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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Slate’s IQ Article Doesn’t Show the Whole Picture

A friend recently sent this link to a very controversial article on IQ and race by William Saletan that appeared in Slate.

I’m for reconciliation. Later this week, I’ll make that case. But if you choose to fight the evidence, here’s what you’re up against. Among white Americans, the average IQ, as of a decade or so ago, was 103. Among Asian-Americans, it was 106. Among Jewish Americans, it was 113. Among Latino Americans, it was 89. Among African-Americans, it was 85. Around the world, studies find the same general pattern: whites 100, East Asians 106, sub-Sarahan Africans 70. One IQ table shows 113 in Hong Kong, 110 in Japan, and 100 in Britain. White populations in Australia, Canada, Europe, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States score closer to one another than to the worldwide black average. It’s been that way for at least a century.

I wouldn’t be so quick to reach Saletan’s conclusion. The ultra-high score among Jews, for instance, points toward the influence of culture vs. nature (and as a Jew, I can say this on the basis of some experience). The vast majority of Jewish homes are filled with books, and the people who live in them have a 3000-year-old culture of reading, learning, and testing their theories by argument, even with God. Jewish parents are more likely to take their kids to museums and cultural events regularly, to expose them to highbrow music and art (though I think Asians do so even more).

The classical music youth scene in my area, which is overwhelmingly white and Christian, runs about 40 percent Asian or Jewish. By percentage of population, it should probably be somewhere around 3 to 5 percent, combined.

I don’t think you can generalize to innate intelligence. But it would be worth looking at why such a lower percentage of parents in the normative group, and even lower percentages among non-Asian people of color, expose their children to the kinds of experiences that expand brains. I strongly suspect the reasons would be cultural. I’d love to see some studies that address that aspect.

Not to mention that the IQ test itself is widely known to have strong cultural biases toward the majority culture. And that it measures expected capability over age. I was never told what my IQ score was as a child, but I was told that it was quite high. However, I may just have been ahead of my peer group in that regard, and if I were tested today it’s quite possible that my IQ would be more typical. Because I was extremely book-smart for my age all through childhood, but others have had a chance to catch up. If I was reading at 12th grade level in 4th grade, it doesn’t mean that by the time I finished college I was still reading at three times my grade level. In fact, I don’t do well with writing written above the level of a liberal-arts grad student.

And then there’s the matter of different types of intelligences. I can argue intellectual concepts at a reasonably high level–but don’t *ever* ask me to take apart a car engine–or connect a thin wooden bat with a fast-moving round object! I’d have flunked those intelligences completely as a child and would flunk them again as a 50-year-old.

Intelligences can evolve over time. As an example, over the last 12 years or so, I’m slowly, slowly learning to declutter my physical space. It comes very hard for me, but I am making progress.

I surely hope we don’t retreat to the days of making social policy based on these sorts of data!


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