Mark Liberman at Language Log (a blog which I very much enjoy, I should point out) approvingly links to Cosma Shalizi’s rant against Slate for publishing a series of articles on race and IQ. His conclusion:
So to start with, you should ask yourself whether you can define and calculate the variance of a set of numbers, or the correlation between two sequenccs of numbers. If not, then read the (linked) wikipedia articles — and spend a little time playing with the concepts in the context of an interactive program like R. Once you’ve paid that entry fee, read Cosma’s posts. (It’s more fun that you might think — I especially recommend the discussion of the heritability of zip codes, and you could go back and read the prequel about the heritability of accent.) And then go through William Saletan’s articles, and decide for yourself what they mean about the abilities and motivations of the writer and his editors.
It’s amazing how quickly people go from simple disagreement to armchair psychologist mode; a little perspective is in order here.
Dr. Liberman assumes that Cosma concludes that heritability estimates are worthless. This is not the case. Cosma points out that estimating heritability involves making assumptions that are often incorrect, but (I feel like I’ve said this many times before) all models are wrong, but some are useful. And buried in his prose (which contains many important, ill-understood points about the estimation of heritability), he cites a nice paper on the heritability of IQ, which concludes for a narrow-sense heritability of ~0.34 (that is, additive genetic factors account for ~34% of the variance in IQ, see the linked post). Cosma wants to add additional parameters to this model before he makes any definitive statements, but he can’t bring himself to treat IQ differently than other traits:
If you put a gun to my head and asked me to guess [whether there are genetic variants that contribute to IQ], and I couldn’t tell what answer you wanted to hear, I’d say that my suspicion is that there are, mostly on the strength of analogy to other areas of biology where we know much more. I would then – cautiously, because you have a gun to my head – suggest that you read, say, Dobzhansky on the distinction between “human equality” and “genetic identity”, and ask why it is so important to you that IQ be heritable and unchangeable.
So if he had to guess, there is probably a genetic component to IQ, environment also plays a role, and human equality is not dependent on genetic identity. Seriously, read Saletan’s column–these are exactly his points!
Referring back to my point about the utility of incorrect models, it’s worth noting that, if you don’t accept any of the heritability estimates proposed in humans, you’re rejecting that any trait could be determined to have a genetic component before, oh, 2001. I don’t think that’s a good idea, and here’s why: the heritability of type II diabetes was estimated at a “mere” 0.25 (using all those horribly flawed methods, and including, since it is a dichotomous trait, even more assumptions); now molecular studies have identified at least 9 loci involved in the disease. The heritability of Type I diabetes was estimated at about 0.88; now, there are 10 loci undoubtably associated with the disease. There are other examples, and more sure to come, but suffice it to say that heritability studies, with all their seemingly ridiculous assumptions, are not worthless.
Now look to Cosma’s post on g. Again, this time in the footnotes, we see something in line with Saletan’s article. Referring to the observation by economist Tyler Cowen that some people he knew in a village in Mexico were smart in ways not measureable by IQ tests, he writes:
Cowen points out behaviors which call for intelligence, in the ordinary meaning of the word, and that these intelligent people would score badly on IQ tests. A reasonable counter-argument would be something like: “It’s true that ‘intelligence’, in the ordinary sense, is a very broad and imprecise concept, and it’s not surprising the tests don’t capture it perfectly. But the aspects of ‘intelligence’ they do capture are ones which are vastly more important for economic development than the ones displayed by Cowen’s friends in San Agustin Oapan, however amiable or even admirable those traits might be in their own right.” This would be a position about which one could have a rational argument. (Indeed, I might even agree with that statement, as far as it goes, as might A. R. Luria.)
So Cosma “might” agree that intelligence, as operationally defined by psychologists, is important for economic development and differs in distribution between groups. Interesting.
Cosma’s posts seem to follow any discussion of IQ around in the “blogosphere”. They’re well-written, include legitimate discussion of many important issues in quantitative genetics and IQ testing (ok, I don’t know much about IQ testing, but I’m assured this is the case by people who do), and come from an authority. But for whatever reason (I’m tempted to think that people don’t actually read what he writes. I mean, it has, like, math and stuff), he’s interpreted as saying that intelligence tests and the concept of heritability are entirely meaningless. That is not the case.