Saturday, October 23, 2021

Valuing the Wrong Abilities

In the discussions of meritocracy, abilities, and IQ I have stressed a few themes.  First, that there is more than one way to skin the cat and become successful by some measure. This is reflected in the games that we like, Settlers of Catan being a good example, where multiple resources (out of wool, grain, lumber, brick, and ore) are needed to win. But there are still different ways to go about that, depending on what you've got ready to hand. Having a great deal of grain is a good foundation, but it must be used to acquire other things. We like games like this because they not only have good game play, but because we believe this reflects reality. In open-ended games like AD&D this is even more pronounced. You can design an episode to be played by a party solely of wizards or clerics, but they seem unreal even by fantasy standards.  You need a mix.

Secondly, the real-life abilities we have vary in usefulness depending on what society and situation we are in. In some places resistance to malaria and other diseases is the absolute best thing you can have. In others only courage, nerve, boldness will do, and in still others a capacity for enduring suffering will keep your descendants alive when other abilities fail. Yet there are societies where these good qualities might not be especially valuable. 

As societies get more complicated, IQ becomes more valuable. It feels disproportionately valuable in some eyes for a variety of reasons. It feels as if other abilities are not rewarded as they should be.  Notice the word "should." It figures prominently in what we think of as fair, but has less to do with what actually works.  It leads to some silliness trying to deny its reality, such as the assertion that it only measures one's ability to take a test or that there is no real definition of intelligence. Other than physical characteristics such as height or eye color, it is actually one of the easiest things to define* and measure, much easier than charm, or capacity for hard work, or wisdom. Even athletic ability and musical ability, which people readily see the genetic components of, are harder to define and measure. One might as well complain in Settlers that grain isn't a real thing because you can't wear it or build a house with it. 

Thirdly, and what will be important in the discussion is that it matters how one defines success. 

Fourthly, a whole lot of this is heritable. That is hated by most of the left and much of the right, but there really isn't getting around it. This has been sensed for years - "Of course Fiona sings well. Her father was a Campbell, even if he ran off when she was four, and they are all musical." But the accumulation of data over the last fifty years, especially the last decade, is stunning. 

Notice that points two and four involve a lot of luck. One and three involve some, but much less. Luck is essentially unfair.  Boethius makes much of the turns of the wheel of fortune and thinks that living in both want and plenty, or safety and danger is what the spiritual side of life is about; what turns out to be lucky in the end is also not immediately apparent at first. That is a lot of points one and especially three in that. Yet it is just being cute to not notice that those sorts of responses to life are very much our better selves, emerging only in crisis or in deep reflection. In almost all our everyday responses, the shallow definitions of fame, money, comfort, and praise do figure in what we call success.  We play at the edges by breaking off pieces and saying "I don't care about spectacular wealth...I just don't want to ever be poor again," or being content with the admiration of the few important ones rather than the masses.  We think of those as superior attitudes, but they are rather similar to the successes we disdain. 

Some heritable characteristics, IQ being one noticeable one, are a very big deal in terms of many kinds of American success. This is unfair.  Of course, what environment you get born into is just as unfair, but that doesn't stick in our craw quite so much.** My inclination has been to not deny this or merely deplore it, but to seek to elevate my own estimation and that of society's of deeper virtues, such as kindness, honesty, and piety.

Enter Fredrik deBoer (The Cult of Smart) and Paige Hardin (The Genetic Lottery) called the Hereditarian Left largely because people can't think of another category for them. It bothers them that much of success in life is genetic, and thus a matter of luck. I know less about Hardin so I will leave her aside.  She is a research psychologist at U Texas-Austin, tenured and thus with some protection against the accusations of eugenicist and fascist that are leveled against those academics who teach the realities of heritability. Freddie deBoer sometimes describes himself as socialist, sometimes as communist, and he is quite used to other people of the left excluding him. He has been a college professor and was very aware when teaching intro classes that many of those students drop out in the first year.  The work is too hard for them, they shouldn't be there, they grow discouraged and feel like failures when all that has happened is that they have been wrongly steered to college by adults meeting their own needs. 

He is very clear on the real data in education - that you can predict who will graduate from college by looking at the three-tiered reading group in third grade, or sort who will get a PhD, be granted a patent, or get a book published by giving 13-year-olds the SAT test. Educators do not want this information, and he charges that in Ed schools, it is not merely research into heritability that is rejected, but quantitative research in general. Real research invalidates what they are doing. Not all jobs, and certainly not all types of success are dependent on intelligence. But a lot of well-rewarded jobs are, and even more to the point, the types of success important to educators are dependent on it. But conservatives teach that if you just work hard and delay gratification you can bring these things to yourself, whatever your gifts, and liberals believe that if you follow your dreams you can do anything. Both, he says, are ultimately more cruel to children and young adults than the pain of accepting that they might just not have the talent to follow their dreams and have to find another way to succeed. People do that with athletics, going into coaching, or management, or statistics, or settling on a sport for fun - and similarly with music, if it is something they love but are never going to Julliard. (Well, even Julliard is different now, but you know what I mean.)

Of note, deBoer considers No Child Left Behind to have been extremely destructive, feeding into the idea that anyone can be anything if we just have high expectations and hold the schools accountable.  Testing children over and over is expensive and mostly useless.***  It creates pretend quantitative results that are used to club schools to fix things they can't fix. Educators came to hate the program, but it is based on their own ideas, before and since. "You ordered it, you eat it," a friend used to say years ago. It was gratifying to me to listen to deBoer confirm what I have asserted about the unpopularity of research into heritability and the insistence they have that "everyone acknowledges that genes have something to do with it."  No they don't, he insists.  Some give lip service to the idea but systematically reject anything pointing in that direction. He compares it to the denial that people have that people saying "Defund the Police" are actually talking about defunding, the police, they just want some of the resources to go elsewhere. Then the NY Times publishes editorials by people who say "No, we really do want to abolish the police." So too with Ed schools, says one who has degrees from them, including a PhD from Purdue. 

Freddie thinks it's the whole American Dream that is at fault, which is how he ends up Marxist.  If what we call meritocracy is really just rewarding useful characteristics that are mostly heritable, then that is so deeply unfair that we should be redistributing more. Your genes, the country you were born in, how supportive your parents are - you earned none of this.  Why should some be rewarded more than other?

I would go even further than them, as I believe the supposed non-luck categories such as resilience and hard work are also deeply heritable. From a Christian perspective, all that we have came to us from others without our aid, and we should be nothing but grateful. Pretending we have earned is indeed unhealthy.  Where I would veer away from Hardin, and especially deBoer, is what should be done to fix it. The education bureaucracy now want to get rid of testing because it is racist, but the holistic admissions will be far more unfair, less accurate, and more racist. And those are the people who are going to be in charge of this.  If we say "Nay, nay, this is a society-wide problem and we are going to have to make much deeper changes," then that is going to mean the federal government - and exactly the same sort of people who populate the educational bureaucracy, just more powerful.

I don't see solutions in bemoaning that some people can't get PhDs and patents so we should take everyone's money and give it to some other people, I would rather reorient what confers status in society. I absolutely don't trust governments to do that, even less than I trust them with most things.

*I can do a quick discussion of this if necessary.

** It gets complicated, and worthy of contemplation, why this might be.  We believe we can overcome mean circumstances and disadvantage (for which the simplest explanation is aiyeee! - genetics), so that unfairness hits us differently. Discuss among yourselves.

***It also pisses off parents who are sure their kid's a genius but scores in "only" the 70th percentile.  It must be the school's fault! It also drives those deeply unfair "holistic" admissions, as rich families can much more easily game those systems by putting their kids in expensive prestigious sports like fencing or lacrosse, or pay for music lessons and summers spent building houses for UNICEF in Ecuador.


Korora said...

"It also [yaaay]s off parents who are sure their kid's a genius but scores in "only" the 70th percentile. It must be the school's fault!"

Why am I reminded of the tousle-headed poet from The Great Divorce? /rhetorical question

james said...

Perhaps not so much valuing the wrong ones, but utterly failing to recognize other right ones. Daredevils are a nuisance--unless you need brave soldiers. "It's Tommy this and, Tommy that, an 'chuck him out, the brute'"

It would be wonderful if everyone were valued--heaven on earth, I suppose. Unfortunately people who try to create heaven on earth generally import hell instead.

Zachriel said...

Assistant Village Idiot: there is more than one way to skin the cat and become successful by some measure.

Quite so, and intelligence is not the only value people provide.

Assistant Village Idiot: a whole lot of this is heritable.


There is more than one type of intelligence. A great mathematician may not have high verbal intelligence, for instance.

IQ tests are only a rough measure of intelligence and don't test all forms of intelligence. An artistic genius may not score high on IQ tests, for instance.

Expressed intelligence is subject to environmental influences, as shown by the Flynn Effect whereby average IQ scores have risen over just a few generations in modern society.

The heritability of intelligence is not 100%. Intelligence is probably due to the interplay of many different genes, meaning that intelligence is multifaceted, and has many different expressions. There is a tendency over generations for a reversion to the mean.

random observer said...

There's a strong parallel tendency, especially in North America, to contend that what is inherent or inherited in a person is not worthy of admiration, only what is acquired. In other words, if you are born with it and didn't have to work for it, that means it shouldn't count in how anyone else evaluates you. It's very pioneer-spirit, and it's got plenty of old world roots. I suspect my working class Presbyterian Scots forebears would agree, and to a large extent it's how I was brought up.

I don't exactly reject that instinct, either, but there must be at least three problems:

1. That eliminates not only intelligence, but beauty, and likely most other human qualities, all of which have some hereditary element.
2. Normal people don't actually operate like that in real life- actually admiring all sorts of inherent qualities in a person. Most don't even bother with the one step which could square the circle, which is to reject that these qualities have any hereditary component. Some do. The rest just ignore the contradiction, proclaiming the realism of pursuing any dream or the all-powerful drive of work yet recognizing that not every option is really for everyone.
3. Pretty much anything has elements of both inheritance and work- intellect must be cultivated, beauty accented by effort, both increasingly through life. It's the inheritance side that faces a vast army of denialists.

While I see why it can be so-called, I'm not exactly convinced that genetic inheritance is exactly what we mean by "luck" in common speech, either. It isn't random chance. Luck might be real too, but they are not the same thing.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Random Observer - yes, my specifically looking for a highly intelligent wife isn't precisely "luck" for me, though it could be framed that way for my children, who did not earn it.