Sully: Still Defending Racism

Whenever folks try to rehabilitate Andrew Sullivan, he is quick to remind us why he is so detestable.

As for the “science” of the Bell Curve, see this:

''The Bell Curve'' inflamed readers when it was published three years ago by arguing that economic and social success in America had become largely a matter of genes, not education, environment or other factors over which society might exert control. The chilling genes-are-destiny thesis, laced with racial overtones, was greeted with furious criticism. But much of the initial criticism was ill informed and driven by ideology.

It could hardly have been otherwise. The book's authors, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, did not release their statistical findings — the only important original contributions in the book — for formal review by scholars before publication. Their runaround obstructed response by other social scientists, who needed time to appraise hundreds of pages of statistical analysis. Now, three years later, scholars have caught up, shattering the book's core claims.

. . . [T]he book's evidence is riddled with mistakes. Two stand out.

The first error flows from biased statistics. The book tries to determine whether I.Q. or family background is a better predictor of success. I.Q. is easily measured. But family background is not. The authors' simplistic index incorporates parental income, education and job prestige, but leaves out numerous components of a child's upbringing.

That creates a statistical mirage, or bias, because statistical tests inevitably underestimate the impact of factors that are hard to measure. Mistakes in measuring family background obliterate the ability of statisticians to detect its impact on future success. Thus, as James Heckman of the University of Chicago has convincingly argued, the book's finding that family background is a weak precursor of success reflects its biased methods rather than the workings of American society.

Also compelling is evidence about the second notable error — that the authors' measure of intelligence is by no means immutable, as their thesis requires. Prof. Derek Neal of the University of Chicago and Prof. William Johnson of the University of Virginia have shown that scores on the measurement used by Mr. Herrnstein and Mr. Murray, the Armed Forces Qualification Test, depend on how much schooling individuals have completed. Put simply, the more students study in school, the better they do on the test. So what the authors call immutable intelligence turns out to be what others call skills — indeed, teachable skills.

This mistake turns the message of the book on its head. Instead of its sighing surrender to supposed genetic destiny for poor children, there's a corrected message: Teach them.

Andrew Sullivan remains a shameful figure in our public discourse.


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    • Armando on October 21, 2007 at 18:33

    on the myth of g.

  1. What with an underfunded NCLB program or school vouchers?

    If the rich white Republicants who run our country would actually put some real money or effort into education….it would not be so outrageously funny for a Republicant to say….teach them. The Republicants WANT an uninformed and ignorant electorate…it is the only way they can stay in power.

    Making America dumb is part of the plan.

    • robodd on October 21, 2007 at 19:00

    of the neocons and neocon thought, I suppose it is not surprising this long buried theory would revive.  More evidence that zombies and zombie ideas currently rule the world.

    This is social darwinism, a psuedo-scientific justification for social stratification and denial of equal resources and social opportunity from the cradle to the grave.  It’s application would no doubt be catastrophic. 

    • plf515 on October 21, 2007 at 19:08

    something about!

    There are several points here: a) The Bell Curve  b) the myth of g, c) Nature nurture

    The Bell Curve is garbage.  Every review I’ve read of it has shown that it is garbage.  I believe it was in Scientific American that I read a review saying (paraphrasing) – that the data was faulty, but even if correct, it was analyzed poorly, and even if the analysis had been correct, it would not support the conclusions the authors drew from it.

    But three-toed-sloth’s disquisiton on g is not quite correct.  He or she is precisely correct that factor analysis cannot reveal causation.  He/she is also correct that factor analysis with a huge number of independent variables will reveal a factor structure.  But it is not correct to conclude from this that g does not exist.  The correlations among the subtests on various IQ tests are considerably higher than chance could account for, and this would *not* be true if the data were random.  We don’t know what exactly ‘g’ *is*, but it does exist.  Is it a measure of intelligence? Well, there’s no agreed upon definition of intelligence, so that question can’t really be answered very well.

    Finally, nature-nurture.  I wrote a whole essay on this: nature-nurture nonsense . Essentially, it is just about impossible to determine how much of a trait is nature vs. nurture, even on traits we understand very well.  When it comes to traits (like intelligence, whatever that is) that we understand poorly….. well…. it’s silliness squared

    • plf515 on October 21, 2007 at 19:13

    a) It adopts a single measure of ‘success’.
    b) The two things it posits as predictors (family background and IQ) interact, making claims about which is more important impossible to answer.
    c) Even if there were some immutable thing called intelligence (and who knows?) that would not mean that teaching would not lead to changes in outcome.  To simplify preposterously: Stupid people with training will be more successful than stupid people without training; and smart people with training will be more successful than smart people without training.

  2. A direct Link to Sullivan’s provocative statements, evoking The Bell Curve (1994, first edition), as opposed to his reader’s response … which is in itself an ambivalent critique on technical merits. It isn’t a repudiation of Sullivan’s fundamentally obnoxious role in extending credibility or veracity or verifiability to this particular iteration of phrenology.

    True, all parties concerned are asshats.

    Sullivan: I find it fascinating, and one of the areas in which science is, I believe, going to challenge many assumptions of right-thinking liberalism. The comments of Richard Watson have revived discussion of the subject and you can find the conventional left-liberal view here, echoed by Crooked Timber. In general, when I read scientific accounts that include passages like the following, my eyes roll when they don’t glaze over:


    Vigilance? Against science? Who knew? Left-liberals, of course, like the use of DNA to exonerate innocent suspects but they’re not so happy when this kind of thing happens:

    “DNA led to the 2004 conviction of an African American suspected of multiple serial murders in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. …”

    Hold on a minute. If race is entirely a social construct, how can DNA reveal it? The answer, of course, is that it isn’t just a social construct all the way down. Our DNA is inherited; and that inheritance has complex patterns. You can, of course, define these patterns any way you like. And crude racial categories are not in any way supported by the data. But sophisticated, subtle DNA differences that can indeed reflect a constellation of factors in a human being can be seen in some respects as a racial category.

    His “eyes glaze over” for the simple reasons he (a) denies the fallacy of race differentiation; (b) denies the statistical insignificance of genetic markers (“subtle DNA differences”) in determining social OR medical phenomenona and effects; and (c) he is incapable of distinguishing scientific method from political economy; thus, a sociology of knowledge which enforces ignorance and race-based discrimination to the political advantage of a society’s “elite,” mental giants such as himself, is incomprehensible.

    Genome and Race Reference
    Romualdi et al, National Science Foundation/SERC article (2002)
    Topical bibliography, index

  3. Yes there are dangers in starting the dialog about race and intelligence. Patricia Berne is correct that new ideas like this get twisted to conform to political views.  But there is a greater danger. The Conservative Movement in America has read the Bell Curve and watched social policy and is implementing a lot of it’s policies. The Left is ignoring them and pretending they will go away. Murray and Hernstien may be correct, and Watson’s work may confirm it. The Left should be looking to see how they can adapt to this reality, before they get left behind.

    As always, your intuition on the subject is correct. Something has to give.

    Watson’s work may confirm it?  Watson didn’t do any “work” on it.  He just made an outlandish and irresponsible conjecture that has no basis in reality.  The only reality the Left has to adapt to is that the Right embraces their racist tendencies, and that won’t change until they get better upbringings and educations.

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