Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cowen on Sailer   posted by dkane @ 5/31/2009 09:25:00 PM

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!


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.