Intelligence and How to Get It by U. of Michigan psychologist Richard E. Nisbett seems to be set in some alternative universe in which James D. Watson’s heresies are the almost-unchallenged orthodoxy, Malcolm Gladwell is a pixel-stained wretch barely scraping by while I’m pulling in the big bucks making speeches to national sales conventions, and poor Nisbett is a dissident bravely speaking truth to power. ...
Nisbett never explains his bizarre rhetorical strategy. But, I suspect that after a few drinks, he might justify it like this: “Well, sure, a bunch of innumerate journalists and excited ideologues like Stephen Jay Gould convinced themselves and a lot of their more naïve readers that all this IQ stuff was hooey, but you know and I know that the kind of thing you write in VDARE.com about IQ is actually the conventional wisdom … among those few who know what they are talking about.”
Nisbett’s 2004 book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why was an intriguing exploration of how Northeast Asians tend to think in terms of context and harmony while Americans are more object-oriented and innovative. Hence, I had some hopes for his new book as a critique of the views held by the best-informed.
Nisbett concedes vast swathes of normally disputed territory: IQ, according to Nisbett, is real and important; IQ tests measure it accurately; there are sizable racial gaps in IQ; and IQ tests are not culturally biased (which will come as a big surprise to Sonia Sotomayor). On many of the issues I covered in my FAQs on the subjects of IQ and race, we wouldn’t have much to disagree over.
Nisbett, however, tries to draw a line in the sand in two places by:
- Denying absolutely that heredity plays any role in the existing black-white IQ gap
- Asserting vociferously that IQ is highly malleable
... Unfortunately, Nisbett’s handling of the evidence in Intelligence and How to Get It undermines his own reputation. Terms like “cherry-picking,” “scattershot,” and “disingenuous” come to mind. Arthur Jensen and J.P. Rushton have already pointed out many of the ethical shortcuts Nisbett has taken in order to appeal to the Gladwellites, and an upcoming review by a Harvard psychology grad student named James Lee will also be damaging.
Moreover, despite his book’s self-help title, Nisbett hasn’t figured out an actual plan for increasing IQ among one’s own children, much less among the masses of black and Hispanic poor.
Depressingly, out of the countless educational experiments tried over the last five decades, he mostly trots out the same old handful of legendary preschool intervention studies whose claims of success have been debated back and forth for much of my lifetime: the Perry Preschool Program of the mid-1960s, the Milwaukee Project of the late 1960s, and the Abcedarian Project of the late 1970s. Even Nisbett laments, “a huge amount of research needs to be done to establish whether something like the Perry or Milwaukee or Abecedarian program would be effective and feasible if scaled up to national proportions.”
... Nisbett’s recounting of the lore of preschool IQ Improvement projects brings to mind a concern that nagged at Herodotus, the Father of History, back in the 5th Century B.C.: the older the tale he retold, the more miraculous the events it recounted. Rather than rehash the controversies over whether or not these storied endeavors actually worked in the distant past, the more relevant question in 2009 would seem to be: Why haven't their successes been replicated in the last 30 years?
It never quite dawns on Nisbett that educational projects aren’t exactly like chemistry experiments, which should be perfectly reproducible. Unusually successful schooling experiments are more like hit movies, which notoriously depend upon the temporary and highly unstable commingling of charismatic individuals. ...
Consider merely all the movies about dedicated teachers who overcome societal prejudices to make a difference in the lives of their students. (IMDB lists 31.) A few of them triumphed (for example, Maggie Smith’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), while others fizzled (Michelle Pfeiffer’s Dangerous Minds). You might think that Hollywood would have a formula by now for reliably churning this genre of films out, but each new one remains a gamble.
Something vaguely similar is true with schooling.
June 15, 2009
Here's an excerpt from my book review: