Judith Rich Harris, 1938-2018


With hindsight, I judge Steve Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature as something of a high-tide in biologically informed realism in the psychological and behavioral sciences in the 21st century. A reread is bittersweet, knowing what has come to pass. But one of the best things about The Blank Slate is that he gave extensive publicity to Judith Rich Harris’ The Nurture Assumption. I like to think, perhaps hope, that her work influenced many “Generation X” parents.

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The rich can afford to not steal

Pardis Sabeti has an op-ed in The Boston Globe, For better science, call off the revolutionaries. In it, she contrasts and compares the changes in social psychology and genetics over the past 15 years. In the former, you have had the replication crisis, while in the latter you saw the confirmation that many candidate-gene studies were not robust and replicable.

Sabeti observes that while there has been a great deal of vehemence in the change in social psychology, in genetics people have taken the overturning of the old studies in stride, and not personalized it.

I think we can all agree that personal attacks, vehemence, and Jacobin behavior is counter-productive to what science aims to be. This applies outside of the context of the replication crisis in social psychology. The problem emerges when you ask what the alternative strategy is to overturn an entrenched order.

Though it’s implied in the piece, the reason that geneticists could be more graceful probably has more to do with the situation they were presented with in the 2000s. The rise of genomics and computation generated a surfeit of data and the ability to analyze that data. Repeated gains in power and precision mean that every overturned orthodoxy gave rise to many more research opportunities. An established researcher whose candidate-gene study was overturned had bigger fish to fry than defend turf which was small potatoes set next to the possibilities of the “post-genomic” future.*

In other words, the difference here is situational. I was aware there was a problem in social psychology by the middle-2000s, because I had friends and acquaintances who were graduate students in the field. They complained about all the things that we now know were problems. It was one of those “open secrets” where less powerful people couldn’t speak the truth, and more powerful people who benefited from the status quo had no incentive to change the norms. I really don’t know how this was going to change in a gentle fashion.

* Compare the arguments between selectionists and neutralists in the 1970s vs. now. The reality is most people just want to analyze the data, not argue about theoretical issues. That’s because we have data.

Motivated reasoning in “science journalism.”

The “reproducibility crisis” has really benefited some sectors of science journalism, as there is less credulous amplification of spurious results. That being said, motivated reasoning is powerful. They “want to believe.”

So when I saw this piece in Quartz, Highly motivated kids have a greater advantage in life than kids with a high IQ, I immediately scanned for what I usually look for, and found it:

Over the next four decades, the Gottfrieds and several colleagues collected a staggering trove of data on the study participants, yielding important insights into working parents, temperament, and other topics. Researchers collected information about participants from parents, teachers and transcripts, tested their IQ and motivation levels,and even visited their homes. In all, the Fullerton Longitudinal Study has amassed an estimated 18,000 pieces of information on each of the remaining 107 participants. “It’s our life’s work,” says Allen cheerfully. “We’ll take it to our grave.”

107 participants. Lots of information huh? Things that make you go hm….. Also, 19% of the children had IQs of 130 or above. About 2% of the population has an IQ at this level. The sample size was relatively small, and the sample was very unrepresentative.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t real results in these data. But I don’t think they warrant the fanfare in the title, except for the fact that people want a silver bullet that will abolish social inequality.

Even the text itself doesn’t justify the title at all (to be fair, usually headline writers differ from the persons writing the text of a piece): “[Motivation] in itself is accounting for a certain amount of variance in achievement that goes above and beyond IQ….” That is, they don’t even say it accounts for more of the variance, only that there is variance that isn’t accounted for by IQ (which everyone already agreed upon).

Finally, I’ve spent my life around highly educated and intelligent people a bit perplexed and befuddled by my diverse interests. This includes in academia. So I can see that there is a difference between people for whom learning is a means to a professional and social ends, and for those whom learning is the ends. I suspect the ancients could have told you this!

The backlash against social psychology was pent up demand

Both Slate and The New York Times, have pieces deconstructing the fall from grace of  “power posing.”

This is all obviously wrapped up in the “replication crisis”, which is impacting most sciences which use some statistics and are characterized by modest and complex causal effects (social and biological sciences in particular).

Obviously, I am no social psychologist, but can I just say that everyone knew there was a problem in the field a long time ago. By everyone, I mean psychologists. I had friends who worked in related fields who told me as early as 2006 not to trust anything coming out of social psychology. Others described how p-hacking and “unconscious” data manipulation was relatively common in psychological experimentation, and the personal stands they had to take to avoid engaging in the practices which were ubiquitous.

When everyone knows that something is wrong, but no one says anything, you have a coordination problem. But once the snowball starts rolling down the hill…everyone decides to speak their mind.

Finally, there’s the demand-side problem: ideas like power posing, implicit bias, and stereotype threat, offer neat, clean, and powerful explanations and oftentimes solutions for social problems. Wonkish Left-liberal publications and pundits in particular literally mine the literature to “show what the science says” (don’t worry, it overwhelmingly confirms prior beliefs).

As a testament to the power of the likely wrong (not robust) viewpoints, consider that John Bargh has a book out published this month, Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do. Bargh’s work was one of the first research programs to be critiqued in the early 2010s. Of course, he doesn’t agree with the critics, but it does strike me that the field as a whole (e.g., people like Daniel Kahneman) believe that these subliminal effects are much weaker than originally claimed, at best. Nevertheless, Bargh is going to sell his books, and people in coffee shops and airports all over the country are going to eat it up. The reality is that subliminal effects are probably not that different than Freudianism; there may be something there, but it isn’t nearly the deal that the practitioners claimed it was.

Addendum: Arguably, the candidate gene studies of the 1990s and early 2000s and under-powered GWAS of the mid to late 2000s, fall into the same category. But I don’t know any geneticists who defend these results or engage in that analytic paradigm in 2017.

Addendum II: Since some have asked, The Invisible Gorilla is a very good book. It helped crystallize many of my skepticisms of the psychology to pop social science conveyer belt.

The coming reign of the Baby Boomer gerontocracy

From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life is one of my favorite books. It’s one of those works whose breadth and depth is such that I would recommend it to anyone. Jacques Barzun began writing this work when he was 84, and it was published in his 93rd year. Born in 1907 Barzun saw the full efflorescence of 20th century Western culture across much of its span firsthand. When people say that when you age you gain wisdom, surely in the domain of scholarship Barzun’s production in the last few decades of his life would qualify.

But not everyone is Jacques Barzun. If you read Intelligence: All That Matters or peruse some of Eliott Tucker-Drob’s work you will know that cognitive function declines with age beyond your twenties. Different subcomponents may decline at different rates. And, they decline differently in different people (e.g., some people may develop dementia, so their faculties will decline far faster at an earlier age). But, by and large any gains in experience or wisdom are going to be balanced against declines in raw analytic ability, as well as the slow entropic loss of information.

This is not an inconsequential matter. Our governing class is quite old. The average age in Congress may be 55 to 60, but it is almost certainly true that more senior members with more power and authority are older. The president of the United States is 70 years old. If you look at the plots in these figures by 70 there has been a notable drop in intelligence by this age, though again, it may vary from person to person.

But most important in light of these figures is that the Supreme Court is a lifetime appointment, and many of its members are quite old, an anticipate serving until they are quite old if they are younger. In the mid-1970s justice William O. Douglas had a stroke and was basically not mentally competent to serve. Because of this fact, and Douglas’ reluctance to retire his fellow justices basically did not take his vote into account. Three of the justices today are over the age of 70, with Clarence Thomas nearing that age, and two are over the age of 80.

When it comes to Congress, or even the President, there seems to be some sort of institutional support as well as the larger collective vote in the case of Congress, which might buffer the cognitive impact of a gerontocracy. But aside from law clerks Supreme Court justices have to rely on their own individual mental capacities.

The Mormon Church has a gerontocracy among its we openleadership. Even my most devout friends in the church sometimes found it amusing how old their leadership was, and how quickly they died in succession due to the seniority principle. But The Supreme Court is not the leadership of a relatively small church. It impacts our whole nation. This sort of gerontocracy is no laughing matter.

Will we openly speak of the age issue? I doubt it. Today the Baby Boomers are between the ages of 53 an 71. They are coming into their own as a cohort into the highest reaches of the gerontocracy. If there is any generation with the grace and humility to step aside for the greater good, it will not be this generation.