March 2, 2005

Malcolm Gladwell on "The Sports Taboo: Why blacks are like boys and whites are like girls"

Best-selling Author Malcolm Gladwell Said the Same Thing As Larry Summers, and About Race As Well! The top selling non-fiction book Blink is coining mucho bling for Malcolm Gladwell, yet in 1997 Gladwell wrote a New Yorker article called "The Sports Taboo: Why blacks are like boys and whites are like girls," which made exactly the same argument as Larry Summers made about what is innately different in the capabilities of males and females -- that men have a larger standard deviation on many traits, so there are more men at the top (and bottom) of the bell curves. But Gladwell also extended the argument to race:

"Sometimes a baseball player is just a baseball player, and sometimes an observation about racial difference is just an observation about racial difference. Few object when medical scientists talk about the significant epidemiological differences between blacks and whites-the fact that blacks have a higher incidence of hypertension than whites and twice as many black males die of diabetes and prostate cancer as white males, that breast tumors appear to grow faster in black women than in white women, that black girls show signs of puberty sooner than white girls. So why aren't we allowed to say that there might be athletically significant differences between blacks and whites?

"According to the medical evidence, African-Americans seem to have, on the average, greater bone mass than do white Americans-a difference that suggests greater muscle mass. Black men have slightly higher circulating levels of testosterone and human-growth hormone than their white counterparts, and blacks over all tend to have proportionally slimmer hips, wider shoulders, and longer legs.... There is a point at which it becomes foolish to deny the fact of black athletic prowess, and even more foolish to banish speculation on the topic. Clearly, something is going on. The question is what.

"A useful case study is to compare the ability of men and women in math. If you give a large, representative sample of male and female students a standardized math test, their mean scores will come out pretty much the same. But if you look at the margins, at the very best and the very worst students, sharp differences emerge. In the math portion of an achievement test conducted by Project Talent-a nationwide survey of fifteen-year-olds-there were 1.3 boys for every girl in the top ten per cent, 1.5 boys for every girl in the top five per cent, and seven boys for every girl in the top one per cent. In the fifty-six-year history of the Putnam Mathematical Competition, which has been described as the Olympics of college math, all but one of the winners have been male. Conversely, if you look at people with the very lowest math ability, you'll find more boys than girls there, too. In other words, although the average math ability of boys and girls is the same, the distribution isn't: there are more males than females at the bottom of the pile, more males than females at the top of the pile, and fewer males than females in the middle. Statisticians refer to this as a difference in variability.

"This pattern, as it turns out, is repeated in almost every conceivable area of gender difference. Boys are more variable than girls on the College Board entrance exam and in routine elementary-school spelling tests. Male mortality patterns are more variable than female patterns; that is, many more men die in early and middle age than women, who tend to die in more of a concentrated clump toward the end of life. The problem is that variability differences are regularly confused with average differences."

Likewise, Summers said in his infinitely denounced speech, as I pointed out in my essay in the National Post of Toronto last week:

"It does appear that on many, many different human attributes -- height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability -- there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means … there is a difference in the standard deviation and variability of a male and a female population."

In other words, as any woman could testify, there are more stupid men than women; likewise, at least in math and spatial reasoning, there are more brilliant men than women.

Summers stated;

"… if one is talking about physicists at a top twenty-five research university, one is not talking about people who are two standard deviations above the mean. [In a normal bell curve, only one out of 44 individuals is that much above average.] And perhaps it's not even talking about somebody who is three standard deviations above the mean [or one out of 741]. But it's talking about people who are three and a half [one out of 4,299], four standard deviations above the mean [one in 31,574] …"

Observing that among the top five percent of twelfth-graders in math and science, it's common to see two boys for every girl, Summers estimated that the variance in ability is about 20 percent greater among males. He went on,

"If you do that calculation -- and I have no reason to think that it couldn't be refined in a hundred ways -- you get five to one [males per female], at the high end."

So, Gladwell, who makes something like $1 million dollars per year speaking to corporations, believes exactly the same thing as Summers about the math skills of males and females.

Now, let's get back to Gladwell's New Yorker article as he tries to extend this correct statement about gender to race.

" The same holds true for differences between the races. A racist stereotype is the assertion of average difference-it's the claim that the typical white is superior to the typical black. It allows a white man to assume that the black man he passes on the street is stupider than he is. By contrast, if what racists believed was that black intelligence was simply more variable than white intelligence, then it would be impossible for them to construct a stereotype about black intelligence at all. They wouldn't be able to generalize. If they wanted to believe that there were a lot of blacks dumber than whites, they would also have to believe that there were a lot of blacks smarter than they were. This distinction is critical to understanding the relation between race and athletic performance. What are we seeing when we remark black domination of élite sporting events-an average difference between the races or merely a difference in variability?

Gladwell is being excessively tricky here, as he so often tends to be. Gladwell thinks that it's not too politically incorrect to say that there are differences in variability between the races, as long as he doesn't say there are differences in means. But as the denunciations of Summers have shown, lots of politically correct people think it's deplorably sexist to say: "Even though men and women are equal in intelligence, greater male variability means that more men than women will be smart enough to get tenure in the Harvard math department." (Indeed when Summers mentioned that "white men are very substantially underrepresented in the National Basketball Association," the WSJ sniffed, "According to the transcript, Mr. Summers cited no sources for these assertions …")

Gladwell went on:

"This distinction is critical to understanding the relation between race and athletic performance. What are we seeing when we remark black domination of élite sporting events-an average difference between the races or merely a difference in variability?

"This question has been explored by geneticists and physical anthropologists, and some of the most notable work has been conducted over the past few years by Kenneth Kidd, at Yale. Kidd and his colleagues have been taking DNA samples from two African Pygmy tribes in Zaire and the Central African Republic and comparing them with DNA samples taken from populations all over the world. What they have been looking for is variants-subtle differences between the DNA of one person and another-and what they have found is fascinating. "I would say, without a doubt, that in almost any single African population-a tribe or however you want to define it-there is more genetic variation than in all the rest of the world put together," Kidd told me.

"So you can expect groups of Africans to be more variable in respect to almost anything that has a genetic component. If, for example, your genes control how you react to aspirin, you'd expect to see more Africans than whites for whom one aspirin stops a bad headache, more for whom no amount of aspirin works, more who are allergic to aspirin, and more who need to take, say, four aspirin at a time to get any benefit-but far fewer Africans for whom the standard two-aspirin dose would work well. And to the extent that running is influenced by genetic factors you would expect to see more really fast blacks-and more really slow blacks-than whites but far fewer Africans of merely average speed. Blacks are like boys. Whites are like girls.

"There is nothing particularly scary about this fact, and certainly nothing to warrant the kind of gag order on talk of racial differences which is now in place.

Indeed, that "fact" is particularly not scary because it's not a fact. As I wrote in "Seven Dumb Ideas about Race" in 2000:"

#7 "Most of the human race's genetic variation is among black Africans."

This chestnut is true only for junk genes, the DNA that doesn't do anything. Junk genes are highly useful to population geneticists tracing the genealogies of racial groups, but they don't affect anything in the real world.

Then, are black Africans highly diverse physically? Well, that depends upon who you are lumping together. There are indeed some highly unusual peoples in Africa, but almost none of them were brought to America as slaves. The most genetically distinct people in sub-Saharan Africa are the Khoisan. These are the yellowish-brown, tongue-clicking Bushmen and Hottentots of the Southern African wastelands, the remnants of a great race that once dominated most of Africa before the blacks ethnically cleansed them from the more desirable lands. The most striking contrast in Africa is between the tiny Pygmies and the ultra-tall herding tribes of East Africa. But except for the 7'7", 190-pound basketball novelty Manute Bol, few of either group made it to America. In contrast, the West African tribes that did provide the vast majority of American slaves are relatively homogenous. Cavalli-Sforza sums up the situation on the ground like this, "… differences between most sub-Saharan Africans other than Khoisan and Pygmies seem rather small."

There is little evidence that blacks tend to be more variable than whites in things that matter. In IQ, the standard deviation for blacks appears to be slightly smaller, not larger as Gladwell seems to assume, than for whites. Gladwell's logic implies that there would be more blacks than whites per capita in Ivy League math departments. That, I can assure, you is not true.

The New Yorker is famous for its fact-checking department (although it seems to have a very narrow definition of what is a fact since it gave the OK to Gladwell's complete misinterpretation of Kidd's statement), but it definitely doesn't have a logic-checking department. A few minutes thought would shoot enormous holes in Gladwell's complicated but ridiculous argument.

If black IQ is more variable than white IQ, as Gladwell implies, then blacks should be over-represented in high IQ positions, such as Ivy League faculties, yet the NYT just reported: "From 1993 to 2003, the percentage of tenured black professors on the Ivy faculties remained essentially flat at 2 percent." (And quite a few of those were in Black Studies departments.)

In reality, the big racial difference in intelligence in America is not in variance but in the mean, which differs by a full standard deviation. No, the big mistake is to use the the term "racist" at all in discussions of empirical matters.

Similarly, there is little evidence that the difference in athletic ability between blacks and whites has anything to do with differences in variance. Gladwell is unmarried, but I've spent lots of time shepherding my kids at playgrounds and sports fields, and the average racial difference in running speed is apparent from toddlerhood up. There simply is no question that average sprinting ability is higher among black kids than white kids.

The same is true for distance running ability in East Africa. Physiologist Bengt Saltin took members of the Swedish Olympic track team to compete against St. Patrick's high school in the Kalenjin area of Kenya's highlands. Dr. Saltin estimates there are at least 500 schoolboys in the region who could beat Sweden's best man at 2,000 meters.

So, the least Gladwell could do is speak out in defense of Summers.

My homepage and blog is


Anonymous said...

Well Gladwell is not the sort of person who be stepping into a science career with these ridiculous statements.

Whites have a much higher degree of genetic variation, thats why we have more geniuses than any race of people on the planet and thats why we are also the least homogenous in appearance of any race of people. And im quite sure almost every person in sweden is smarter than africas smartest person.

khydraa said...

"And im quite sure almost every person in sweden is smarter than africas smartest person."

That may be a bridge too far. There are about 680 million Africans. You're also dealing with Semites in north africa, who are a little smarter, and some whites. There are 4 million whites in South Africa, and maybe as many whites as in Sweden continent-wide. Africa's smartest person may be as smart as Sweden's smartest person.

Anonymous said...

Whites have a much higher degree of genetic variation,

As usual on this site, you're just flat wrong. The highest degree of genetic variation is found among Africans.

Anonymous said...

"And im quite sure almost every person in sweden is smarter than africas smartest person."

Wow! Us Africans must not be making a very good impression for someone to make such a sweeping statement. Kenneth Kidd's research must be unsettling for many, but there is still no need to bury one's head in the sand.

Given access and adequate rigor, I wouldn't bet against Africans being highly represented in any endeavour - physical or mental. To take one solitary example, in the 1970's, an inner city, impoverished, all black junior high school(the Vaux school) chess team were national champs 7 years in a row, and 8 out of 9 years. Similar excellence was achieved in Harlem when a team there became national champs a year after a rigorous program's inception, repeating year after year.

The accomplishments were all the more impressive when one considers their economic position relative to more financially endowed and priviledged, mostly White school districts. If we read Kenneth Kidd's research dispassionately, the excellence in chess of poor African Americans or the academic excellence of West Africans in England should come as no surprise. Really, Africans should be among the most and least gifted in most areas.

Anonymous said...

"There simply is no question that average sprinting ability is higher among black kids than white kids."

Please provide independent evidence/data to support this point.