Cowen on Sailer

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Tyler Cowen explains “Why Steve Sailer is Wrong.” For regular readers of GNXP, the resulting discussion is neither new nor interesting, but I thought it valuable to go through Cowen’s post in detail. Cowen is a smart guy with interesting things to say about many topics. Why is he so flummoxed by this one?

Cowen begins:

That’s a request I received and probably the reader is referring to IQ and race.

Let me first say that I am not the Steve Sailer oracle. On such a sensitive matter I don’t wish to misrepresent anyone, so I’ll simply tell you what I think of the issues, without suggesting that he or anyone else necessarily disagrees.

That’s a reasonable way to begin the conversation, but if you are going to mention Sailer’s name in this context, a) You ought to give a brief summary of his views and b) Provide a link or two.

Sailer believes that “race” and “IQ” — like “atom” and “species” — are scientifically meaningful concepts and that human races differ, on average, on many dimensions of interest, including IQ. Why couldn’t Cowen begin with that simple sentence?

Cowen continues:

There is a belief that progress in genetics will resurrect old, now-unpopular claims about race and IQ, namely that some races are intrinsically inferior in terms of IQ. I very much expect that we will instead learn more about the importance of the individual genome and that variations within “groups” (whether defined in terms of race or not) are where the traction lies. So I don’t expect “old style eugenics views” to make a comeback as applied to race, quite the contrary. On that point, here is more.

1) It is good to see that Cowen does not deny the reality and usefulness of “race” as a scientific concept. Recruiting folks like Cowen should be a high priority for believers in human biodiversity (HBD).

2) The phrase “intrinsically inferior” is about the worst possible phrasing. Why can’t Cowen use simpler language? Sailer thinks that average IQ differs by race. East Asians have, for example, higher average IQs than whites. Using the word “inferior” is misleading since it implies distributions that don’t even overlap. Sailer believes that the averages differ. He acknowledges that many, many individual whites are smarter than many, many individual East Asians.

The adverb “intrinsically” is also unhelpful. Does Cowen define “intrinsically” to mean “genetically?” Although I am no Sailer expert, I suspect that his position would be that the genetics of the issue are largely besides the point. Even if the causes of racial differences in IQ are 100% environmental, those differences are still there and, at least by adulthood, they are unalterable. So, public policy needs to take account of those differences.

And, if anything, Sailer seems to be more environmentalist than many in the HBD community, recommending policy changes like increased iodine and other micro-nutrients in the food supply of African countries.

3) Cowen’s usage of the term “now-unpopular” is interesting. It depends a lot on the unstated “among whom.” Certainly, Sailer’s views are highly unpopular among, say, the George Mason faculty. But Cowen is, if nothing else, a globalist. Does he think that Sailer’s views are unpopular in China? If anything, Sailer would be a moderate among the Chinese.

4) Cowen writes as if there is a conflict between the within and between races decomposition of IQ differences. Note the use of “instead.” But he offers no evidence that he and Sailer disagree. And what is the nonsense about “traction?”

I also think that IQ will be shown to be more multi-dimensional than we now think.

As josh notes in the thread:

Sprinting ability is also quite “multidimensional” as is distance running. Want to guess which part of the world the ancestors of the next olympic 100m and 5000m gold medal winners will be from?

Cowen is too smart to take that bet, or a bet about the racial distribution of SAT or GRE scores next year, or even decades from now. Cowen thinks IQ is “multi-dimensional.” So say we all. The results of an IQ test are not marked on an iron bar in Paris, like the original definition of a meter. They are imperfect.

Yet this is a post that is supposed to explain “Why Steve Sailer is Wrong,” and yet Cowen offers no evidence that he and Sailer disagree about the meaning or dimensionality of IQ!

Cowen:

If you wish to understand the role of IQ in human affairs, you would do better to study autism and ADHD than race (by the way, I discuss the importance of neurodiversity in much greater detail in my forthcoming book Create Your Own Economy.)

So what? This is more irrelevant hand-waving. Cowen is supposed to be arguing that Sailer is wrong about race and IQ, not that Sailer is wrong about “the role of IQ” or “neurodiversity.”

You may know that some nations — basically the wealthy ones — have higher IQs than the poor nations.

What do you mean by “you,” white man? Notice the strange second person construction, quite unlike the rest of Cowen’s prose. He is able to address almost all other topics by describing either what is true or what he thinks. Why bring “you” into it? Why can’t he just tell us what he thinks? Some nations have higher average IQ than other nations. Cowen is unlikely to make progress in his case against Sailer if he can’t even manage to describe reality in simple declarative sentences.

And, although there is a high correlation between IQ and GDP, this was less so in, say, 1960. Does the rise in economic wealth is Asia support or refute Sailer? Cowen declines to discuss that natural experiment.

Moreover, Cowen can’t even seem to suggest the obvious long term bets that a serious consideration of Sailer’s position would suggest. There has been minimal economic progress in sub-Saharan Africa since the end of colonialization. Those who believe, like Sailer, that the average IQ in many of these countries is 85 or so would argue that there is unlikely to be any progress in the next 4 decades either. Indeed, it is hard to see how any country can avoid utter ruin. Sailer might forecast that South Africa will go the way of Zimbabwe. Or perhaps not.

The key point is that if Cowen wanted to take seriously the notion that countries differ by IQ and that this fact matters for the future, there are all sorts of bets he might offer. Instead, he gives us nothing of substance. Cowen continues:

But IQ is endogenous to environment, as evidenced by the Flynn Effect, namely the general rise in IQ scores with each generation. It is sometimes noted that some racial IQ gaps are not closing but I find it more significant that scores can continue to rise.

“It is sometimes noted” by whom? Again, the entire style of this post is quite different from Cowen’s typical contribution to Marginal Revolution. If someone is noting something, why doesn’t Cowen provide a link or at least tell us their names? It almost seems like Cowen is familiar with the relevant literature but does not want his readers to know just how familiar. The easiest way to get Watsonized is to make too clear how deeply you have drunk at the fountain of forbidden knowledge.

Note, also, that the fact that scores can continue to rise is largely besides the point. Sailer does not dispute the Flynn effect! So, whether or not Cowen finds it more (or less) significant than Sailer is irrelevant.

For instance it is quite possible that groups with higher measured IQs simply have been on an “improvement track” for a longer period of time. More generally I think we should consider the Flynn Effect a bit of a mystery and that suggests an overall tone of caution on these issues rather than polemicism.

1) There is some evidence that the Flynn effect has stopped, so talk of time on an “improvement track” may be pointless. Further discussion here.

2) But, again, Sailer agrees with all of this! (Or, at least, he can grant all of this without backing down on his main thesis.) When is Cowen going to explain “Why Steve Sailer is Wrong?”

Most importantly, there is a critical distinction between hypocritical discourse on race and racism itself. Hypocritical discourse on race is harmful and often Sailer does a very good job skewering it. But racism itself is far, far more harmful, whether in the course of previous history or still today.

So what? Sailer does not deny that racism exists or that it is harmful. This sounds like more throat-cleaning to preserve Cowen’s place in the commentariat. As “tom” in the comment thread notes:

Would you say it if you thought that there were group differences? You would probably lose your NYT column. You would probably be protested on campus. You would probably be called a racist by young bloggers and liberal bloggers to whom you frequently link. Publishers of the type that put out your books would recoil.

I am not saying that you are incorrect. I am saying that you could not realistically answer the other way and keep your life the same as it is now.

Can you answer my question? Would you say if you thought Sailer was right?

Good question. Back to Cowen:

It is fine if a given individual, for reasons of division of labor, spends his or her time attacking hypocritical discourse about race rather than attacking racism itself. (For instance we shouldn’t all focus on condemning Hitler and Stalin, simply because they were among the most evil men; there are other battles to fight.) But I still wish that specified individual to ardently believe that racism is the far greater problem. Insofar as that individual holds such a belief about racism, I am much happier than if not.

So, the key issue is comparing the harm caused by “hypocritical discourse about race” versus the harm caused by racism? What relevance does this have to the issue at hand?

Another Marginal Revolution commentator notes that “This thread is almost a rehash of one at Brad DeLong’s blog back in 2005! Brad was caught censoring comments, including ones by Greg Cochran and Steve Hsu.” Indeed, see the provided links here, here and here.

Summary: Cowen’s post about “Why Steve Sailer is Wrong” is pathetic. He fails to clearly explain what Sailer believes or to offer arguments against those beliefs. He seems familiar with some of the relevant scientific literature, but declines to mention any of it. Cowen is trapped. He is too intellectual honest and open-minded to ignore the issue completely but too aware of the dangers of being Watsonized to dare to address the topic of race and IQ directly.

25 Comments

  1. “Does he think that Sailer’s views are unpopular in China? If anything, Sailer would be a moderate among the Chinese.” 
     
    Excellent point. Steve’s views would definitely be considered moderate among the Chinese, and for that matter other East Asians such as Koreans, Japanese as well.

  2. You are clearly a very smart person. But in writing this post you immediately forget the very first point I made in my post, which was to note clear as day that I was offering my own views on the issues and not making a comparison with Steve at all. Even my post title is in quotation marks, indicating that I am presenting the reader’s question as stated, rather than the post itself being about Sailer. It’s your prerogative if you disagree with me on the issues but most of this rather long post is simply a misrepresentation of what I set out to do.

  3. Nice post. 
     
    Although I am no Sailer expert, I suspect that his position would be that the genetics of the issue are largely besides the point. Even if the causes of racial differences in IQ are 100% environmental, those differences are still there and, at least by adulthood, they are unalterable. So, public policy needs to take account of those differences
     
    I’m not sure what Sailer’s view on this is. However, the genetic issue is an important topic for one political reason, namely, all public arguments about policies such as AA come down to claims about justice — about righting wrongs, past and present.  
     
    Arguments about such matters would lose much force with the public if it were admitted that the race achievement/attainment/IQ/crime gap wasn’t the result of past and continued oppression, irrational discrimination, and the like.  
     
    Were these inequalities shown to be commensurate with what IQ and temperamental gaps would predict, and that such gaps were genetic in origin, the public discourse and resultant policies would likely adjust accordingly.

  4. Though I’m not intellectual enough to dissect Cowen’s position (or non-position) I am savvy enough to figure out that he simply dodged the stupidly asked question. 
     
    As was pointed out elsewhere (I can’t remember) the first question should have been “Is Steve Sailer wrong?”

  5. The post is entitled “”Why Steve Sailer is Wrong”", not “Why Steve Sailer is Wrong.” Most of your post criticizes him for not answering the question, but he never sets out to do that. 
     
    Sailer would be a moderate among the Chinese. 
     
    Is this true? Source?

  6. In the genomic era, with personal sequencing around the corner, is the study of IQ and race — really that interesting? I just don’t understand the obsession — let alone from people familiar with modern genetics. 
     
    Do you really think its really worth the consequences of arguing the details of something so 20th century to marginally alter affirmative action? (some of the variance is obviously environmental, so other arguments would apply, but with slightly less force). This just isn’t pleasant enough of a topic to go into detail for such little gain — you practically have to be autistic to keep hammering on it.  
     
    Am I missing something? Is there some other grand large scale benefit that will arise when society acknowledges this GNXP sanctioned truth?

  7. is the study of IQ and race — really that interesting? 
     
    let’s rephrase that: 
     
    are the implications of IQ and race — really that interesting? 
     
    clearly the answer to this question is yes, considering how much effort was expended by eminent scholars such as Gould and Lewontin to push the discussion in one direction.

  8. “Is there some other grand large scale benefit that will arise when society acknowledges this GNXP sanctioned truth?” 
     
    The argument is that people should be treated as individuals. Placing group rights above individual rights & this focus on equal outcomes undermine the free, meritocratic nature of our society. 
     
    The reality is that policymakers focus on group inequality. To fix problems you need an understanding of what causes them. If you rule out powerful explanatory factors, like cognitive ability, then you’re going to pursue unhelpful policies. Also, people will be blamed for things that are not their fault. You only need to look at the persecution of market dominant minorities discussed in Amy Chua’s ‘World on Fire’.

  9. In the genomic era, with personal sequencing around the corner, is the study of IQ and race — really that interesting?  
     
    Well, yes, in that it can help us to better understand the world as a whole.  
     
    Look at it this way. An understanding of an individual’s genome may certainly help explain why he or she succeeds or fails, say, economically in life relative to others, but of course it won’t tell you anything about why the racial or ethnic group that person belongs to succeeds or fails economically relative to other groups. Similarly, understanding the differences in mean levels of intelligence between racial and ethnic groups may help explain why, collectively, some groups succeed or fail economically relative to other groups, without telling us anything about why an individual member of any racial or ethnic group succeeds or fails relative to other individuals.  
     
    Both the study of personal genetics and race and IQ are interesting because both provide one with a better understanding of the world.

  10. Tyler notes that his post made clear from the beginning that: 
     
    I was offering my own views on the issues and not making a comparison with Steve at all. 
     
    True! 
     
    1) For readers of GNXP, I think that the most interesting aspect of your post was not your own views (to the extent that we can figure them out) but whether or not you do, in fact, differ from Steve. Big picture, there is virtually nothing in your post with which Steve would disagree. I realize that you are not claiming to capture Steve’s views, but it is interesting to note that your stated views are, as best I can tell, indistinguishable from his. The tricky part is that you only address a subset of what matters in the dispute. 
     
    2) Much more interesting than a debate about whether or not you are comparing your views to Steve’s is the question that came up in your own comment thread. Let me rephrase it: 
     
    If you believed what Steve (and James Watson) believes — that IQ and race are meaningful scientific concepts and that the average IQ among (some) races differs by a practically significant amount — would you admit it? If you did admit it, what would happen to some aspects of your professional life, like your NYT column? 
     
    That’s a much harder question. Care to answer it? 
     
    PS. Thanks for taking the time to comment on this thread.

  11. There are obviously big implications for immigration policy. Remember: this is not just about B/W IQ differences. 
     
    If you agreed 100% with Sailer, wouldn’t you modify US immigration policy dramatically?

  12. “1) It is good to see that Cowen does not deny the reality and usefulness of “race” as a scientific concept. Recruiting folks like Cowen should be a high priority for believers in human biodiversity (HBD).” 
     
    I guess I am nitpicking, but I hope it is in a constructive way. 
     
    It seems more accurate to say, “a high priority for those who understand human biodiversity (HBD).” 
     
    People study the evidence and arrive at a conclusion and take a position based on understanding. Belief can be based on little or no evidence. The whole point of looking for patterns and evidence in nature is to understand. It seems to me that those making the case for HBD base their position on evidence. Those who dismiss or ignore evidence in favor of a position that contradicts the evidence seem more like “believers.”

  13. diogenes, 
     
    speaking personally, there are two main reasons i read a lot about this subject: 
     
    1) it has great significance for my understanding of the world. educational and economic inequality are huge issues that need to be understood and dealt with. 
     
    2) while we could wait until the gene-associations start pouring in, it benefits society to have a discussion about this earlier, rather than later. that way people won’t base their political ideologies on possibly mistaken empirical claims.

  14. “Why Steve Sailer is wrong” 
     
    One reason that this topic is so interesting is that there are at least two meanings of the word “wrong” in connection with the association of IQ, genes, and race: 
     
    1)Wrong as in “false” (e.g. Jensen is wrong because there are no significant racial/ethnic differences in the frequencies of IQ-modulating gene alleles…) 
    2)Wrong as in “evil” (e.g. Jensen is wrong because his theory is evil and racist…) 
     
    Many well-informed liberals (probably including Cowen and Saletan) suspect that Jensen and Rushton are factually correct in their hypothesis that racial/ethnic differences in IQ-type intelligence are largely due to genetic rather than environmental differences. However Cowen and Saletan also strongly feel that it is morally wrong (evil) to believe this. Thus they try to skirt the issue by yammering on about how we all have to consciously ignore the concept of race (Saletan’s solution) or we have to be careful avoid becoming evil racists (Cowen’s apprehension). 
     
    If believing that some racial/ethnic groups are innately inferior to others with regard to IQ-type intelligence is a defacto racist belief, and if it is actually true that some racial/ethnic groups are inferior to others with regard to IQ-type intelligence; then people will have to make a decision if they wish acknowledge the truth and be scientifically correct (and scientifically racist) or if they want to deny the truth and remain politically correct (and remain non-racist). 
     
    During the past several decades people in all western nations have been thoroughly inculcated with Boasian views of ethnic/racial equality, it basically constitutes the new secular religion. So the knee jerk tendency of all good-thinking people is to view the Galtonian/Jensenist perspective as inherently racist. I think that if we in the HBD movement are honest with ourselves we can understand why people would see our viewpoint as racist because for all practical purposes and in terms of the common understanding of racism, our viewpoint actually is racist. Now the interesting question becomes, what specific aspects of racism are evil?

  15. I think it would have been far better had Tyler Cowen not even addressed the issue. Certainly he is a clever economist and there are many, many things about economics one can talk about that do not involve discussion of correlations between race and intelligence. This kind of discussion can certain land an academic person in political hot water. We all know this and certainly Cowen knows this based on the experiences of Watson and Summers.  
     
    I agree that Cowen’s posting is a lot of hand waving that, in the end, fails to discredit any of Sailor’s positions. Cowen knows his hands are tied about these issues. Perhaps it is more sensible for him simply to not discuss them.

  16. A very large proportion of the genes in the human genome are implicated in the workings of the brain. It is seventy thousand years or more since various human populations started evolving away from each other under wildly different environmental pressures. Surely the onus should not be on those who acknowledge human biodiversity in mental processes to make their case, but on Liberal idealists to justify theirs. Tyler Cowen: can you offer any scientific evidence that all human races are blessed with the same mean and standard deviation for IQ?

  17. The commenter who compares the discussion to one at Brad DeLong’s blog is being highly unfair to Cowen – nobody’s so much as alleged that Cowen is suppressing comments which are critical, something which DeLong does with frequency. 
     
    Cowen does state up front that he’s dodging the question, though that’s lazy. It wouldn’t be that hard for him to email Sailer and ask “what do you believe about IQ and race, in 200 words or less?”, then answer to that. 
     
    In Cowen’s place, I’d either have been flip, and discussed why government mandated universal health insurance is a bad idea, or gone into a discussion about Sailer’s policy recommendations which derive more directly from his views on IQ and race, and how those differed from mine, or if they didn’t, why not.

  18. The commenter who compares the discussion to one at Brad DeLong’s blog is being highly unfair to Cowen… 
     
    I agree, but shutting down the comments while the conversation was informative, friendly, and very, very active was stupid and obviously done because Sailer’s supporters were showing up with the facts.  
     
    There wasn’t a single environmentalist who was making a good case, iirc. This obviously bothered him, and made the whole “prove Sailer wrong” idea look more and more like an impossibiity.  
     
    It’s not as bad as deleting comments, true, but it’s lame and motivated by the same impulse.  
     
    BTW, I’m a daily visitor to Marginal Revolution. I have no grudge againt Tyler Cowen. He’s actually an intelligent guy.

  19. “Am I missing something? Is there some other grand large scale benefit that will arise when society acknowledges this GNXP sanctioned truth?” 
     
    The hoped for benefit is that when our ruling elites acknowledge the reality of HBD, they may stop pushing for social policies that are destroying our society and its institutions. 
     
    Politically correct thinking has destroyed the public schools in my lifetime. (I speak as one who has had to teach in them.) The only possible way to salvage them is to allow some segregation by ability. If this also results in some segregation by race i.e. the pre-algebra class turns out to be of a different complexion than the pre-calculus class, so be it. I promise never to even mention the fact, if our ruling elites will promise to stop screaming “racism” about it. 
     
    Unrestricted third-world immigration is going to destroy our country–socially, politically and economically. If the tipping point when the country becomes majority non-white occurs at the same time that peak oil sends the world economy into a decades-long depression, I hate to even imagine the consequences. 
     
    The realities of HBD are unpleasant to contemplate. In the hands of hateful men they could even be dangerous to the stability of the country. But we cannot afford that our ruling elites remain ignorant of them and enact policies based on that ignorance.

  20. This is the first point Tyler made in his posting: 
     
    Let me first say that I am not the Steve Sailer oracle. On such a sensitive matter I don’t wish to misrepresent anyone, so I’ll simply tell you what I think of the issues, without suggesting that he or anyone else necessarily disagrees. 
     
    As Steve Sailor pointing out on his blog, this is really about a straw man.

  21. Does it count as a straw-man if you announce that the view you are critiquing is not actually held by the other fellow?

  22. If you go out of your way to associate that view with the other fellow, or even fail to take appropriate precautions to help prevent people from making that association: yes, it counts.

  23. It’s at least begging the question. So given that he wouldn’t answer the question then, could we get an answer now? What does he think Sailor believes? And what is his response to that? Or better yet, what is his issue analysis: what are the questions in play and his opinion on them? And something better than hitting softballs please. What are the genuine interesting questions up for debate?

  24. Tyler Cowen writes in the Comments: 
     
    “It’s your prerogative if you disagree with me on the issues but most of this rather long post is simply a misrepresentation of what I set out to do.” 
     
    That’s rich, Tyler, considering that your post “Why Steve Sailer Is Wrong” is simply a misrepresentation of what I have said, as you’ve more or less admitted.

  25. Before reading Sailer and GnXp (and thereby getting introduced to lots of other info, writers and blogs) I was a libertarian. Now, that I understand how the world really works, not no more. It hurts to kiss a good ideology goodbye, but if science disproves it, we must. 
     
    I don’t know what Tyler Cowen is more opposed to, HBD an sich or its [HBD's] clear refutation of libertarianism in the Reason-Cato-Julian Simon sense. If people are different, extremely different — i.e. unequal in abilities, temperaments, intelligence, time preference –, than ideas like the welfare state, affirmative action, taxes and immigration can not be reasoned with in an economist manner alone. It would create inequality on a massive scale and turn a society into, well, the Third World.  
     
    It wouldn’t surprise me if Cowen is more motivated to keep his libertarian dreams alive than possible negative consequences of HBD research. Research, btw, that will get out sooner or later and will be known widely. We all know it. Cowen, as a professor, does too. 
     
    Tons of libertarians react similarly strange when they’re confronted with the global warming these. Whatever evidence they may find, hear, discover, read or whatever, they refute it out of hand. You see, if global warming is real, it might mean carbon taxes, government regulation, institutions, etc, etc. — can’t have that! So, let’s deny this stuff and keep our dream alive. 
     
    So, it goes with HBD. 
     
    PS Sailer, you’re doing one hell of a good job.

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