June 15, 2009

My VDARE.com review of Nisbett's "Intelligence" book

Here's an excerpt from my book review:
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 na├»ve 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.

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


Anonymous said...

There is a lot of money to be made affirming the conventional wisdom.

dearieme said...

Did he marry a really stupid woman, on the grounds that he could coach her to be intelligent, and that anyway her stupidity would have no implications for their children? No doubt he did.

Anonymous said...

Dangerous Minds was a hit movie, grossing about 180 million worldwide, not to mention the huge hit song that it spawned. I've never seen it and I am sure it is completely forgetable, but I am not sure "fizzled" is the right word I would use to describe its performance (unless you mean "fizzled" in the sense that people quickly forgot about it and you never even see it on TBS or TNT, in which case you have the point, but I wouldn't know). An example from this genre that fit your statement would be the Hillary Swank movie, Freedom Writers. Another possible one could be The Principal, which wasn't a hit (although I liked it at the time) but I see it on TV every once in a while. That one may belong more to the school violence genre, rather than the inspirational teacher one, although it contains many elements of the former. I'm sure there are others, but it seems to be a fruitful genre. Lean on Me, Stand and Deliver, and Mr. Holland's Opus were all succesful to one degree or another and get frequent TV play.

OneSTDV said...

A few points:

I envision Nisbett's book slowly replaces Gould's as the standard anti-HBD Bible.

In regards to the "dedicated teachers" movies: I feel sorry for those deluded, insulated Ivy League liberals who sign up for Teach for America. They actually believe those stories are plausible.

The three studies you mention: The Abcederian Project was discussed in Murray's "Real Education". The improvements were rather mundane and unlikely to have any real world consequences.

As far as the widescale acceptance of Nisbett's book: I posted about this at my blog: http://onestdv.blogspot.com/2009/06/media-portrayal-of-hbd.html

Anonymous said...

It would be like Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper —as rewritten by Pol Pot.

Lucius Vorenus said...

Steve Sailer: ...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...

...movies about dedicated teachers who overcome societal prejudices to make a difference in the lives of their students...

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Someone needs to go back and examine the records [such as they exist] and track down the old students [to see what they've done with their lives since then, and maybe to perform some ex post facto testing on them] and try to figure out just what it was that Jaime Escalante was doing at Garfield.

Were his students merely Pavlovian dogs trained to regurgitate answers to AP Calculus questions that they didn't really understand?

Were his students aboriginal Hispanics or European Hispanics [or other]?

What were [or are] their IQs?

To what extent were they self-selected?

What have they done with their lives in the last 15 or 20 years?

Do any of them now remember anything of what they were taught by Escalante?

What were their college graduation rates and college majors [technical -vs- soft]?

Are any of them now employed at technical work which uses mathematics [even just arithmetic or algebra] on a daily basis?

Or were they once employed at technical work but had to find new careers because they couldn't cut the mustard? [Dittoes with college majors - did they try for technical majors but abandon them in favor of soft majors?]

And then wrap it all up by comparing them with a control group of Garfield students who didn't interact with Escalante.

Of course, since Escalante was widely publicized as being a Republican, I doubt that there's a chance in Hades that any bureaucrats at the Department of Edumukashun would approve a million dollar grant application to finance that study [unless you could convince them that the purpose of the study was to ruin Escalante's reputation].

In theory, someone in the private sector could finance the study, but to do it right, you'd need access to the raw [unedited, unfiltered, uncensored] student test scores at Garfield [and throughout the broader LAUSD for elementary & middle school records], and I don't know how you'd get permission for that without some sort of despotic imprimatur.

PS: Someone on another thread was right - Lou Diamond Phillips really is Filipino.

Dutch reader said...

I haven't seen all 31 of the "dedicated teacher" movies, but I do happen to have recently watched the French movie "Entre les murs" which is on the list.

It does not fit at all into the same category as the ridiculous (in more ways than one) "Dangerous Minds" and the like.

Yes it is about a dedicated highschool teacher (in a majority-migrant Paris neighbourhood), but there is a sense of inevitability about much of the story. The students do not become instant geniuses, far from it. If anything, much of the movie (which was made using amateur actors for most of the roles, using their actual first names - showed how reality has a way of snapping back into its original state. The best student of the class (at least at maths, French being his weakest subject) is a Chinese boy. Unfortunately for him, his parents are illegal immigrants who run into legal trouble at some point. Another smart kid whose national background is not disclosed but looked East European to me, and he had a very ambitious mother who made constant efforts to to get him into a better learning environment (gifted program or better school). Most of the students were streetwise, as you might expect, but not academic high-performers.

The two most problematic characters were black.

The first was an African kid (some scenes show the rivalry between Caribbean blacks, black Africans, and North Africans (Moroccans, Algerians etc). He refuses to do any homework (despite the teacher's sustained efforts to stimulate him) and finally gets expelled for insulting the teacher and fighting in class. The attitudes of the students (especially the black and Muslim ones) look perfectly true to life to anyone familiar with problematic Muslim groups in Europe (such as the Moroccans in the Netherlands), and of inner city blacks as portrayed in US movies (as I don't have any personal experience with US ghetto blacks, I have to rely on the media image for that).

The only kid who turns out to be sort of a revelation is a North African looking girl (curiously with a non-Muslim name) who, at the end of the term, turns out to have read Plato's The Republic (in translation).

This occurs at the end of the film where all the kids tell their French teacher (who is the main character as well as the writer/director of the movie) what they have learned during the past year. Although the tone of that scene is optimistic, if what the kids tell they've learned really reflect their level of knowledge (e.g. the hilarious distorted renditions of the Pythagoraean theorem, or the chemical process of oxydation) it doesn't bode well for the kids' professional future.

Another interesting similarity between French and American schools appears to be the insistence on PC language, and avoiding 'the soft bigotry of low expectations'. When our well-meaning main character discusses the progress of one of the students (the one who is expelled later in the story), actually trying to defend the boy, but makes the fatal mistake of describing his academic potential as 'a bit limited', he is overheard by students who then file a formal complaint with the school board which might lead to his dismissal (in the end, after being throuroughy humiliated, he does manage to keep his job though).

The most memorable part for me was the final scene where, after everybody has had their turn telling what they've learned and have gone home for the summer break, one black girl - not one of the loudmouth trouble makers but a shy kid - approaches the teacher after class and tells him: "I haven't learned anything." -"About what?". - "About what we do in class". - "In my French class?". - - No, in every class".

It is interesting to note that script was only laid down in very broad general lines and that most of the dialog was improvised by the kids (the BTS footage includes bits of early 'practice versions' of the scenes).

I really don't think this movie belongs on the fairy tale list with most of the other Dedicated Teacher and Unrecognized Geniuses movies.

Anonymous said...

Jean Brodie made a difference in the life of a student by getting one of them killed on the way to the Spanish Civil War and another one into the bed of a married man. I think you need another example.

SF said...

Then there is "Churning into Butter," with Sarah Jessica Parker as a Dean of Students trying to deal with the college attempts to diversify. It is a mixture of race reality and political correctness. The racial epithets turn out to have been done by an African-American, as has happened a couple of times in real life. The Puerto Rican student drops out because they wouldn't let him put "Newyorican" on his scholarship application. The unreal part: she resigns and goes back to her all black college in Chicago.

Anonymous said...

The most disturbing part of this review was the implication that David Brooks has a conscience.

Otherwise, a good piece.

Anonymous said...

This review reminded me of the fact that the politically correct often call politically incorrect ideas cliches, bromides and the like even though you never hear these ideas on TV and never read about them in the commercial press.

From this one can draw the obvious conclusion that some ideas are so deficient that they have to fight for survival even if they're repeated ad nauseum by millions of hacks every day.

Yet other ideas are so powerful that they make the powers that be sweat even if they're only ever encountered on God-forsaken, little visited, never advertised corners of the Internet.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Curious: Your site search yields no hits for "Daviess" (county in KY) or "Silberman" (Stu, a superintendant now at Fayette County). Do you have an opinion on his graduation 2010 program, which claims to have gradually but steadily increased test scores in the district? The principle behind the K-12 program is building brains by having every student learn music, a foreign language, chess, and folk dance all the way through school. It sounds intriguing, and the numbers are supposedly there, but I haven't seen anyone fisk them rigorously yet.

He got in trouble in the new district for replacing a great white principal with a less-proven African-American one under pressure from AA parents. The conventional wisdom is he just caved, not wanting to risk his program's popular support.

testing99 said...

I'm involved in an after school charity. We take the best and the brightest (as funneled through the school counselors) of entering HS Juniors. We give them:

*Extensive training in how to cooperate, work together, manners, etc.
*Lectures/seminars on careers from working engineers, physicists, architects, scientists and elsewhere at places from Merck to NASA's JPL.
*How-to seminars and help in applying for colleges.
*Math/science labs at the local university.

ALL our kids get in to full scholarships, at various universities. Some turn down Harvard or Yale or Stanford because it's not a full ride and they can't afford it. Others go to local schools (UCI, Long Beach) because it's close (and they can live at home -- cheaper).

While we have not tracked extensively, most of our kids go on to become working engineers, chemists, and so on. Our best example is a guy working on his PhD in Bioengineering at Stanford. Probably our worst is the gal who got a BA at Yale in Chicano Studies.

Our program takes the cream of the crop in a barrio school district. Even in the Barrio there are kids who are extremely High IQ, very motivated, interested in Math/Science (which is what we do). You can find in a big enough population really, really smart people anywhere.

The question is, how many? I suspect if we went to more middle class (read: White/Asian) places we'd have a much bigger pool of applicants. We'd love to do that of course but we don't have the money (for historical reasons we are at the certain school district). But even in the barrio if you get just the cream of the crop you can get some real amazing talent. We pull about 18-22 kids each year (varies with funding) out of an applicant pool of about 6,000 potential kids.

BUT we don't have a magic bullet. I've never seen one ever in Education. Escalante probably took kids like ours, the smartest/best/brightest, kids who were already motivated and looking for a way out and up, and coached em up. That's all we do. Coach em up. Our kids were already 4.00 GPA or near it, all Math/Science classes, high test scorers, and subject to lots of personal interviews.

Anonymous said...

Pt 1

Rediscovering Human Biodiversity – And Completing Darwin’s Revolution

A Call for a Progressive Discourse on Racial Difference

“Progressive race realism”? Isn’t that an oxymoron? A contradiction in terms? Isn’t the belief in racial diffetence the ultimate bedrock reactionary conviction?

On the contrary: an acknowledgement of human biodiversity means embracing – finally! – the “diversity” of the human condition. It means recognizing – finally! – “difference” in all of its multidimensionality.

The real question here is: Why has the simple and undeniable reality of human biodiversity become the last great ideological taboo?

Scientifically, there is no controversy whatever. The question is strictly political: Would a forthright recognition of human difference necessarily signal a return to crude racial classifications, chauvinism and intolerance? Or would the humanist ethic be able to absorb the shock of a forthright recognition of human biodiversity?

Would the political implications of such a recognition be catastrophic? Or would the current universalizing consensus, based on the belief in a single and undivided humankind, instead be enriched? Surely the principle of legal and political equality can still be maintained once the myth of genetic identity has been abandoned? Surely the former does not depend on them latter?

Progressives, meanwhile, continue to police the limits of discourse, nervously repeating the polite fiction that “we are all exactly the same under the skin” – that is to to say, with a few “miniscule” and “inconsequential” exceptions such as the shape and color of skin, hair, lips, eyes, etc., differences like bodily proportions, bone density, length of pregnancies, degrees of susceptibility and of resistance or immunity to certain diseases, ability to efficiently excrete sodium, ability to digest animal milk, lung size... On second thought, these differences aren’t really all that “miniscule” and “inconsequential” after all – hence our queasy reluctance to acknowledge any of them: once we get started, who knows where it will lead? To discussions of “warrior genes” and race?

And yet the list of group genetic differences between human populations multiplies daily as scientists observe and quantify them with increasing accuracy and exactitude. As a consequence, informed individuals live on two levels simultaneously – in a kind of enforced schizophrenia. On the one hand, we brusequely deny that there are significant inherited differences between human groups, but on the other, we are increasingly fascinated by whatever we can glean of the latest discoveries in the field of human biodiversity – confined for the most part to specialist journals, but also surfacing in the public consciousness because of the growing importance to the practice of human medicine of racially distinct disease etioligies and responses to medication.

Ironically, this stalling tactic only ensures that when it finally does arrive in the public consciousness with full force (as inevitably, it must), the recognition of human biodiversity will represent a far more jarring and disorienting shock than is necessary.

The reasons for these denials on the part of progressives (not just in the United States, but in Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere) have little to do with science, and everything to do with politics – specifically the politics of race and of integration and assimilation, with remorse for slavery and for colonialism in Asia and Africa and elsewhere, with attempts to establish equality and equity between the various ethnicities which often share common national homes.

Anonymous said...

Pt 2

Rediscovering Human Biodiversity – And Completing Darwin’s Revolution

A Call for a Progressive Discourse on Racial Difference

But well-intentioned ignorance is still ignorance, and censorship in the cause of racial harmony is still repressive and stultifying. Meanwhile, while progressives circle the wagons, denying the undeniable and maintaining a firewall between public discourse and the breakneck discoveries of the biosciences, those with a racist axe to grind (whether they refer to themselves as “racialists,” “race realists,” “white nationalists,” “separatists,” or something else) are gleefully mining this treasure trove of new knowledge and are building a new politics of race on its basis.

The perverse consequence, meanwhile, of the progressive “hear/see/speak no evil” approach is to grant the far-right a total monopoly on public interpretations of the exploding discoveries of the biosciences. And a total monopoly of characterizations of their implications for human health, human society, and human culture.

Rather than leaping into the fray and attempting to steal the thunder of far-right “race realists” by articulating a progressive discourse on biodiversity, progressives have simply maintained a stoic silence while the myth that we are all “the same under the skin” crumbles to dust around us – demolished not by the thankfully still remarkably few isolated and marginalized racist groups that continue to exist in the US, but instead by the accumulating avalanche of scientific data on human biodiversity.

Elaborate debates about the term “race,” meanwhile, are red herrings. The term is indeed ideologically fraught, and is often avoided, but euphemisms ultimately alter nothing: we are talking about clearly observable and quantifiable differences between human population groups – between individuals of African, Asian, European, etc., heritage. Sensitivity to linguistic nuance is always a virtue, but the fetish for disappearing problematic realities by banning certain words is reactionary know-nothingism.

Based on my own experiences in academicia, it is clear that beyond the political stakes involved, lingustic hairsplitting (“deconstructions of discursive structures”) is often a nervous tic of scholars in the humanities who are ill-equpped to follow contemporary scientific discourse, and who often compensate by producing opaque and scholastic mumbo jumbo designed to repel the uninitiated and to certify their superior comprehension of the political and philosophical implications of the “merely empirical” findings of those unimaginative grunts toiling away in the lab.

There is nothing esoteric, of course, about the origin of this ideological stalemate, of the inability of progressives to engage in a genine “dialogue on race.” It is simply the persistent learning and achievement gap and cognitive deficits experienced by some ethnic minorites. It is, of course, the political consequences of the possibilities that cognitive differences could be at least partly attributable to genetic and racial difference that terrifies progressives: What happens to the political project of equality once we have abandoned the a priori (for that is what it is: a mere postulate with no basis on observable reality) that all groups have identical cognitive strengths and weaknesses, identical temperaments and styles of learning?

Until recently, the correlation between the natural intelligence of a population and its cultural and scientific achievements was regarded as axiomatic. Today, anyone expressing his view is vilified as a racist. Can we strike a balance, one that respects cultural diversity without suppressing science?

Anonymous said...

Pt 3

Rediscovering Human Biodiversity – And Completing Darwin’s Revolution

A Call for a Progressive Discourse on Racial Difference

I don’t pretend to have answers to any of these questions – least of all those related to social policy . All I want to do is to point out that the polite fiction of the genetic sameness of all racial groups has become unsustainable in a globalized world, a world where different peoples encounter one another at close quarters every day, bringing greater understanding, but also greater recognition of deep differences of temperament and character. And in a world where the rapidly accumulating revelations of bioscience make this polite fiction seem every bit as quaint as the 19th century’s hysterical denials that “man was descended from the apes.”

In retrospect, the notion that we are “all the same under the skin” was always a simplistic but paralyzing ideological straitjacket remote from the kinds of fine distinctions characteristic of research in the biosciences and in human psychology. For if the human epidermis has evolved only in recent millennia to adapt to the limited sunlight of northern Europe, if the human digestive system acquired the gene for lactose tolerance only during the past several thousand years, then every organ of the human frame may well have been evolving steadily as well, and we can expect to find almost an infinite number of genetic and physiological variations almost anywhere we bother to look.

One could continue to argue, of course, that although these manifold differences are physically real, there remains a single anamolous exception: human character, human intelligence is somehow the same, is somehow invariant everywhere and at all times. But why should it be? Among other things, this would mean that the human brain – which is, after all, simply an organ like any other – is somehow, and unaccountably, not subject to Darwin’s Law of Natural Selection. This is not science, but instead theology.

Every few years, a prominent politician calls for a “national dialogue on race” – as though we have not been discussing race incessantly, uninterruptedly for 150 years and more! As though race had not been a national obsession for most of the history of this nation!

And yet anyone who calls for a public discussion not only of institutional racism and of the history of discrimination, but instead of race (or whichever word we want to substitute for this tainted term) as a biological phenomenon, an uncensored and public discussion of human biodiveristy, is immediately labeled a “racist” and a “reactionary” – regardless of his/her politics or even lack thereof.

This stalemate must be broken. The far-right monopoly on interpretations of bioscience must be ended. The firewall between science and the public sphere must be torn down just as the Berlin Wall was torn down 20 years ago.

We are all descended from the same primeval family, and it is this common origin that unites us. The fact that differing human populations have evolved marked differences during the intervening millenmia is not a problem, but instead a legitimate source of joy, fascination, pride – something to celebrate openly, not to coneal with shame and fear.

Once we have conquered our fear of unleashing the demons of racism that are chained up in the cellar, once we have conquered our own fears of being stigmatized as “racists” for simply acknowledging what all scientists everywhere already know, then the richness of human biodiversity will be a legimimate topic for all of us, not just professional geneticists and psychologists – and far-right radicals.

Anonymous said...

But well-intentioned ignorance is still ignorance, and censorship in the cause of racial harmony is still repressive and stultifying. Meanwhile, while progressives circle the wagons, denying the undeniable and maintaining a firewall between public discourse and the breakneck discoveries of the biosciences, those with a racist axe to grind (whether they refer to themselves as “racialists,” “race realists,” “white nationalists,” “separatists,” or something else) are gleefully mining this treasure trove of new knowledge and are building a new politics of race on its basis.

Ive found myself more and more open to a WN position not because I'm a hard right racist seeking to build a new politics based on race realism. In fact I'm a sort-of liberal who found myself facing up to race realism.

Having come to terms with that, a race realist position forces one to accept (well, me anyway) that much of what is portrayed as cuddly, fluffy, well meaning racial egalitarianism thats just a tiny bit misguided is anything but (see anon pts 1 to 3).

In fact it seems to be an explicit anti-white policy and not some blind unconscious process which we have somehow got caught up in.

Mencius Moldbug said...


(1) Looks great. Get a blog and put it up! Or better yet, get a Kos diary ;-)

(2) On the other hand - have you considered the possibility that this isn't the only question that the old reactionaries turned out to be right about?

Truth said...

"I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Someone needs to go back and examine the records"

And I've said it before and I'll say it again, If SOMEONE needs to do it, get your lazy ass off the couch, stop wasting server farm energy, use your 150+ IQ to do your research and write a book!

none of the above said...

The main question w.r.t. isolated "super teacher" stories is whether their success can be replicated elsewhere. It's quite possible that there are extremely talented teachers that can make a huge difference in their students' lives, pushing people to move from being underachievers to overachievers w.r.t. their innate abilities. But if that is the result of some one in a million talent, it's a great thing, but it's not a very useful solution to our educational problems.

Similarly, isolated super-teacher stories could easily reflect the luck of the draw. If you have a million classrooms full of kids drawn from a population with a low average IQ, you will sometimes get a class with a lot of relatively bright kids. One day, you get a class full of Sowells and Thomases and Gateses and Rices and Gonzaleses and Sotomayors, and it looks like you're a teaching genius, when really, you just got a bunch of really bright kids and were a good enough teacher to let their potential come through.