October 20, 2007

Levitt weighs in on James D. Watson

In his Freakonomics blog on the New York Times, economist Steven D. Levitt issues a stirring defense of freedom of speech and scientific inquiry. Well, no, actually, Levitt sidesteps that whole tarpit and instead complains that he, Levitt, should have gotten more publicity.

James Watson, Black Intelligence, and New Research by Fryer and Levitt

Nobel Laureate James Watson got into trouble recently for expressing the opinion that blacks are less intelligent than whites.

If you look at almost all existing data from standardized tests in the United States, there is indeed a sizable black-white test score gap. Whether the gap is due to genetic differences is a hotly debated academic question.

Roland Fryer and I have done some research on this topic which we think is potentially quite interesting and important — although we seem to be the only ones with this opinion at present. (The paper was rejected yesterday by the American Economic Review on the second round of review, and a search of Google Scholar reveals only two citations to the working paper version released in early 2006.)

In my work with Fryer, we analyzed a newly available nationally representative survey of children ages two and under, done by the Department of Education. Included in this study are tests of mental ability around a child’s first birthday. While you might think it would be impossible to capture anything meaningful at such a young age, it turns out that these measures of one-year-olds’ intelligence are somewhat highly correlated with IQ scores at later ages, as well as with parental IQ scores.

The striking result we find is that there are no racial differences in mental functioning at age one, although a racial gap begins to emerge over the next few years of life.

So what does this mean for the genetics vs. environment debate? Quoting from our abstract, “the observed patterns are broadly consistent with large racial differences in environmental factors that grow in importance as children age. Our findings are not consistent with the simplest models of large genetic differences across races in intelligence, although we cannot rule out the possibility that intelligence has multiple dimensions and racial differences are present only in those dimensions that emerge later in life.”

Like all research, our study has its flaws and limitations. I have to say, however, that I imagined a lot of reactions to this paper, none of which were utter indifference on the part of academics and the popular press. But that was the reaction we got.

I just did a study of lactose tolerance among one-year-olds, and guess what? I didn't find any racial differences! They were all lactose tolerant. So all those stories you hear about how East Asians don't have a gene for lactose tolerance are just racist myths! I proved it with science!

I also did a study of one-year-olds' ability to slam dunk on a ten foot basket. Once again, there were no racial differences. None of them could dunk. I even lowered the basket to six feet and still there were no racial differences in dunking. So, when you watch the NBA and there are all these blacks guys slam dunking, that's just racism. Who are you gonna believe, science or your lying eyes?

Then, I got a bunch of Kenyan and Ethiopian highlander one-year-old babies together with some other babies and timed them in the marathon. As always, there were no racial differences. Not a single baby of any origin finished the 26.2 mile run. So, the next time the top ten finishers at a big marathon are eight Kenyans and two Ethiopians, don't believe it!

You don't want to end up like James D. Watson, suspended from running the laboratory that you have built up over the last 39 years for political incorrectness, do you?

Seriously, I always love how the New York Times is oh-so-skeptical about IQ testing in general, except when it supports something they like, and then credulity is the order of the day. Look, there is no IQ test for 1-year-olds. What Levitt did in this paper is look at a test of infant liveliness (e.g., how often the infant babbles) that has a fairly low but positive correlation with childhood IQ (a correlation which is, by the way, quite common. Indeed, it's hard to find a behavioral measure that is not at all correlated with IQ -- drumming ability is the most famous example of something with no IQ correlation, as all the Drummer Jokes told by high IQ rockers like Pete Townshend, Mick Jagger, and David Bowie might suggest.)

So, this test of liveliness of 8 to 12 month olds doesn't show the differences seen among older children on IQ tests! If that isn't stop the presses news, I don't know what is.

Indeed, the highest IQ children (Northeast Asians) do the worst on this test of infant vivacity. With a typical Freakonomic leap of faith, Levitt and Fryer suggested that this shows that IQ differences aren't genetic but are caused by environmental differences, presumably between age 1 and the earliest ages at which IQ tests are semi-reliable.

Of course, all Levitt actually did was show that this test of infant liveliness is a racially biased predictor of IQ. Why is it racially biased? Well, there are lots more ways for something to go wrong than to go right, but one obvious possibility is that the test of infant alertness might measure traits that differ on average between the races, but aren't related to IQ differences between the races. For example, within a race, babies that babble more turn out to be a little bit smarter on average than more taciturn babies. Yet, Asian infants don't babble as much on average as other babies, but that doesn't mean they'll turn out to have lower IQs on average than babies from races that babble more. But pointing out that this test of babies is racially biased is not as sexy a story as claiming it shows Nurture Triumphs Over Nature.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


TabooTruth said...

Weren't these arguments on early IQ just used by Brooks in his inane column? So are we going to constantly be hearing the same arguments over and over again as hopefully more Watsons speak out?

Anonymous said...

"It is well recognized that gross motor skills develop in black infants earlier than in their white counterparts. There is also evidence of earlier fetal maturation. The incidence of the fetal passage of meconium during labour is strongly related to gestational age, increasing from less than 5% at 34 weeks in white European women, to over 25% post EDD. Black infants are significantly more likely to pass meconium in utero at all gestational ages, indicating earlier maturation."

Anonymous said...

I remember watching the video on challenges to his abortion paper when Lott mentioned a paper of his own that had not been accepted, which was met with "That's because its an awful unpublishable paper". Maybe Levitt should consider that idea to end his puzzlement over the reaction to his research on 1 year olds.

Oh, and by the power vested in me by the internet I hereby dub your latest post kosher criticism that does not seem petty. You may now pat yourself on the back.

Anonymous said...

Another example:

Height correlates with intelligence _within_ every racial group, but _between_ racial groups we find this doesn't necessarily hold. Short East Asians are much smarter than tall blacks.

Levitt didn't mention the more interesting fact in his paper that racial cognitive gaps are even very noticeable between 1 and 2 year old white and blacks. That is very early. And at most it is obvious that racism or whites can not be the main source of such a gap. The IQ gap is entirely present by age 3 before whites ever enter the picture.

But if black parents caused the gaps, then transracially adopted blacks would not develop low IQs. But they do. So the only plausible factor is genetics. If it can't be society and it can't be parents, there are few other places for it to come from.

Anonymous said...

Steve, this is one of the favorite techniques of egalitarians all over the place. I remember watching a BBC documentary where infants (probably around 6 months old) were filmed with large snakes around and they didn't freak out. Ergo? Fear of snakes is learned! Ergo? We can all live in harmony with snakes, scorpions, and fuzzy bears if we stop discriminating against those wonderful creatures.

Here's my two cents: I can pick a baby crocodile and a baby eagle fresh out of their cracked egg shells, and show that baby crocs cannot kill antelopes any better than baby eagles can. Ergo? It's learned. Maybe lions do the honor of teaching them. If lions and platipuses didn't discriminate against eagles and taught them, too, poor dears would be equally gifted at antelope-killing.


Anonymous said...

I'm literally in shock. This has to be one of the most ridiculous things on the racial gap I've ever read.

A few points. Didn't Levitt argue in Freakonomics that reading to one's child had no effect on their educational performance and IQ (I might be confusing with somebody else but I think it was him)? Yet, in this study, what does he list as one of the environmental determinants? The number of children's books in the house! I guess we know how seriously he takes his own research.

And there is this howler of an understatment from the end of this paper:

"A final argument in defense of the genetic story would be one in which the racial differences are concentrated in higher order thinking (or general intelligence, “g”, see Jensen, 1998) which may not yet have emerged among one year olds."

Anonymous said...

I find a new approach being tested by liberals. In their eagerness to talk about the Flynn Effect, they must somehow come up with a palatable way to discuss demonstrated IQ differences between the races. They do this by saying that we're all like the children of Lake Woebegone; i.e., that "blacks are smart, whites are smarter, and Asians are smartest."

So you see, we're all above average! It's just that some of us are more above average than others!"

Sriram said...

This piece of research wouldn't have passed muster for an undergraduate honors thesis. Maybe Levitt is completely at sea when dealing with subjects outside his speciality and, whats more, doesn't seem to be aware of the limitations of this research.

MensaRefugee said...

Steve is getting cranky >_<

Anonymous said...


La Griffe du Lion has written about there being a split in Asian IQ, with the verbal being much lower than the their very high math/spatial kind, but when averaged together Asian IQ still comes up at around 105. Do you think this relative lack of babbling is correlated with this verbal deficiency, or do you disagree with La Griffe du Lion's take on this IQ split that, if I recall, one only sees in Asians and American Indians?

Anonymous said...


That is hilarious, I myself have met a number of one year olds. They all struck me as fairly dim. Despite my cognitive advantage over infants, in my experiments, it is not in fact easy to take candy from a baby. The baby frequently cries. When other adults are around, they always take the baby's side.

Anonymous said...

Pick and choose is the order of the day, as is willful blindness in the incredible persistence of the near-religious faith in "tabula rasa."

Anonymous said...

"it turns out that these measures of one-year-olds’ intelligence are somewhat highly correlated with IQ scores at later ages"

Somewhat highly? What kind of qualification is that?
I think Levitt wrote this when he was somewhat high.

Anonymous said...

Levitt again. I hope he doesnt come out with some theory that abortion caused the Flynn effect!

Anonymous said...


MensaRefugee said...

I think Carleton Coon said in his book "The Races of Man" that chimpanzees were equals to humans till about the age of 1.

So where are all the chimp-integrationists? :P

Anonymous said...

What did the drummer get on his IQ test?


Anonymous said...

mensarefugee asked:

So where are all the chimp-integrationists?

See the Great Apes Project.

Remember, diversity is our greatest strength.

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, read the Great Apes Project's Declaration.

You may laugh ("this won't go anywhere") or even sympathize ("well, of course we shouldn't torture them")...but this is precisely how other social changes were effected: first a thin wedge enters, then a few decades later the wedge is in farther, then, at last, you find yourself in the street because you objected to your granddaughter's marrying a bonobo.

Anonymous said...

Sailer's petty jealously of Levitt is getting tiresome. Levitt has a wonderful career supported by people like myself because his career is based on higher truths. The focus on higher truth infuriates the conservative low thinkers. But it is our progressive agenda that is relevant and driving events.

Think we don't "deal in reality"? We create reality. And that is something a conservative never thinks is possible. Next time you come to Manhattan or the Hamptons try first bringing up Levitt in conversation. Then trying bringing up Sailer. Or look for books by the two men in any major bookstore in the country. That is your reality check.

Anonymous said...

Levitt is a shameless self-promoter and conniving jerk (as Steve’s last post about his recent lying scheming illustrate). The fact that he would publicize his incredulity at the reviewers’ rejection and parade his own pandering ignorance of which we writes speaks volumes to the man.

He probably was already counting the dollars from this little ditty making him the next Gould of the PC movement. He forgot he submitted his paper to a peer reviewed econ journal, not some intellectually gutted sociology or education rag or uncritically enthusiastic MSM reporter like Charlie Rose.

How dare anyone claim to be his peer, much less exposes his newest freaky idea as unworthy of publishing in a serious academic journal!

Anonymous said...

"Think we don't "deal in reality"? We create reality. "

That's a pretty good riff on "2+2=5" Red Wine. Extra dynamic...over on a break from NRO?