Friday, December 28, 2007

A letter to my house guest

I didn't want the evening to get unpleasant, so for the sake of your son and the other guests I sucked this up. But I can't keep it inside, so I'll vent here, where you will almost certainly never see it. Because you don't read blogs, do you. No, you watch Fox news. And you read the Bible. So you already know everything you need to know.

I actually thought for a while that we were going to get along. When you said you believed in freedom and small government I was right there with you. But then you told me that you supported George Bush. How could that be? I asked. You say you support small government, but George Bush has expanded both the size and the power of the government more than any other president in history, and yet you support him? Yes, you said, because George Bush is a man of God, and because he is a man of God, whatever he does must be good. He doesn't lie, because lying is not Godly, and George Bush is a man of God.

OK, well, I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.

Then you told me about the cancer, and I sympathized. And you told me about how hard it was to get laetrille, and I sympathized, because even though I don't think it's going to do you any good, I think you have the right to put whatever you want into your own body free from government interference. I thought you would agree. But when I asked you if you thought marijuana ought to be illegal you said yes, and when I asked you why you said because marijuana is a mind-altering substance.

OK, well, I may not agree with what you say and all that...

But then I asked you if you thought alcohol ought to be illegal. You took another sip of your 2003 Old Vines Zinfandel and said that alcohol should be legal. But alcohol is a mind-altering substance too, I said. And with a smirk on your face you replied, "I'm not consistent."

Well, I'm sorry, but that is not OK with me. Because what that means is that you, sir, are not a man of principle. You wrap yourself in the Bible and the flag and speak of duty and honor and natural law, when the fact of the matter is that the only thing that guides you is your own desires. Laetrille and alcohol ought to be legal in your mind not because of any principle, but simply because you want to consume laetrille and alcohol. You complain about liberals being self-centered, when the fact of the matter is that in your mind it's really all about *you*. You support George Bush because he's promised to make *you* safe. By whatever means necessary.

That is not OK with me.

I told you that my grandparents' generation fled Germany for Palestine in the early 1930's. You thought I was a Jew. Hitler would have agreed with you. But I do not consider myself a Jew, and neither did many of my ancestors. I didn't tell you this, but when the Gestapo came knocking on my maternal grandfather's door it came as a shock to him. He actually had no idea that he was Jewish. He thought of himself as German through-and-through. (I know this because I interviewed him a few years before he died and he told me so. I taped the interview. I'd put an audio clip up so you can hear him say it in his own words, but he says it in German so you wouldn't understand it anyway. And besides, you don't read blogs.)

Hitler came to power in much the same way that George Bush did. He was democratically elected. And he then proceeded to do much of what George Bush has done: dismantle the rule of law in favor of a cult of personality based on a promise of security, except that the bad guys back then weren't Al Qaeda and illegal immigrants, they were the Gypsies and the mentally retarded and the homosexuals. Oh, and the Jews. Let's not forget the Jews.

I actually pointed this out to you (more gently, because as I said, I didn't want to make a scene) but I think it went straight over your head: Hitler enjoyed enormous popular support in Germany, much more than George Bush is having (because, frankly, Hitler was a hell of a lot smarter than Dubya). The point is that although Hitler is nowadays considered the very paragon of evil, he was not regarded that way by his contemporaries. In fact, even some of George Bush's ancestors were supporters. Hitler was regarded by most Germans at the time as a great leader, a great patriot, a courageous man who restored Germany's strength and restored her rightful place in the world after the humiliating defeat of World War I. (And if he'd been just a little less reckless he might still be regarded that way today.)

Evil often comes wrapped in a flag and carrying a Bible.

And no, I'm not talking about George Bush. I'm talking about you. Because you wrap yourself in the mantle of principle, but when it comes to the real test you don't live your life according to principle, you live it according to your own desires. You want your Zinfandel and your laetrille and to impose your narrow-minded and bigoted view of the world on everybody else with the force of arms.

And you would deny your own son the right to marry the person he loves just because it doesn't fit your notion of "natural law". (You didn't see the irony when I asked if you thought contraception should be illegal and you said, "Of course not." I didn't really expect you to. But I wasn't surprised. Of course contraception should be legal because, after all, *you* want to be able to use it! And it's all about you, isn't it?) You cause unnecessary suffering to further your own selfish desires and don't bat an eye. In fact, you're proud of it. That, to me, is the definition of evil.

Maybe you get some credit for marching for civil rights back in the 50's, but today, sir, you are a bigot and a hypocrite.

And that is not OK with me.

I welcomed you into my home at the request of your son, who, as I told you, is one of the finest human beings I have ever had the privilege to know. I would share a foxhole with him any day of the week before I would share another drink with you. I welcomed you into my home and you spent the evening spewing your vile right-wing fascist bile while never once asking my opinion about anything. I wonder, if I had behaved that way in your home, would you have extended me the same courtesy? II'd give long odds against it.

I welcomed you into my home and I was civil to you. but make no mistake, I didn't do it for you. I did it for your son.

You don't deserve him.

Peace on earth

From CNN:

"BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) -- Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests attacked each other with brooms and stones inside the Church of the Nativity..."

On Christmas. Gotta love the irony.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Whack! (Whinny!) Whack! (Whinny!) Whack! Whack! Whack!

Because I know my loyal readers just can't get enough of this topic, here's the latest volley in the battle over the extent to which genes influence intelligence. Some choice excerpts:

Flynn points out that scores in some of the categories—those measuring general knowledge, say, or vocabulary or the ability to do basic arithmetic—have risen only modestly over time. The big gains on the WISC are largely in the category known as “similarities,” where you get questions such as “In what way are ‘dogs’ and ‘rabbits’ alike?” Today, we tend to give what, for the purposes of I.Q. tests, is the right answer: dogs and rabbits are both mammals. A nineteenth-century American would have said that “you use dogs to hunt rabbits.”

“If the everyday world is your cognitive home, it is not natural to detach abstractions and logic and the hypothetical from their concrete referents,” Flynn writes. Our great-grandparents may have been perfectly intelligent. But they would have done poorly on I.Q. tests because they did not participate in the twentieth century’s great cognitive revolution, in which we learned to sort experience according to a new set of abstract categories. In Flynn’s phrase, we have now had to put on “scientific spectacles,” which enable us to make sense of the WISC questions about similarities. To say that Dutch I.Q. scores rose substantially between 1952 and 1982 was another way of saying that the Netherlands in 1982 was, in at least certain respects, much more cognitively demanding than the Netherlands in 1952. An I.Q., in other words, measures not so much how smart we are as how modern we are.


[Flynn] looked first at [Richard] Lynn’s data, and realized that the comparison was skewed. Lynn was comparing American I.Q. estimates based on a representative sample of schoolchildren with Japanese estimates based on an upper-income, heavily urban sample. Recalculated, the Japanese average came in not at 106.6 but at 99.2. Then Flynn turned his attention to the Chinese-American estimates. They turned out to be based on a 1975 study in San Francisco’s Chinatown using something called the Lorge-Thorndike Intelligence Test. But the Lorge-Thorndike test was normed in the nineteen-fifties. For children in the nineteen-seventies, it would have been a piece of cake. When the Chinese-American scores were reassessed using up-to-date intelligence metrics, Flynn found, they came in at 97 verbal and 100 nonverbal. Chinese-Americans had slightly lower I.Q.s than white Americans.


Flynn took a different approach. The black-white gap, he pointed out, differs dramatically by age. He noted that the tests we have for measuring the cognitive functioning of infants, though admittedly crude, show the races to be almost the same. By age four, the average black I.Q. is 95.4—only four and a half points behind the average white I.Q. Then the real gap emerges: from age four through twenty-four, blacks lose six-tenths of a point a year, until their scores settle at 83.4.

That steady decline, Flynn said, did not resemble the usual pattern of genetic influence. Instead, it was exactly what you would expect, given the disparate cognitive environments that whites and blacks encounter as they grow older.


Flynn then talked about what we’ve learned from studies of adoption and mixed-race children—and that evidence didn’t fit a genetic model, either. If I.Q. is innate, it shouldn’t make a difference whether it’s a mixed-race child’s mother or father who is black. But it does: children with a white mother and a black father have an eight-point I.Q. advantage over those with a black mother and a white father. And it shouldn’t make much of a difference where a mixed-race child is born. But, again, it does: the children fathered by black American G.I.s in postwar Germany and brought up by their German mothers have the same I.Q.s as the children of white American G.I.s and German mothers.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Democrats Just Don't Get It

It's the lead story all over the news, but the Washington Post is as good a source as any:

"Angry congressional Democrats demanded Friday that the Justice Department investigate why the CIA destroyed videotapes of the interrogation of two terrorism suspects."

Forgive me, but I'm just not very optimistic that having the Justice Department investigate this will do any good. The JD, even (perhaps especially) with Michael Mukasey at the helm, is just as much a lap dog for the administration as the Republicans in Congress. No one gets into this administration without being vetted for loyalty to the Party and the Dear Leader (or perhaps I should spell that deer leader?) This administration is a pseudo-christian cult, and an investigation will do about as much good as having the Church of Scientology investigate itself.

Where are the Congressional subpoenas? Where are the contempt-of-congress indictments for the White House's refusal to comply? The Dems' attitude reminds me of Marvin the Martian.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

"Proof" that blacks are less intelligent than whites

Reuters reports:

"Black Americans are 10 times more likely to be imprisoned for illegal drug offenses than whites, even though both groups use and sell drugs at the same rate, according to a study released on Tuesday."

This must be because blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites. What other explanation could there possibly be? I guess Dennis Bider was right all along. I'm so sorry, Dennis. Please come back. I miss you so much.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

So much for the free market

Sometimes government is the answer.

Too bad Denis isn't around any more. I'd love to hear what he had to say about this.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Today's immigrant bashers are the children of illegal immigrants

Kelly, a native American reader of Glen Sacks's blog tells it like it is:

Let me tell you what I think of you pathetic immigrant bashers. You and your families have no right to be here. You are the descendents of liars, thieves, and genocidal murderers. Your ancestors have no honor. We gave you help, food and shelter when you needed it, and guided Lewis and Clark across the continent. In return, you broke every promise you ever made, shot us in back whenever you could, cut down the forests, killed the wildlife, and stole everything that was not nailed down.

Laws, treaties, boundaries, borders, and promises meant nothing to you if you thought that, as a white man, you deserved to have it. Gold on our sovereign land, here comes the white man! Shortcut to the West, we don't need to pay any damn Indians no damn toll fees. There is very little moral difference between your ancestors' actions and some gang member who is helping himself to your grandma's wallet. A squatter is a squatter. So I tell you squatters to get off your high horse.

I think it is worth noting that Kelly admonishes the immigrant bashers to get off their high horse, but not to go back where they came from.


There is no other word for this:

"Thousands of protesters, many brandishing clubs and swords, took to the streets of Sudan’s capital Friday, demanding the execution of a British teacher who let her students name a teddy bear Muhammad."

You need to bury your head pretty deep in the sand to say today that Islam is a religion of peace.

It may be a good thing that no one reads my blog, or this post might actually be putting my life at risk.

Too little too late

Senator Joe Biden says:

"The President has no authority to unilaterally attack Iran and if he does, as foreign relations committee chairman, I will move to impeach."

Terrific. You're going to wait until after we've gotten sucked into yet another quagmire in the middle east to impeach this bastard? This isn't closing the barn door after the horses have left, this is waiting until they've ridden over the horizon to start walking towards the barn.


The abstinence-only folks are going to love this

ABC News reports:

"While past research has linked early sexual activity to health problems, a new study suggests that waiting too long to start having sex carries risks of its own. Those who lose their virginity at a later age -- around 21 to 23 years of age -- tend to be more likely to experience sexual dysfunction problems "

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Can you say "entrapment"?

What happens when the New York police can't catch enough real criminals? They make their own.

A small victory for civil rights

With good news about civil rights becoming increasingly rare nowadays I am pleased to report a small victory:

U.S. prosecutors have withdrawn a subpoena seeking the identities of thousands of people who bought used books through online retailer Inc., newly unsealed court records show.

The withdrawal came after a judge ruled the customers have a right to keep their reading habits from the government.

In one of the most poetic metaphors I have ever read in a legal ruling, Judge Stephen Crocker wrote:

"The (subpoena's) chilling effect on expressive e-commerce would frost keyboards across America."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Here's one we can all agree on

Women with hourglass figures tend to be more intelligent and have smarter kids, a new study says. No, really.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


My goodness, I never imagined that posting a pointer to an article would cause such a kerfuffle! Dennis Bider doth protest too much, methinks but his protestations are a veritable smorgasbord of fallacious argumentation, so it's worth deconstructing. Let's see, we have...

Psychogenetic fallacy:

Flynn is one of those people who helped identify something new and fundamental, and then go on living their lives denying the best explanation because they would like it to be different.

Ad hominem:

I've long since accepted that you won't be converted to the rational outlook. You are a believer; your spiritual well-being rests on whether a certain hypothesis is right.

Straw man:

Stop trying to persuade everyone how unbiased you are

(I have never tried to persuade anyone that I am unbiased. To the contrary, I have been very up-front about my biases.)

I'm not quite sure how to categorize this one:

People form a hypothesis based on what they would like reality to be; not based on what the naked facts tell them; and so they spend decades trying to find out that group selection for lower populations would favor individual restraint in breeding, only to eventually find out that group selection for lower populations leads to cannibalism victimizing especially young females.

How on earth did we get from the genetics of IQ to cannibalism? Argument by gibberish? Non-sequitur? Maybe I'll just call that one the razzle dazzle.

Here's another one that's challenging to categorize:

The Flynn effect is best explained by heterosis

Even if it were true, just because heterosis is the best currently available explanation doesn't mean it is correct. (Ironically, even Bider himself concedes in the post he links to that heterosis is a hypothesis that has not been adequately tested.) The history of science is rife with examples of "best explanations" that turned out to be wrong.

Bider's second comment is the most colossal straw man I have ever encountered (and that's saying something). I think it says something about Bider's insecurity in his position that he feels the need to not only put words in my mouth but thoughts in my brain and feelings in my heart. This one is particularly ironic:

You are a person who has been cursed with an intolerance for other people's suffering.

because people who actually know me consistently tell me that one of my problems is that I don't empathize enough with those around me.


Did desegregation of schools significantly narrow the black-white educational gap? [No, therefore] so much for environment.

This is another straw man, and a truly offensive one. I have never argued (and would never argue) that exposure to people with white skin is the aspect of the environment most responsible for anyone's academic success or lack thereof.

Don Geddis writes:

First of all, the article you link to doesn't support your summary.

My summary was that Flynn believes that "the evidence supporting the hypothesis that intelligence is primarily genetic is weak." I suppose I should have been more careful to distinguish, as Flynn does, between direct and indirect genetic effects. For example, there is no question that skin color is genetic, so if skin color interacts with some environmental factor (like societal bias) to produce some effect one could say that's a genetic influence. Technically it would be true, but I think that would be a perversion of what people generally mean when they say a trait is genetic. It's certainly not what I mean when I say that the evidence that IQ is genetic is weak, and I'm pretty sure Flynn would agree.

Once you get to average, US, major metropolitan levels of education, nutrition, etc., then the IQ variation due to genetics approaches 100%. It is not the case that the smarter kids were read to more, or went to the museum more often, or watched TV less. It is the case that the smarter kids typically had smarter parents.

If this were really true then that would convince me. But I doubt it's really true. In particular, as I have pointed out before, it is impossible to do a properly controlled study to test the effect of race on IQ because it is impossible to control for the societal bias to skin color. The only way to test the hypothesis is to use two racial groups whose IQ's supposedly differ but whose outward appearance is the same, like jewish and non-Jewish caucasians. (You'd need to have both groups raised in similar cultural circumstances, i.e. either all as Jews or all as non-Jews -- and preferably randomized across both cases.) Until you've done a study like that all you have is more pink flamingos.

Here's another Flynn example that is worth pondering: If on the basis of their genetic inheritance, separated-twin pairs are tall, quick, and athletically inclined, both members are likely to be interested in basketball, practice assiduously, play better, and eventually attract the attention of basketball coaches capable of transforming them into world-class competitors. Other twin pairs, in contrast, endowed with shared genes that predispose them to be shorter and stodgier than average will display little aptitude or enthusiasm for playing basketball and will end up as spectators rather than as players.

The trouble with basketball as an analogy to IQ is that height is an easily observable physical trait that obviously has a causal relationship with potential success as a basketball player. Furthermore, height has both genetic and environmental factors. All this is known and uncontroversial. The trouble is, whether or not externally observable and heritable traits are similarly correlated with intelligence is precisely what is at issue here. So there are no lessons to be drawn from the basketball analogy for the matter at hand (except that it is easy to oversimplify).

Just for the record let me make it clear where I stand. I do not dispute that IQ could be genetic. In fact, I think it almost certainly has some genetic component. The question is how much is genetic and how much is environmental, and, importantly, how much is due to complex interplays between genes and environmental and societal factors, and as long as we're being exhaustive, how much is due to the imprecision and multi-dimensionality of intelligence, and how much is just plain random. My position is merely that the currently available data do not justify the conclusion that direct genetic factors (i.e. the direct transcription of DNA into proteins that build bigger or more effective brains) are the dominant factor. Note that I do not say that this is not the case, merely that the data we have don't justify the conclusion. I will also say, as I have said before, that I do think it would be unfortunate if we did have conclusive data to support this position, and that the human condition would on the whole be the worse for it. And people's eagerness to adopt the conclusion that intelligence is genetic, and to vilify anyone who doesn't join them in their prejudice, even in the absence of conclusive evidence does nothing to dissuade me from this belief.

But don't take my word for it

You don't have to believe me that the evidence supporting the hypothesis that intelligence is primarily genetic is weak. James R. Flynn of Flynn effect fame thinks so too.

Friday, November 16, 2007

On the road again

BTW, just in case my loyal readers (both of you) have been wondering why I haven't been blogging or responding to comments lately, I'm on a business trip and won't be back until Saturday. Regularly scheduled ranting and raving should resume shortly thereafter.

Homeopathy: a case study in bad science

Ben Goldacre has an excellent article in the Guardian about how and why homeopathy is bad science.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Worse than useless

Referring to the Democrats of course.

UPDATE: I'm writing this entry from an airport where the TSA's latest security measures are also a contender for the worse-than-useless award. (Hm, there's an idea.) There was a kerfuffle a while back about the fact that there was an ID check in security but not when you actually board the plane made it trivial to fly using false credentials. To address this (presumably) you now get a nifty little blue stamp on your boarding pass when you go through the ID check. That way (I'm figuring the TSA figures) you can't swap out boarding passes after you clear security.

I guess the folks at the TSA have never heard of scanners and color printers.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Science 103: The virtue of simplicity

I've talked a lot so far in this series about how scientific experiments are designed and their results interpreted, about how statistics and controlled studies are used to filter out "real" results. But what does it actually mean to be a "real" result?

Here's a little puzzle to motivate the discussion: how many data points does it take to produce a statistically significant result, that is, a result that is very unlikely to have come about by chance? What is the smallest conceivable number of data points that would be needed under ideal circumstances?

Let's take a brief respite from biology and deal with physics for a moment. It is intuitively obvious that heavier objects should fall faster than lighter ones. Hold a rock and a feather in your hand and you can experience firsthand that gravity pulls harder on the rock than the feather, so it is entirely plausible that the rock should fall faster. And indeed it does (at least near the surface of the earth). This was the prevailing view among learned men (there were precious few learned women in those days) for thousands of years.

Which is interesting because even a moment's reflection will reveal that it is not intuitively obvious that heavier objects should fall faster than lighter ones. For starters, birds are heavier than feathers. Indeed, birds invariably carry a payload of tens of thousands of feathers (to say nothing of muscles and bones and other assorted support equipment) and yet if you drop a feather and a (live) bird the feather will generally fall faster. That should have been clue even to the ancients that there was something wrong with the theory that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. And yet, as far as I know, I am the first person ever to point this out. (One might argue that birds fall more slowly because they do work to stay aloft, but this is not the case either. Hawks can stay aloft for hours without flapping their wings.)

It gets worse. Imagine three identical rocks, two of which are coated with glue. Drop all three. Because they are identical they should fall at the same speed. Now imagine that in mid-flight the two glue-coated rocks come together and stick, making essentially a single rock that is twice as heavy. The heavier-objects-fall-faster theory would predict that this composite rock should now accelerate relative to the unglued control rock. But why should that happen if both of the component rocks were falling at the same speed to begin with? (And if that example doesn't convince you, imagine three identical skydivers. Two of them drift towards each other. Their fingers touch. They hold hands. They pull themselves towards each other and attach their harnesses together. Now they are a "composite" skydiver twice as heavy as before, and should therefore be falling faster than the lone control skydiver. At what point during this process would they start to accelerate?

As these examples illustrate, it often requires only one data point to produce a statistically significant result. Climb to the top of the leaning tower of Pisa, drop two canon balls, one twice as heavy as the other, and with a single data point you can convincingly disprove the theory that heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones.

Let's return to biology and our pink flamingos. How many non-pink flamingos would it take to disprove the theory that flamingos are genetically pink? Now it's not quite so clear. If I were to just exhibit a white flamingo one might argue that this particular bird simply has a mutation. Albino-ism is a well-known phenomenon in other species. But suppose that I showed you a white flamingo and told you that this flamingo had been raised in a zoo and fed something other than shrimp? Does that make the flamingos-are-genetically-pink theory untenable? Well, not entirely. One could still argue that this flamingo is a genetic albino, and it's just a coincidence that it was fed a non-standard diet. So then you could start feeding this flamingo shrimp and watch it turn pink. Does that make for convincing proof? Still no. A die-hard eugenicist could still argue that flamingos are genetically pink, but that the stress of being raised on food other than its natural diet somehow caused the genes for pinkness not to express themselves. Or something like that.

Of course, the heavier-objects-fall-faster theory is salvageable too if you're willing to tie yourself into enough rhetorical knots. You could argue that the heavier canon ball is also bigger and therefore experiences more drag, and that this extra drag just balances out the extra weight. Of course, this theory can also be disproved by dropping two canon balls of the same size but made of different materials. But then the die-hard Artistotelian could start spouting something about the particular materials used and how the proportion of earth to fire in their composition affects their falling rates and so on and so on. And if you think I'm belaboring the point beyond all reason, go read this or this or this or this.

There are two points to this story. First, there is no way in science to ever prove anything beyond all doubt. The best we can hope to do is to come up with parsimonious theories that are good fits to the observed data. (The fact that this is possible at all is actually quite remarkable, and is itself an observation that cries out for an explanation. Einstein once famously quipped that "the most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible." David Deutsch actually takes a pretty convincing shot at that question his book.)

Second, the number of data points that it takes to disprove a theory depends on the theory. The theory that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones, period, end of story, can be disproved as I show above without actually conducting any experiments at all. The theory that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones except under certain conditions is much harder to disprove, but much easier to dismiss out of hand simply because of how outlandish it seems to be a priori. Science rejects conspiracy theories not because they can be disproven (they can't -- that's why they are called conspiracy theories) but simply because they are not parsimonious. In science, simplicity is axiomatically a virtue.

In that light, Richard Lynn's theory has a lot to recommend it. It is quite parsimonious and plausible a priori. Harsh climates are indeed generally less forgiving of failures to plan ahead than milder ones. That genetics plays a significant role in determining intelligence is clear from the observation that humans are vastly more intelligent than other great apes, and the only possible explanation for that is our genes. And then there are Lynn's mountains of data, all of which seem to support the theory. It's pink flamingos as far as the eye can see.

Or is it?

In fact, there's a white flamingo in Lynn's data. Several of them actually. Some of them I've already pointed out in earlier posts so I won't belabor them here. I want to focus on one particular white flamingo: the average IQ for arctic peoples is lower than that for Europeans.

This is a serious problem for the theory that winter survival is what drives the evolution of intelligence, because if that were the case then one would expect arctic peoples to be the smartest on earth, and yet they are not by a wide margin (a full standard deviation). Lynn acknowledges this problem and dispenses with it by saying:

"The explanation for this must lie in the small numbers of the Arctic Peoples, whose population at the end of the twentieth century was only approximately 56,000 as compared with approximately 1.4 billion East Asians. While it is impossible to make precise estimates of population sizes during the main Wurm glaciation, there can be no doubt that the East Asians were many times more numerous than the Arctic Peoples. The effect of the difference in population size will have been that mutations for higher intelligence occurred and spread in the East Asians that never appeared in the Arctic Peoples.

You might want to see if you can figure out what is wrong with this argument before you proceed. I've told you everything you need to know. (Just for good measure, here's another clue.)

Lynn acknowledges a second problem:

"The Arctic Peoples did, however, evolve a larger brain size, approximately the same size as that of the East Asians, so it is curious that they do not have the same intelligence.

And dispenses with it by suggesting that the Inuit evolved "strong visual memory" that would have helped on hunting expeditions, but "which is not measured in intelligence tests."

Does this not begin to remind you of the Aristotelian trying to salvage the theory that heavier bodies fall faster?

Let us see how many problems with Lynn's little song-and-dance we can enumerate.

1. Lynn's argument that small population leads to low intelligence is circular. His entire thesis is that intelligence is an evolutionary adaption. Therefore, high intelligence leads to large populations, not the other way around. (Duh!)

2. If one admits that a small population can dominate the evolutionary pressure of a harsh environment and produce low intelligence even in the face of having to survive in winter, that same argument must then be applied to all of the data points for which the populations were small. So bye-bye to the bushmen and aborigines as supporting data points. You can't have it both ways. Either small populations produce reliable data (in which case the Arctic People's falsify the theory) or they do not, in which case Lynn's entire argument begins to come apart at the seams.

3. If small populations don't produce enough alleles for the evolutionary pressures of harsh environments to manifest themselves, where do those big brains come from, eh? You can't have it both ways. Either small populations don't manifest evolutionary pressures (in which case the Arctic People's large brains are a mystery) or they do (in which case Lynn's theory is falsified). Isn't it possible that the explanation for this discrepancy is that IQ tests don't accurately measure intelligence after all?

I'll leave it at that for now. There are in fact more holes in Lynn's theory than a Swiss cheese. But there is one gaping hole that dominates all the others: Lynn is postulating a simple theory for a complicated phenomenon, arguably the most complicated phenomenon in the entire Universe. All else being equal, simplicity is a virtue. But in this case all else is not equal. Some things are just complicated, and intelligence is one of them. Einstein once said that scientific theories should be "as simple as possible -- but no simpler." Lynn's theory is simpler, and therefore almost certainly wrong.

Intelligence is complicated. It is complicated to define. It is complicated to measure. It is produced by complicated processes that we are not even close to fully understanding. It is influenced by many disparate factors. Genes are undoubtedly among those factors, and it is a valid question to inquire into the extent to which genes contribute to overall intelligence (whatever that means). But -- and this is the crucial point -- Lynn does not answer that question! The reason he doesn't answer it is that he doesn't ask it. He assumes that the answer is "a lot" and goes on to ask a different question, namely, how much correlation is there between the genes that make us intelligent and the genes that make us members of our respective ethnic groups. Then, having asked the wrong question, he then goes on to make just about every mistake in the book, including collecting a mountain of data and drawing conclusions from analysis that is both post hoc and ad hoc.

I don't know what prompted James Watson to make the remarks that he did about black people, but by no stretch of the imagination are his remarks defensible as reasonable interpretations of currently available scientific data. At best, the jury is still out.

There is one final item I want to address. I can't find it at the moment, but someone left a comment on one of these posts to the effect that I "want" Lynn's theory to be wrong, that I want it to turn out that there are no racial differences in intelligence. That is true. I do hope it turns out that Lynn is wrong because I have seen the great evils that result when people believe that Lynn is right even in the absence of evidence. I think it would be a great tragedy if science were to give solace to bigots and white supremacists, and it is possible that that desire has colored or biased my evaluation of Lynn's work. I've done my best to be objective, but I am only human.

I will say (or maybe I should say "confess") that I did feel a certain sense of relief when I read Lynn's book and found it fatally flawed. There are certain inquiries for which it is wise, before they are undertaken, to think about what one is going to do with the knowledge once it is acquired, and to consider the possibility that there may be things that we would be better off not knowing.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Science 102: epidemiology vs. controlled studies

In my previous post in this series I discussed some of the pitfalls that can lure you in to drawing false conclusions from experimental data, including confounding factors, mistakes, bad luck, and pure random chance. All those factors arise in the context of controlled experiments. In a controlled experiment there are two groups of test subjects which are made as much alike as they can be. (There is an entire industry devoted to breeding genetically identical rats for use in laboratory experiments.) These two groups are subjected to conditions that are as much alike as they can be made, save for one factor, which is the object of interest (usually a drug or some other chemical). All this effort is made in an attempt to eliminate confounding factors. It doesn't always work, and even when it does pure random chance can produce false results in a surprisingly large number of cases.

But there are many cases where a controlled experiment is not possible. We can do pretty well with animal models, but when it comes time to run experiments on humans we don't usually have access to large numbers of genetically identical test subjects. Instead, a technique called randomization is used, so that the two groups, while not identical, are unlikely to be biased in any particular direction by any confounding factor. Part of the process of designing a study is (or at least ought to be) doing the math to figure out how many test subjects you need so that randomization gives you the desired low probability of confounds.

But sometimes it is not possible to do a controlled study because controls are just too difficult to enforce. Suppose you want to know, say, if eating carrots reduces the risk of cancer. Cancer is a very slow disease, taking years to manifest itself. It would be all but impossible to rigorously enforce a protocol where one group of test subjects consumed a known quantity of carrots while a control group ate none over a period of years.

In situations like this scientists fall back on what is known as epidemiological studies. These are named after the science of epidemiology, which is, naturally, the study of epidemics (where, for obvious reasons, it is often impossible to do controlled studies). But the methodology of epidemiology can be -- and is -- applied far more broadly.

The basic idea behind epidemiology is that when you can't go through the usual process of assembling treatment and control groups, sometimes you can go back and look at people's history and assign them to the proper category retroactively. For example, we might take 1000 people and ask them if they eat carrots regularly, and then see if the ones that say they do get less cancer than the ones that say they don't.

The problem with this approach is that you don't get to randomize the two groups, and so the possibility of confounding factors is much higher. Supposed we find 500 carrot-eaters and 500 non-carrot eaters and discover that the non-carrot-eaters had 50 cancers among them while the carrot-eaters had only 40. Would we be justified in concluding that eating carrots reduces the risk of cancer by 20%?

No, we would not. For one thing, these results might not be statistically significant even in a controlled study! (Whether they would be or not depends on a lot of factors, a discussion of which would take us far afield.) But let us put that aside and assume that this is a statistically significant result. How can we be sure that carrots are the cause of the reduction in the incidence of cancer? It is possible that eating carrots coincides with other healthy lifestyle choices -- like exercising regularly for example -- and that it is exercise, not carrots, that produces the beneficial effect. In a controlled study this wouldn't be a problem because the subjects would be randomized, and presumably you'd have the same number of exercisers and non-exercisers in each group. But in an epidemiological study we do not have that luxury.

There are statistical techniques to get around this problem. Basically, the idea is to divide up a large group of people in various ways so that you essentially make "virtually randomized" treatment and control groups out of them retroactively. I don't have time to go into details, but the point is that it can be done. So supposed we ask all our test subjects: do they exercise? Do they smoke? Do they live at high altitudes? Near nuclear power plants? Near power lines? How often do they talk on their cell phones? We collect all this data and we do the statistical slice-and-dice and lo-and-behold a signal arises from all the noise that indicates with 95% confidence that indeed easting carrots does reduce the risk of cancer by 20%. Are we now justified in concluding that this is actually true?

It should come as no surprise by now that the answer is still no. The reason is that there is always the possibility that there is a confound that we might have not considered and hence forgotten to put into our questionnaire. How likely is that? The only way to be sure that it's really the carrots and not something else is to follow up with a controlled study. Let's stipulate that this is too difficult. Are we screwed?

Not completely. There are two other things we can do. One is to look at the questionnaire and see how thorough it is. If we submit the study to peer review and no one can think of anything that we should have asked about and didn't then that's a pretty good indication (though far from foolproof) that we're on the right track with the carrots. But there is another thing we can do, and this really gets at the heart of science: we can ask why eating carrots should reduce the risk of cancer.

Science is not just about doing experiments and crunching numbers. Science is really about explaining things. Experiments are not a tool for directly getting at the truth, they are a tool for helping decide between alternative explanations.

So one possible explanation (in science we call these hypotheses) of why carrots might reduce the risk of cancer is that they contain chemical substances which neutralize the effects of various carcinogens that everyone is exposed to in the course of day-to-day life. The reason that this is progress is that this explanation can be tested in ways other than feeding people carrots. For example, we can try to identify these chemicals and see if they occur in other foods, and see if eating those foods also reduces the risk of cancer. We can also try to extract or synthesize those chemicals and see if consuming them as dietary supplements makes a difference. (Turns out that often they don't.)

Have you ever wondered why you seem to hear different advice about what to eat to reduce your risk of cancer every time you turn around? It's because most of the results of epidemiological studies are wrong!

Which brings me to flamingos. As everyone knows, flamingos are pink. Famously so. The statistical correlation between being a flamingo and being pink is really off the charts. And yet a flamingo's pinkness is not genetic, except in a very roundabout sense. Flamingos are pink because their natural diet consists mainly of shrimp, which are high in beta-carotene, which has a reddish color. It's the same chemical that makes carrots orange. (Ironically, beta-carotene supplements appear to increase the risk of cancer!) The beta carotene turns their feathers pink. Feed a flamingo something other than shrimp and their feathers revert to white, their "natural" color. (The same mechanism is what makes wild salmon pink. Farm-raised salmon are white, which is why they have artificial color added to make their flesh look more "natural". Gotta love the irony.)

There's more to say on this but I have to stop now. I guess there will be a third installment of this series. If you want a sneak preview, go buy a copy of David Deutsch's book "The Fabric of Reality" and read chapters 3, 4 and 7.

Here endeth the lesson. :-)

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Extra! Extra! Fox news opposes Patriot Act. Hell freezes over.

I'm speechless.

Science 101

Suppose you did the following experiment: You take 20 test subjects and divide them into two groups of ten people each. To the first group you give an experimental drug. To the second group you give a sugar pill. One week later all of the people in the first group are dead and all of the people in the second group are alive and healthy. Is it reasonable to conclude that the experimental drug is dangerous?

Just from the information I have given you, the answer is "no". The reason is that based solely on the information I have given there are many other possible explanations for the results. Here are just a few possibilities:

1. The test subjects died because they were being taken to the test administration area in a bus, and the bus crashed.

2. The groups were not randomly selected to begin with. The test subjects were all terminally ill and the control group was all young and healthy.

3. The batch of drugs being used was accidentally contaminated by a poisonous compound during manufacture.

4. Both the test and control groups were terminally ill, the drug is safe but ineffective, and it was just random chance that all of the test group died before any of the control group.

I'll leave it as an exercise to come up with others. I've chosen these four alternative hypotheses because each one illustrates a different kind of pitfall that you can fall into when trying to apply the scientific method.

The first alternative seems like it would be easy to dispense with. If it were true there would be ample evidence: newspaper stories, photos of mangled bodies, death certificates. And yet, none of this evidence would actually "prove" that this hypothesis is true. It's possible to both fabricate and hide evidence, and so it is possible that the bus crash did occur even though no direct evidence can be found to show that it did. Likewise, it is possible that the accident did not occur even though one can produce evidence to show that it did. Eventually you have to apply Occam's razor and decide how far down the conspiratorial rabbit hole you are willing to go. The point is: nothing in science is ever absolutely proven. The best you can do is get to the point where all but one of the alternative hypotheses seem implausible to you. Ultimately, the threshold of plausibility is an individual decision.

The second alternative is an example of simple procedural error. It is a rather blatant example, but things just like this happen all the time, usually inadvertently. In fact, this kind of mistake is so common it even has a name. It's called a "confounding factor." Sometimes confounding factors can lead to serendipitous discoveries, like when it was found that copper may contribute to Alzheimer's disease. But more often confounding factors are just that: confounding, and you can't tell whether the results you got from the experiment are due to the influence you were trying to test or the confound, and you have to go back and redesign your experiment.

The third alternative hypothesis might seem farfetched, but things like this actually happen all the time too, especially in biology. Accidental contamination is like a confounding factor, except that it arises by a procedural error rather than by a mistake in the experimental design. Nowadays biological experiments rely on dozens or hundreds or in some cases thousands of reagents, and if what's in the bottle isn't what you thought was in the bottle then your results may simply be a reflection of that contamination. (A friend of mine currently working on a biology Ph.D. actually discovered a contaminated reagent in her lab which invalidated many months worth of work, not just hers, but all of her colleagues' as well. She was not a very popular person for a while.)

The fourth alternative seems the most farfetched of all, but it is not impossible. In fact, we can actually calculate the exact probability that this hypothesis is correct. (You might want to make an intuitive guess before I tell you the answer.) In the scenario I described it turns out to be quite small indeed: just a little under one in a million (1 in 1048576 to be precise). But it is extremely rare to get results this crisp. Suppose 8 of 10 test subjects had died and 3 of ten control subjects. The odds of that happening by chance are quite a bit higher. Figuring out what those odds are exactly is complicated (and occasionally controversial). The study of how to compute those kinds of odds is known as statistics and now you know why statistics are part and parcel of science, because "it happened by chance" is always an alternative hypothesis for any result.

The possibility of chance results is also the reason why only predictions are considered scientifically valid, and never postdictions. To be considered a valid test of a scientific hypothesis, you have to state the hypothesis you are purporting to test before you do the experiment, and you are not allowed to change your mind afterwards. The reason for this is that if you do enough experiments you will sooner or later get what look like interesting results purely by chance. If you are allowed to go back and cherry-pick just the experiments that gave you the results you were looking for, it is not just likely that you will fool yourself into accepting false results, it is inevitable. (This is why all day-trading schemes eventually fail. If you take historical stock data and feed it to any model with enough parameters you will inevitably find a strategy that would have made money in the past. But this is almost certain to be pure chance, and the model will almost certainly have no predictive power. This is not to say that it won't make successful predictions -- it might, but the probability that it will is almost certainly 50%. In fact, you can generate any number of models that will be successful on historical data. Half of them will be successful on future data as well. The trick is, there's no way to know which half until it's too late for that information to be useful. Of course, the same is true for models that *weren't* successful on historical data.)

This last phenomenon is actually very common, especially in today's pharmaceutical industry. Creating new drugs is so expensive that the temptation to focus on the experiments that show your drug is safe and effective is nearly impossible to resist (especially when your job description is to produce a good return for your shareholders by any means necessary). So debacles like Vioxx are not just unsurprising, they are all but inevitable.

It's even worse than that. The threshold for being considered a publishable result is what statisticians call 95% significance, that is, results for which there is less than a 5% chance that they could have come about by chance. But even if everything is done perfectly -- if there are no mistakes in the experimental design, no procedural errors, no bad luck, and no cherry-picking -- one published result in twenty is still going to be a result of chance alone! There are tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of biology studies published every year. At least one in twenty of them is almost certainly wrong.

So here's your final exam: suppose I give IQ tests to people around the world and consistently (more or less) find that white people score higher than black people. Is it reasonable to conclude that black people are genetically predisposed to have lower intelligence than white people?

Musharraf imposes martial law. What a surprise.

I wonder if this is a preview of what the U.S. will look like in a couple of months after the dollar collapses.

A test for Lynn's theory

Fortuitously, Slate just ran a story that suggests a test for Robert Lynn's theory that intelligence differences across races are (mostly) genetic. The focus has been on Africans, which makes it difficult to design an experiment to distinguish between genetic factors, and the self-fulfilling prophecy that blacks are inferior to whites, which leads to institutionalized discrimination against black people, which leads to lower performance on standardized tests (among other deleterious effects). But happily there is another "racial" group, Ashkenazi jews, who are genetically isolated but much less visually distinctive from WASPS than Africans are. Show me a group of descendants of Ashkenazi Jews who were raised as an assimilated population in a non-Jewish community where the average IQ is normal or below, but who still as a group sport IQs one full standard deviation above the mean and I will (tentatively of course, because nothing in science is ever final) accept Lynn's conclusion.

Spineless pussies cave again

It's hardly news any more when Democrats cave to Administration pressure. I propose a new law that anyone who claims that waterboarding is not torture must be subjected to it themselves before they can be appointed to any government job -- including (make that especially) Senator.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

How fascism works

It's not with a bang.

Beware the plausible hypothesis

So I read Richard Lynn's book. He makes a rather convincing argument for the position that there are significant genetic differences in intelligence among different races. And yet, his argument is almost certainly wrong, and makes a good case study in how difficult it can be to properly interpret data. I'll start by restating Lynn's argument. In fact, I'll go Lynn one better and make an argument that is even stronger than the one he makes. Then I'll show you why it's (almost certainly) wrong.

Let us begin by observing that it is entirely uncontroversial that intelligence has a significant genetic component. Humans are more intelligent than any animal and that is clearly due to the fact that we're humans. Furthermore there are well understood genetic deficiencies in humans (like Down syndrome) that result in marked mental retardation. Furthermore, Down syndrome is also associated with distinctive and easily recognizable physical characteristics, so we have at least one example of a genetic mutation that causes changes is both intelligence and physical appearance. So the hypothesis that there are differences in intelligence among races and that those differences are genetic cannot be ruled out a priori (the way we can, say, claims of perpetual motion) since we have an uncontroversial existence proof that such phenomena do indeed occur.

Furthermore, it is uncontroversial that humans have migrated over periods of time long enough to induce genetic differences among populations. It is clear that differences in skin color is an evolutionary adaptation that has occurred in response to environmental pressures. Lactose tolerance is another very recent example, having evolved as recently as 3000 years ago so even creationists can sign on to that one :-)

Lynn begins his argument by observing that, "There is a widespread consensus that intelligence is a unitary construct that determines the efficiency of problem solving, learning, and remembering." He goes on to give a brief history of the definition of intelligence (which is too long for me to quote here), IQ, and the Flynn effect. He then devotes an entire chapter to discussing the concept of race, addressing the modern notion that the concept of race is a "myth" and showing that even those who advance that view acknowledge that races, as is intuitively obvious to everyone by the most doggedly politically correct, do indeed exist.

The rest of the book is a seemingly unassailable mountain of data showing an indisputably clear and consistent correlation between race and intelligence (as measured by IQ scores). He then shows that intelligence is almost entirely (75-80% depending on the study) a genetically inherited trait by citing studies of identical twins reared apart. Finally, he proposes a plausible mechanism (the evolutionary pressure of having to survive winter) for producing the observed differences in intelligence.

Have I convinced you? There is at least one glaring flaw in the argument above which I introduced on purpose in order to make a point. You might want to see if you can spot it before going on.

BTW, if you are convinced you shouldn't feel bad about it. It's a very convincing argument, and it might even be correct. (It might even be correct despite the flaw.) I am not aware of any data that would falsify it. But it is nonetheless almost certainly wrong. Here's why.

Let's start with my motivating example, Down syndrome, which is indeed a genetic disorder that produces both profound mental retardation and easily identifiable physical traits. However, while Down syndrome is genetic, it is not inheritable. Down syndrome results when an individual gets an extra copy of chromosome 21, which happens during meiosis or gestation. In fact, if you trust Wikipedia (which you really shouldn't, but what the hell) the non-inheritability of Down syndrome leads some researchers to use parents of children with Down syndrome as controls for studies of autism which is apparently at least partially heritable.

So the fact of the matter is that there are no precedent phenomena for the claim that there are genetic differences that result in correlated mental and physical differences within a species. (Obviously there are such differences across species.) This is not to say that it doesn't happen, just that if it happens it is not common. The a priori plausibility of the claim is much lower than the above argument would lead one to believe.

I introduced the Down syndrome argument as a deliberate red herring to make the point that even glaring flaws in an argument are not always immediately obvious even when you are primed for them. Lynn's argument has no flaws quite so glaring as that one (he's not a crackpot). Instead, Lynn's argument contains lots and lots of little flaws that together add up to an argument that is almost certainly wrong. Let's start to explore those.

The foundational flaw in Lynn's argument is the claim that intelligence "is a unitary construct", that it can be reduced to a single number (IQ), that that number can be reliably measured, and that the resulting measure has a causal relationship to something of consequence like the ability to survive winters or build industrial economies. If you read closely, he doesn't actually provide any evidence that this is the case (because there isn't any), he only says that "there is a widespread consensus." Now, this is actually true. There is indeed a widespread consensus. But just because there is a widespread consensus does not mean that it is actually true. As recently as a few decades ago there was a widespread consensus that homosexuality was a mental disease. At various times in history one could find a widespread consensus that bleeding, thalidomide, and Vioxx were effective treatments for various ailments.

In fact there is no evidence that IQ tests measure anything beyond a person's ability to do well on an IQ test. And there is a good reason for this. There are some cognitive abilities (like short term memory capacity, visual acuity, and spatial reasoning) that can be measured objectively, just as we can objectively measure certain physical abilities (like raw strength and speed). But the applicability of these abilities to real-world situations is limited. The holy grail of intelligence testing is a person's overall ability to solve novel problems, and therein lies the rub because a novel problem can only be novel once. I do really well on IQ tests but that's because I'm a geek and I spent a lot of time solving puzzles when I was a kid. I'm really good at solving puzzles, and particularly good at solving the kinds of puzzles that people tend to put on IQ tests. But it is far from clear whether my puzzle-solving skill is a result of some innate ability that I have, or whether it's simply because I've had a lot of practice. There is no way to know which way the causality runs.

It's like this for any kind of complex skill. Is Tiger Woods a superior golfer because he has the golfing gene (and does he have it because of or despite the fact that he's black), or is it simply because he's been golfing continuously since he was three? To really find out you'd need to do an experiment with a statistically significant number of subjects all going through the same intensive training that Tiger Woods went through, and even then you wouldn't really know because it's possible that one kid has a lot of innate golfing skill but just doesn't like golfing enough to really apply herself. The number of factors that go into making an effective golfer or an effective computer programmer or an effective businessman or an effective politician or even an effective puzzle solver are so diverse and varied that it would be impossible to design a study that could tease all these factors apart and give you a statistically significant result.

It gets worse. If you're testing the hypothesis that genes cause both dark skin and decreased "intelligence" (whatever that means) it is impossible to create a control group because it is impossible to hide the fact that a person with dark skin has dark skin. It is therefore impossible to eliminate the subtle effects of societal prejudices. Even if we take all of Lynn's data at face value, all we've shown is that people with dark skin don't do as well on IQ tests as people with light skin. But this could simply be due to the fact that people with light skin happen to live under circumstances that are conducive to the development of IQ-test-taking skills. And I don't just mean better economic conditions, I mean a pervasive belief shared by light-skinned and dark-skinned people alike that light-skinned people are somehow superior. Such a belief can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the problem with self-fulfilling prophecies is that they are actually fulfilled. Such beliefs can become self-reinforcing because they are actually true but not because of anything genetic, rather they are true simply because people believe them, rather like a mass (anti-)placebo effect.

None of Lynn's data refutes the self-fulfilling-prophecy hypothesis. Indeed, the widespread acceptance of Lynn's conclusions despite his obvious scientific sloppiness (like mistaking consensus for fact) lends support to it.

The problem is that there is no way to experimentally resolve this. To do so you would have to have a way to make black people look like white people (or vice versa), and that's just not possible. So at this point we have two equally plausible hypotheses to explain the data. How do we decide between them? And in particular, how do I justify my claim that Lynn is "almost certainly wrong"?

Well, let's look at the data. The first thing you notice is that the actual numbers are not nearly as consistent as Lynn would have you believe. To cite just one example that I found leafing through the tables, his data for Zambia are based on two studies, one of which puts the average IQ of Zambians at 77 and the other at 63, very nearly a full standard deviation of difference. And such discrepancies are not unusual.

But let's leave that aside for a moment and take Lynn's data at face value. Consider the unfortunate inhabitants of Cameroon, with an average IQ of 64. Or Equatorial Guinea with an average of 59. These figures are so low as to fall into the range of mild mental retardation. Compared to the Chinese at the opposite extreme with an average IQ of 105 the difference is more than two standard deviations. That seems like an implausibly high variance to be due to genetic factors. To be sure, differences of this magnitude in physical traits are certainly possible -- skin color comes to mind as an example -- but they are rare, and intelligence is much more complex than melanin production.

There's a lot more that could be said about this (and has been but I don't have time to write a treatise. I'll just point out one more problem with Lynn's methodology, one that is more serious than any I have cited so far.

On page 5 of Lynn's book he writes:

The metric employed for the measurements of intelligence f the races has been to adopt an IQ of 100... for Europeans in Britain, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand as the standard in terms of which the IQ's of other races can be calculated. The mean IQ's of Europeans in these four countries is virtually identical.

Notice anything oddly coincidental about those four countries? In all four, English is the native language. So Lynn's definition of intelligence, his gold standard, is the performance of English-speaking people on IQ tests. Don't you think that this definition might introduce just the teensiest bit of cultural bias into the whole endeavor? Besides the winter-induced-genetic-drift hypothesis and the self-fulfilling-prophecy hypothesis we can introduce a third plausible theory to explain Lynn's results, that "intelligence" is just a measure, at least in part, of the ability to learn to speak English. How well do the data support this theory? Well, the Chinese data seems to refute this, but how to explain e.g. the Lithuanians, who at an average IQ of 90 are significantly below their anglophonic cousins? And Lithuania is not exactly known for being a tropical paradise. If having to deal with winter makes you smart, why aren't the Lithuanians geniuses? Why are the Chinese so much smarter than the Innuit? Why are Italians smarter than the Portugese? In these last two examples the differences are huge: a full standard deviation.

The fact of the matter is that intelligence is a monstrously complex phenomenon governed by both genetics and environmental factors. The hypothesis that genetics are the dominant factor, and that adaptation for survival in winter is the driving force, is not in fact supported by the data. And in fact there is one final argument that I think puts the final nail in Lynn's argument: if intelligence is so crucial to winter survival, why do we not see the same differences in intelligence in animals? Why is it that the most intelligent land animals (great apes and elephants) evolved in Africa and not in Europe?

I am open to the possibility that the neo-eugenicists might still be correct. But until someone comes up with a much better argument than Lynn's (and Lynn's is the best they have) anyone who advances the position that blacks are genetically inferior to whites is a bigot in my book.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

I love Leopard!

24 hours into a bleeding-edge upgrade to OS X Leopard I am in love. After getting past a few startup glitches (most notably a nasty interaction of Leopard with Spotless) everything is working perfectly. I'm even getting used to the look of the new dock! Some of the highlights so far:

1. Spotlight privacy settings survive volume dismounts, so Spotless is no longer needed.

2. After Time Machine does its initial backup, subsequent incremental backups are barely noticeable.

3. Safari now does spell checking in text areas. No more typos in my blog!

4. Lots and lots of little annoyances in Tiger have been fixed, too many to list them all separately. The network control panel has been streamlined. Download progress reports are more informative. The text search within a web page in Safari kicks ass.

5. Leopard is faster than Tiger. I see the SBBOD much less than I used to.

And most important from my geeky point of of view:

6. Objective C now supports garbage collection!

I am stoked! For anyone considering upgrading to Leopard, I say go for it. Just be sure to disable Spotless first.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

First impressions of Leopard

I decided to just completely rewrite this post instead of trying to keep up with updates.

After about six hours of playing around with Mac OS X Leopard, here are my current impressions:

1. It's not a disaster (which puts it head-and-shoulders above Vista), but it's not a must-have upgrade either. If not for the fact that it contains one particular technical feature that I need for geeky reasons (64-bit Cocoa libraries) I could easily live without it for quite a while.

2. A lot of preferences get lost when you update. In particular, finder view preferences are lost, which I found pretty damn annoying.

3. Spotless plays very badly with Leopard. If you are using Spotless it is important to disable it before upgrading. Spotless ran despite announcing that it was incompatible with 10.5 and would quit, and subsequently spotlight (and hence all search, including mail search) was broken after the upgrade. I don't know for certain that Spotless was to blame, but it seems like a reasonable theory. It appears that I will be able to recover using mdutil to force spotlight to rebuild its indexes, but the jury is still out.

4. I hate the look of the new dock. Even after turning off the hideous 3-D effect (yeah, like that's still going to look cool three years from now) it still looks awful. The black background makes all the application icons disappear into a sea of gloom. It makes me want to slit my wrists every time I look at it. (Maybe Apple wanted to go for the goth market?)

5. Time Machine is cool, but annoying. As far as I can tell, there is no way to turn off hourly backups, so every hour your backup disk starts to spin... If this keeps up I'm pretty sure I'm going to end up disabling Time Machine, despite the fact that it's a pretty spiffy way to do backups.

6. Spaces has a weird bug that manifests itself when you open an application that opens a lot of windows over a significant time span (like Final Cut Pro). If you switch Spaces during the startup process you end up with some of the application's windows in one space, and some in another. The only way I've been able to figure out to recover from this is to quit the application and try again. It's damned annoying.

7. I ran into one really bizarre bug that resulted in movies playing with a sort Max Headroom jerkiness that I have never seen before (and hope to never see again). Restarting Final Cut made the problem go away, but it was pretty ominous looking at the time.

8. I have the general impression that things run faster under Leopard than they did under Tiger, which is no small thing.

On a technical level I have to say I'm pretty impressed with what Apple has done. I know how hard it is to make something like Leopard (it's really, really hard) and the fact that it doesn't seem to have any major problems so far is no mean feat, notwithstanding the odd annoyance. I'll probably get used to the new dock some day too.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

David Perks misses the point

David Perks comes to defend James Watson:

James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA and a Nobel laureate, has become a scientific pariah in the space of a week. The cause of his downfall? He made comments on race and intelligence in which he implied that there are significant genetic differences in intelligence between Africans and Caucasians.

No, that is not the cause of his downfall. If all Watson had said was that there are significant genetic differences between Africans and Caucasians (and provided scientific evidence to back it up) there would not have been this outcry. But what Watson actually said is very, very different:

[Watson] said he hoped that everyone was equal, but countered that 'people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.'"


"[I am] inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really."

First, even the one scientific claim that Watson makes isn't true. It is simply not true that "all of the testing" says that blacks are not as intelligent as whites. It is arguable in fact whether any of the testing actually shows that blacks are as intelligent as whites. It is not even clear that the term "intelligence" can be adequately defined for such a claim to even make sense, let alone be tested objectively without cultural bias, let alone be true. But then Watson goes even beyond that unwarranted statement to imply that as a result of the alleged inferiority of blacks to whites, Africa is doomed, and anyone who deals with any black employee will find it self-evident that blacks are not as intelligent as whites.

Watson's statements were nothing more than bigoted nonsense, and he abrogated his professional responsibilities as a scientist when he said them. It is entirely appropriate for a science museum to withdraw an invitation to speak under those circumstances.

Blacks are treated equally. Yeah, right.

Can you imagine this happening to a white woman in the U.S.?

Elementary school principal Yvette Hayes will never forget the night of July 13, 2007. She was pregnant at the time and believes police jeopardized the life of her unborn child.

When Hayes was pulled over in the Kansas City suburb of Independence, Mo., on Interstate 70, she thought it was a routine stop. "I'm thinking they'd ask for my driver's license," she said.

Instead, police drew guns on the five months' pregnant mother — whose two children were in the back seat of the car — and told her to lie on the ground.

"Get your hands up," one officer shouted while another ordered her to "go down on to your belly. Arms out to your side! Palms up, palms up!"

Shocked and sobbing, all Hayes could say was, "I'm pregnant."

Hayes had just left a local JCPenney, where a store security guard misidentified her green Jeep as a vehicle involved in stealing cars from the parking lot.

I'll save Denis Bider some typing and anticipate his response: it is not unreasonable to target black people this way because black people commit most of the crimes in this country, just as it is not unreasonable to target young Muslim men as suspected terrorists because most terrorists are young muslim men.

As intuitively appealing as this reasoning may seem, it is false. Just because most people who fall into category A have characteristic B, it does not folow that people with characteristic B are likely to fall into category A. Neo-nazis are overwhelmingly white. It does not follow that a randomly chosen white person is likely to be a neo-nazi. So even if car thieves are overwhelmingly black (which is debatable) it does not follow that a randomly chosen black person is likely to be a car thief. (I note in passing that Denis Bider bears a striking resemblance to Ed Norton in American History X. But I'll wager that Denis would be quite upset (and rightly so) if I opined that this physical resemblance indicated that he might be a white supremacist.)

But this case is actually much, much worse than that because Yvette Hayes is not just a black person. She is a black woman. Not only that, she is an obviously pregnant black woman who had two young children in her car. Whatever else car thieves may generally be, they are generally not pregnant women with young children in tow. But these cops obviously didn't see a pregnant woman. All they saw was a black person.

Now, if there were any justice, these cops would not only be fired, they would be charged with assault under color of authority and do hard time. But of course that won't happen because policemen get to hide their racism behind the cover of "proper procedure." They pulled over someone fitting the description of an alleged car thief, and they did what they were trained to do with alleged car thieves. Trick is, this excuse only works when that description is "a black person."

But it doesn't even end there. Hayes's two young children now have to deal with the trauma of having policemen wave guns in their faces and forcing their pregnant mother to lie down on the freeway (and most likely get off with a slap on the wrist at worst). They have to live the rest of their lives with the not-unreasonable fear that this might happen to them again (and again and again and again and again). This is a source of stress that most of their white peers don't have to deal with. I stand foursquare with anyone who says that people have to take responsibility for their own lives. But there is not, there has never been, and there is no reason to expect that there will be any time soon in this country a level playing field.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

My head is going to explode

George Bush says "If Iran had a nuclear weapon, it'd be a dangerous threat to world peace." So of course to prevent this dangerous threat to world peace we're going to nuke Iran.


Bigotry masquerading as science

Just in time for Halloween.

Nobel Prize winner and DNA-discoverer James Watson says that black people are 'less intelligent' than whites' and that the difference is due to genetics. That is, blacks are not merely less intelligent than whites, they are inherently less intelligent than whites.

Now, that may sound like bigotry, but it isn't. It is possible -- likely in fact -- that intelligence is at least partially determined by genetics, and it is possible (though very unlikely) that the genes that affect intelligence are somehow correlated with the genes that control skin color.

But Watson is in fact a bigot. He reveals it when he goes on to say:

[Watson] said he hoped that everyone was equal, but countered that 'people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.'"

Even if it were true that blacks are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent than whites, the blanket statement that "people who have to deal with black employees find that [blacks are less intelligent than whites]" is, to summon as much diplomacy as I can muster, unjustified racism. Watson's antipathy towards blacks is revealed in his choice of phraseology: "people who have to deal with black employees..." as if black employees are some kind of problem that have to be dealt with rather than valuable contributors to a team irrespective of whether or not they are intelligent. After all, not all white people are Nobel Prize winners either.

Watson's statements are despicable. That they might -- MIGHT mind you -- contain a tiny grain of truth makes them no less despicable.

Well, that didn't take long

The other day I saw an interview on NBC with Scott Redd, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, where to my great surprise he admitted that the U.S. is not safer as a result of the war in Iraq. I thought to myself at the time, "Wow, there's a brave man." I should have followed my instincts and posted one of my Ron Prognosticates posts predicting that he would not be long for this world, because indeed today it was announced that Redd is resigning.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Irony overload

The old irony-o-meter didn't just blow a fuse, it exploded in a shower of sparks when I saw these two leading stories in the news today:

Supreme Court Won’t Hear Torture Appeal

Leak Severed a Link to Al-Qaeda's Secrets

So the Supreme Court decides without comment that innocent people who have been kidnapped and tortured have no recourse because to hear their case might compromise national security. And on the same day it is revealed that the Bush administration itself leaked sensitive information that compromised national security.

Then there's this:

[A first strike on Iran by Israel] would get around the reluctance of large parts of the US establishment to support an American first strike. But helping poor little Israel would be much more popular, especially in the Democrat-dominated Congress [becaus u]nlike the Republican Party, the Democratic Party could almost not exist without Zionist lobby organized funding.

In other words, there is no realistic hope of avoiding war with Iran because the U.S. government is effectively controlled by Zionists. Why does this peg the irony-o-meter? Think about it: the Zionists current influence is to a large degree a direct result of the holocaust, and yet the result of their influence is essentially a replay of 1930's Germany, with "national security" replacing "lebensraum" as the buzzword of the day.

I wonder how bad things will have to get before people wake up. History is not reassuring in this regard.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Sam Harris finally gets it right!

Looks like Sam Harris may have saved me from having to write the followup post to "How material wealth leads to spiritual poverty." Required reading.

Monday, October 01, 2007

If the shoe fits

As I noted before, sometimes the hardest things to explain are the ones that are self-evident to you. So it seems to be with Michael Medved's apologia for slavery. Denis Bider, who usually strikes me as a clear-thinking individual, rose to Medved's defense when I obliquely accused Medved of trying to roll the clock back to 1950. It seemed obvious to me that Medved's position was thinly disguised bigotry of the basest sort, but apparently this is not evident to everyone. So herewith a detailed critique of Medved's piece:

Those who want to discredit the United States and to deny our role as history’s most powerful and pre-eminent force for freedom, goodness and human dignity invariably focus on America’s bloody past as a slave-holding nation.

Note that Medved starts out by tacitly assuming that the only possible motive someone might have for focusing on America's bloody past as a slave-holding nation is that they "want to discredit the United States and to deny our role as history’s most powerful and pre-eminent force for freedom, goodness and human dignity" as if this is the most likely reason for anyone to be paying attention to this little historical incident.

Unfortunately, the current mania for exaggerating America’s culpability for the horrors of slavery bears no more connection to reality than the old, discredited tendency to deny that the U.S. bore any blame at all.

What "mania" and what "exaggerations" exactly? He doesn't cite any examples of who he considers manic, or what he considers current. But the idea of reparations if fairly contemporary, and later context seems to indicate that that's what he's talking about, so we'll go with that as a working assumption.

No, it’s not true that the “peculiar institution” featured kind-hearted, paternalistic masters and happy, dancing field-hands, any more than it’s true that America displayed unparalleled barbarity or enjoyed disproportionate benefit from kidnapping and exploiting innocent Africans.

Ah. So just because America's barbarity was not "unparalleled" or the benefits gained were not "disproportionate" that makes it OK?


Granted, but so what? Since when did "but everyone else was doing it too" become a valid excuse according to conservative morality?

[Lengthy accounting of other slaveholding nations snipped.]

In other words, when taking the prodigious and unspeakably cruel Islamic enslavements into the equation, at least 97% of all African men, women and children who were kidnapped, sold, and taken from their homes, were sent somewhere other than the British colonies of North America. In this context there is no historical basis to claim that the United States bears primary, or even prominent guilt for the depredations of centuries of African slavery.

On this reasoning a murderer should be able to argue: "Hitler, Stalin, etc. have killed countless millions. I only killed one person. Therefore I do not bear primary or even prominent guilt for my actions." How well do you think that would fly in a Texas courtroom?


The same argument applies: "It took only a second for me to pull the trigger, your honor. So I was only a murder for a tiny fraction of my life." To say nothing of the fact that the claim isn't even true:

The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution put a formal end to the institution of slavery 89 years after the birth of the Republic; 142 years have passed since this welcome emancipation.

Why start counting from "the birth of the Republic"? The slaves surely didn't. And to draw the analogy back to to the individual case, this is analogous to a murderer claiming that all the people he killed before he turned 18 ought not to count. Or even to accept Medved's accounting, it's analogous to a serial killer who goes on a 9-year-long murder spree followed by a 14-year retirement and saying that everything is now square.

Moreover, the importation of slaves came to an end in 1808 (as provided by the Constitution), a mere 32 years after independence

Ah, so because at that point we were only enslaving people born here that somehow makes it better? That seems like some might odd balancing of the moral scales to me.

Slavery had been outlawed in most states decades before the Civil War.

That is simply false. There were brief windows during which free states outnumber the slave states, but great pains were taken to try to keep the number of slave and free states the same. The ultimate failure of this effort is one of the things that the civil war was fought over.

Even in the South, more than 80% of the white population never owned slaves.

So because only one in five people decides to murder people that makes it OK to make murder legal?

Given the fact that the majority of today’s non-black Americans descend from immigrants who arrived in this country after the War Between the States, only a tiny percentage of today’s white citizens – perhaps as few as 5% -- bear any authentic sort of generational guilt for the exploitation of slave labor.

Perhaps as few? Is there any basis for this number, or did Medved just pull it out of his ass?

Of course, a hundred years of Jim Crow laws, economic oppression and indefensible discrimination followed the theoretical emancipation of the slaves, but those harsh realities raise different issues from those connected to the long-ago history of bondage.

They do? Why? Note that I have elided nothing here. That is Medved's sole mention of Jim Crow in the entire piece. No elaboration on why "those harsh realities raise different issues." It seems to me that those harsh realities raise exactly the same issues: an entire class of people was systematically denied basic human rights and equal treatment under the law. The difference between slavery and Jim Crow is a difference of degree, not of kind.


So just because it wasn't your intent to kill people that somehow makes it less heinous that they died as a result of your reprehensible actions? How exactly do you square that with the case of Kenneth Foster who narrowly escaped being put to death by the state of Texas not for killing someone but merely for driving someone else after they had killed someone?

[Details of slavery atrocities snipped]

Here, the popular, facile comparisons between slavery and the Holocaust quickly break down: the Nazis occasionally benefited from the slave labor of their victims, but the ultimate purpose of facilities like Auschwitz involved mass death, not profit or productivity. For slave owners and slave dealers in the New World, however, death of your human property cost you money, just as the death of your domestic animals would cause financial damage. And as with their horses and cows, slave owners took pride and care in breeding as many new slaves as possible. Rather than eliminating the slave population, profit-oriented masters wanted to produce as many new, young slaves as they could. This hardly represents a compassionate or decent way to treat your fellow human beings, but it does amount to the very opposite of genocide.

[Emphasis added.]

At this point my ability to remain calm breaks down. Anyone who cannot see the absurdity in this is beyond help. Just because you intended to treat people like animals and end up killing a lot of them only inadvertantly does not mean that your actions were "the very opposite of genocide." Whether or not it was genocide is perhaps debatable. That it was every bit as morally reprehensible and unforgivable as genocide is not.

As David Brion Davis reports, slave holders in North America developed formidable expertise in keeping their “bondsmen” alive and healthy enough to produce abundant offspring. The British colonists took pride in slaves who “developed an almost unique and rapid rate of population growth, freeing the later United States from a need for further African imports.”

Ye gods, can Medved not hear himself? This is what he cites to make the case that "Those who want to discredit the United States and to deny our role as history’s most powerful and pre-eminent force for freedom, goodness and human dignity invariably focus on America’s bloody past as a slave-holding nation"? Medved is essentially, saying, "We didn't intend to kill the slaves, we just intended to breed them like cattle. What you bleeding-hearts getting so worked up about?"


At the risk of getting tiresome (because I want to be absolutely clear that NONE of Medved's arguments are even remotely valid): because they didn't make money that makes it OK?

[Details of the negative ecnomic consequences of slavery snipped.]

WHILE AMERICA DESERVES NO UNIQUE BLAME FOR THE EXISTENCE OF SLAVERY, THE UNITED STATES MERITS SPECIAL CREDIT FOR ITS RAPID ABOLITION. In the course of scarcely more than a century following the emergence of the American Republic, men of conscience, principle and unflagging energy succeeded in abolishing slavery not just in the New World but in all nations of the West.

The United States was the last Western nation to abolish slavery, and the only one that had to fight a civil war to do it. I predict that if the United States ever switches to the metric system Medved will write an essay about how we deserve special credit for that too.


It is hard to imagine a more condescending claim. Even if it were true, so what? Isn't it supposed to be a conservative tenet that people should be free to choose their own course in life even if it results in undesirable consequences? If I kidnap a child of poor parents, should it be a defense that I was able to give that child a better life than his parents would have been able to?

The idea of reparations rests on the notion of making up to the descendants of slaves for the incalculable damage done to their family status and welfare by the enslavement of generations of their ancestors. In theory, reparationists want society to repair the wrongs of the past by putting today’s African-Americans into the sort of situation they would have enjoyed if their forebears hadn’t been kidnapped, sold and transported across the ocean. Unfortunately, to bring American blacks in line with their cousins who the slave-traders left behind in Africa would require a drastic reduction in their wealth, living standards, and economic and political opportunities.

Imagine that I kidnap a child of poor parents, an academic underachiever with no prospects, and hack off all their limbs. Imagine further that they manage to escape, sell their life story to Hollywood, and make more money than they ever would have been able to make had I not kidnapped them. Imagine further that because of my power and influence I am able to escape prosecution for my crime. (I know that kind of thing never happens, but bear with me here.) Suppose that the kid brings a civil suit against me for pain and suffering. Should I be able to use as an argument in my defense that the kid is better off because of what I did to him?

No honest observer can deny or dismiss this nation’s long record of racism and injustice

And yet that is exactly what Medved is doing. Well, if the shoe fits...

If we sought to erase the impact of slavery on specific black families, we would need to obliterate the spectacular economic progress made by those families (and by US citizens in general) over the last 100 years.

That assumes that no Africans would have emigrated to this country if it had not been for slavery, a dubious assumption at best. The rest of this argumnt thus becomes a non-sequitur, and I have elided it.

In short, politically correct assumptions about America’s entanglement with slavery lack any sense of depth, perspective or context.

No, it is Medved's straw-man that lacks any sense of depth, perspective, or context. The not-so-thinly veiled subtext of Medved's position is simply this: everything is fine, except for blacks being a little too uppity, along with the white liberals who support them, a class of people which in the 1950's were referred to as "nigger lovers."

If the shoe fits.