"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Persistence of Mismeasure

"I will state the obvious," writes Ezra Klein, and then he goes one to state what really should be obvious but is not to people like Sam Harris and Charles Murray (but it also obvious, given it's Sam Harris and Charles Murray, that they don't acknowledge it):

White people enslaved black people on this land before the United States was even a country. Our founding document counted African Americans as three-fifths of a person. If I drive a few minutes into Virginia, I will ride over a highway named for US senator and Confederate leader Jefferson Davis, who said, “We recognize the fact of the inferiority stamped upon that race of men by the Creator, and from the cradle to the grave, our Government, as a civil institution, marks that inferiority.” The current president of the United States has made defending the monuments of Davis and his compatriots a signature issue.
What Klein fails to state, or even address, in all his discussion of Harris, Murray, race in America, and "IQ," is that "IQ" is a bogus standard of measure that doesn't really measure anything except a narrow range of human function which we privilege above all others and which we still use the way Murray and Harris use the concept of race:  to establish hierarchies where we who can discern "IQ" to determine who is superior to those whose "IQ" we deem insufficient to demand.

First, what is "IQ"?  I am told it is measurable and quantifiable and reflects to some degree cognitive ability.  But then, what is "cognitive ability"?  The ability to think?  I heard a computer scientist go on for an hour yesterday about how algorithms do that, and even "learn."  He was using the terms so loosely they were actually metaphors, because for "think" he meant follow a mathematical formula which quantifies data and treats the results as "learning".  Like Netflix "learns" what I want to watch from what I've watched, and comes up (rarely, if at all) with more movies I would be interested in.  Or Google, which still tells me what the score of the last Astros game was, largely because I followed them in the World Series.  Thanks, but can the algorithm learn to leave me alone?

Children don't "learn" this way.  They don't acquire language by piling up data until they discover patterns for syntax and vocabulary and sentence structure and causal analysis and identification by nouns and adverbs and use of adjectives.  What the scientist was describing as "learning" was not learning as humans do it at all, but the metaphor was convenient to his argument so he conflated the metaphor with the object, and declared the unicorn discovered.  And I can't find a substantive difference between that error and the error that if "IQ" says someone is more likely to fail at a particular set of cognitive skills (say, math, or even reading) than someone else, then "IQ" is an adequate picture, even measure, of those cognitive abilities.  "IQ" describes this difference because we say it does, not because it actually reflects a measure present in the world like weight or volume or mass.  It is as valid a measure of intelligence or cognitive ability as a child's outstretched arms are a measure of her love for her mother.  (Indeed, why do we presume to measure cognitive abilities but not the ability to love, or feel empathy, or to make connections to others?)  The correlation between "IQ" and cognitive ability exists because we insist it does, because we insist that people who measure a low "IQ" also measure cognitive disabilities, or inabilities, that people with high "IQ" don't display.  But of course a person with greater cognitive ability is also a person more likely to be able to pass a test.  One might as well say a person who can play a piano by ear is superior to the trained pianist because they have a special skill the trained pianist lacks.  Does the "natural" player have a higher "PQ" (let's call it) than the trained pianist?  Or are their abilities simply different ones, stemming from different sources?  Does it even make sense to establish a hierarchy in this case?

And why do we do it for cognitive abilities?

That privileges come with "IQ" cannot be doubted, else why are Sam Harris and Charles Murray concerned with what races have better scores than other races?  If they were arguing about why white men can't jump, we'd all point and laugh.  If they were arguing that blacks are more emotional, and therefore more dangerous in a crisis (and so shooting them is not a bad thing for cops to do, when in doubt), we'd all be outraged.  But they argue that "IQ" is a determinant that must be argued, and we all engage in the argument.

Well, Ezra Klein does, anyway.

What is it about "IQ" that makes us want to argue about its proper application?  What are we preserving, and why?  We finally abandoned the measurements of cranial capacity (before and after death) to determine the superiority of races (back when races, as in some of Klein's examples, were actually considered species, not just variants in inherited physical characteristics).  Now we have shifted to "IQ," but the argument that Stephen Jay Gould called "The Mismeasure of Man [sic]" continues unabated.  Only the names have changed.

There really isn't any need to carefully separate "IQ" from the arguments of Harris and Murray, to separate the gold of the measurement of cognitive ability from the dross of Harris and Murray's racism.  The answer is simple:  "IQ" is a useless measure that tells us nothing about our fellow human beings and only allows us to continue to give an objective veneer to another false hierarchy which we should be abandoning rather than continuing.  If you have to argue any further with Harris and Murray than that they are simply racists, you are doing it wrong.  You are trying to hang on to the hierarchy they want to defend, except you think it is only a lesser version of it because your version, at least, is not racist.

Racism is not the only sin of human classification; it is not the only way we establish who is above, and who is below, and why "they" deserve to be separate from "us."


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