Thursday, December 13, 2007

IQ Sanity

I was horrified when I recently saw a weird debate on the blogs that was pretty much boiled down to: Black people don't have as high IQ scores as white people. Does that mean they're just dumber? Thank goodness for Amanda Marcotte. Finally, she (and Malcom Gladwell through a recent book review) brought some sanity to this debate.

It’s quite timely now that the racists are trotting out their favorite theory that gets trotted out every few years, smacked down, and then trotted out again once they figure everyone has forgotten the last smackdown, the theory that the IQ gap between whites and blacks must reflect fundamental, immutable, genetic traits, ergo a racist caste system is organic and not the product of oppression.

Now, she's finally making the point I'd been hoping someone would make all along: No, black people aren't dumber. The tests and social standards are biased in a certain way.The fact that the IQ test has long been billed as "a measure of raw intelligence" just seemed silly to me. Gladwell does a great job of explaining why:

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.

I once got criticized for suggesting that maybe the SAT was biased toward white people because non-white groups were lagging behind. What this really shows me is that intelligence, as we tend to measure it, has a lot more to do with class and buying into a certain set of social standards and assumptions. Of course it's hard to think that maybe the way you view the world is really specific to how you were raised. Realizing that is the easy part. Breaking down biases in supposedly objective data is the hard part.

Cross-posted on

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