Friday, July 07, 2017

Untouchable Subject?

This opinion piece came in over the transom and it looked worth commenting on.
 I love McWhorter, and have a few of his books. I also like where he starts this argument: suppose it’s true. I used to love to see that with Bill James about baseball clichés. Pitching is 90% of baseball. What would flow from that?  Wouldn’t pitchers command higher salaries, then, as quarterbacks do in football? Or perhaps, a few would have the bulk of the biggest contracts? In fact, this does not happen.  Therefore, our first conclusion is that whether or not pitching actually is 90% of baseball, no one is spending their money as if that were true – including the people who made the original claim. This freed up a lot of space for the statistical and reasoning arguments he wanted to examine next.

The problem is, McWhorter doesn’t quite examine his supposition.  He looks at parts of the issue but evades others, or at least, does not answer them here.  He moves to the question of Why would people want to talk about it? This overlaps with the question What if the race-IQ gap is at least partly genetic? But it is not the same question. He discusses what motive people could have for discussing the issue (paragraphs 22-25).

You know how much I love discussing motive before establishing  facts.

When you get through all the on-the-one-hand, one-the-other-hand caveats that he puts in to show he really is listening to all sides, and he really is trying to be fair, he gives us the following: we shouldn’t talk about it because no one is going to accept it.  Nice people think the possible responses to believing there could be more than a small genetic component are too deplorable, so there will be no practical effect. I think that is both true, and a terrible, evasive approach. It likely is true that no one is going to believe it so just shut up. However, liberalism in the post-enlightenment sense has scored its cultural victories by doing just the opposite: yes we will too talk about women being able to vote/hold property/go to college/fly jet planes, whether people want to hear it or not. Yes we will too challenge public schools leading children in prayer even though it enjoys 90% approval rate.
BTW, as I said, I like McWhorter and I don’t think his boilerplate niceness is insincere. He makes good points about non-black populations showing some of the same patterns, also attributing those to culture.* He has been friends with Charles Murray (who, despite his reputation among liberals, believes that culture is an influence in behavior, and genetics are only a portion). Yet he doesn’t answer the core question, “What if it’s at least partly true and we’re just stuck with it?”

If it were simply a neutral, where everyone could just look away and pretend there is nothing to see, I have no problem with just ignoring the issue. I generally do, because there are many things it doesn't affect.  The problem is that the people who want the Charles Murrays, and certainly the Greg Cochranes of the world to just shut up do themselves talk about race and IQ all the time.  They talk about it by denying it, and insisting at every grade level through college and most graduate schools, and at every major magazine and news source, that environment is the cause of the gap. Our public policies in education, in job training, affirmative action and discrimination, are entirely founded on that assumption. Sometimes it is explicit, as in social science courses where the lack of genetic connection will be expressly asserted, but more often it is just part of the furniture. Making an assertion that something is not racial is just another way of bringing up race.  It's unfair to then accuse others of "bringing race into it all the time." 

So the answer to McWhorter’s question, a challenge to those who are “obsessed” with race and IQ, “What, precisely, would we gain from discussing this particular issue?” is We are already discussing it, all the time, but only one side gets to speak. The correct translation of McWhorter (though he likely doesn't intend it that way) is “What, precisely, would all of us gain from letting you talk back?”**   

Let us here pile on and note that when they speak they offer the insult of "racist" about anyone who disagrees. It’s not a neutral discussion where one side is politely and reasonably avoiding confrontation, clucking at those "obsessed" fire-breathers who keep bringing up hurtful things all the time. There are some who do inject race into any discussion, who may fairly be called "obsessed." They seem about equal on all sides. 

It gets worse, as this discussion usually does.  McWhorter believes, and hopes very much that the science will eventually bear him out, that “culture” is a major driver of the gap, specifically “orality” versus “literacy.” (See first footnote.)  He argues that culture persists over time, even when the reasons for it have vanished or even reversed. An oppressed group, especially one which came from a non-literate tribe, might regard literacy as less-important even when the oppression has lifted and incentives for literacy are great.  That sounds very believable. It could well be so. Conservatives are actually very big on believing that cultural factors are a big deal. Many more of them tend to those explanations of fatherlessness, expectations, future-orientation, and diligence than to genetic explanations. 

So now try to take that culture discussion national, hmm?  When you open up the door that says “culture,” once you have gotten past the Originally Comes From Oppression part, you can’t say anything else.  Let me correct myself.  One can also say “If only those black children could be encouraged to understand that it’s worthwhile to do well in school.”  Gosh darn it, why didn’t I think of that? Beyond that, "culture" is becoming a radioactive subject.  Try and go public with what is essentially a “black people have to raise their kids different” answer. I don't want to go there myself, but it's sort of hard to avoid at that point, even though we didn’t mean to go there. 

Try and have a discussion about culture that doesn't involve parenting.
It wasn’t where anyone wanted to go, but it once could be said by black people to each other, and the very liberal Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson used to do that.  I’m not sure you can do even that now.  I think that experiment has been run. If you want to go "culture," then Theodore Dalrymple, Thomas Sowell, and a dozen other guys you want nothing to do with are suddenly on the scene.  Oh, and Charles Murray. I think that dog won't hunt myself, but you're welcome to try.

What has come from the culture emphasis is a rejection of the norms of success because those are called arbitrary white norms.  That is partly true. But showing up on time is intimately related to a view of time that allows space launches, round-the-clock coverage for firemen and hospitals, paying people accurately, or the transportation of millions of people. The qualities one must learn to be a shepherd might be just as honorable, to man and to God, as the qualities of an accountant. But there just aren’t that many jobs for shepherds, and they don’t pay that well.

*But again - group IQ  could be a sufficient explanation for orality versus literacy in both those instances. While culture looks like a possible explanation at first glance, we get into a cart/horse problem.  The average white IQ in West Virginia is estimated at 95.1.   We get into complicated discussions of what IQ actually measures, and how sensitive it is to whether your culture wants you to go to school, try hard on the test, or not. It may not be that low, and Massachusetts may not actually be as high as 104.4  (For reference, #5 - #47 is only a  4 point range, 98.4 - 102.4). The Uzbeks have been isolated since the Silk Road became obsolete when the Europeans got their sea-trading going, centuries ago. But McWhorter has already ceded those grounds for purpose of this  discussion in his early paragraphs. Culture may derive from intelligence more than drive it.
**The answer might actually be “nothing.” The Assistant Village Idiot has no so-obvious-but-unspoken-advantages to point out.  But I would like the question to be framed that way before answering, to illustrate that is what we are really talking about.


Sam L. said...

Untouchable? If you want to have Peace In Our Time, yes. Too many people are loaded for bear, safeties off, and ready to fire at will at the barest touch on a hair-trigger. Too many variables. too many intangibles, too many people ready to fight at the least micro-mini-provocation. Also, they won't listen to the other sides, not willingly. Most of this is due, I suspect, from trying various things to "help" some people, which didn't help, and made the situation(s) worse.

We've all heard that one of the statements that make one's blood run cold is, "We're from the government and we're here to help[ you."

Sorry to be such a downer, but that's life.

Galen said...

I, too, like McWhorter and admire his works. His reasonableness is charming. But his National Review piece made me uneasy, and you put your finger on it. I also noticed that the entire discussion was more or less confined to black American culture.

Roy Lofquist said...

The problem is with the dictionary. Race, culture, and genetics are not orthogonal. Herewith two maps, consanguinity by country and IQ by country:

Note that high consanguinity and low IQ are correlated. They also correspond to racial origins. I think it impossible to untangle causation.

Texan99 said...

It's so odd how easy it is for people to accept the fairness of heaping riches and honors on some extraordinary (but largely accidental) qualities but not others. Fantastic singing voice? No problem. Preternatural athletic ability? No problem. IQ? Horribly racist, or at the very least incredibly shallow of you for valuing that characteristic, or even noticing that it is not equally present in every human being.

I would love to see us get to the point of being able simultaneously to acknowledge that all human beings are souls who deserve our respect and consideration--from fetuses to old, sick, dying, unpleasant, or not particularly talented people--while at the same time not closing our eyes to the obvious truth that people have different capabilities, often largely inborn.

Galen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Galen said...


Yes, excellent points, but first you have to acknowledge that people have souls, and absent a belief in imago dei, secular society has bounced a series of checks on the intrinsic dignity of human beings. The same people who scream against inborn differences in intelligence gleefully murder the unborn.

james said...

There's a world of difference between "Some things are dangerous to say, because without lots of qualifications people get the wrong ideas" and "These are subjects we shouldn't talk about."

One of the things that struck me in Albion's Seed was how hair-trigger violent were the Scots-Irish, and how uninterested in education. That showed up in Kingdom of Cotton, too, IIRC. No statistics, but the anecdotes give a flavor that suggests Detroit-level troubles. There are problems today, but not nearly at the same level. What changed? I'd think scholars would be all over that, looking for possible modern applications. (I'm not sure that Pinker doesn't have the cart before the horse.)

Donna B. said...

I didn't read Albion's Seed as hanging the hair-trigger violent tag on the Scots-Irish. It's been several years since I read it and I don't have a copy handy. I loaned out mine twice and neither "friend" has returned it. I suppose I need to buy myself another copy and not loan it.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I've had the same trouble with that book. I'm not lending out my current copy.

As the Scots-Irish also settled the Merrimack Valley but were not considered as notorious for violence, it would be hard not to include some cultural piece in the comparison with Appalachia and the further regions that it settled. The Scots-Irish were looked down upon here at the very first, but that evaporated pretty quickly. I have a different picture about what happens in terms of violence and race, more of a hybrid. There may be genes which activate a violent personality in a person exposed to violence. I oversimplify, certainly.

I will post soon about how we might ignore race.

Galen said...

Donna B, in lieu of the actual book, the blogger Slate Star Codex wrote an excellent and extensive review of Albion's Seed at
If the link doesn't show, a google search will bring it right up.

james said...

Bean counters and bookkeepers are both frustrating.

Donna B. said...

The other book I've lost twice is From Dawn to Decadence. I really wish both were available for Kindle. Arthritis and tremors make it almost impossible to hold a book now.

Murph said...

EducationRealist* has a post written the day before McWorter's recent NRO piece. It's based on a bloggingheads discussion between McWorter & Glenn Loury (I have not listened to it.)

Note that he updates this post to include that he later responded to the NRO McWorter piece via Twitter, with a link.

* I like Education Realist (whoever he is!) because he's in the trenches, teaching high school students with diverse cultural backgrounds, coping with the consequences (both + and -) of various education industry fads and foolishnesses.

Murph said...

Stupid me: I keep messing up his name. McWhorter. WITH an "h". :-(

Texan99 said...

I'll cut the guy some slack whenever he confines himself to talking about how schools can best teach, because he's writing from the trenches. He loses me when he describes "our" task as being a need to "create meaningful jobs for everyone, smart or otherwise." This from a guy who has no intention of putting himself into a position where he can or will hire large numbers of people for any purpose at any time. On the few occasions in his life when he does hire people (directly or indirectly, including by patronizing businesses that hire people), he will unabashedly get his services from the smartest and most able person he can find at the lowest price. Ain't he compassionate? Probably sees nothing wrong with minimum-wage laws, either, or any connection to the disappearance of appropriate jobs for the less skilled.

Texan99 said...

I would add that if we don't distinguish appropriately between jobs and charity, we won't do a good job of providing either of them, largely because we'll blind ourselves to the cost of each and to the difficulty of deciding who should bear the cost.

GraniteDad said...

"The Scots-Irish were looked down upon here at the very first, but that evaporated pretty quickly."

Well, I still look down on them. Shiftless, the lot of them. Give me a Dutchman or a Swede any day!