Thursday 3 February 2011

Explaining versus explaining-away: the example of group IQ differences


When I used to write about IQ (general intelligence) differences between groups, I found that there were two basic assumptions towards the topic.

Either someone accepts the spontaneous impression - supported by what-appears-to-be vast amounts of consistent evidence - that general intelligence differs between groups;

or else they assume that all groups are of equal intelligence.


If someone accepts that groups differ in intelligence then this can be used as a basis to explore the concept of intelligence, measure it, discover what influences it - and so on.


But if someone assume that all groups are of equal intelligence then they need to explain-away what they regard as misleading data - what indeed (given their assumption that in reality all groups are of equal intelligence) must be misleading evidence.

And the explaining-away process operates by suggesting one after another alternative explanation, until attention is exhausted or time runs-out.


So... IQ differences between groups are explained-away by attacking the concept of intelligence. Or suggesting that it is not completely free from problems.

But if the concept is convincingly defended, and no superior alternative hypothesis can be devised, then often the alternative explanation of personality differences is proposed.

So IQ differences are explained-away as being really down to personality differences.


But when it tuns out that personality differences are much the same as IQ differences (being similarly stable throughout life, and heritable) then personality differences must be explained-away - for instance in terms of childhood upbringing.

But how to explain differences in childhood upbringing?

Well differences in upbringing turn-out to have rather similar distributions and (from the point of view of defending an assumption of equality) the same kind of problems as both IQ and personality - so differences in childhood upbringing must be explained-away - say, in terms of, say, economic differences.


But how to account for economic differences, if you are not allowed to explain them in terms of intelligence, personality or prior upbringing?

Well... perhaps in terms of evil.

Economic inequality is a product of selfishness, let's say.


But how to account for the unequal distribution of selfishness - why are the economic-haves so much more selfish than the economic have-nots?

(Recalling that differences in selfishness cannot be explained in terms of IQ, personality, upbringing or economics? - all of which have been explained-away.)


Well, perhaps selfishness differences (and/ or economic factors) can be explained-away in terms of culture - some cultures, once established, have specific socio-political or ethical systems in relation to selfishness, or specific types of economies, which lead to everything else...

Yes, okay, but what about the differences between cultures?


The terminus of this debate can only come when the ultimate explanation is found to be random, sheer luck.

In explaining-away and explaining-away any departures from an observable state of equality between groups, the only stopping point is luck.

(Luck of climate, geography, the random acts of natural disasters, random differences in the effects of disease... whatever).


And furthermore it must be assumed that random chance is self-perpetuating - because repeated acts of pure chance would tend to equalize, not polarize - so there must be first luck and then some kind of intrinsic tendency for the unequal operations of chance to be sustained and amplified.


So, everything is down to randomness, and the tendency that random differences are self-perpetuating. What of it?

If the assumption of equality is to be sustained then luck must be regarded as an unacceptable reason for group differences, at best non-moral - but in practice luck must be regarded as immoral.

It must be regarded as morally wrong that some cultures have more luck than others.

Indeed this is the bottom line for assumptions of equality - luck is immoral.


According to this line of argument, since luck is immoral, therefore people must be equalized, to compensate them for the unfairness of bad luck.

(And the process of equalization must be impersonal, machine-like, algorithmic - in practice bureaucratic.)


But why?

I don't know - because (please try to follow this!) if it is (merely) our our culture that tells us that it is not right for luck to generate inequality, and culture is (merely) a matter of chance, then this moral principle (that random chance is evil) has zero traction.

That same morality which tells us that luck is unfair is itself (merely) a matter of chance.

In explaining-away apparent inequality of intelligence, you have explained-away any morality which might regard inequality of intelligence as undesirable.


So, by logical steps we reach a bottom line of nihilism in which nothing matters because nothing is real.


Sorry, I have momentarily forgotten; what was it we were trying to explain-away?

Oh yes, the apparent differences in intelligence between groups...


On the other hand, what if the spontaneously apparent differences in IQ between groups is real?

Just assume this, for a moment, for the sake of argument.

Errr... no problem with that.

No infinite regress opening-up with that assumption.

End of discussion.



Daniel said...

Mr. Charlton,

You chronicle very well the exasperation I feel when trying to discuss these issues honestly with my close friends.

My friend, A, is sharp, honest, friendly, and loyal. He is also totally gripped with liberal ideology. Over drinks one night (it took a little liquid courage to get my true thoughts out in the open, I admit) we had a long discussion on these topics. And he temporized and backtracked basically exactly in the manner you lay out here in your hypothetical conversation.

And... where did it lead? Well, despite my increasing inebriation (and his), it led exactly to the only possible conclusion, which is nihilism. My friend, A, openly avowed a nihilist creed. Of course it depressed me to no end to hear him avow it. But, if I may flatter myself undeservedly, I believe I registered a note of shock in his visage as he followed the argument to its conclusion. He's smart, and honest, as I said, and the force of the conclusion was not lost on him entirely. At the end of a long night of drinking and debating, I made a brief case for God, but as a friend I let it lay there. It was late, we are friends, and our mutual loyalty counts for more (even in the eyes of God, I truly believe) than our agreement even on issues of such import.

If A is all these things I claim he is: intelligent, honest, friendly, and loyal; then our discussion must have made some impact. I do not consider it my mission to evangelize those dear to me, but neither do I consider it right to shrink from such open debates.

Your crystallization of this kind of talk does me a great service. Thank you.

HenryOrientJnr said...


Liberals, if they were honest, would admit that they are actually lying about group IQ differences in order to save some groups from feeling bad about themselves and others from getting all puffed up with feelings of superiority.

I suppose this is motivated by good intentions. It may indeed be advisable to avoid the subject in many (or even most) venues but definitely not in the area of science, which is supposed to be scrupulously honest and objective.

In a world where all group metrics, such as height (Masai vs. Pygmy), running ability (Kenyan vs. Japanese), aptitude for basketball (black vs. white) and so reveal wide variability between different groups there is no way an honest and competent scientist could possibly believe that for the metric of intelligence ONLY every group would average 100.0, 100.0, 100.0... It strains credulity even without considering the abundant evidence that this is not in fact the case.

Bruce Charlton said...

Daniel - Thanks!

HOJnr - a valid point. But I am not sure about the good intentions.

The assumption of equal heritable intelligence / same heritable personality traits between groups is in fact absolutely pivotal to mainstream left wing policies - since this assumtion underpins the assumption that unequal outcomes between groups implies discrimiantion against groups.

This assumed prejudice then underpins the vast and growing apparatus of state-implemented group preferences (such as affirmative action, funneling resuorces to 'under-represented' groups etc) which probably is the major leftist platform of leftist policy; and indeed their main rationale for creating mass dependency on the staate hence buying leftist votes.

So if it is indeed well-meaning to deny heritable group IQ (and personality) differences, then it is also self-serving.

a Finn said...

IQ debate from the viewpoint of liberal power.

In the internet lives an assumption that perhaps the extensions of liberal power, PC scientists, could be partly persuaded to change their IQ views by publicizing contrary evidence; after all, PC views are false, and according to scientific principles they should change their views when given/ when they see appropriate evidence.


a) Power has to lie. Power is distant from the people and it has to control large masses of unknown people, which can't be properly controlled, observed and assessed. Power generally can't be tailored to individual needs or cases. Organization of power and it's processes through time create inevitably situations where the organizations' and it's processes' outputs, goals and smooth functions are disrupted by the elements of masses or straying members of the elite, if power doesn't lie publicly. It is just a question how much and what kind of lies power tells, and what are their positive and negative consequences to the people. Also, whatever the content of the lie, it is meaningless and can't be understood, or it's significance evaluated without relating it to the power structure and it's processes.

b) It is inconsequential why the extensions of power, in this case scientists, lie or "lie". Perhaps they "lie" because of stupidity, ignorance or because they for some plausible reason believe the lie. Perhaps they lie because they conform out of fear, convention or indifference. Perhaps they are opportunists, whose eyes are always fixated only on money and status. Perhaps they enjoy lying to the hated massess. Etc.

Power cares ultimately only about the form of output, but if it is possible, prefers to control the internal processes of it's extensions to make the processes more reliable.

Continued ...

a Finn said...

Part 2.

b) Power has to reproduce itself regularly. PC IQ studies can be compared to stinking urea of a furry animal, which regularly marks it's territory by urination. With this it signals to the environment, that it is upholding certain rules and arrangements in it's territory. It is a matter of unconcern how worthless the IQ study is, or on the contrary, if it is shoddy, it is a good thing. In the latter case the liberal power expresses extra power. In the old times power could tear criminal to pieces in a spectacle to show everybody that "We can do this to him and he can't resist." Now the liberal power "tears" the truth apart in a public lying spectacle, and scientists and other members of the elites don't dare to resist, although at least scientists should according to scientific principles.

c) On the other hand PC IQ studies create an illusion of public conversation to the masses (effective power always concentrates many purposes to a single function). Some people participate in this "conversation" with non-PC arguments expecting that maybe they can in roundabout and slow way correct at least some of the mistakes of the scientists of PC power. But this is like talking to a mute doll. Power is an responsive interlocutor only with other powers, and according to certain rules and definitions with workers inside power structure, and with designated people and groups outside power structures. In matter of fact, when PC organizations and processes are arranged as they are, they can't produce anything except PC. PC power can produce non-PC only by breaking down in some serious way or changing radically. This unchanging and unresponsive character of PC power is meant to discourage those who try to speak truth to power (parrhesia). Nothing parrhesists say or do seems to have an effect on PC power. Secondly, parrhesist in essence announces to the system a "fault" in the system, which can now be located and attacked by the PC power. Attack strenghtens the solidarity between PC members and sharpens the divide between "good" ingroup and "bad" outgroup. Also, it either removes the "error" in the system, or if not, it can be used regularly as a target of attack. PC power needs certain quantity of "enemies" to uphold it's solidarity. PC power just tries to keep the "enemies" quantity statistically small and/or they power weak.

Bruce Charlton said...

I agree. To 'engage' is at best futile and at worst counter-productive. But it took me a long time to learn this!

a Finn said...


I don't want to discourage anybody from writing or speaking about IQ differences, the message just perhaps should be directed to intelligent non- elites, and not expecting anything or much from the elites.

Steven Luotto said...

The elites have only poorly reversed engineered Christianity, in which intelligence was secondary to goodness.

Morality is the great equalizer, not intelligence. But as evinced by the Duchamp Urinal (worth 1,800,000 dollars) the Atheists (the liberals) made a mockery of truth (and beauty) and consequently of all morality. This leaves them (unwittingly) clinging on to something they have proactively destroyed. Instead of defending a truth, they find themselves defending an indefensible lie.

Now the ex-liberal "realists" are kicking in and they'll be even worse for their morality will be tremendously utilitarian and limited in scope. It will be "real."

I submit that the true realists think morally: the only possible and desirable egalitarianism. Then if there are more white scholars than blacks, so be it.

The truth of Biology creeping into politics is no substitute for the message of Christ.

All the intelligence and IQ tests merely confirm what people have experienced all along. They will swell with the pride of science and return to Eugenics.

But smart is not good. Good is smarter and no one is beyond good and evil.

dearieme said...

Jolly odd, leftism. It expects us to believe that everyone is Special but also that everyone is essentially interchangeable.

Anonymous said...

In a truly diverse world (which is to be desired, although that word has been apportioned and ruined) complete equality is neither to be expected nor desired.