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The Rise of the…Wait, I’m Not Sure Yet

with 10 comments

I logged on to FB this morning to find that a number of people had posted links to this article


It’s a review of Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010

in a British newspaper called The Telegraph.

Some of you may remember Charles Murray.  A few decades ago, he wrote a book called The Bell Curve, with a colleague named Richard Hernstein.  That book posited that since intelligence is (demonstrably) at least 50% due to heredity, and since the genes for intelligence did not appear to be equally distributed by race, the chances were good that the percentage of each race found at each incremental level of intellectual ability would not be the same as their percentage in the population at large.

Unlike a lot of people who went yelling and screaming–he’s saying black people are stupid!–about this book, I actually bothered to read it, not once, but twice.

And I had some issues with the analysis M and H put forward.

But that’s not what I want to talk about here.

What I want to talk about here is this:  a number of people who did the yelling and screaming, and who declared M and H to be nothing but racist bastards for writing The Bell Curve, not only posted links to this Telegraph article, and seem to be indicating that they largely approve of the message of it.

Now, I haven’t read the new book–it isn’t even out yet–but on the basis of the review, it seems to be this:  intelligence is significantly hereditary, and in the world we live in now, smart people marry smart people.  They then produce smart children.  Those people have smart children. 

Smart people are better able to handle the advanced scientific, technological and literacy-based skills necessary to holding jobs and other positions at the very top of the academic and economic pyramid.

They are therefore becoming a “cognitive elite”–and a hereditary one at that, blocking off any chance anybody else has to rise in the social hierarchy.

Now, I’ve got a lot to say about this, but here’s the obvious thing:

1) You can’t have it both ways.  This is essentially the same message Murray was delivering in The Bell Curve, just starting at the other end of the problem.  You can’t call the man a racist son of a bitch for saying what he said in the first book and then hail him as a prophet for saying this.  One thesis assumes the other–the thesis of Coming Apart cannot be true unless the thesis of The Bell Curve is also true.

2) My guess is that when I read this, I’m going to have the same problems with the analysis that I had with The Bell Curve, largely having to do with the way he is defining “intelligent” and the way in which “intelligence” is in fact recognized as intelligence in this society at this time.

But looking past that sort of thing for a moment, and assuming we’re all on the same page when it comes to defining intelligence–which we’re probably not–may I please point out that the idea that there’s a “cognitive elite” is nothing new?

There has always been a cognitive elite.  Smarter people have always done better than less smart people, all things being equal.

But smarter people often do better than less smart people even when all things aren’t equal.  I went to Vassar because a woman whose name I share looked around a hellhole of a little fishing village on a remote Greek island, decided she wasn’t having any, and devised and carried out a plan to get the money to come to America.

Her parents were sending her brothers, but they wouldn’t send a girl.  Her parents sent her brothers steerage.  When she finally got on a boat with her own ticket, bought with money she’d made herself from a little business she’d started herself, she had a stateroom.

She was nineteen.

Of course, that story is about someone who was not just a smarter person, but had another whole set of qualities–and if I go off on that tangent someday, I’d say that the other qualities are, in fact, much more important than the intelligence. 

In the meantime, I would just like to say that life is not fair.  Some of us are born prettier, smarter, with better concentration or a natural sense of the underlying music–with things that are just better than other people get the shot at.

But this is not new, and recognizing it does not change anything about the world we live in.

What is new is

3) A social and economic sorting process that is increasingly, and increasingly monopolistically, located in the schools.

The number of ways that this is a really, really, really bad idea and ought to stop would take about forty volumes to list, but we should notice that the big problem with this is that it is not actually a system for sorting out who is more intelligent than whom.

It will do a certain amount of that, of course–but it will also exclude vast segments of the more-intelligent population who have other (and often valuable) traits that don’t fit well with schools.  That’s why there’s always a solid chunk of kids who have board scores near or at perfect and grades that in the toilet.

Of course there’s always the possibility that

4) As the world evolves, the level of intelligence, skill, talent and self discipline necessary to function in it even mininally will also rise, and a hunk of people at the bottom of those levels will no longer be able to get by at all. 

Or, to put it more bluntly, it may be the case that the level at which somebody would be deemed “mentally handicapped” would rise. 

In some ways, I think that we can say that that is demonstrably the case even now. 

In most ways, though, I think the fear is misdirected.

It’s certainly true that you need to be far more intelligent (and all the rest of that stuff) to be a general practictioner, never  mind a specialist, and that half the people admitted to med school in 1920 probably couldn’t get through the doors now.

But it is also the case that jobs at the other end that once required at least a minimum of skill (cashier, for instance) have been deliberately reconfigured in a way that means you need less and less intelligence and other skills to fill them. 

And day to day living operations–keeping your bank account sane, or banking at all, for instance–have been digitized to make it possible for people to function even if they’re barely literate or numerate at all.

There’s good money to be made in figuring out ways to accommodate people who otherwise couldn’t keep up.

But, of course, that isn’t Murray’s worry, and it isn’t the worry of the people who posted this article over and over again.  Their worry

5) is that we’ll come to a day when the genetics have rigidified, all the smart people will be married to other smart people and producing only smart children.  All the stupid people will be married to other stupid people.  We will forever afterward be living in a world of hereditary caste, where there will be no escape for the people on the bottom of the latter, because they’re all congenitally dumb and can produce only congenitally dumb children.

I have a whole set of objections to that scenario–in fact, I think it’s fundamentally ridiculous–but I should note that IF that was the case, if group X was really, actually, smarter and more skilled than group Y, and that intelligence and skill meant they could perform more important functions for society at large…then yes, that’s what ought to happen, and the only just outcome would be to let them be that cognitive elite.

But I’m not worried about that, because the fear is based on a profound misunderstanding of statistics.

Here, however, is what I’m worried about:

6) Beyond all the arguments about students and teachers, testing teachers, testing students, blah, blah, blah, there is the reality of life in some of our schools.

There is, for instance, the phenomenon of “service classes.”  A service class is a class a student can take for half credit, in which he or she does none of the academic work, but instead helps the teacher by fetching supplies, cleaning up the classroom, and doing other chores. 

The class and the grade appears on the transscript as “Algebra I” or “American History,” with no indication that the student has done no academic work whatsoever.

I first heard about this practice in an article by Jonathan Kozol, and I thought he was making it up.  In the years since, I’ve asked almost all my classes–and yes, the practice does exist, at the very least in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. 

It’s been outlawed, but it still exists.

It might explain why, in my class the other day, half the students didn’t know that the Declaration of Independence was signed on the Fourth of July, and could not tell  me what the American “war of independence” was about.

Let’s start worrying about this crap before we work ourselves up about a “cognitive elite” who are simply born smarter than those people over there.


6) I’m with Michael on two points–I don’t think testing teachers does much good, and I don’t think performance evaluations of anybody for anything are much other than a joke.

And I’d LOVE to dump all those “bogus education degrees” and bring in highly educated people with real degrees and pay them like real professionals.

But the reason that won’t happen  has nothing to do with evil, tight-fisted Republicans.

If we tried to make such a change, we’d have to fire better than 90% of ever public school teacher now working.

The vast majority of them are required to have those bogus education degrees to be allowed to teach at all.  Even candidates who start out with a “real” degree are usually forced to take a MAT (master of arts in teaching) or other education certification requirements before they’re allowed in a classroom.

And the teachers’ unions scream bloody hell at even the slightest deviation from their stranglehold over certification.

I’m not expecting it’s going to happen soon.

Written by janeh

January 21st, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

10 Responses to 'The Rise of the…Wait, I’m Not Sure Yet'

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  1. Hmmm. I strongly disagree with the notion that modern life is more intellectually demanding then primitive life. Verbal skills are probably more important relative to memory and reasoning in a community made up largely of strangers, of course, but we’ve got people in good suits holding down really well-paying jobs in politics, management, law and sales who wouldn’t be fit to knap flint for a competent paleolithic hunter-gatherer. I’ve worked for a couple, at least. Most positions in society today require a smaller intellectual toolbox than solo wilderness survival.

    On the main point, I think you misunderstand Murray’s offense. We do not live in a world of science, but in a society of religion in the worst sense, and a fundamental tenet of Movement liberalism is that white male gentiles CANNOT have any objective advantage. If their performance is superior in any respect in any field, this is the result of past or present bigotry, and to be corrected. Say “black children show greater imagination retelling stories” or “female behavior is better suited to classrooms” and you’re fine. Say “white children remember the story more accurately” or “male behavior is better suited for business or warfare” and you’ve passed beyond the pale.

    Murray made two comments on race in a doorstop of a book, very tentative, and as I recall no more than a sentence or so to the effect that public policy should not be based on false premises. But he had, effectively, denied the Real Presence in Counter-reformation Europe. The response had nothing to do with the truth or falsity of his observation.

    But I thought he had a perfectly valid main point that to the extent we do have a meritocracy, the meritocrats can isolate themselves socially and intelligence is hereditary, (a) we’ve decapitated the manual laborers. There will be fewer and fewer people with the smarts to see the problem with the contract or to organize the resistance. And (b) the social isolation of the rulers from the ruled makes it harder for them to rule justly. They cannot understand that the laws and forms are incomprehensible to non-lawyers, that the nominal charges are formidable expenses, and that the time required simply isn’t there for people who can’t take three hours off this afternoon and make it up next week. (This assumes, of course, that the rulers WANT to rule justly. No particular reason for that to be the case.)

    Fortunately (?) adultery, character and the inefficiencies of the education system keep us from having a working population made up entirely of dolts who can’t do anything about the injustices under which they labor. But I’d call the problems of a socially isolated and clueless ruling class pretty much a fulfilled prophecy.

    About that education system, I agree. The “educators” have a monopoly on credentials. They get to decide who teaches, and they give out the increasingly important credentials to do anything else. It works to the advantage of the teachers and the teachers’ colleges at least, though not to that of the students, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. But what happened to that other Jane Haddam who used to post here and thought the education bubble was going to pop any year now?


    21 Jan 12 at 3:57 pm

  2. I believe there is a statistical term called “regression toward the mean”. Its been a long time but I have a vague recollection of a study showing that the children of intelligent parents tended to be above average intelligence but not as intelligent as the parents.

    I’ve seen the effect in family owned businesses. The parents built up a successful business and the children couldn’t keep it running.

    “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in 3 generations” still holds.

    Of course, if the parents read books and take education seriously, then I would expect the children to do well in school but that is nurture rather than genetics.

    I share the dislike of education degrees but could someone define “real degrees”. You don’t need a BA in math to teach high school math nor do you need a BA or BS in Physics to teach high school Physics.


    21 Jan 12 at 9:30 pm

  3. jd, if you haven’t read Murray, his observation was that nature and nurture were tending to reinforce one another. The “power couple” have children who are at least resaonably bright by nature. Being raised by the bright parents, getting the rich stimulating environment and going to the good schools is all nurture–but in a society in which bright kids all go to the same schools to meet and marry one another and can turn that intelligence into serious income to provide that stimulating environment and excellent early schools, the nature and nurture advantages converge: fewer rich idiots sent to the Ivies, and fewer working class kids with bright parents reading to them.

    I thought it was a lesser concern than the cultural isolation. Only the very top of western society think it’s completely meritocratic, and even they have some doubts about their colleagues. But it was still worth thinking about.

    For me, “real degrees” are those in which facts trump agreement with the professor: History, English Lit, Math, any foregn language or any hard science count as real degrees. Education, “Political Science” and Grievance Studies do not. It may not be necessary that the high school Physics teacher have a degree in Physics, but he ought to have a degree in some hard science or mathematics.If the instructor isn’t bringing knowledge and training to the subject, just give all the students the teacher’s version of the textbook and be done with it.


    21 Jan 12 at 11:27 pm

  4. Robert, I agree that nature and nurture work together.

    As for cultural isolation, try googling for “millionaires in Congress”. Its depressing.


    22 Jan 12 at 1:07 am

  5. I’ve got to head off to bed, but I’ll drop a couple of cryptic comments that I’ll try to expand on tomorrow.

    Income (and prestige and power and all such interconnected attributes) seems to, if nothing interferes, to follow a power distribution (in the mathematical, not political, sense).

    I.Q., talent, call it what you will, to the extent it is inherited, follows a Gaussian distribution.

    It seems to me that the most successful societies are ones that have found ways to damp down the power distribution.


    22 Jan 12 at 3:39 am

  6. Bating my breath, Mike, wondering how you’ll define “successful” societies. :-)


    22 Jan 12 at 6:09 am

  7. michaelwfisher@cox.net

    22 Jan 12 at 9:25 am

  8. I too, wait to see what constitutes a successful society, but keep in mind that that Gaussian distribution is a function of civilization. The best hunter and fiercest warrior in a paleolithic tribe usually gets the best cut of meat and maybe his choice of the available women–both within limits. After all, he’s probably not the equal of the next two warriors and certainly not of the next three. And he has to sleep sometime. It takes government before David can take whatever woman he wants and have the husband killed, for Solomon to have a harem of hundreds and Mao to have a steady stream of virgins brought to his bed.

    Sadly, the sort of all-encompassing micromanaging government set up to enforce equality seems especially prone to creating the unequal power distribution. Ironic isn’t it? That is, surely it’s ironic, because that’s can’t REALLY be what the advocates intended?


    22 Jan 12 at 11:24 am

  9. Michael, I live in Australia, some of my friends live in New Zealand. We buy IPhones and do not care in the slightest about where they are made.

    The US once had the reputation of having 5% of the world’s population and using 25% of the world’s resources. That was never a stable situation. Now the rest of the world is catching up which is fine by me.

    Here is an article on the cost of medical care. It may have bearing on the subject of successful societies.



    22 Jan 12 at 3:48 pm

  10. This caught my eye in the article John linked to:

    “For employers, the cost of labor is total compensation — wages plus benefits. As the cost of benefits rises, wages tend not to rise, or to rise much more slowly.”

    While it’s true as far as it goes, it misses out on important elements of the cost of employing labour, all of which impinge on the capacity of enterprises to afford to employ people. Twenty-odd years ago when I was last involved in the Air Force, so-called “on-costs” amounted to something like 40% of total labour costs. For example, costs of administration, hiring, training, pensions, payroll taxes and other labour-related costs like compliance with H&S regulations and so on infinitum.

    Most of these on-costs are significantly lower in Asia and other parts of the developing world, and will remain so for the foreseeable future and that probably until standards of living in the western world come down some way to meet rising standards of living elsewhere.

    King Canute demonstrated the futility of trying to stem the rising tide unilaterally.


    22 Jan 12 at 7:43 pm

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