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Individual and group differences are the same
From a moral perspective, individual and group differences are the same. I’ve tried to make this point through satire, but it doesn’t seem to be getting through. So here’s a more serious attempt.
Yesterday on Twitter, the eminently polite and reasonable Bo Winegard engaged Nicholas Grossman in debate. The two were bickering about wokeness, when Winegard stated, “mainstream media blame almost every failure in the black community on pervasive racism and ridicule anybody who has the effrontery to point to data on underlying disparities in intelligence or violent crime”.
Grossman retorted, “I don’t think a 21st century cultural change is the main reason why you haven’t found a positive reception for your theory that black people are just inherently dumber and more violent than people of other races”.
Now, Winegard hadn’t even mentioned genes; he’d merely referred to “data on underlying disparities” – which overwhelmingly support his claim. But that’s not what I want to focus on. Rather, I want to focus on Grossman’s characterisation of what he thought Winegard was saying.
As far as I can tell, Grossman is smart and generally well-informed. He’s not only a politics professor at the University of Illinois, but also an editor at Arc Digital. He seems clued-in to debates that happen on Twitter. Hence I assume he’s aware of the scientific consensus that individual differences in IQ are partly heritable.
Some people are more intelligent than others in part because they possess different genes (to be specific, because they possess more IQ-increasing variants and fewer IQ-decreasing variants). Among serious scientists, this isn’t controversial. But what it means is that, technically, “some individuals are just inherently dumber than others”.
Of course, no serious scientist would phrase it this way (except perhaps while being humorously blunt). As I noted in my article on Nick Bostrom’s email fiasco, scientists don’t use pejoratives like “inherently dumber” since doing so implies disdain.
I’m sure that if a student asked Grossman, “What does the science say about individual differences in IQ?”, he wouldn’t reply, “Ah, I’m glad you asked. What it says is that some people are just inherently dumber.” Assuming he’s aware of the scientific consensus (and I can’t believe he’s not), I suspect he’d say something like, “Well, studies seem to suggest that individual differences in IQ are partly heritable”.
So why did he think it was appropriate to refer to “your theory that black people are just inherently dumber”? In one sense, the reason is obvious: it was a rhetorical move designed to discredit Winegard by insinuating that he dislikes black people. (Incidentally, I don’t mean to pick on Grossman, who’s far from the worst offender. It’s just that this example happened to come to my attention.)
But is there a good reason why you’d refer to the theory that group differences in IQ are partly heritable in such a blatantly non-objective way? The only one I can come up with is “the theory has been thoroughly refuted”. If we knew for a fact that genes don’t contribute to group differences in IQ – in the same way we know that the earth isn’t flat – one might be justified in using morally loaded language.
But, of course, we don’t know this for a fact. What we know is that surveys of experts in relevant fields have found that between 14% and 84% believe genes contribute to psychological group differences. (The 84% figure is from a recent survey of intelligence researchers.) As the late James Flynn noted, “The hypothesis is intelligible and subject to scientific investigation”.
What’s more, the hypothesis (the one Jim Flynn’s referring to) doesn’t posit anything that isn’t already assumed by the well-established theory that genes contribute to individual differences in IQ. The latter says there are genetic variants that affect IQ and they’re not distributed equally across individuals. The former simply says they’re not distributed equally across biogeographic ancestry groups either.
Which prompts the question: if genes contributing to group differences in IQ is so awful and horrible and terrible, why isn’t it similarly awful that genes contribute to individual differences in IQ? (This question is directed more at people like Paige Harden than at Grossman, who’s obviously not an expert in this area and doesn’t claim to be.)
Why is it fine for genes to explain differences between individuals but not fine for them to explain differences between group means?
It would be like believing that modelling IQ as a function of polygenic scores is morally permissible unless race is included as a covariate. “The coefficient on the polygenic score is Good, but the change in coefficients on the race dummies after including the polygenic score is Bad!” (Note: I’m aware there are methodological issues with doing this; I’m talking about having a moral objection.)
The idea that there’s a sharp distinction between individual and group differences doesn’t make any sense. Either it’s bad to claim that some humans are “just inherently dumber” than other humans, or it isn’t.
Image: NASA, Identical twins Mark and Scott Kelly, 2015
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