September 6, 2005

Favorite Footnotes

from Charles Murray's "The Inequality Taboo:" The publication of Murray's summary of new IQ research since The Bell Curve has elicited the predictable Two Minute Hates at liberal sites, especially among people who sort of know better, but are engaging in the old throw-somebody-to-the-wolves routine to protect themselves from the packs of haters. (Kevin Drum, that means you.) Of course, there's little evidence that the denouncers have read the new article (or the old Bell Curve, for that matter).

I figure readers are quite capable of reading Murray's article for yourselves, but I thought I'd highlight a few of my favorites from his 10,000 words of footnotes and bibliography:

72. Over the years since The Bell Curve was published, it has been especially exasperating to be told, or to see it written, that Herrnstein and I were wrong because we did not know about the Flynn effect. We not only provided the first discussion of the Flynn effect aimed at a general audience; we named it (Herrnstein and Murray 1994: 307–09).


Main Text: On most specific human attributes, it is possible to specify a continuum running from “low” to “high,” but the results cannot be combined into a score running from “bad” to “good.” What is the best score on a continuum measuring aggressiveness?... All of us use the weighting system that favors our group’s strengths.1

1. If you think this is mushy nonjudgmentalism, try a thought experiment: Suppose that a pill exists that, if all women took it, would give them exactly the same mean and variance on every dimension of human functioning as men—including all the ways in which women now surpass men. How many women would want all women to take it? Or suppose that the pill, taken by all blacks, would give them exactly the same mean and variance on every dimension of human functioning as whites—including all the ways in which blacks now surpass whites. How many blacks would want all blacks to take it? To ask such questions is to answer them: hardly anybody. Few want to trade off the unique virtues of their own group for the advantages that another group may enjoy.

Sometimes these preferences for one’s own group are rational, sometimes not. I am proud of being Scots-Irish, for example, even though the Scots-Irish group means for violence, drunkenness, and general disagreeableness seem to have been far above those of other immigrant groups. But the Scots-Irish made great pioneers—that’s the part of my heritage that I choose to value. A Thai friend gave me an insight into this human characteristic many years ago when I remarked that Thais were completely undefensive about Westerners despite the economic backwardness of Thailand in those days. My friend explained why. America has wealth and technology that Thailand does not have, he acknowledged, just as the elephant is stronger than a human. “But,” he said with a shrug, “who wants to be an elephant?” None of us wants to be an elephant and, from the perspective of our own group, every other group has something of the elephant about it. All of us are right, too.


37. I will venture a prediction that a variety of academic achievement measures in elementary and secondary school will soon show renewed convergence [between whites and blacks] because of the No Child Left Behind Act, which puts schools under intense pressure to teach to the test in basic skills. If students are drilled on limited ranges of subject matter, scores will tend to rise. The more basic the tests are (that is, the easier they are), the more that improvements among the least skilled will affect the mean. Also, the higher the stakes facing a school—and the No Child Left Behind Act makes those stakes very high indeed—the greater will be the incentives for administrators to use some of the many resources at their disposal to make the results come out right, through the judicious manipulation of suspensions and absences, and through outright cheating (yes, it has been known to happen). Some convergence in black and white test scores will probably occur, but partitioning that effect among the competing explanations is a task that will take a few years. Insofar as the convergence has been the result of teaching to the test and of artifacts, it will be temporary.


46. I put aside here the explanation that has received the most publicity in recent years, the phenomenon labeled “stereotype threat.” Its discoverers, Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, demonstrated experimentally that test performance by academically talented blacks was worse when a test was called an IQ test than when it was innocuously described as a research tool (Steele and Aronson 1995). Press reports erroneously interpreted this as meaning that stereotype threat explained away the black-white difference. In reality, Steele and Aronson showed only that it increases the usual black-white difference; if one eliminates stereotype threat, the usual difference remains.

The misrepresentation of these results in the mainstream media was grotesque. For example, the narrator of the PBS television program Frontline told his viewers that “blacks who believed the test was merely a research tool did the same as whites.” The Boston Globe reported that “Black students who think a test is unimportant match their white counterparts’ scores.” Newsweek reported that “blacks who were told that the test was a laboratory problem-solving task that was not diagnostic of ability scored about the same as whites.” Such claims have now infiltrated major psychology texts. The third edition of Psychology by Davis and Palladino (2002) reports that “The results revealed that African-American students who thought they were simply solving problems performed as well as white students.” Similar statements have appeared in scientific journals. All of the above examples are taken from Sackett, Hardison, and Cullen (2004). Sackett et al. also have a nice description of how the research results should have been described: “In the sample studied, there are no differences between groups in prior SAT scores, as a result of the statistical adjustment. Creating stereotype threat produces a difference in scores; eliminating threat returns to the baseline condition of no difference” (9).

Readers may follow the latest in the debate by reading a set of responses to Sackett, Hardison, and Cullen (2004) in the April 2005 issue of American Psychologist, but nothing in the critiques overturns the above description. The existence of stereotype threat has indeed been demonstrated. It is an interesting phenomenon, and some claims have been made that reducing stereotype threat can improve scores on certain tests (Good, Aronson, and Inzlicht 2003), but the widespread assertion that stereotype threat explains a significant part of the observed black-white difference is wrong. The dissemination of that false assertion is perhaps understandable in the case of journalists who are not supposed to be sophisticated about such topics. It is less easily explained away when done by authors of technical articles and textbooks.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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