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Monday, December 10, 2007

American Intelligence

posted by on December 10 at 11:08 AM

I finally got around to the I.Q. debate ignited by William Saletan’s three-part article in Slate, “Created Equal.” Here is the skinny: With almost no effort, Saletan organizes human intelligence into this racial order: Asians are very smart; Europeans are smart; Africans are not so smart. His confidence in this order, in the research that confirms it, is itself impressive. He is confident that the matter of the human mind, its development, and constantly changing relationship with this or that environment is crystal clear to science. The mind is no longer a mystery but something whose workings are apparent to those who have the nerve to break out of the limits of culture and see it with no medium, see it immediately, see it as it is. The workings of the Asian mind is better and bigger than the workings of a European one, and the workings of A European are better and bigger than the workings of an African one: that is the final reality. And it is a reality that demands a new morality, one that goes beyond egalitarianism.

Actually, I have no problem with any scientific conclusion that proves once and for all that whites are smarter than blacks—the core and historical issue of this I.Q. debate (Asians have been dragged into it for no other reason than to neutralize the most powerful line of criticism—that it is cultural and not scientific—against this form of thinking).One can only laugh at those (usually conservatives) who support this theory, this belief that whites are smarter than blacks. Why? Because intelligence (real intelligence) is not prized in this society and, particularly, by those on the Christian right. In fact, intellectuals are mocked, treated like aliens, regarded with suspicion. Watch any major political debate: Politicians bend over backwards to look stupid. They know the American game: If you are intelligent, express intelligence, you will have little or no access to real political power. So what does it matter that blacks have less intelligence when the society they live in doesn’t give shit about it? When most of its cultural (literary, cinematic, musical) products are simple and intellectually weak? There is even a powerful, cultural war against scientific intelligence in this society. So, the whole effort to prove which race is smart and which is dumb is laughable in the American context.

Indeed, to be the ideal consumer, the ideal subject of capitalist exploitation and consumption, intelligence is the very last thing you need. Desire, envy, an insatiable appetite—these are the prime states for life in a consumerist society.

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the white american racist has the same disdain for the intellectual as he holds for the black man. this is because he transposes unintelligent beliefs to both the intellectual and the black man.

Posted by infrequent | December 10, 2007 11:31 AM

I think this post makes the mistake of assuming that so-called "intellectual" people are all actually intelligent. That assumption is clearly false, as Mudede's intellectual Slog posts have consistently proven.

Posted by mattymatt | December 10, 2007 11:42 AM

the problem, if you look at the study, is that "intelligence" is defined too narrowly. yes, if your def. of intelligence is "ability to do math problems correctly" than asians kick all other ass. if your definition is broadened (as i think it should be) to include things like ability to coordinate your body's strength for a physical goal, (golf, hunting, dancing, martial arts, etc.), ability to navigate, ability to read social cues, ability to solve spatial problems in your head prior to taking action on them and so forth, then you might find and equalizing of the scores.

Posted by ellarosa | December 10, 2007 11:53 AM

Personally, I think it's healthy to have a certain amount of skepticism of those putting themselves above the rest of humanity by claiming to be intellectuals.

Posted by PJ | December 10, 2007 12:05 PM

I find this whole preposterous idea that one race is smarter than another to be a kind of self-reinforcing delusion that reflects the bias of society more than anything else. It has more to do with class, culture and educational opportunity.

It sure as hell doesn't explain how Americans of all races--who have more access to education and information than just about anyone else--have become some of dumbest people on Earth.

We're an equal opportunity idiocracy, and President Camacho is like totally my 2008 write-in candidate!

Posted by Original Andrew | December 10, 2007 12:06 PM

too true, pj, but if the people doing the study are white, then they are admitting their "inferiority" to asians, so you gotta give them that, at least.

Posted by ellarosa | December 10, 2007 12:10 PM

Wait -- Slate still exists?

Posted by Peter | December 10, 2007 12:24 PM

i'm white, and charles i smarter than me. i barely get what he's talking about when he DOESN'T use words like "ontology".

case closed.

Posted by max solomon | December 10, 2007 12:26 PM

Bush must be part black then, which would explain both his low intelligence and his resemblance to a chimpanze.

Posted by kinaidos | December 10, 2007 12:33 PM

"On Wednesday, Mr. Saletan posted a fourth article labeled “Regrets,” confessing that he had not realized that J. Philippe Rushton, a researcher on whom he had heavily relied, is the president of an organization that has financed a segregationist group."

LOL. I would have liked to analyze the research-including population groups and the actual test.

Posted by mla | December 10, 2007 12:37 PM

@3: Exactly.

Definitions of "intelligence" are delineated far too narrowly in our society. In education, for example, intelligence is often defined to match what society values in skilled yet obedient workers and exclude what is harder to control. In effect, we are defining people's (and children's) worth with an "objective" measure that doesn't often amount to a hill of beans when faced with real life problems.

Look, for example, at recent studies that have linked dyslexia to (largely white) entrepreneurial success. According to many standardized tests, these individuals would probably be considered of lower intelligence than their peers. However, they have developed different ways of thinking and operating that have allowed them to be more successful than people that rely more on symbology to communicate and frame ideas.

I also think that regarding what you call the "hatred of intellectuals", there is also a belief (rightly so, in a few cases) that there is a distinct difference between tacit and academic knowledge. People that are "smart" often have a complicated grasp of abstract concepts. But to apply knowledge to the real world, however, you need experiential knowledge, otherwise known as "intuition", "savvy", or "common sense", all of which cannot be taught through formulas or textbooks.

But I would even pose an argument that the socially constructed definition of "common sense" intelligence devalues "book smarts" in part as a means of maintaining racial dominance. Look, for example, at how the Japanese were portrayed in film and TV in the 1980s, such as in Gung Ho. Despite the fact that Asian characters in the media have the "book smarts", it is the tacit knowledge, the leadership skills, the "thinking from the gut" that rules the day.

According to this paradigm, white people can think from their gut and are smart, not because they know more, but because they have intuition and tacit knowledge that other groups lack. White people can learn on the fly and be the mavericks, while others need to work hard and follow the rules. This conveniently ignores the fact that when you control the society, you make the rules, and you can change the rules to make yourself succeed.

Posted by bma | December 10, 2007 12:44 PM

We don't know enough about the workings of the human mind to yet classify who is most intelligent, and if we did, it wouldn't make any sense that it'd be divided along racial lines.

Some of the smartest, most successful people alive today might have been classified as spazz's and weirdo's 50 years ago. Just about any software engineer worth his salt has some form a social or learning disorder.

Posted by Dougsf | December 10, 2007 1:03 PM


I don't think you mean to write "tacit" knowledge. Even if I knew what you intend to designate by this, I am pretty certain it is not what you mean.

I also believe you are conflating "experiential knowledge"—which is either "academic" [?!] or "tacit" [??]; I suspect the latter, but if this is what you mean then that makes no sense whatever—with with "intuition," which is precisely not learned material (whatever form that learning should take), or "savvy," or "common sense."

I also believe you are conflating knowledge with intelligence, and have less than an optimal understanding of how the two relate to each other.

I am almost certain that you have a mistaken view of the acquisition of knowledge; what interests me, however, is that you imagine that knowledge acquired "academically" is not also experiential knowlege, and that such acquisition never entails—or according to your apparent read, is inimicable to—the hands on testing out of that knowledge "in the real world."

That you suppose one must have intuition or savvy to apply formally acquired knowledge (which does not make it academically acquired, of course) to "the real world" is simply befuddling.

By the by: dyslexia is not even remotely linked to substandard intelligence; it is often quite the opposite case, and competent testers are able to distinguish between dyslexic errors and merely hitting the testing ceiling. Valid knowledge and achievement tests do not depend upon the the non-transposition of letters. Spelling tests are not valid IQ tests.

@3: Do you really believe that there is no such thing as "intelligence?" —your "broaden the diagnostic criteria enough, and we're all equal" riff suggests as much. Do you really believe this? So, if we broaden the diagnostic criteria for height, we're all actually the same size?

Awesome. I'm going to go try out for the basketball team. As long as they broaden sufficiently the diagnostic criteria for "shooting the ball" and "making a basket" and "doing sports," I should be golden.

Not trying to be an ass. But is this truly what you think?

Listen, "intelligence" has never meant merely "good at maths"; but it has always designated a quickness, accuracy, and creativity of thought and mental processes. The word comes from a word (a Latin verb) that means "to understand." The connotations of "intelligence" are cognitive. I am befuddled no end by efforts to reconfigure the etymology of the word so as to apply it to other fields of recognizable excellence (social, spiritual, communicative, physical, whatever) and thus cash in on the cultural capital of it all. That it has a great deal of capital is evidenced by the ongoing mill of arguments over what it means (or if it means anything at all), including Mr. Mudede's recent post.

But if every human ability is a kind of intelligence, then no human ability is intelligence at all.

@4 and @6: why do you think that the claim of greater intelligence is also a claim of superiority? These claims may be concomittant, but need not necessarily be. When a friend claims he can run more quickly or lift more weights or dance a funkier chicken or paint a more cunning portrait than I can, I don't feel that he is claiming to be superior. Why do you feel that the claims of greater cognitive ability bring with them the claim of overarching superiority?

Posted by Abulafia | December 10, 2007 1:31 PM

Hey Charles, I couldn't help but notice you fucking around with your 5,000 ton dually gas-chugging truck outside of the Stranger offices this Saturday.

You, good sir, are an ideal consumer.

Posted by Sucker. | December 10, 2007 1:38 PM
Do you really believe that there is no such thing as "intelligence?" —your "broaden the diagnostic criteria enough, and we're all equal" riff suggests as much. Do you really believe this? So, if we broaden the diagnostic criteria for height, we're all actually the same size?

Awesome. I'm going to go try out for the basketball team.

I think #3 would argue that height alone doesn't make a good basketball player.

Anyway, intelligence is the ability to make connections and come to conclusions when presented with a series of facts or evidence. In my experience, the inability/ability to do this is the true division between stupid and intelligent.

Posted by keshmeshi | December 10, 2007 1:46 PM

It's rubbish. I know African-Americans who can think rings around me.

The Asians can't do Chuck Berry for shit. The French love jazz and study it intensely, but they can only reproduce what they've heard. No one but Maya Angelou could have written her words - or Dr. King's for that matter.

So sometimes when someone says one race is intellectually superior to another, I ask, "In what way?"

Usually, I just freeze them out - for to cut such a wide swath by saying all or most about any of the races is to look like a buffoon and not very worldly.

Posted by Bauhaus | December 10, 2007 2:25 PM

Damn, that was good, Charles.

Posted by Greg | December 10, 2007 2:25 PM

Slate also posted a response from Stephen Metcalf that calls Saletan's conclusions into question:

Posted by js | December 10, 2007 2:34 PM

Charles can you please do a post about capitalism's complicity in obesity? Thanks in advance.

#13 Abulafia:

I really don't believe there's such a thing as g, a factor of general intelligence. Without that, the whole idea of IQ testing kind of falls apart. Read up on it here.

Posted by Kiru Banzai | December 10, 2007 2:54 PM


I didn't say I'd be a good basketball player. Just that I'd give it a go. Now that I'm super tall and all.

My point was merely that the limitless broadening of definitional criteria is not a matter of inclusivity; it is a matter of semantic degradation: if everything means everything, then nothing means anything.

As re your (@15) definition of intelligence, fair enough. I'd broaden it and add speed of thought and a good measure of intuition (humor and prodigious memory tend also to be significant of intelligence—but now I am moving from the signified to the signifiers), but let's go with yours. You don't believe, do you, that everyone has this in equal measure? Obviously not.

Not to derogate those who take a broader view of intelligence, but in my experience merely uttering the words "yeah, everyone's pretty much as smart as everyone else" does much to inform those around you of your relative position on the fat hump of the bell curve.

As re race and intelligence or sex and intelligence: why in the world shouldn't there be minute differentiations—and keep in mind, most studies show differentiations and most are in the order of a barely-registerable couple of IQ points—across a broad spread? If intelligence (or shall we say "cognitive excellence," in order to differentiate it from, e.g., "nice dancing") is at least partially heritable, as every study has shown it to be, then there is at least a partial genetic component to c.e.

And if c.e. is at least partially genetically determined, then it is not out of the question that there may be minute differentiations between racial and sexual groups.

The real point here, however, is that the heritability of IQ is still hotly debated—and even high estimates of heritability are pretty low. Saletan's no scientist (though even he admits this), and though his article pulls out the same sorts of explanations and tables and "wish it weren't so"s we've seen for decades, [I]he's no scientist[/I]. In short, journalists probably shouldn't try their hand at politicizing a topic that is still so hotly debated in the realm of science—where only the most obnoxious of sorts will move from the highly contested research to ignorant and arrogant claims that Asians are "smarter" than Whites (and so on).

It's strange to me—if perhaps significant of journalism's forays into the realm of cognitive science and genetics—that Mr. Mudede designates the "IQ debate" as having been set off by—[I]a journalist[/I], Saletan. The "IQ debate" has been around a dog's age longer than Saletan has; in both Mr Mudede's misunderstanding of the history of the debate and its main players (Watson, Flynn, Murray, et al.) and Mr Saletan's bloggy condensation of decades of research and small forests of scientific papers into a tepid and meaningless proclamation of intellectual heritability, we have the blind following the blind.

I don't know from Saletan. But in Mr Mudede's decision to treat Saletan as the serious player and forego completely any investigation into, say, Watson, who is the one who really added fuel to the fire of late, he has done nothing for the credibility of journalistic blogging.

I think he probably just wanted to be funny and write something like "the Christian right does not value intelligence, and politicians are stupid."

And that's sort of funny. 'Cause it's sort of true.

But it wasn't really that funny.

Posted by Abulafia | December 10, 2007 2:57 PM

Chaz has more flim flam than a Realtor

Posted by Bellevue Ave | December 10, 2007 3:05 PM

1) my mom always said i may be smart but had no common sense.

2) is logic and reasoning the only kind of there emotional intelligence or creative the ability to imagine a great story or poem or painting and write/paint it down count as intelligence...

Posted by your mom | December 10, 2007 3:06 PM


I'm more than familiar with the debates over [I]g[/I]; on a personal level, I [I]do[/I] hold the [I]highly unpopular[/I] belief that there is a general factor of intelligence (and I believe it is heritable to a very small degree, and I believe there are differentiations between male and female intelligence, and I have not been convinced by arguments of race).

So-called "IQ tests" were never meant to measure individuals of average or highly (much less significantly higher) intelligence. Although some of the more recent tests are better than others (though they similarly have much lower ceilings, and so are no good at all for much over three SDs over norm; the ole' SB could do this, if administered well; the Weschler and WISC ceiling lower, so scores at the top end are worth nothing), they are for the most part an archaic tool misapplied: harvesting grapes with a scyth.

The [I]g[/I] is a tricky thing, to be sure. But I am more convinced than less that there is a factor of general intelligence; a great deal of experience with the ongoing debate on how to measure (or mismeasure) as much has convinced me that some tests, given by professionals and under very specific conditions, may be able to measure relative degrees of [I]g[/I].

But I will admit that this is merely my current opinion based on a vibrant and ongoing debate.

Posted by Abulafia | December 10, 2007 3:11 PM

It's funny to see all the fancy talk peppered with useless HTML tags.

Posted by Dougsf | December 10, 2007 3:42 PM

Not even. It's BBCode, which is useless here.

Posted by Greg | December 10, 2007 4:03 PM

"To understand what is really being fought over when we fight over the IQ gap between blacks and whites, its authors explain, you must think through an analogy. Imagine two wheat fields. Now imagine two genetically identical sets of seeds. (The analogy was first made famous by the Harvard evolutionary biologist and geneticist Richard Lewontin.) Now imagine each field is planted with these two identical seed stocks. Field No. 1 is given the best possible inputs: sunshine intensity, rain, soil nitrates, etc. Field No. 2 is given much less of all of the above. Within each field, inputs are kept uniform. Inevitably, the first field grows a healthier supply of grain than the second. But here is the rub: Within each field, the variation in outcomes is entirely hereditary. Between the two fields, the variation in outcomes in entirely environmental."

— Stephen Metcalf, in "Dissecting the IQ Debate: A response to William Saletan's series on race and IQ."

Posted by em | December 10, 2007 6:14 PM

OK, so for once Charles is finally right about something, but then he can't think or write well enough to make his case coherently.

Oh, the irony.

Posted by Stanford/Bidet | December 10, 2007 7:27 PM

@24 and 25:

Is it that freaking funny? So I have no idea how to pull italics here. I'll be the first one to admit I'm a raging Luddite. I even have the secret Luddite decoder ring. Honest. I don't even know what BBCode even stands for. So there. I also don't know what "html" stands for. I'm guessing "hot toaster marsupial lagoon." Am I right?

So I'll skip the failed attempts at italics and write in shorter sentences next time. If the talks was fancy for you, I can try to use shorter words in the future.

Posted by Abulafia | December 10, 2007 7:49 PM

Right on.

Posted by elenchos | December 10, 2007 8:03 PM

After reading this post and this apology, I suspect that Charles is smarter than Saletan.

Posted by tsm | December 10, 2007 8:37 PM

@23 - the problem with the concept of g you mention is that it implies a single correct function of a variety of traits which is said to indicate intelligence. The traits may indeed be inheritable, but who defines the function? And why? All the arguments for the value of a particular measure of g tend to be circular, saying that it is useful because it accurately measures, say, how successful people are, which is supposed to be a measure of intelligence.

Posted by tsm | December 10, 2007 8:42 PM

no abulafia, i did not mean to imply that there was no such thing as intelligence. i said there were many different kinds of intelligence, and to judge a group based on too narrow a measure is ultimately a mismeasure. can't you read?

Posted by ellarosa | December 11, 2007 3:52 PM

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