Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

Questions Best Left Unanswered

November 29th, 2007 · 3 Comments

In light of the resurgent fuss about race and IQ sparked by Will Saletan’s Slate columns, I may as well weigh in on the side of those who think this is just a largely unfruitful topic, at least for the popular press. I have no idea whether there are any average genetically-rooted intelligence differences between racial groups, and while the idea’s not intrinsically implausible, I doubt anybody else knows with any certainty either. As James Flynn recently observed, it’s hard enough to figure out the relative “inherited” and “environmental” components of intelligence, given that early signs of high intelligence themselves tend to change the “environment” children experience. Never mind all the added complications of disentangling the social effects of race.

One thing I do know, though, is that performance tends to be highly sensitive to expectations. A friend once told me about a study—perhaps a commenter can find me a reference?—in which two groups of students were casually informed in advance that previous studies had shown that women tend to perform less well on such tests. As I (fuzzily) recall, this happened to be true, and was true for the control group in the test. But the women in the group who’d been informed of this performed much worse, greatly magnifying the gender gap. Which is to say, if I’m getting the details right, that dwelling on certain kinds of differences—whatever their source—comes with its own costs. So while I’m uncomfortable with branding as a racist anyone who floats these questions, I’m inclined to agree with the folks who wonder what we’re supposed to gain from harping on this, especially in the absence of any scientific consensus. If we had reached a stage of broad racial equality and wanted to know whether persistent disparity in representation in one sector or another should be attributed to residual racism or some inborn statistical difference, I suppose it would make sense to start exploring this stuff in a more public way. As it stands, I have trouble seeing the point or the benefit.

Tags: Science



3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 bza // Nov 29, 2007 at 4:40 pm

    The phenomenon you’re talking about is called stereotype threat.

  • 2 J // Nov 29, 2007 at 8:38 pm

    Exposure to Scientific Theories Affects Women’s Math Performance is a recent paper along these lines.

  • 3 Glen // Nov 29, 2007 at 9:18 pm

    I largely agree, but I think there may be some usefulness in these studies for countering people who consider any inequality of representation ipso facto evidence of racism or sexism. See, for instance, the kind of people who helped oust Larry Summers from the Harvard presidency. Their implicit and sometimes explicit assumption was that, absent sexism, there could not be persistent differences between men and women in choice of professions or performance within professions.

Leave a Comment