Why Do We Keep Writing About Intelligence? An IQ FAQ
December 03, 2007, 04:00 AM
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After the Washington Post-owned Slate.com ran a three part series by their human sciences correspondent William Saletan pointing out that the denunciations of James Watson were scientifically illiterate, we were wondering here at VDARE.COM if we going to lose our near-monopoly as the professional publication routinely reporting the facts about IQ.

But, then Saletan and his editor Jacob Weisberg apparently lost their nerve and, just like Watson and Larry Summers, violated the cardinal rule: Never apologize for a "gaffe." Showing you're frightened of them just arouses the bloodlust in the jackals.

So America—that land of the free and the home of the brave—is back to status quo ante. For straight talk on IQ, VDARE.com's your source. (By the way, did I mention we're holding a fundraising drive?)

I figured I'd step back today and answer some common questions about IQ.

Q. Is IQ really all that important in understanding how the world works?

A. In an absolute sense, no. Human behavior is incredibly complicated, and no single factor explains more than a small fraction of it.

In a relative sense, yes. Compared to all the countless other factors that influence the human world, IQ ranks up near the top of the list.

Q. Why do you harp on IQ so much?

A. It's an underexploited market niche. The quantity and quality of writing in the Main Stream Media [MSM] on IQ and its effects is abysmal that, simply by being informed and honest about IQ, I can explain how certain important things work that other journalists can't.

Q. What are IQ questions like?

A. They vary wildly. The nonverbal Raven Matrices look like the instruction manual for a DVD player from Mars. Some of the Wechsler questions look like the Word Power vocabulary quiz in the Reader's Digest.

Q. How can different questions give similar results?

A. They're validated to make sure they do a good job of predicting real world performance. Obviously, different tests are better at different tasks, such as testing small children, illiterates, or people who speak a different language, but, when used properly, all the major tests present similar results because they are proven predictors of actual behavior.

Q. Aren't IQ tests only good for predicting academic performance?

A. Then why have the U.S. armed forces invested heavily in IQ testing all potential recruits since WWII? Because the military has found, over and over again, that IQ correlates with performance in a huge array of military duties. Over a time, a unit with an average IQ of 110 is going to repair jet engines faster and accidentally shoot themselves in the foot less often than a unit with an average IQ of 90.

Q. The military uses IQ tests? I never heard of such a thing!

A. They don't go out of their way to publicize it because it's politically incorrect, but the Armed Forces Qualification Test, which is the central core of the larger ASVAB test, is required of everyone who wants to enlist. It's the equivalent of a highly g-loaded IQ test. During the golden age of recruiting from 1992-2004, only 1 percent of enlistees got in with scores in the bottom 30 percent on the test (92 IQ or lower).

Q. Isn't character more important than intelligence?

A. I believe so. Work ethic, honesty, conscientiousness, kindness, together they're more important than intelligence. (Of course, when it comes to making money, less endearing personality traits like aggressiveness also play a big role, but we'll leave that aside for now.)

Can I quantify that? Well, that's where things get tricky…

Q. So why not test for work ethic and the like instead of IQ?

A. We do test for it, in many different ways. Consider the process of applying to college. The two most important elements in the application are high school GPA and the SAT or ACT score. The SAT and ACT are more or less an IQ test, while high school GPA is driven by a combination of IQ and work ethic.

But demonstrating work ethic via GPA is a time-consuming prospect for the applicant … and even for the admissions committee. The student spends four years in high school achieving a GPA, which he presents to the colleges to which he applies. But what does his GPA really say about him? Did he go to an easy school or a hard one? Did he take easy classes or hard ones? Does he have the brainpower to go far beyond high school material? These are complex questions, and it's no wonder that almost every college supplements GPA with the nationally standardized SAT or ACT.

Similarly, how does a would-be employee prove he's honest enough to handle large amounts of money? By slowly working his way up over the years from handling small amounts of money.

In contrast, the SAT takes only a few hours, while the widely used Wonderlic IQ test (mandated by the NFL for all pro football prospects) takes only 12 minutes.

Q. Couldn't somebody invent paper and pencil tests to measure character?

A. They have. They're pretty accurate … overall.

On the other hand, these tests haven't been all that popular, perhaps because they are liable to occasional catastrophic failures. The danger is that somebody with a high IQ but poor character would use his smarts to figure out what answers on the test would make him sound like the second coming of George Washington. And a high-IQ scoundrel is the last person you want to select.

You could call it the Ahmad Chalabi Problem. The Iraqi convicted embezzler with a Ph.D. in math from the U. of Chicago used his enormous brainpower to figure out how to dupe the neocons into believing that he literally was the George Washington of Iraq, so America should invade his homeland to make him president.

In contrast to character tests, the good news about IQ tests is that they are un-outsmartable. If you can use your brain to figure out what answers the test makers want, well, then you have a high IQ.

Q. So, do IQ tests predict an individual's fate?

A. In an absolute sense, not very accurately at all. Indeed, any single person's destiny is beyond the capability of all the tests ever invented to predict with much accuracy.

Q. So, if IQ isn't all that accurate for making predictions about an individual, why even think of using it to compare groups, which are much more complicated?

A. That sounds sensible, but it's exactly backwards. The larger the sample size, the more the statistical noise washes out.

Q. How can that be?

A. If Adam and Zach take an IQ test and Adam outscores Zach by 15 points, it's far from impossible that Zach actually has the higher "true" IQ. A hundred random perturbations could have thrown the results off. Maybe if they took the test dozen times, Zach just might average higher than Adam.

But for comparing the averages of large groups of people, the chance of error becomes vanishingly small. For example, the largest meta-analysis of American ethnic differences in IQ, Philip L. Roth's  2001 survey,[Ethnic group differences in cognitive ability in employment and educational settings: a meta-analysis, Personnel Psychology 54, 297–330.] aggregated 105 studies of 6,246,729 individuals. That's what you call a decent sample size.

Q. So, you're saying that IQ testing can tell us more about group differences than about individual differences?

A. If the sample sizes are big enough and all else is equal, a higher IQ group will virtually always outperform a lower IQ group on any behavioral metric.

One of the very few positive traits not correlated with IQ is musical rhythm—which is a reason high IQ rock stars like Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, and David Bowie tell Drummer Jokes.

Of course, everything else is seldom equal. A more conscientious group may well outperform a higher IQ group. On the other hand, conscientiousness, like many virtues, is positively correlated with IQ, so IQ tests work surprisingly well.

Q. Wait a minute, does that mean that maybe some of the predictive power of IQ comes not from intelligence itself, but from virtues associated with it like conscientiousness?

A. Most likely. But perhaps smarter people are more conscientious because they are more likely to foresee the bad consequences of slacking off. It's an interesting philosophical question, but, in a practical sense, so what? We have a test that can predict behavior. That's useful.

Q. Can one number adequately describe a person's intelligence?

A. Sort of.

Q. "Sort of"?!? What the heck kind of answer is that?

A. A realistic one.

Q. How can something be true and not true at the same time?

A. How can the glass be half-full and half-empty at the same time? Most things about IQ testing are partly true and partly false at the same time. That's the nature of anything inherently statistical, which is most of reality.

Humans are used to legalistic reasoning that attempts to draw bright lines between exclusive categories. For example, you are either old enough to vote or you aren't. There's no gray area. But the law is artificial and unlike most of reality. Many people have a hard time dealing with that fact, especially when it comes to thinking about IQ.

Q. Enough epistemology! How can you rationalizing summing up something as multifaceted as intelligence in a single number?

A. Think about SAT scores. Your total score says something about you, while breaking out your Math and Verbal scores separately says more. A kid who gets a total of 1400 out of 1600 (Math + Verbal) is definitely college material, while a kid who gets a 600 isn't. That's the big picture. For the fine detail, like which college to apply to, it helps to look at the subscores. A kid with a 1400 who got a 600 Math and an 800 Verbal would be better off at Swarthmore than at Cal Tech.

A few years ago, the SAT added a third score, Writing, but many colleges aren't sure how useful it is, and there's some sentiment for dropping the Writing test as not worth the extra time or cost. In other words, there are diminishing marginal returns to more detail.

Q. What's this mysterious g Factor that I see lauded and denounced?

A. If Al outscores Bert on the first subtest (say, vocabulary or reaction-times), bet on Al in the next test, no matter how dissimilar (e.g., math, paper-folding, or distinguishing musical pitches). This pervasive correlation is why a crude one-number IQ score is so implausibly useful as predictor of a host of real world consequences. Lurking behind IQ is a "general factor" or "g" that plays a role (of varying magnitudes) in the accomplishment of any and every mental task, from taking a test to making a living.

Q. Didn't Stephen Jay Gould say, "The chimerical nature of g is the rotten core" of the theory of IQ?

A. That he did. But Gould didn't understand (or chose not to understand) that the usefulness of IQ doesn't depend upon whether or not there is a general factor. Say you work in college admissions on a different planet where applicant's SAT Math and Verbal scores are totally uncorrelated. In this world where there is no g factor, somebody who gets an 800 on the SAT Math test would be just as likely to get a 200 as an 800 on the Verbal test. How different would you behave than your colleagues on earth? Not much. You'd still want the applicants who scored the highest on the combined score (Math plus Verbal), because they'd do best in the widest range of college classes.

Of course, back on Earth, there's a rather high degree of correlation between Math and Verbal scores. The only time you see an 800 on the Math test combined with a 200 on the Verbal test is from somebody who just got off the plane from Seoul.

Q. Can you improve your IQ?

A. Maybe. Try exercising your brain. If you spend twice as many hours per day thinking hard, it might improve the quality of your thinking. And even if it doesn't, you've still doubled the quantity of your hard thinking, so what's to lose, other than your TV-watching time?

Q. Is IQ hereditary?

A. At the moment, we only have a vague idea of which genes affect IQ, but the data is pouring in. James Watson figures no more than 15 years until the main genes driving IQ scores are nailed down. It could be faster.

In the mean time, we have a lot of circumstantial evidence, such as twin and adoption studies. Almost all of it points toward IQ having a sizable genetic component.

Q. What does it mean to say IQ has a genetic component?

A. It means that identical twins tend to be more similar in intelligence than fraternal twins, who are more alike than first cousins, and so forth. That appears to be true.

Q. So, everybody in the same family gets the same IQ?

A. No. Think about siblings that you know and you'll likely notice moderate differences in intelligence among them—unless they are identical twins (and thus have identical genes).

Q. Is IQ solely determined by genes?

A. No. Consider, for example, the need for micronutrient supplementation. For example, here in America, manufacturers have been adding iodine to salt and iron to flour since before WWII to combat medical syndromes (such as cretinism) that lower IQ. In poor countries around the world, hundreds of millions of children still suffer cognitively from lack of iodine and iron. Of course, this relatively cheap step for raising the IQs of the poor in Third World countries is rarely discussed, because the whole topic of IQ is so fraught with the chance of getting Watsoned out of your job.

Q. Are there differences in average SAT scores among racial groups?

A. Yes. Ashkenazi (European) Jews appear to average the highest—maybe around 110-112—followed by Northeast Asians (105), and then by gentile white Europeans and North Americans (100). The world mean is around 90, Hispanic-Americans are at 89. African-Americans traditionally average around 85 and Africans in Sub-Saharan Africa around 70.

Q. Aren't all IQ researchers white supremacists who just want to show their race has the highest IQ?

A. If they are, they're doing an awfully lousy job of it. (See above.)

Q. How can anybody talk about race and IQ when race doesn't exist?

A. It's funny how these objections don't come up in regard to affirmative action. Scientists gather race-related data the same way colleges and bureaucrats hand out affirmative action goodies. They let people self-identify.

I spent a lot of time years ago trying to prove that affirmative action is unworkable because there's too much overlap between the races to decide which race somebody belongs to, but I eventually gave up because, at least at present, the situation's good enough for government (and scientific) work.

Q. But what about "black" intellectuals like the identical twins Shelby and Claude Steele? They're likely more than half white, but they are counted as black, so how can you include them as black?

A. If you took out all the self-identified blacks who are over half white by ancestry (people who tend to be above the black average in education and income), the IQ gap would in all likelihood get a little bigger.

Anyway, only about 10% of adults who call themselves black are over half white, so it's not very important.

Q. Are global differences in IQ caused solely by genetics?

A. No. As I wrote in VDARE.COM back in 2002:

"A clear example of how a bad environment can hurt IQ can be seen in the IQ scores for sub-Saharan African countries. They average only around 70. In contrast, African-Americans average about 85. It appears unlikely that African-Americans' white admixture can account for most of this 15-point gap because they are only around 17%-18% white on average, according to the latest genetic research. (Thus African-Americans' white genes probably couldn't account for more than 3 points of the gap between African-Americans and African-Africans.) This suggests that the harshness of life in Africa might be cutting ten points or more off African IQ scores."

Q. Are IQ tests biased against African-Americans?

A. Not in the most important sense of predictive validity. White and black Army recruits with 100 IQs on the AFQT, for instance, will perform about equally well on the job.

Any kind of non-functional bias against minorities in test design has been radioactive for decades, so all the questions that were "unfair" to minorities were removed long ago.

Q. Isn't there an Ebonics IQ test on which blacks outscore whites?

A. You can make up a test asking, say, "Do you eat, drink, or shoot a '40'?" on which inner city blacks might outscore Korean-Americans. [VDARE.com note: Such knowledge quickly becomes dated—Jane Elliott is still using the "Chitling Test" from 1971 to humiliate whites, but many blacks couldn't pass it today either.] But it won't have real world predictive validity. The Air Force recruits who know that you drink a 40 won't do a better job of fixing jet engines than the ones who don't. So, it's useless in the real world.

Creating an IQ test on which there's no black-white gap has been the Holy Grail of test designers for 40 years. Any test company that could pull it off would make a fortune, because every school district in the country would dump their current test and switch to the "non-racist" test. It's been attempted repeatedly, but it can't be done without destroying the test's predictive powers.

Q. But I see all these black people on TV being highly entertaining. They look pretty lively upstairs. Could IQ tests be missing something?

A. Yes. IQ test questions, by their nature, must have fixed, objective answers. If African Americans are better at subjective, improvisatory responses than they are at objective problem-solving, then IQ will fail to predict fully their patterns of success in the real world. And, indeed, we see much evidence for that every time we turn on the TV (e.g., Oprah).

Unfortunately, there aren't nearly as many jobs being entertainment or sports superstars as black youths seem to assume, so, overall, IQ remains a quite accurate predictor outside of the tiny sliver of celebrities.

Q. What's the Flynn Effect?

A. All over the world, raw IQ scores have been rising, on average at the rate of about 3 points per decade. Thus, a test performance that a half century ago would have ranked at the 84th percentile (a score of 115) now is only good enough for the 50th percentile (a score of 100).

Q. Will the Flynn Effect bring about racial convergence?

A. Perhaps someday, but the Flynn Effect was first noticed in 1942, and there has been very little narrowing of the various gaps since then. (See the graphs here.)

Q. Enough with the preliminaries! Are racial gaps in average IQ at least partly genetic?

A. Probably some are, but we don't know for sure yet. At this point, we have a lot of data, and Occam's Razor suggests the simplest and thus best explanation is that races differ in average IQ for the same reason that families differ. After all, races are just big extended families.

But that might turn out to be wrong. We'll know with a high degree of certainty fairly soon. Once we have a quite clear understanding of which genes affect IQ and by how much, it will be relatively trivial to then calculate the "expected IQ" for various racial groups based on their average genetic profiles.

Q. But, but … how can we live in such a world?

A. It appears to be the world we're living in right now.

Q. But only Nazis believe such things. So that means the Nazis are going to be proved right! So the American public will clone Hitler and elect him President!

A. Whatever.

It just means that you've been a sucker for the smears aimed at outstanding scientists and human beings like Arthur Jensen and Charles Murray.

Q. What's the real story behind the crushing of James Watson?

A. The Establishment knows that evidence is piling up for the Bell Curve theory that they've denounced so vociferously for so long. So they are just trying to postpone the day of reckoning on which it becomes widely understood that they are fools, liars, and smear-artists by silencing anyone like Watson who speaks up. The frenzy will only increase as the genome data comes flooding in.

Q. What can we say for sure about racial gaps?

A. That they'll be around for a long time.

Say it's discovered in 2008 that the entire cause of the black-white IQ gap is some hitherto unknown micronutrient needed by pregnant women that African-Americans don't get enough of, and a crash program is put into place immediately to solve the problem. If that happened, the IQ gap among working-age adults still wouldn't disappear until the 2070s.

So whether the racial IQ gaps are genetic or not, they're going to be around for many decades. And we need to understand them.

Q. Why is all this important? Shouldn't we just think of people as individuals?

A. That sounds good to me, but we don't. We're social and political animals, and many of our government policies are based on group membership: not just explicit affirmative action programs, but most anti-discrimination cases as well are based not on evidence of actual discrimination but on "disparate impact," a legal theory that's built on the big assumption that different groups are identical in IQ and other traits.

Q. How would understanding IQ better help America?

A. It becoming ever more clear that the combination of racial gaps in IQ and the IQ taboo acts as a black hole that sucks all the intelligence out of an institution. Racial gaps in achievement are the overwhelmingly dominant fact driving school performance, for instance, but nobody is allowed to mention the IQ gap among the races, so misbegotten nonsense rushes in. Last month, the California Superintendent of Schools announced that the cause of low black achievement was "absolutely, positively not genetic." [Summit called to address racial disparities in academic performance, by Nanette Asimov, San Francisco Chronicle, November 12, 2007] Instead, white teachers imposing too much discipline on black youths "who learn at church that it's good to clap, speak loudly and be a bit raucous" were too blame. Of course, the last thing public schools need is less discipline.

Similarly, in 2001, President Bush and Senator Kennedy got together and passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which is certifiably insane. It mandates eliminating all racial gaps and making every student in America "proficient" (i.e., above average) by 2014.

Q. So what can be done?

A. People who understand reality reasonably well can figure out many small, incremental changes that will make us all better off. In contrast, powerful people who don't know what the hell they are doing will tend to make us all worse off.

Q. What's the initial thing we should do?

A. When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging. By letting in so many unskilled (i.e., largely low IQ) immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, we're digging a deeper hole for ourselves.

So let's stop. Now

[Steve Sailer (email him) is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog.]