Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Race, intelligence, and the good doctor

This race and intelligence stuff that James Watson
has shovelled into public space - by chance at the same time as nooses are beginning to appear in New York.
The other night I listened to Richard Lynn on The Moral Maze insisting, as he often does, that "science demonstrates" that, on average, the Chinese (a nation) have an "IQ" of 105, White Europeans (a colour) an "IQ" of 100, other East Asians (fairly large grouping of populations, nations and cultures) 95, and "Sub-Saharan Africans" (another fairly large grouping of populations, nations and cultures) 85.
There are the obvious points to make about this, and they have been made very well many times before. Just the sloppiness of the Professor's categories is probably enough. Yes, Lynn is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Ulster, Coleraine. He comes across as a pleasant man, scrupulous, rational, polite, and big-hearted enough to say that sub-Saharan Africans are not inferior in everything, and in some respects make better athletes than people like him - as do, he didn't add, horses. And he has huge professorial confidence. But he doesn't come across as particularly... I hardly like to use the word. Anyway, he's ever so good at meta-statistics, and I'm sure that makes up for other deficiences. But I make a human, not a scientific point when I suggest that there will be a thousand upon thousand contexts across the world in which many professors, just like me who am not one, will come across as socially, technologically, intellectually derelict idiots.
Lynn is certainly not a scientist, in the sense that Watson or Feynmann or Heisenberg are or were scientists. He's a statistician and pundit. Science needs phenomena to prove itself. IQ is not a phenomenon. It is a statistical derivation. It is circular. It describes nothing except what it describes, its own artifact; which correlates to swathes of human behaviour, sure; so does astrology. But that to which IQ correlates, that really very big complex of phenomena, is undescribed by it; is not yet reproducible or even producible. What IQ pretends to lasso is much more complex, in the sense of having an in practice unquantifiable number of examinable bits, than say the movement of the planets, or the human genome. It really needs labouring how complex, interdependently multi-factorial, and so far undescribed or unquantified is the thing with which IQ correlates.
Professor Lynn's statistics are impeccable - well, actually even that isn't necessarily true - but they describe only themselves, and then Lynn appends to them a crude fiction of races, scores and intelligence.
A bit of a midget then. But if he were to confront the phenomenon of culture, he might gain some stature. By "culture" I don't mean the "Western culture" sort of thing, or "the arts" sort of thing, I mean the inputs and outputs of the human brain and its referents, where there are such, in the physical world, from the edge of the universe down to where all disappears in quantum strangeness.
Take for instance a brick. A specific brick, and every brick there's ever been; the bricks that made the widest single span arch in the world in Parthian Ctesiphon 2600 years ago, the bricks on a modern housing estate or littering a child's bedroom floor. And add the virtual existence of everything that is brick, there in the brain, modified by every instance of brick that comes in as language or sight or touch; and then whenever it goes out again - as a bit of language or a painting of bricks or a brick made or laid - infinitesimally, or sometimes crucially, modifying what brick is out in the world. That's culture. And it's not just bricks. It's - the next thing that comes into your head; and the next thing that goes out of it, as language, as cooking, as anything, continuous with the origin of mankind, and our final demise.
That's why its almost unquantifiably big.
The brain is one part of individual and collective human development, and of all human behaviour. And culture is the other.
It follows that human behaviour, including the kind of behaviour that IQ tests are supposed to measure, is dependent not only on the exact physical conformation of the brain, but on the subset of culture which is processing that brain and in turn being processed by it. That is why even a Professor Emeritus might find himself anywhere in the world in a thousand situations where he might, to people as narrow and judgmental as himself, appear to be nothing but a gormless lump.
Until we make more progress in describing culture in this wide sense, and categorising its elements and all the things that have to be done before its phenomena can be subjected to scientific scrutiny, we cannot pretend that IQ tests do anything but give an indication of how closely members of a given population are likely to exhibit behaviours resembling the behaviours of the population of China, or of successful academics in small damp universities in racist provinces.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Blair, Anthony, the memoirs

One of the strange things about the world of human beings is our - it's formal name is hypocrisy, but that makes it sound like a rather unusual sin; it's our ability to argue righteously from principle as it suits us; and then to argue the absolute opposite, equally righteously, from different principle, when that one-eighty degree slew suits us in turn.
We all do it, or all of us who are complex enough to be normal. We listen to our nearest and dearest in tacit disbelief as they say exactly the opposite to one person that, under symmetrical but reversed circumstances, they have asserted to another. The only person we don't hear doing it is ourselves, or if we do, if we catch the slight grating of principle on contradictory principle, we are very apt with the lubricant of buts, of the circumstances being quite different - often by which circumstances we mean the personalities involved, or the degree of our self interest or, most importantly, the immediate focus of our emotions, feelings, our beliefs.
This translates into the political sphere. It allows Gordon Brown - it is only worth castigating politicians we have some hope for, however residual, however vain - to write fulsomely about Aung San Suu Kyi in his book on courage, while actively avoiding a single gesture towards the Burmese military dictatorship that might upset the true lords of New Labour, the North American Government, and "top businessmen". And it allows us all to believe opposing things that the simplest logic demonstrates to be mutually exclusive or contradictory.
So, Blair, Anthony, his memoirs. One of the central principles of crime and punishment, as expounded by Blair, Anthony, himself, forcefully and on numerous occasions, is that the criminal should not gain from his crimes; not even by writing books about them. The money instead should go to the victims or if, as in this case, many of the victims should be dead in their thousands and tens of thousands, the loot should go to the bereaved and the suffering, malnourished, maimed, humiliated and robbed who survive.
But of course in all justice, by all sense of what is right and proper, of what is owing to the virtuous and is the just deserts of the evil-doers, the proposal that a British Prime Minister is also a criminal is an obscene and preposterous suggestion. No leader on our side is ever guilty of their enormities. The worst one can say of them is that they did a thing in which they devoutly believed. More saint really than sinner.