Saturday, December 28, 2019

Poor Bret, Foiled Again

Drawing by Caitlin Mavilia.

My unpopular opinion: Mr. Bret Stephens is actually making a sincere and conscious effort to not be a racist in this column ("The Secrets of Jewish Genius") where he explains why the thinking of Ashkenazi Jews is so much more original than other people: because he specifically says, and none of the critics appears to have noticed, that he's not claiming that Ashkenazi Jews are smarter than other people, or that it's their (reportedly) genetically transmitted higher IQs that do the trick, or rather not interested in claiming it, because he has a more interesting reason (in his self-estimation) for claiming it, depending on how you work your way through the maze of the key paragraphs:
The common answer is that Jews are, or tend to be, smart. When it comes to Ashkenazi Jews, it’s true. “Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average I.Q. of any ethnic group for which there are reliable data,” noted one 2005 paper. “During the 20th century, they made up about 3 percent of the U.S. population but won 27 percent of the U.S. Nobel science prizes and 25 percent of the ACM Turing awards. They account for more than half of world chess champions.”
But the “Jews are smart” explanation obscures more than it illuminates. Aside from the perennial nature-or-nurture question of why so many Ashkenazi Jews have higher I.Q.s, there is the more difficult question of why that intelligence was so often matched by such bracing originality and high-minded purpose. One can apply a prodigious intellect in the service of prosaic things — formulating a war plan, for instance, or constructing a ship. One can also apply brilliance in the service of a mistake or a crime, like managing a planned economy or robbing a bank.
Let's start with the linked paper, which Stephens cites as evidence that Jews of Central and Eastern European origin really are in fact smarter than other people, but is about something quite different, a hypothetical explanation of the purported difference (as measured by IQ) claiming Jews literally bred for management, as Kiryn Haslinger explained it in Scientific American at the time:

Gregory Cochran, the infamous independent evolutionary biologist who in 1992 proposed that homosexuality is caused by an infectious disease, has teamed up with anthropologists Henry Harpending and Jason Hardy of the University of Utah. They claim that Ashkenazi Jews—an ethnic group that includes physicist Albert Einstein, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and composer Gustav Mahler—are more intelligent because of genetic mutation.
“People would like every group to be exactly the same,” Cochran says, “but they’re not.” The study claims that intelligence evolved in this genetically isolated population because, historically, Ashkenazim had cognitively demanding occupations such as financiers and merchants. Prowess in these fields provided prosperity and, so the theory goes, more success in reproduction. Thus, the “IQ gene” passed down through generations.
At the same time, the researchers noted that genetic diseases common to the group, including Tay-Sachs and Gaucher's, result from increased levels of a chemical that also promotes neuronal growth. After assessing the genetic clustering of mutant genes and correlating these with IQ scores, the researchers contend that the genetic diseases are linked to a propensity for greater intelligence. The survival edge conferred by higher IQs in the group makes up for individual penalties from the diseases.
Noting that
The sordid history of mixing genetics, ethnicity and intellect guarantees a spotlight on this work. But only time and rigorous research will tell if genes are the most important factor in conferring smarts.
Stephens doesn't claim to be in possession of evidence that the hypothesis is true, but he does give his imprimatur to the idea there's something there that has to be explained. One reason for Stephens to be citing Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending instead of research by people who aren't white supremacists is that the research all seems to be done by white supremacists or people who love them, as Gavin Evans clarified at The Guardian in early 2018:
Nicholas Wade, Charles Murray, Richard Lynn, the increasingly popular Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson and others have all piled in on the Jewish intelligence thesis, using it as ballast for their views that different population groups inherit different mental capacities. Another member of this chorus is the journalist Andrew Sullivan, who was one of the loudest cheerleaders for The Bell Curve in 1994, featuring it prominently in The New Republic, which he edited at the time.
(And our old nemesis Steven Pinker, who fell in love at first sight with the Cochran-Hardy-Harpending hypothesis.) And some of the research makes the situation look a good deal more complex, like that of the "scientific racist" Richard Lynn, who finds that ethnic Dutch, Germans, and Poles have the same IQs and that the Jewish "advantage" of a standard deviation or 7.5 IQ points is all on the verbal and mathematical side of the scoring, while Americans of East Asian origin have higher scores than white people on the visuospatial side, unless they don't, and so on.

I don't really care, because I have thought for decades that the Wechsler IQ test and its Stanford-Binet predecessors, while very reliable (it gets the same results for the same people time after time, except for my son, who became "gifted" between 1st and 2nd grades when we switched from a Board of Education psychologist to a private one, like a few million other smart kids whose testers took a little more time), is not very insightful, that is, it doesn't tell you a lot about how intelligent a person is; and unlikely to be keyable to a particular genetic endowment no matter what. Besides, it's ridiculous to tie such a complex phenomenon as intelligence to a single-gene issue like Tay-Sachs, as Evans went on to note:
The problem here is that race scientists are not comparing like with like. Most of these physical changes involve single gene mutations, which can spread throughout a population in a relatively short span of evolutionary time. By contrast, intelligence – even the rather specific version measured by IQ – involves a network of potentially thousands of genes, which probably takes at least 100 millennia to evolve appreciably.
The pathetic thing is that Stephens really doesn't even want to talk about this. He wants to talk about the things that are "inherent" in the Jewish condition, not the Jewish chromosome—
Jewish genius operates differently. It is prone to question the premise and rethink the concept; to ask why (or why not?) as often as how; to see the absurd in the mundane and the sublime in the absurd. Ashkenazi Jews might have a marginal advantage over their gentile peers when it comes to thinking better. Where their advantage more often lies is in thinking different.
Where do these habits of mind come from?
—which he locates in the historical facts of exile going back to the Babylonian captivity, theology of constant questioning, and what I'd call, but Stephens wouldn't, the demand for social justice:
There is a religious tradition that, unlike some others, asks the believer not only to observe and obey but also to discuss and disagree. There is the never-quite-comfortable status of Jews in places where they are the minority — intimately familiar with the customs of the country while maintaining a critical distance from them. There is a moral belief, “incarnate in the Jewish people” according to Einstein, that “the life of the individual only has value [insofar] as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful.”
And there is the understanding, born of repeated exile, that everything that seems solid and valuable is ultimately perishable, while everything that is intangible — knowledge most of all — is potentially everlasting.
Poor Stephens wants to talk about Jewish culture and its situation in diaspora within the Central and Eastern European political economies across the last millennium, which is in point of fact a pretty good, non-racist idea, but he's got no idea how to get there other than through the idiocy of IQ, and he makes himself look bad: he's got to do it in terms of an approach that takes some other group of people to be inferior, and I can't help feeling it's because that's unfortunately what he believes.

I found some lovely work from around the same time as Cochran-Hardy-Harpending that got to the endpoint by asking a different question, not "How come Jews are so darned smart?" but "How come Jews got coopted into this class?" in "From Farmers to Merchants: A Human Capital Interpretation of Jewish Economic History" by Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein, 2003, because as these authors point out, the specialization of Jews in "urban, skilled occupations, such as crafts, trade, finance, and medicine" begins historically long before the existence of laws restricting them to such professions:
the transition of the Jews away from agriculture into crafts, trade, and finance occurred in the eighth century mainly in Mesopotamia and the entire Muslim empire, and later in western Europe where the Jews migrated. At the time when the occupational transition was occurring, none of the restrictions and prohibitions discussed by Abrahams and Roth existed. Jews owned land but were not engaged at all in agricultural work. Narrative evidence also indicates that at this time, the Jews were aware that their new urban occupations enabled them to improve their standard of living. Hence, the restriction theory cannot account for the occupational transition.
Rather, the paper concludes, the occupational transition starts with another factor, which is the emphasis placed within rabbinical Judaism all the way back to the destruction of the Second Temple on literacy education:
the widespread literacy among Jews prompted by an educational reform in the first century CE. Based on the growing nexus between education and Judaism in the first half of the millennium, we build a model in which Jewish men choose education, occupation, religion, and location. The model predicts that when urbanization expands (as it did in the Muslim Empire), Jews move to new cities due to their comparative advantage in urban, skilled occupations. Furthermore, before urbanization a proportion of Jewish farmers are predicted to convert to other religions....
Such an approach points neither to brain superiority nor moral superiority of the "success" of diaspora Jews in following the professions across the millennia, but rather the presence of the Jews in that particular place-and-time in the operations of the political economy as seen by that intellectually innovative Jew Karl Marx, or as Stephens calls him, "(sigh) Karl Marx", a position that may well have been connected to the centuries-long history of persecution but isn't the same thing (and the thing that would have led to the appearance of an IQ-measured "intelligence gap" as well, since IQ score does reflect cultural bias in the test). And a similar treatment to that of the Chinese and Korean and Japanese sent by their families to North America in the same way, out of the emphasis on reading that could be found in the poorest East Asian households.

Ironically, it's Stephens's un-Jewish lack of intellectual preparation, his inability to crawl out of the bog of alt-right nationalism without tracking the mud through the house, that messes up the perfectly good idea he might have been having.

Thread from Tom Levenson beginning here:

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