Distinctions That Fail To Matter

     Anyone familiar with the fusillades over race and racial differences these past few decades will be aware that there are some subjects generally regarded as “too hot to touch.” The confrontation-averse are well advised to avoid such subjects, as those on one side are prone to hurling insults rather than reasoned arguments with evidentiary support. Men’s lives have been ruined by subsequent campaigns of defamation, entirely because of differences of opinion or perspective. This essay and the comments to it constitute a demonstration of the emotional power of the topic.

     Mind you, on racial subjects just as on any other, anyone, however well-meaning, can be wrong. Moreover, being above all legitimate accusation is no defense against a storm of slander. Ask James Watson.

     Nevertheless, subjects that touch upon racial differences will be studied, even if covertly. People will form their own opinions, even if unexpressed. Should arguments arise, emotions will run high and tactics inappropriate to rational examination will appear.

     One of those subjects is intelligence. The distribution of intellectual metrics and achievements among the recognized races is perhaps the hottest button in anthropology. In part, this is because of the desires of many that the data not exist. That moves them to attack those who gather the data, accusing them of everything from willfully using invalid methods of measurement to the most evil motives imaginable.

     Psychometricians are agreed on what is meant by general intelligence. They design tests intended to probe for it, and study the distributions that result. Those distributions, which have been consistent for many years, imply statistical differences among the races that are intriguing…and for many, upsetting.

     The upset persons are unwilling to accept the inferences many draw from those distributions – and furious that anyone else might accept them. That powers many a campaign of calumny. It also animates the intrusion, into discussions of intelligence and its measurement, of matters that might not seem to be on point.

     One such intruder is a motif I’ll call can’t versus won’t.

     When attempting to intelligence-test particular populations, the testers are often confronted by behavioral variations that seemingly cross-cut the test and the potential relevance of its results. One simple one is the willingness of the testees to sit quietly and take the test. Let’s call this a problem of focus. It can arise from several causes, including disbelief in the importance of the test.

     Consider: in First World nations, children are routinely subjected to a regime of schooling that requires them to sit quietly, pay attention to an instructor, and take what he says and directs seriously. They’re taught, one way or another, that it matters — that some aspect of their futures will be seriously affected by the way they behave at this moment. If the demand for quiet attention is repeated sufficiently and reinforced by subsequent events, the children internalize the importance of focus. (This is also the case in those nations hagridden by Communist regimes. Indeed, the “reinforcements” there can be far harsher than what American parents and schoolteachers are permitted to administer.)

     One consequence is a relatively strong belief in the accuracy and relevance of test results. Another is the readiness of many to dismiss the relevance of weak results among testees who fail to focus on the test. This, too, correlates strongly with race.

     Can you see the can’t-versus-won’t problem here, Gentle Reader? Is it possible to perform a conventional psychometric measurement on a testee who can’t or won’t take the test seriously? Is it possible to separate his behavior from his capacities? More to the point, apart from the most immediate of consequences – e.g., a low score, being left back a grade, being thought “slow” — does it matter to his future?

     A commentator once said that he who will not read has no advantage over one who cannot read. The same is true for intelligence-related tests, at least in an environment in which intelligence is a survival-and-flourishing factor. He who is unwilling to be tested, whatever the reason, has no advantage over one who is unable to be tested. Whether he is well or poorly adapted to his particular environment is irrelevant to the assessment of his intelligence, as psychometricians understand the term.

     As I observed in this piece, intelligence tests designed specifically for populations in sub-Saharan Africa reveal a mean average – i.e., the axis of symmetry of the “bell curve” or “normal” distribution of scores on those tests – that falls around 70. This result has been confirmed more than once. What does it mean?

     At the rawest level, it means the testees’ scores averaged about 70. Those most determined to avert any further inferences will insist that it means no more than that – and will viciously attack anyone who dares to suggest otherwise. They’ll allege all sorts of problems with the test, contributing factors, and “root causes.” In effect, they demand that the test’s results be deemed irrelevant.

     Are they irrelevant, or do they indicate something that subsequent events might confirm? In that question lies the whole controversy over race, intelligence, and the persistent correlations among them.

     This is where the can’t-versus-won’t conundrum rises to peak importance. Let’s imagine for the sake of argument that those sub-Saharan testees possess huge reserves of abstract reasoning power that no method imaginable to psychometricians could reveal, much less measure. Could those reserves make a significant difference to their futures – i.e., to their survival, their flourishing, the prosperity and harmony of their societies, and so on?

     In theory, yes. In practice…let’s just say the evidence is against the notion. But to note this in public will get you called “everything but white.”

     It’s unfortunate that so many good-hearted people refuse to consider the matter calmly and objectively. There are massive lessons to be learned here. Perhaps the most important of them is that despite all the feedback reality provides, a great many of us are determined to see only what we wish to see, reason and evidence be damned.

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