisions is a foolish strategy, given all we now know about small-group dynamics, groupthink, and the failure of diversity.

In any case, the idea that the right answer to complex problems is simply “ask the experts” assumes that experts agree on the answers. But they don’t, and if they did, it’s hard to believe that the public would simply ignore their advice. Elites are just as partisan and no more devoted to the public interest than the average voter. More important, as you shrink the size of a decision-making body, you also shrink the likelihood that the final answer is right. Finally, most political decisions are not simply decisions about how to do something. They are decisions about what to do, decisions that involve values, trade-offs, and choices about what kind of society people should live in. There is no reason to think that experts are better at making those decisions than the average voter. Thomas Jefferson, for one, thought it likely that they might be worse. “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor,” he wrote. “The former will decide it as well and often better than the latter because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.”

It’s also the case that democracy allows for the persistent injection into the system of what I called earlier “local knowledge.” Politics is ultimately about the impact of government on the everyday lives of citizens. It seems strange, then, to think that the way to do politics well is to distance yourself as much as possible from citizens’ everyday lives. In the same way that a healthy market needs the constant flow of localized information that it gets from prices, a healthy democracy needs the constant flow of information it gets from people’s votes. That is information that experts cannot get because it is not part of the world they live in. And that keeps the system more diverse than it would otherwise be. As Richard Posner puts it: “Experts constitute a distinct class in society, with values and perspectives that differ systematically from those of ‘ordinary’ people. Without supposing that the man in the street has any penetrating insights denied the expert, or is immune from demagoguery, we may nevertheless think it reassuring that political power is shared between experts and nonexperts rather than being a monopoly of the former.”

Surowiecki, James (2005-08-16). The Wisdom of Crowds (pp. 265-266). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The Public Shame of Intellectual Dysfunction

Why is it more acceptable, generally speaking, to be intellectually dysfunctional while being socially functional than to be socially dysfunctional while being intellectually functional? And yet why would most people take greater offense at being called intellectually dysfunctional than socially dysfunctional (or equivalent terms)?

I ask this in all sincerity. It seems strange.

Our society seems to value social skills more than intellectual skills. In fact, a large part of our society attacks people for being a part of the intellectual elite in a way they wouldn’t toward the social elite. They ridicule people for being stuck in ivory towers in a way they wouldn’t ridicule a Hollywood or music star for becoming rich from mere popularity.

Being intellectually talented rarely will make you rich or famous. But at the same time no one wants to think they are less than intellectually capable. I’m sure most of the population thinks they are intellectually above average.

If we as a society value intellectuality so little (relatively speaking), then why are we so touchy about it?

* * * *

The label of hardworking is one of the door prizes the losers of society can get just for playing.

You can be a poor uneducated wife-beating alcoholic white guy. But if you are one of the lucky schmucks to have any kind of legal work at all, then you get the privilege of being called hardworking. Then your allowed to look down on everyone less fortunate than you: unemployed, underemployed, homeless, welfare recipients, minorities, etc.

On the other hand, if you are intelligent and well educated while being unemployed, homeless, and/or on public assistance, you aren’t likely to get much respect by society. It doesn’t matter how many other good traits you have, from being kindhearted to generous. This is true even if you were a visionary genius, unless you invent or make something that can be marketed and profited from in our consumerist society, but then you’d be deemed hardworking. Your value would be in terms of your social functioning in a capitalist society, not your intellectual ability.

* * * *

I had a thought last night about how this connects to other issues.

The US has a large economic inequality and a large political power inequality. That isn’t extremely uncommon in the world, but it does make us stick out from rankings of other Western countries.

I was reminded about how scientifically illiterate Americans are on average. We rank among the lowest in the world on knowledge about basic scientific facts such as evolution, despite having some of the best universities in the world. If not for all the intelligent immigrants who keep coming here, our average IQ would likely stagnate or maybe fall drastically.

I realized that this is an intellectual inequality, an educational inequality. Our public schools are not so great, but the upper classes go to expensive private schools with the best education money can buy. Maybe intellectuality is such a touchy issue because inequality in general is such a touchy issue.

America’s Less-Than-Smartest Education System

I came across a great talk by Amanda Ripley about her book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. It is from C-SPAN in their coverage of this year’s National Book Festival (see video here).

She compares education systems in various countries. Her purpose seems to primarily be to understand the problems, challenges, and unique qualities of American education. In order to do this, she focuses on some of the best education systems in the world. It is the most intelligent and insightful analysis of education that I’ve come across. She also comes across as intellectually humble, something I always admire.

Here is a short video where she gives a brief introduction and overview:

The C-SPAN video happened to be playing on television while I was visiting my parent’s home. My mother likes C-SPAN. She was a public school teacher for her entire career. She has also been a conservative her entire life. She is critical of many things about public education, but she is still an ardent supporter of it, unlike my more libertarian father.

Amanda Ripley comes across as being somewhere on the left side of the spectrum, probably a fairly standard mainstream liberal. It was interesting that my mother agreed with everything Ripley spoke about. However, after the C-SPAN talk was over, both of my parents brought up the issue of tracking which they see as the solution. As that didn’t come up in the talk, I decided to buy the e-book and do a quick search. She does cover that issue in the book, but it isn’t what my parents would like to see. It doesn’t confirm their beliefs on this one aspect (pp. 137-138):

“Intuitively, tracking made sense. A classroom should function more efficiently if all the kids were at the same level. In reality, though, second tracks almost always came with second-rate expectations.

“Statistically speaking, tracking tended to diminish learning and boost inequality wherever it was tried. In general, the younger the tracking happened, the worse the entire country did on PISA. There seemed to be some kind of ghetto effect : Once kids were labeled and segregated into the lower track, their learning slowed down.”

Of course, it isn’t just my parents who love the idea of tracking. It is a mainstream position in the United States. Even many on the left will argue tracking is one of the answers to educational failure, although those on the right emphasize it the most. Conservatives say that some kids are just low IQ or lazy or untalented. Not all kids deserve equal education, because not all students are equal. In their minds, it would actually be unfair to treat all kids equally.

However, as this author demonstrates, it is precisely because Finland treats all students equally and gives all students equal opportunity that they have the greatest schools in the world. You go to one school in Finland and it is basically the same quality as any other. They direct their funding to where it is needed, not to where rich people send their kids to school.

No Finnish student gets permanently tracked, not even special education students, for in Finland they assume special education is a temporary condition. They have high expectations of all students and so all students improve, unlike in the US. Americans don’t realize how highly unusual is our version of tracking (pp. 138-139):

“When most people thought of tracking, they thought of places like Germany or Austria, where students were siphoned off to separate schools depending on their aspirations. Tracking took different forms in places like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Norway, and Sweden. But that didn’t mean it was less powerful.

“Tracking in elementary school was a uniquely American policy. The sorting began at a very young age, and it came in the form of magnet schools, honors classes, Advanced Placement courses, or International Baccalaureate programs. In fact, the United States was one of the few countries where schools not only divided younger children by ability, but actually taught different content to the more advanced track. In other countries , including Germany and Singapore, all kids were meant to learn the same challenging core content; the most advanced kids just went deeper into the material.

“Meanwhile, the enduring segregation of U.S. schools by race and income created another de facto tracking system, in which minority and low-income kids were far more likely to attend inferior schools with fewer Advanced Placement classes and less experienced teachers.”

There are many things that are fundamentally different about the U.S. education system, like so much else in this country. The author notes that the American obsession about extracurricular activities is one of the most unusual aspects.

Americans are obsessed about school more than are the Finnish, but there is a disconnect in this obsession. U.S. teachers give more homework, for example, and yet in Finland students get higher quality homework that demands more challenging independent thought. Finnish schools are laidback by American standards and parents are almost entirely uninvolved, but what they do is heavily invest in quality everything, especially teachers (who get their teacher training in the Finnish equivalent of U.S. Ivy League colleges). They don’t waste their time and money on keeping students entertained with sports, clubs, and other activities.

In most countries in the world, children simply go to school to learn and nothing else. Foreign students who come to the U.S. observe how easy is education here. And U.S. students that travel to the countries with better education systems observe that the students there take education more seriously.

The U.S. is atypical partly because of its dark history of racial segregation. Obviously, this plays into the dysfunctional tracking system that directs most resources to certain students. This leaves a substandard education for the rest of the students, mostly poor and minority. Tracking directly fits into a system of social hierarchy and social control. Those put on the lower track have little expectations placed upon them, or rather a great many negative expectations forced upon them.

Low expectations goes hand in hand with lowered standards and results. This isn’t surprising for anyone who knows about the research on the power of expectations, from the Rosenthal-Pygmalion Effect to Stereotype Threat. Tracking institutionalizes some of the worst aspects of our society, but it isn’t just about the failure of American society. Tracking, generally speaking, is just a bad system in any society.

Lessening the emphasis on tracking has been a wild success in countries all around the world. Americans should take note (pp. 139-140):

“By the early twenty-first century, many countries were slowly, haltingly, delaying tracking. When they did so, all kids tended to do better. In most Polish schools, tracking occurred at age sixteen. At Tom’s school in Wrocław, the sorting had already happened; only a third to half of the students who applied were accepted. Tom only saw the vocational kids when he came to gym class. They left as his class arrived.

“Finland tracked kids, too. As in Poland, the division happened later, at age sixteen, the consequence of forty years of reforms, each round of which had delayed tracking a little longer. Until students reached age sixteen, though, Finnish schools followed a strict ethic of equity. Teachers could not, as a rule, hold kids back or promote them when they weren’t ready. That left only one option: All kids had to learn. To make this possible, Finland’s education system funneled money toward kids who needed help. As soon as young kids showed signs of slipping, teachers descended upon them like a pit crew before they fell further behind. About a third of kids got special help during their first nine years of school. Only 2 percent repeated a grade in Finnish primary school (compared to 11 percent in the United States, which was above average for the developed world).

“Once it happened, tracking was less of a stigma in Finland. The government gave vocational high schools extra money, and in many towns, they were as prestigious as the academic programs. In fact, the more remote or disadvantaged the school, the more money it got. This balance was just as important as delaying tracking; once students got channeled into a vocational track, it had to lead somewhere. Not all kids had to go to college, but they all had to learn useful skills.

“In Finland and all the top countries, spending on education was tied to need, which was only logical. The worse off the students, the more money their school got. In Pennsylvania, Tom’s home state, the opposite was true. The poorest school districts spent 20 percent less per student, around $ 9,000 compared to around $ 11,000 in the richest school districts.”

Other countries came to realize tracking was ineffective, and so they changed their methods. For Americans, it has been just more cowbell (p. 140):

“That backward math was one of the most obvious differences between the United States and other countries. In almost every other developed country, the schools with the poorest students had more teachers per student; the opposite was true in only four countries: the United States, Israel, Slovenia, and Turkey, where the poorest schools had fewer teachers per student.

“It was a striking difference, and it related to rigor. In countries where people agreed that school was serious, it had to be serious for everyone. If rigor was a prerequisite for success in life, then it had to be applied evenly. Equity— a core value of fairness, backed up by money and institutionalized by delayed tracking— was a telltale sign of rigor.”

Many Americans, especially on the right, would argue these countries are successful because they are small and homogenous. They think that the main problem is that we have a large bureaucratic government that is trying to enforce a one-size-fits-all solution onto a diverse population. That of course misses the entire point of tracking. The U.S. has one of the least one-size-fits-all solutions in the world. Even ignoring that, can U.S. education problems be blamed on the government and on diversity?

To answer that question, I would put it into the context of what Ripley has to say about Singapore (pp. 160-161):

“In Singapore, the opposite happened. There, the population was also diverse, about 77 percent Chinese, 14 percent Malay, 8 percent Indian, and 1.5 percent other. People spoke Chinese, English, Malay, and Tamil and followed five different faiths (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, and Hinduism). Yet Singaporeans scored at the top of the world on PISA, right beside Finland and Korea. There was virtually no gap in scores between immigrant and native-born students.

“Of course , Singapore was essentially another planet compared to most countries. It was ruled by an authoritarian regime with an unusually high-performing bureaucracy. The government controlled most of the rigor variables, from the caliber of teacher recruits to the mix of ethnicities in housing developments. Singapore did not have the kind of extreme segregation that existed in the United States, because policy makers had forbidden it.”

I doubt I’d want to live in Singapore, but it offers an interesting example. One of the points the author makes is that there are different ways to get high education results.

To Americans, Singapore seems authoritarian and dystopian. They have a highly centralized and powerful bureaucratic government. They don’t even have the benefit of a homogenous society.

That is everything that right-wingers use to rationalize America’s failing schools. And yet in Singapore it is the precise recipe for educational success.

It isn’t just about a few exceptional countries like Singapore. Diversity isn’t just that big of an issue. There are a high number of highly homogenous countries (homogenous in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, religion, etc) that are extremely poor, have high rates of social problems, and measure low in their education systems. Sure, systems that work best in diverse societies likely will be different than what works in homogenous societies, but the basic point is that there are ways that both types of societies can attain very high standards of education.

Besides, even breaking down the U.S. education system into homogenous and diverse states still doesn’t explain this country’s low ranking in the world. Even many highly homogenous states (almost entirely white in some cases) don’t necessarily get all that great of results. She mentioned one state (one of the Northeastern states, as I recall) that had about average or slightly below average rankings in international comparisons. Even looking back at the supposed golden age of education during the low immigration mid-20th century doesn’t offer much solace. The U.S. never has had a top ranked grade school education system.

Diversity can’t be used as an excuse (p. 17):

“Other Americans defended their system, blaming the diversity of their students for lackluster results . In his meticulous way, Schleicher responded with data: Immigrants could not be blamed for America’s poor showing. The country would have had the same ranking if their scores were ignored. In fact, worldwide, the share of immigrant children explained only 3 percent of the variance between countries.”

Also, it can’t be blamed on poverty, typically associated with immigrants and minorities. Nor can it be blamed on the public schools where immigrants and minorities are concentrated. Ripley makes this very clear (p. 17):

“A student’s race and family income mattered, but how much such things mattered varied wildly from country to country . Rich parents did not always presage high scores, and poor parents did not always presage low scores. American kids at private school tended to perform better, but not any better than similarly privileged kids who went to public school. Private school did not, statistically speaking, add much value.”

It isn’t a matter of whether or not a country has a diverse population or not, but what one does with the population one has. This relates to spending. More funding of education in itself doesn’t correlate to better results. Instead, it is about how that money is used and if it is used equitably to help all students (p. 160):

“The rest depended on what countries did with the children they had. In the United States, the practice of funding schools based on local property taxes motivated families to move into the most affluent neighborhoods they could afford, in effect buying their way into good schools. The system encouraged segregation.

“Since black, Hispanic, and immigrant kids tended to come from less affluent families , they usually ended up in underresourced schools with more kids like them. Between 1998 and 2010, poor American students had become more concentrated in schools with other poor students.

“The biggest problem with this kind of diversity is that it wasn’t actually diverse. Most white kids had majority white classmates. Black and Hispanic students, meanwhile, were more likely to attend majority black or Hispanic schools in 2005 than they were in 1980.

“Populating schools with mostly low-income, Hispanic, or African-American students usually meant compounding low scores, unstable home lives, and low expectations. Kids fed off each other, a dynamic that could work for good and for ill. In Poland, kids lost their edge as soon as they were tracked into vocational schools; likewise, there seemed to be a tipping point for expectations in the United States. On average, schools with mostly low- income kids systematically lacked the symptoms of rigor. They had inconsistent teaching quality, little autonomy for teachers or teenagers, low levels of academic drive, and less equity. By warehousing disadvantaged kids in the same schools, the United States took hard problems and made them harder.”

Once again, dysfunctional tracking in the U.S. is rooted in a history of systemic and institutional racism. Kids are tracked both in the formal and informal sense. Race and class segregation divide up students, and most of the funding is going to wealthier students and white students. It isn’t necessarily that all that extra funding is being used well by those wealthier school districts, but that the poorest school districts have so little money to use for anything, whether used well or badly. Too much funding isn’t necessarily helpful. Too little funding, however, is obviously problematic.

The discussion in America tends to focus only on the average amount of funding for each American child, all the while ignoring the vast disparity of funding between populations. This is how serious attention on the real issues gets avoided. No one wants to talk about the elephant in the room, the historical inequalities that are continually reinforced, not just inequalities between wealth and poverty but inequalities of political power and real world opportunities, inequalities of racial prejudice and privilege. These are among the most politically incorrect issues in this country.

As all of this shows, there is more going on here than can be understood in the ideological frame of mainstream American politics (pp. 163-164):

“The more time I spent in Finland, the more I started to think that the diversity narrative in the United States— the one that blamed our mediocrity on kids’ backgrounds and neighborhoods— was as toxic as funding inequities . There was a fatalism to the story line, which didn’t mean it was wrong. The United States did have too much poverty; minority students were not learning enough. Parents did matter, and so did health care and nutrition. Obviously.

“But the narrative also underwrote low aspirations, shaping the way teachers looked at their students, just as Vuorinen feared. Since the 1960s, studies have shown that if researchers tested a class and told teachers that certain students would thrive academically in the coming months, teachers behaved differently toward the chosen kids. They nodded more, smiled more, and gave those kids more time to answer questions and more specific feedback.

“In fact, the kids had been chosen at random. The label was fictional, but it stuck. At the end of the school year, teachers still described those students as more interesting, better adjusted, and more likely to be successful in life. As for other kids who had done well in the classroom, but were not chosen? The same teachers described them as less likely to succeed and less likable. The human brain depends on labels and patterns; if a researcher (or cultural narrative) offers teachers a compelling pattern, they will tend to defer to it.

“What did it mean, then, that respected U.S. education leaders and professors in teacher colleges were indoctrinating young teachers with the mindset that poverty trumped everything else? What did it mean if teachers were led to believe that they could only be expected to do so much, and that poverty was usually destiny?

“It may be human nature to stereotype, but some countries systematically reinforced the instinct, and some countries inhibited it. It was becoming obvious to me that rigor couldn’t exist without equity. Equity was not just a matter of tracking and budgets; it was a mindset.

“Interestingly, this mindset extended to special education in Finland, too. Teachers considered most special ed students to have temporary learning difficulties, rather than permanent disabilities. That mindset helped explain why Finland had one of the highest proportions of special education kids in the world; the label was temporary and not pejorative. The Finns assumed that all kids could improve. In fact, by their seventeenth birthday, about half of Finnish kids had received some kind of special education services at some point, usually in elementary school, so that they did not fall farther behind. During the 2009 to 2010 school year, about one in four Finnish kids received some kind of special education services—almost always in a normal school, for only part of the day. (By comparison, about one in eight American students received special education services that year.)”

This isn’t something unique to particular societies. It isn’t as if we must resign ourselves to a lesser fate in the global scheme of things. There is evidence that high education standards can even be achieved demographically diverse groups of students in the United States (p. 218):

“Unlike most schools in America, including the best public charter schools, these new schools were actually diverse, in the literal sense. Moskowitz wanted a true mix of white, Asian, African-American , and Hispanic students at a range of income levels, and she got it. That is how kids learn best— together, with a mix of expectations, advantages, and complications— according to the hard-earned lessons of countries around the world.

“There are stories like this all over the country: Success Academy charter schools in New York City, the closest thing to Finland in the United States; William Taylor, a public-school teacher who has almost Korean expectations for his low-income students in Washington, D.C.; and Deborah Gist in Rhode Island, a leader who has dared to raise the bar for what teachers must know, just like reformers in Finland and Korea.

“These world-class educators exist, but they are fighting against the grain of culture and institutions. That fight drains them of energy and time . If they ever win, it will be because parents and students rose up around them, convinced that our children cannot only handle a rigorous education but that they crave it as never before.”

It isn’t just that we Americans have low expectations of American students, especially poor and minority students. The real problem is we have low expectations for our entire society. We expect failure at a collective level, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Using Intelligence to Assess Intelligence

“Using my intelligence I take note of the fact that no effort however expensive has ever enabled most blacks to perform and behave as well as most whites.”
(John Engelman, as he commented in response to me in our ‘debate’ on a book review of On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman.)

Why don’t you use your intelligence to take note of the fact that no effort however expensive or cheap has ever even been attempted to objectively test whether it is possible to enable most of the underprivileged to perform and behave in the way seen among the privileged?

The amount of public funding, public support, and political will required to undo the history of racism, sadly, would be more than the American population and the U.S. government is at present capable of, although maybe not if we stopped wasting so much money on military imperialism and socialism for the rich. We don’t know if we could accomplish it because we don’t even know if we want to accomplish it. We don’t know because it is an untested hypothetical, but maybe we should test it.

To be honest, we can’t speak of most blacks and most whites about most things. There is so little data about most blacks and most whites. What little data we have generally isn’t of the highest quality. There are too many biases in the data and too few effective methods in collecting the data for controlling for confounding factors. There is way more we don’t know than we do know. To be intellectually honest we have to be intellectually humble.

However, we shouldn’t dismiss what we do know, no matter how imperfect. We do know that environment has influence on IQ. Yet we have found no genetic racial explanation at all.

Stephen Jay Gould, in The Mismeasure of Man (Revised & Expanded), he has some new comments directed at the authors of The Bell Curve, which speak directly to your arguments:

“Herrnstein and Murray violate fairness by converting a complex case that can only yield agnosticism into a biased brief for permanent and heritable difference. They impose this spin by turning every straw on their side into an oak, while mentioning but downplaying the strong circumstantial case for substantial malleability and little average genetic difference (impressive IQ gains for poor black children adopted into affluent and intellectual homes; average IQ increases in some nations since World War II equal to the entire 15-point difference now separating blacks and whites in America; failure to find any cognitive differences between two cohorts of children born out of wedlock to German women, and raised in Germany as Germans, but fathered by black and white American soldiers).”

So, we do know that most blacks under these environmental conditions apparently do as well as most whites under these environmental conditions. We don’t know what would happen if were able to create the exact same environmental conditions for all blacks and whites in the entire United States.

By the way, the IQ gains aren’t measly. They are possibly larger than the entire IQ gap between blacks and whites. As Richard Nisbett, in Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count, explains:

“The difference between the average IQ of the children of the lower third of the socioeconomic status (SES) distribution and the average IQ of the children of the upper third is about 10 points. We know that some of this is due to biological but not genetic factors, including exercise, breast-feeding, and exposure to alcohol or cigarette smoke, as well as hazardous chemicals and pollution. And some of it is due to the disruption in schools of lower-SES children and to the fact that peers are pulling intelligence mostly in a down direction. We also know that socialization in lower-SES homes is not optimal for developing either IQ or school readiness. Moreover, a child born into roughly the bottom sixth of the SES distribution will have an IQ 12 to 18 points higher if raised by parents from roughly the top quarter of the SES distribution.”

None of this should surprise us. Why would we even assume that genetics is a major factor when the vast majority of the evidence points in the opposite direction? In The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America, Steven Fraser writes:

“There are a total of seven studies providing direct evidence on the question of a genetic basis for the B/W IQ gap. Six of them are consistent with a zero genetic contribution to the gap (or with very slight African superiority) based just on the raw IQ numbers, and though all of these six suffer from some interpretive difficulties, they mostly boil down to a single objection. If it was very low IQ whites who mated with blacks (or very high IQ blacks who mated with whites), the results could be explained away. (One study, which compared blacks and whites in the same institutional environment, is free from this objection.) The self-selection factor would have had to be implausibly great, however, and would have had to be present under a variety of circumstances, in several very different locales, at several different time periods. The remaining study-the only one that the authors write about at any length-is at least on the face of it consistent with a model assuming a substantial genetic contribution to the B/W gap. But that study has as many interpretive problems as the others, including the two studies which the authors mention only to dismiss. Any reader would surely reach very different conclusions about the likely degree of genetic contribution to the B/W gap by virtue of knowing the facts just presented than by reading the highly selective review presented in The Bell Curve.”

The best evidence we have shows about zero genetic influence. It’s a bit more complicated than this, for the genetic influence is dependent on the environmental influence. David Shenk, from The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ, quotes from the author of a study:

““The models suggest,” Turkheimer wrote, “that in impoverished families, 60% of the variance in IQ is accounted for by the shared environment, and the contributions of genes is close to zero; in affluent families, the result is almost exactly the reverse.” (Italics mine.) (Turkheimer et al., “Socioeconomic status modifies heritability of IQ in young children,” p. 632.)”

Basically, genetic influence is so minor that it can only be detected when all of the negative environmental factors no longer have much influence. It is the same between Europeans/Euro-Americans and other racial/ethnic groups, beyond just blacks. To return to Nisbett, he speaks about Asians and Jews:

“At any rate that has been true for Asians and Jews. There is no reliable evidence of a genetic difference in intelligence between people of East Asian descent and people of European descent. In fact, there is little difference in intelligence between the two groups as measured by IQ tests. Some evidence indicates that East Asians start school with lower IQs than do white Americans. After a few years of school this difference seems to disappear. But the academic achievement of East Asians—especially in math and the sciences, where effort counts for a lot— is light-years beyond that of European Americans. Americans of East Asian extraction also differ little in IQ from European Americans. In any case, the academic achievement and occupational attainment of Asian Americans exceed by a great amount what they “should” be accomplishing given their IQs. The explanation for the Asian/ Western gap lies in hard work and persistence.

“Jewish culture undoubtedly has similarly beneficial effects. Jewish values emphasize accomplishment in general and intellectual attainment in particular. Differences between Jews and non-Jews in intellectual accomplishment at the highest levels are very great. A genetic explanation for this is not required inasmuch as even greater differences have occurred for Arabs and Chinese versus Europeans in the Middle Ages, for differences between European countries at various points since the Middle Ages (with reversals occurring between Italy and England and with movement from savagery to sagacity in scarcely two centuries in Scotland), and for regional differences in the United States. We are left with an IQ difference of two-thirds to a standard deviation between Jews and non-Jews. At least some of this difference is surely cultural in origin.”

A genetic explanation isn’t even necessary, even if significant genetic evidence could be found. Why be cynical and fatalistic? There is no rational reason to see IQ divides as racially deterministic. From Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, Tom Burrell gave an example of a school that had great success using different methods, i.e., changing the environmental conditions:

“Education experts are keeping an eye on the Afrikan Centered Education Collegium Campus (ACECC) in Kansas City, Missouri . The 40-acre campus, which opened in 2007, serves mostly black pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students . Teachers stress cultural pride and “expected greatness” as students strive for academic excellence. In 2007, all the schools on the campus met the Average Yearly Progress (AYP) standard mandated by the national “No Child Left Behind” Act.

“The schools are the brainchild of educator Audrey Bullard, who worked as a teacher in Liberia for 18 months more than 30 years ago. In 1991, Bullard led a grassroots effort with other educators and parents to transform J.S. Chick Elementary in Kansas City into a school with an African-centered curriculum. The school has consistently scored as one of the top schools in the school district, with 48 percent of its students scoring at the proficient or advanced levels on the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) fourth -grade math test in 2005 . Comparatively, only 24 percent of black students and 36 percent of white students statewide scored as high that year. Although the approach relies heavily on parental involvement and an innovative curriculum, it offers another important component: students are taught to see themselves as contributors, leaders, potential entrepreneurs, and valuable parts of their communities.”

Most blacks in this school, who were normal kids, did better than most white kids outside of this school. The determining factor was the school the kids attended, not their race.

Such an example doesn’t absolutely prove that this or anything similar could cause “most blacks to perform and behave as well as most whites”. But it sure does offer strong evidence that this probably is the case. We have no reason to assume otherwise.

The IQ Conundrum

Cato Unbound has a set of essays about the issue of general intelligence, its measurement, the Flynn Effect, and racial inequalities. I don’t have any commentary to add. I just wanted to post some quotes from two of the essays, both by Eric Turkheimer. I appreciate intelligent exchanges such as this, and I hope it raises the level of public debate.

Race and IQ
By Eric Turkheimer

“But the intuitive view turns out to be incoherent on more than superficial examination. A point of view that is sometimes called developmentalism points out that absolutely no aspect of biology or genetics comes into being automatically without rich interaction with the environment. Ducks raised in the complete absence of auditory input from other ducks don’t quack, and in general organisms raised in the absence of environmental inputs don’t do anything at all. So the difference between learning to play the oboe and learning to walk is not that the former requires environmental input while the other does not, being in principle innate. They both emerge from a complex interplay of genetics and environment, and thinking of walking as innate is a distraction from the real scientific question of how the extraordinarily complex process actually comes about. Once you start to think this way, it gets difficult to say that any difference between two organisms is innate. The contention about Africans and IQ has to be that their genetic makeup is such that they will be lower than other races in IQ not only in the current environment, but in all imaginable alternative environments, and how could we possibly know that? [ . . . ]

“If the question of African IQ is a matter of empirical science, exactly what piece of evidence are we waiting for? What would finally convince the racialists that they are wrong? Nothing, it seems to me, except the arrival of the day when the IQ gap disappears, and that is going to take a while. The history of Africans in the modern West is roughly as follows: Millennia of minding their own business in Africa, followed by 200 years of enslavement by a foreign civilization, followed by 100 years of Jim Crow oppression, followed by fifty years of very incomplete equality and freedom. And now the scientific establishment, apparently even the progressive scientific establishment, is impatient enough with Africans’ social development that it seems reasonable to ask whether the problem is in the descendants of our former slaves’ genes. If that isn’t offensive I don’t know what is.”

The Fundamental Intuition
By Eric Turkheimer

“So let’s return to Flynn. He thinks that g used to hold together, as long as our focus was on relations among tests at a single point of time, and has only come apart once he started to examine differential changes in the components of ability over time. But the coherence of g was an illusion, founded on the false intuition that positivity of relations among ability tests was sufficient evidence of unidimensionality, In fact, pace Gottfredson, it would be possible to define separate ability domains for abstract thinking and practical knowledge within a single time point, and these traits would then correspond closely to the courses of generational change that interest Flynn. Such traits would not be the correct way to divide up ability, any more than g is. They would be a plausible solution in a domain where a certain amount of indeterminacy is part of the scientific landscape, and they would be a convenient tool for studying the Flynn effect. In the same way, g is useful for many things, especially for broad-stroke prediction of outcomes like job performance. The trick is not to get hooked on any particular way of dividing up the pie, because it is a short step from there to trying to find the Greenwich Meridian at the bottom of the North Atlantic.

“Actually, psychologists don’t look for lines of longitude in the seabed; they look for mental factors in the brain and genome. Flynn’s over-commitment to the reality of g leads him to be distressingly cavalier about how human ability might be represented neurologically or genetically. “General intelligence or g,” he says, “has something to do with brain quality, and good genes have a lot to do with having an above average brain.” That sounds safe enough, but wait a minute: How do we know a quality brain or a good gene when we see one? And presumably not only general intelligence but abstract reasoning ability has something to do with the brain, the environmental Flynn effect notwithstanding. When we start looking for human intelligence in the brain and the genes, what exactly should we look for? General intelligence? Specific abilities? Morality? Which way do those lines really run again?

“There is nothing wrong with studying the neurology or genetics of differences in ability, but these investigations will proceed on their own neurological and genetic terms, and we should not look to them for biological vindication of the psychological expediencies that help us tame the nearly overwhelming complexity of human behavior. Literal-mindedness about the details of psychological statistics may seem harmless when the discussion is just about what goes with what and when, but history has shown us only too clearly what can happen when simplistic views of human ability make poorly informed contact with biology and genetics. I am by training a behavioral geneticist, and as such I am too well-acquainted with the ugly places oversimplified thinking about human ability and genetics can lead to let the phrase “good genes” pass without a shiver. It is best to be careful from the beginning.”

What Scientific Idea Is Ready For Retirement?

This is a question asked by Edge.org. They ask a different question each year and that is the question this year, 2014. Several of the responses fit into my recent thinking about human nature, race, genetics, intelligence, behavior, scientific methodology, etc..

* * * *

Biological Anthropologist and Paleobiologist; Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at The Pennsylvania State University
Race

“Race has a hold on history, but it no longer has a place in science. The sheer instability and potential for misinterpretation render race useless as a scientific concept. Inventing new vocabularies of human diversity and inequity won’t be easy, but is necessary. ”

Senior Lecturer in Behavioural Biology School, University of Bristol
Life Evolves Via A Shared Genetic Toolkit

“A conserved genome can generate novelties through rearrangements (within or between genes), changes in regulation or genome duplication events. For example, the vertebrate genome has been replicated in their entirety twice in their evolutionary history; salmonid fish have undergone a further two whole genome duplications. Duplications reduce selection on the function of one of the gene copies, allowing that copy to mutate and evolve into a new gene whilst the other copy maintains business as usual. Conserved genomes can also harbour a lot of latent genetic variation—fodder for evolving novelty—which is not exposed to selection. Non-lethal variation can lie dormant in the genome by not being expressed, or by being expressed at times when it doesn’t have a lethal effect on the phenotype. The molecular machinery that regulates expression of genes and proteins depends on minimal information, rules and tools: transcription factors recognise sequences of only a few base-pairs as binding sites, which gives them enormous potential for plasticity in where they bind. Pleiotropic changes across many conserved genes using different combination of transcription, translation and/or post-translation activity are a good source of genomic novelty. E.g. the evolution of beak shapes in Darwin’s finches is controlled by pleiotropic changes brought about by changes in the signalling patterns of a conserved gene that controls bone development. The combinatorial power of even a limited genetic toolkit gives it enormous potential to evolve novelty from old machinery.”

Journalist; Author, Us and Them
People Are Sheep

“Perhaps the behavior of people in groups will eventually be explained as a combination of moment-to-moment influences (like waves on the sea) and powerful drivers that work outside of awareness (like deep ocean currents). All the open questions are important and fascinating. But they’re only visible after we give up the simplistic notion that we are sheep.”

founder and president of the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute
Large Randomized Controlled Trials

“We need new, more thoughtful experimental designs and systems approaches that take into account these issues. Also, new genomic insights will make it possible to better understand individual variations to treatment rather than hoping that this variability will be “averaged out” by randomly-assigning patients.”

Psychiatrist; Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry, NYU School of Medicine
Neuroscientist; Canada Research Chair in Philosophy & Psychiatry, McGill University
Mental Illness is Nothing But Brain Illness

“That a theory of mental illness should make reference to the world outside the brain is no more surprising than that the theory of cancer has to make reference to cigarette smoke. And yet what is commonplace in cancer research is radical in psychiatry. The time has come to expand the biological model of psychiatric disorder to include the context in which the brain functions. In understanding, preventing and treating mental illness, we will rightly continue to look into the neurons and DNA of the afflicted and unafflicted. To ignore the world around them would be not only bad medicine but bad science.”

Assistant Professor of Psychology, Stanford University
The Altruism Hierarchy

“It often appears to me that critics of “impure” altruism chide helpers for acting in human ways, for instance by doing things that feel good. The ideal, then, seems to entail acting altruistically while not enjoying those actions one bit. To me, this is no ideal at all. I think it’s profound and downright beautiful to think that our core emotional makeup can be tuned towards others, causing us to feel good when we do. Color me selfish, but I’d take that impure altruism over a de-enervated, floating ideal any day.”

Eugene Higgins Professor, Department of Psychology, Princeton University
Rational Actor Models: The Competence Corollary

“People are most effective in social life if we are—and show ourselves to be—both warm and competent. This is not to say that we always get it right, but the intent and the effort must be there. This is also not to say that love is enough, because we do have to prove capable to act on our worthy intentions. The warmth-competence combination supports both short-term cooperation and long-term loyalty. In the end, it’s time to recognize that people survive and thrive with both heart and mind.”

Scientist; Inventor; Entrepreneur
Intelligence As a Property

“Based on recent discoveries, I have now come to suspect that the reason for this lack of progress in physically defining intelligence is due to the entire scientific concept of treating intelligence as a static property—rather than a dynamical process—being ready for retirement.

Science Writer; Consultant; Lecturer, Copenhagen; Author, The Generous Man
Altruism

“But then this concept is rooted in the notion that human beings (and animals) are really dominated by selfishness and egoism so that you need a concept to explain why they sometimes behave unselfish and kind to others.

“But the reality is different: Humans are deeply bound to other humans and most actions are really reciprocal and in the interest of both parties (or, in he case of hatred, in the disinterest of both). The starting point is neither selfishness nor altruism, but the state of being bound together. It is an illusion to believe that you can be happy when no one else is. Or that other people will not be affected by your unhappiness.

“Behavioral science and neurobiology has shown how intimately we are bound: Phenomena like mimicry, emotional contagion, empathy, sympathy, compassion and prosocial behavior are evident in humans and animals. We are influenced by the well-being of others in more ways than we normally care to think of. Therefore a simple rules applies: Everyone feels better when you are well. Your feel better when everyone is well.

“This correlated state is the real one. The ideas of egoism and hence its opposite concept altruism are second-order concepts, shadows or even illusions.”

Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair in Developmental Psychology, University of British Columbia
Moral Blank State-ism

“Again, experience matters. Several studies have now documented that experience may influence moral outcomes via a “gene-environment interaction.” That is, rather than a simple equation in which, say, adverse experiences lead to antisocial children: [child + abuse – ameliorating experiences = violence], the relationship between abuse and antisocial behavior is only observed in children with particular versions of various genes known to regulate certain social hormones. That is, whether they have been abused or not, children with the “safe” gene alleles are all about equally (un)likely to engage in antisocial behavior. Children with the “at risk” alleles, on the other hand, are more susceptible to the damages of abuse.”

Associate Professor of Psychology, Director, NYU Infant Cognition and Communication Lab, New York University
Natural Selection is the Only Engine of Evolution

“These findings fit in a relatively new field of study called epigenetics. Epigenetic control of gene expression contributes to cells in a single organism (which share the same DNA sequence) developing differently into e.g. heart cells or neurons. But the last decade has shown actual evidence–and possible mechanisms–for how the environment and the organism’s behavior in it might cause heritable changes in gene expression (with no change in the DNA sequence) that are passed onto offspring. In recent years, we have seen evidence of epigenetic inheritance across a wide range of morphological, metabolic, and even behavioral traits.

“The intergenerational transmission of acquired traits is making a comeback as a potential mechanism of evolution. It also opens up the interesting possibility that better diet, exercise, and education which we thought couldn’t affect the next generation–except with luck through good example–actually could.”

Philosopher; Director, Scientific Vortex, Inc
Crime is Only About The Actions Of Individuals

“Despite the significant role of these “gray” actors, social scientists interested in analyzing crime usually focus their attention only on criminal individuals and criminal actions. Those scientists usually study crime through qualitative and quantitative data that informs only of those “dark” elements, while omitting the fact that transnational and domestic crime is carried out by various types of actors who don’t interact solely through criminal actions. This is a hyper-simplified approach—a caricature—because those “dark” elements are only the tip of the iceberg regarding global crime.

“This simplified approach also assumes that society is a digital and binary system in which the “good” and the “bad” guys—the “us” and “them”—are perfectly distinguishable. This distinction is useful in penal terms when simple algorithms—”if individual X executes the action Y, then X is criminal”—orient the decision of judges delivering final sentences. However, in sociological, anthropological, and psychological terms, this line is more difficult to define. If society is a digital system, it is certainly not a binary one.”

Psychologist, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University; Author, The Science of Evil
Radical Behaviorism

“My scientific reason for arguing for Radical Behaviorism should be retired is not to revisit the now stale nature-nurture debate (all reasonable scientists recognize an organism’s behavior is the result of an interaction of these), but rather because Radical Behaviorism is scientifically uninformative. Behavior by definition is the surface level, so it follows that the same piece of behavior could be the result of different underlying cognitive strategies, different underlying neural systems, and even different underlying causal pathways. Two individuals can show the same behavior but can have arrived at it through very different underlying causal routes. Think of a native speaker of English vs. someone who has acquired total fluency of English as a second language; or think of a person who is charmingly polite because they are genuinely considerate to others, vs. a psychopath who has learnt how to flawlessly perform being charmingly polite. Identical behavior, produced via different routes. Without reference to underlying cognition, neural activity, and causal mechanisms, behavior is scientifically uninformative.”

Information Scientist and Professor of Electrical Engineering and Law, the University of Southern California; Author, Noise
Statistical Independence

“The world is massively interconnected through causal chains. Gravity alone causally connects all objects with mass. The world is even more massively correlated with itself. It is a truism that statistical correlation does not imply causality. But it is a mathematical fact that statistical independence implies no correlation at all. None. Yet events routinely correlate with one another. The whole focus of most big-data algorithms is to uncover just such correlations in ever larger data sets.

“Statistical independence also underlies most modern statistical sampling techniques. It is often part of the very definition of a random sample. It underlies the old-school confidence intervals used in political polls and in some medical studies. It even underlies the distribution-free bootstraps or simulated data sets that increasingly replace those old-school techniques.”

Distinguished Professor of Philosophy & Cognitive Science, Rutgers University
“Our” Intuitions

“About a decade ago, this question led a group of philosophers, along with sympathetic colleagues in psychology and anthropology, to stop assuming that their intuitions were widely shared and design studies to see if they really are. In study after study, it turned out that philosophical intuitions do indeed vary with culture and other demographic variables. A great deal more work will be needed before we have definitive answers about which philosophical intuitions vary, and which, if any, are universal.”

Physicist, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Individuality

“You probably already knew that naïve reductionism is often too simplistic. However, there is another point. It’s not just that you are composite, something you already knew, but you are in some senses not even human. You have perhaps a hundred trillion bacterial cells in your body, numbering ten times more than your human cells, and containing a hundred times as many genes as your human cells. These bacteria are not just passive occupants of the zoo that is you. They self-organize into communities within your mouth, guts and elsewhere; and these communities—microbiomes—are maintained by varied, dynamic patterns of competition and cooperation between the different bacteria, which allow us to live.

“In the last few years, genomics has given us a tool to explore the microbiome by identifying microbes by their DNA sequences. The story that is emerging from these studies is not yet complete but already has led to fascinating insights. Thanks to its microbes, a baby can better digest its mother’s milk. And your ability to digest carbohydrates relies to a significant extent on enzymes that can only be made from genes not present in you, but in your microbiome. Your microbiome can be disrupted, for example due to treatment by antibiotics, and in extreme cases can be invaded by dangerous monocultures, such as Clostridium difficile, leading to your death. Perhaps the most remarkable finding is the gut-brain axis: your gastrointestinal microbiome can generate small molecules that may be able to pass through the blood-brain barrier and affect the state of your brain: although the precise mechanism is not yet clear, there is growing evidence that your microbiome may be a significant factor in mental states such as depression and autism spectrum conditions. In short, you may be a collective property arising from the close interactions of your constitutents.”

Physician and Social Scientist, Yale University; Coauthor, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives
The Average

“Yes, we can reliably say that men are taller than women, on average; that Norwegians are richer than Swedes; that first-born children are smarter than second-born children. And we can do experiments to detect tiny differences in means—between groups exposed and unexposed to a virus, or between groups with and without a particular allele of a gene. But this is too simple and too narrow a view of the natural world.

“Our focus on averages should be retired. Or, if not retired, we should give averages an extended vacation. During this vacation, we should catch up on another sort of difference between groups that has gotten short shrift: we should focus on comparing the difference in variance (which captures the spread or range of measured values) between groups.”

Physicist, Computer Scientist, Chairman of Applied Minds, Inc.; author, The Pattern on the Stone
Cause and Effect

“Unfortunately, the cause-and-effect paradigm does not just fail at the quantum scale. It also falls apart when we try to use causation to explain complex dynamical systems like the biochemical pathways of a living organism, the transactions of an economy, or the operation of the human mind. These systems all have patterns of information flow that defy our tools of storytelling. A gene does not “cause” the trait like height, or a disease like cancer. The stock market did not go up “because” the bond market went down. These are just our feeble attempts to force a storytelling framework onto systems that do not work like stories. For such complex systems, science will need more powerful explanatory tools, and we will learn to accept the limits of our old methods of storytelling. We will come to appreciate that causes and effects do not exist in nature, that they are just convenient creations of our own minds.”

Journalist; Editor, Nova 24, of Il Sole 24 Ore
The Tragedy Of The Commons

“Ostrom’s factual approach to the commons came with very good theory, too. Preconditions to the commons’ sustainability were, in Ostrom’s idea: clarity of the law, methods of collective and democratic decision-making, local and public mechanisms of conflict resolution, no conflicts with different layers of government. These preconditions do exist in many historically proven situations and there is no tragedy there. Cultures that understand the commons are contexts that make a sustainable behaviour absolutely rational.”

Anthropologist, National Center for Scientific Research, Paris; Author, Talking to the Enemy
IQ

“There is a long history of acrimonious debate over which, if any, aspects of IQ are heritable. The most compelling studies concern twins raised apart and adoptions. Twin studies rarely have large sample populations. Moreover, they often involve twins separated at birth because a parent dies or cannot afford to support both, and one is given over to be raised by relatives, friends or neighbors. This disallows ruling out the effects of social environment and upbringing in producing convergence among the twins. The chief problem with adoption studies is that the mere fact of adoption reliably increases IQ, regardless of any correlation between the IQs of the children and those of their biological parents. Nobody has the slightest causal account of how or why genes, singly or in combination, might affect IQ. I don’t think it’s because the problem is too hard, but because IQ is a specious rather natural kind.”

University Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Northeastern University; Research Scientist and Neuroscientist, Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School
Essentialist Views of the Mind

“Ridding science of essentialism is easier said than done. Consider the simplicity of this essentialist statement from the past: “Gene X causes cancer.” It sounds plausible and takes little effort to understand. Compare this to a more recent explanation: “A given individual in a given situation, who interprets that situation as stressful, may experience a change in his sympathetic nervous system that encourages certain genes to be expressed, making him vulnerable to cancer.” The latter explanation is more complicated, but more realistic. Most natural phenomena do not have a single root cause. Sciences that are still steeped in essentialism need a better model of cause and effect, new experimental methods, and new statistical procedures to counter essentialist thinking.

“This discussion is more than a bunch of metaphysical musings. Adherence to essentialism has serious, practical impacts on national security, the legal system, treatment of mental illness, the toxic effects of stress on physical illness… the list goes on. Essentialism leads to simplistic “single cause” thinking when the world is a complex place. Research suggests that children are born essentialists (what irony!) and must learn to overcome it. It’s time for all scientists to overcome it as well.”

Psychologist; Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University
Humans Are By Nature Social Animals

“At the same time, the concept of humans as “social by nature” has lent credibility to numerous significant ideas: that humans need other humans to survive, that humans tend to be perpetually ready for social interaction, and that studying specifically the social features of human functioning is profoundly important. ”

Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan; Author, Intelligence and How We Get It
Multiple Regression as a Means of Discovering Causality

“Multiple regression, like all statistical techniques based on correlation, has a severe limitation due to the fact that correlation doesn’t prove causation. And no amount of measuring of “control” variables can untangle the web of causality. What nature hath joined together, multiple regression cannot put asunder. ”

Evolutionary Biologist; Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, Oxford; Author, The Greatest Show on Earth, The Magic of Reality
Essentialism

“Essentialism rears its ugly head in racial terminology. The majority of “African Americans” are of mixed race. Yet so entrenched is our essentialist mind-set, American official forms require everyone to tick one race/ethnicity box or another: no room for intermediates. A different but also pernicious point is that a person will be called “African American” even if only, say, one of his eight great grandparents was of African descent. As Lionel Tiger put it to me, we have here a reprehensible “contamination metaphor.” But I mainly want to call attention to our society’s essentialist determination to dragoon a person into one discrete category or another. We seem ill-equipped to deal mentally with a continuous spectrum of intermediates. We are still infected with the plague of Plato’s essentialism.”

Professor of Genomics, The Scripps Research Institute; Author, The Creative Destruction of Medicine
One Genome Per Individual

“But we still don’t know if this is merely of academic interest or has important disease-inducing impact. For sure the mosaicism that occurs later in life, in “terminally differentiated” cells, is known to be important in the development of cancer. And the mosaicism of immune cells, particularly lymphocytes, appears to be part of a healthy, competent immune system. Beyond this, it largely remains unclear as to the functional significance of each of us carrying multiple genomes.

“The implications are potentially big. When we do use a blood sample to evaluate a person’s genome, we have no clue about the potential mosaicism that exists throughout the individual’s body. So a lot more work needs to be done to sort this out, and now that we have the technology to do it, we’ll undoubtedly better understand our remarkable heterogeneous genomic selves in the years ahead.”

Managing Director, Digital Science, Macmillan Science & Education; Former Publishing Director, nature.com; Co-Organizer, Sci Foo
Nature Versus Nurture

“Inheritability is not the inverse of mutability, and to say that the heritability of a trait is high is not to say that the environment has no effect because heritability scores are themselves affected by the environment. Take the case of height. In the rich world, the heritability of height is something like 80 per cent. But this is only because our nutrition is universally quite good. In places where malnutrition or starvation are common, environmental factors predominate and the heritability of height is much lower.”

Psychologist, UC, Berkeley; Author, The Philosophical Baby
Innateness

“All three of these scientific developments suggest that almost everything we do is not just the result of the interaction of nature and nurture, it is both simultaneously. Nurture is our nature and learning and culture are our most important and distinctive evolutionary inheritance.”

Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology; Harvard University; Author, The Better Angels of Our Nature
Behavior = Genes + Environment

“Even the technical sense of “environment” used in quantitative behavioral genetics is perversely confusing. Now, there is nothing wrong with partitioning phenotypic variance into components that correlate with genetic variation (heritability) and with variation among families (“shared environment”). The problem comes from the so-called “nonshared” or “unique environmental influences.” This consists of all the variance that is attributable neither to genetic nor familiar variation. In most studies, it’s calculated as 1 – (heritability + shared environment). Practically, you can think of it as the differences between identical twins who grow up in the same home. They share their genes, parents, older and younger siblings, home, school, peers, and neighborhood. So what could make them different? Under the assumption that behavior is a product of genes plus environment, it must be something in the environment of one that is not in the environment of the other.

“But this category really should be called “miscellaneous/unknown,” because it has nothing necessarily to do with any measurable aspect of the environment, such as one sibling getting the top bunk bed and the other the bottom, or a parent unpredictably favoring one child, or one sibling getting chased by a dog, coming down with a virus, or being favored by a teacher. These influences are purely conjectural, and studies looking for them have failed to find them. The alternative is that this component actually consists of the effects of chance – new mutations, quirky prenatal effects, noise in brain development, and events in life with unpredictable effects.”

Publisher, Skeptic magazine; monthly columnist, Scientific American; Author, The Believing Brain
Hard-Wired=Permanent

“So it has been and will continue to be with other forms of the hard-wired=permanent idea, such as violence. We may be hard-wired for violence, but we can attenuate it considerably through scientifically tested methods. Thus, for my test case here, I predict that in another 500 years the God-theory of causality will have fallen into disuse, and the 21st-century scientific theory that God is hardwired into our brains as a permanent feature of our species will be retired.”

Political Scientist, University Professor, University of Washington & University of Sydney
Homo Economicus

“The reliance on homo economicus as the basis of human motivation has given rise to a grand body of theory and research over the past two hundred years. As an underlying assumption, it has generated some of the best work in economics. As a foil, it has generated findings about cognitive limitations, the role of social interactions, and ethically based motivations. The power of the concept of homo economicus was once great, but its power has now waned, to be succeeded by new and better paradigms and approaches grounded in more realistic and scientific understandings of the sources of human action.”