September 3, 2006

The Derb on Race and Conservatism

In the New English Review, John Derbyshire posts his speech at the Robert Taft Society last week:

Meanwhile, among nonblack Americans, a rigorous and intolerant ideology of “anti-racism” has grown up. The opinions a nonblack American has, or more precisely voices, about race are now a major in-group (I mean, among fellow nonblacks) status marker.

Let me just elaborate on that a little. Modern neuroscience perceives the human brain as a modular structure, different modules performing different functions. Since humans are quintessentially social animals, much of the brain is given over to processing social information. A big part of this information concerns in-group status. We need to be constantly evaluating, and re-evaluating, the status of ourselves and others in the various groups we belong to. A mistake in this respect can be fatal—as, for example, in the case of an undersized low-status male foolishly challenging one of the group’s alpha males. Evolution has a way of weeding these things out. Some neuroscientists have postulated an entire module of the brain given over to these highly important issues of in-group status evaluation.

Among American nonblacks in the present age, being known to have “incorrect” opinions about race results in catastrophic loss of status.

A literary example will illustrate the point very well. Here is America’s foremost observer of our social mores, Tom Wolfe, writing in the mid-1980s in his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. In the extract below we have a lower-middle-class but upwardly striving white couple, the Kramers. The Kramers have a baby, and have hired a nurse to help look after it. Their yuppie instincts led them to an agency recommended by the New York Times, and the agency provided them with a crisply-turned-out, briskly efficient, English baby nurse, also white.

The presence of this Englishwoman in their apartment causes considerable psychic stress to the young couple. On the one hand, she is an employee, so of course they, who are paying her wages, ought to outrank her in status. One the other hand she is English. It is a peculiar thing—a very peculiar thing, when you consider this nation’s origins—that being English gives you extra status points in the U.S.A. all by itself. It’s odd, and I do not know why it is so; but I can assure you, being English-born myself, that it is so. So this baby nurse, socially inferior to the Kramers on an employer-employee scale, actually outranks them on status, just by virtue of being English. The psychic stress is, as I said, acute.

Then one day the husband, wife, and baby nurse are watching news footage of a race riot on TV. The English nurse passes some mildly anti-black remarks: “The colored don’t know how good they’ve got it in this country…” etc. I will let Tom Wolfe tell the rest.

Kramer and his wife looked at each other. He could tell she was thinking the same thing he was.

Thank God in heaven! What a relief! They could let their breaths out now. Miss Efficiency was a bigot. These days the thing about bigotry was, it was undignified. It was a sign of Low Rent origins, of inferior social status, of poor taste. So they were the superiors of their English baby nurse, after all. What a #$%@^&! relief.

As always with Tom Wolfe, this is absolutely spot-on social observation. Reveal yourself to be racially “incorrect,” and watch your in-group status points go swirling down the toilet. And look at the emotions on display there. In-group status evaluation is not just a matter of cold arithmetic. Powerful emotions are engaged: pride, humiliation, envy, fear. The co-opting of this key portion of the nonblack psyche by “anti-racist” reformers was a tremendous triumph. ...

What, actually, is that orthodoxy? What defines the meaning of those words I have been putting in scare quotes—“correct,” “anti-racism,” and the rest?

I think a single dogma encompasses it all. For my purposes here, I shall call it the Dogma of Zero Group Differences, or DZGD. ...

The first, and unhappiest, thing to say is that the results are, by definition, statistical. This is a terrible drawback to sensible discussion in the public, the political, sphere. Statistical truth is extraordinarily difficult for untrained minds to grasp. I know what I am talking about, for I was once a teacher of statistics.

I use a different thought experiment to illustrate this sad truth. Imagine you are addressing a room full of people. We can let them be quite well-educated people, so long as they are not trained statisticians. A room full of students from some university Humanities department will do nicely. Now say the following thing to the room: “Men are, on average, taller than women.” I can almost guarantee—it is nearly a dead certainty—that someone in the room will stand up and say something like: “What about Sally? She’s taller than any of us. Taller than you, for sure—Ha ha ha ha!” The room will then consider your thesis to have been decisively exploded. Men taller than women? Nonsense! Look at Sally!

That, I am afraid, is how the untrained human mind works. For the past few years I have been writing pop-math books for a living, and let me tell you, it’s damn hard work. Mathematical and scientific thinking is deeply unnatural. Statistical thinking about our fellow human beings is doubly or trebly so. It goes against all the grain of human nature, against all the social habits programmed into our brains. Anyone can see Sally, but without special training, no-one can see a group average, let alone a standard deviation. We are all interested in other people, but very few of us are interested in multivariate distributions or correlation coefficients. [More]

Actually, I don't think that is exactly true. Humans have an innate talent for thinking in terms of correlations. Teenagers, for example, are remarkably good at sizing up other teenagers from minor visual clues, guessing that somebody with haircut X will like band Y. Similarly, the vast majority of nice white liberals with children don't buy homes in black neighborhoods, even though the houses tend to be cheap and conveniently located near downtown jobs.

What modern Americans are terrible at is not thinking statistically but thinking about thinking statistically. It's only when Americans put on their public pronouncement caps that they turn into the pompous fools that Derb describes in the example about Long Tall Sally.

An important question is how universal is this contemporary American intellectual incompetence about probability. Are humans naturally unable to think intelligently about thinking statistically, or is this just a form of learned stupidity that has been beaten into our heads in America in recent years? Do the Chinese think this way? Did Americans used to think this way?

When I was kid, there was a common phrase called "the exception that proves the rule." It means, in the Derb's example, that the fact that we call Sally, who is long and tall, "Long Tall Sally" implies that most people named Sally are not long and tall.

You don't hear this phrase much anymore. I used it in my first major article, "Why Lesbians Aren't Gay," to point out that Camille Paglia was the exception that proves the rule that lesbians tend to be less interested in European high culture than gay men. (Paglia is famously at odds with most other lesbians, and she has suggested that her personality and artistic interests are more similar to those of gay men than to lesbians.)

Judge Richard A. Posner wrote to me objecting that the phrase "exception that proves the rule" made no sense. I pointed out to him that what it means is that facts that are famous for being exceptional are good evidence of a contrary statistical tendency. That Joan of Arc is famous for being a female general suggests, correctly, that most generals are male.

If Judge Posner can't grasp this, what hope is there for the rest of us Americans?

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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