Thursday, December 13, 2007

Are Blacks thick?

Or is it the IQ test fundamentalists?

This debate sort of reignited when the Nobel Laureate James Watson claimed that those of African origin were "less clever" than good honest white folks. (For example see the BBC here)

At the time this bugged me, but I said nothing. Now I am.

James Watson said what he did for good reasons, or at least, reasons that I could see someone could think were good. Studies show that Africans score lower in IQ tests than those of "European" stock, on average. What he neglected to mention was that some Asians score higher than white Europeans, but then perhaps that did not fit into the narrative settled into his mind.

I have now had the benefit of reading this article in the New Yorker, which I feel is instinctively right.

The problem that James Watson and the IQ test fundamentalist have failed to ask is what does IQ actually measure?

In principle it measures intelligence, but is based on the idea that the average IQ of a population is 100. Therefore it measures relative intelligence. As James Flynn has found (see article, or google for more) I.Q. has risen over time. Either our grandparents were retards or we are super intelligent, or I.Q. tests measure a way of thinking rather than base intelligence.

The problem with I.Q. tests is that retaking them makes you better at them. It certainly does in my experience. I also find that playing Su do ku on a regular basis not only exercises my brain but gives me a measure of how sharp I am on a particular day.

What I also find with I.Q. tests is that you get a good score by living in the same mindset as the person who wrote the test. Take this quote from the article as an example of what I mean.

The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories. It can be argued that taxonomical categories are a developmental improvement—that is, that the Kpelle would be more likely to advance, technologically and scientifically, if they started to see the world that way. But to label them less intelligent than Westerners, on the basis of their performance on that test, is merely to state that they have different cognitive preferences and habits. And if I.Q. varies with habits of mind, which can be adopted or discarded in a generation, what, exactly, is all the fuss about?

The thing is that the brain is a muscle. Research shows, for example that London Taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus than the population norm in much the same way as pigeons do, and that area is associated with navigation. Gay men, it has been said have other brain differences. People who use their brains in particular ways have brain differences from the norm. Are we seriously to believe that people are born to be London taxi drivers? Or indeed anything else?

Fundamentally the issue is this: I.Q. tests measure intelligence in the way that the person writing the test thinks.

They are useful, but like all tests and measures only as useful as your understanding of the test or measure. Balsa is a hardwood. I kid you not. It ranges in density and strength from very very light and soft to remarkably heavy and dense as well, so how useful is the "hardwood" classification? Well it depends on how you use the measure and what you think it means.

To answer the question posed at the beginning of this article I think it is the I.Q. test fundamentalists who are thick, because they do not understand what it is they are measuring nor the limitations of their tests.

Hat tip to Socrates on for the link to the New Yorker article.


Innocent Abroad said...

In short, IQ tests are more an example of good marketing than good science.

We like to stress our common humanity and downplay cultural difference - no doubt because the latter has been so woefully abused over the generations - but we do ourselves no favours by overdoing it.

Ways of thinking are likely to be culturally determined because that's what makes them functional.

Benedict White said...

Innocent Abroad, I am not sure about them being good marketing but I gree that they are probably not good science.

I also agree about cultural differences. Too often we are not allowed to talk about these things for fear of being branded racist but the fact is that we do have differences. We should however not overdo it as you say.

Wolfie said...

Agreed. I had this argument a few times with bloggers soon after this news item broke. What do rural Africans need of IQ tests anyway? It measures useless abilities for 90% of the world and I question it as a measure of true intelligence.

olvar2007 said...

Benedict -- you obviously know nothing of psychometrics and are merely repeating the the line followed by the politically correct drones who silenced Watson. With good reason: he was speaking the truth and the truth threatens leftism. IQ tests are not infallible, but what is? Blacks score consistently lower than whites and East Asians (Chinese, Japanese) consistently more. This is not what you'd expect if, as you claim, IQ tests measure something cultural, because they weren't invented by East Asians. Nor is it what you'd expected if psychometricians were racists. Being overwhelmingly white, they'd rig the test to put whites on top. No-one knows what causes the Flynn effect, but it may be something to do with faster modern lives. One thing is certain, however: it is not going to reduce the IQ gap between races, because everyone's measured IQ is rising, so blacks stay behind whites and East Asians ahead of them.

Socrates said...

If you read the article you would find that studies of various groupings taking the SAME IQ test showed that East and South Asians performed worse than those of European descent. Africans brought up by 'White' parents in Germany have the same IQ as 'Whites'. Thus the cultural impact is true. Even if a group from a non-white culture did perform better, it still does not make the cultural theory false. IQ tests measure how abstractly cognitive our thinking is. Thus those from cultures that encourage such thinking do well, while those from cultures with more practical thinking do badly. It's very possible (although unlikely) that a culture might have more widespread abstractly cognitive thinking than the culture that invented IQ tests. The idea the bulk of scientists are involved in some leftist cover-up is ridiculous.

Socrates said...

Additionally, the Flynn effect will and has caused a catchup effect as US blacks get access to better-funded and more modern education. Just because all groups rise does not mean they all rise at the same rate.

Benedict White said...

Socrates, many thanks for the comments. I think Olvar 2007 is failing to ask what IQ tests actually measure.

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