Cowen on Sailer

Tyler Cowen explains “Why Steve Sailer is Wrong.” For regular readers of GNXP, the resulting discussion is neither new nor interesting, but I thought it valuable to go through Cowen’s post in detail. Cowen is a smart guy with interesting things to say about many topics. Why is he so flummoxed by this one?

Cowen begins:

That’s a request I received and probably the reader is referring to IQ and race.

Let me first say that I am not the Steve Sailer oracle. On such a sensitive matter I don’t wish to misrepresent anyone, so I’ll simply tell you what I think of the issues, without suggesting that he or anyone else necessarily disagrees.

That’s a reasonable way to begin the conversation, but if you are going to mention Sailer’s name in this context, a) You ought to give a brief summary of his views and b) Provide a link or two.

Sailer believes that “race” and “IQ” — like “atom” and “species” — are scientifically meaningful concepts and that human races differ, on average, on many dimensions of interest, including IQ. Why couldn’t Cowen begin with that simple sentence?

Cowen continues:

There is a belief that progress in genetics will resurrect old, now-unpopular claims about race and IQ, namely that some races are intrinsically inferior in terms of IQ. I very much expect that we will instead learn more about the importance of the individual genome and that variations within “groups” (whether defined in terms of race or not) are where the traction lies. So I don’t expect “old style eugenics views” to make a comeback as applied to race, quite the contrary. On that point, here is more.

1) It is good to see that Cowen does not deny the reality and usefulness of “race” as a scientific concept. Recruiting folks like Cowen should be a high priority for believers in human biodiversity (HBD).

2) The phrase “intrinsically inferior” is about the worst possible phrasing. Why can’t Cowen use simpler language? Sailer thinks that average IQ differs by race. East Asians have, for example, higher average IQs than whites. Using the word “inferior” is misleading since it implies distributions that don’t even overlap. Sailer believes that the averages differ. He acknowledges that many, many individual whites are smarter than many, many individual East Asians.

The adverb “intrinsically” is also unhelpful. Does Cowen define “intrinsically” to mean “genetically?” Although I am no Sailer expert, I suspect that his position would be that the genetics of the issue are largely besides the point. Even if the causes of racial differences in IQ are 100% environmental, those differences are still there and, at least by adulthood, they are unalterable. So, public policy needs to take account of those differences.

And, if anything, Sailer seems to be more environmentalist than many in the HBD community, recommending policy changes like increased iodine and other micro-nutrients in the food supply of African countries.

3) Cowen’s usage of the term “now-unpopular” is interesting. It depends a lot on the unstated “among whom.” Certainly, Sailer’s views are highly unpopular among, say, the George Mason faculty. But Cowen is, if nothing else, a globalist. Does he think that Sailer’s views are unpopular in China? If anything, Sailer would be a moderate among the Chinese.

4) Cowen writes as if there is a conflict between the within and between races decomposition of IQ differences. Note the use of “instead.” But he offers no evidence that he and Sailer disagree. And what is the nonsense about “traction?”

I also think that IQ will be shown to be more multi-dimensional than we now think.

As josh notes in the thread:

Sprinting ability is also quite “multidimensional” as is distance running. Want to guess which part of the world the ancestors of the next olympic 100m and 5000m gold medal winners will be from?

Cowen is too smart to take that bet, or a bet about the racial distribution of SAT or GRE scores next year, or even decades from now. Cowen thinks IQ is “multi-dimensional.” So say we all. The results of an IQ test are not marked on an iron bar in Paris, like the original definition of a meter. They are imperfect.

Yet this is a post that is supposed to explain “Why Steve Sailer is Wrong,” and yet Cowen offers no evidence that he and Sailer disagree about the meaning or dimensionality of IQ!


If you wish to understand the role of IQ in human affairs, you would do better to study autism and ADHD than race (by the way, I discuss the importance of neurodiversity in much greater detail in my forthcoming book .)

So what? This is more irrelevant hand-waving. Cowen is supposed to be arguing that Sailer is wrong about race and IQ, not that Sailer is wrong about “the role of IQ” or “neurodiversity.”

You may know that some nations — basically the wealthy ones — have higher IQs than the poor nations.

What do you mean by “you,” white man? Notice the strange second person construction, quite unlike the rest of Cowen’s prose. He is able to address almost all other topics by describing either what is true or what he thinks. Why bring “you” into it? Why can’t he just tell us what he thinks? Some nations have higher average IQ than other nations. Cowen is unlikely to make progress in his case against Sailer if he can’t even manage to describe reality in simple declarative sentences.

And, although there is a high correlation between IQ and GDP, this was less so in, say, 1960. Does the rise in economic wealth is Asia support or refute Sailer? Cowen declines to discuss that natural experiment.

Moreover, Cowen can’t even seem to suggest the obvious long term bets that a serious consideration of Sailer’s position would suggest. There has been minimal economic progress in sub-Saharan Africa since the end of colonialization. Those who believe, like Sailer, that the average IQ in many of these countries is 85 or so would argue that there is unlikely to be any progress in the next 4 decades either. Indeed, it is hard to see how any country can avoid utter ruin. Sailer might forecast that South Africa will go the way of Zimbabwe. Or perhaps not.

The key point is that if Cowen wanted to take seriously the notion that countries differ by IQ and that this fact matters for the future, there are all sorts of bets he might offer. Instead, he gives us nothing of substance. Cowen continues:

But IQ is endogenous to environment, as evidenced by the Flynn Effect, namely the general rise in IQ scores with each generation. It is sometimes noted that some racial IQ gaps are not closing but I find it more significant that scores can continue to rise.

“It is sometimes noted” by whom? Again, the entire style of this post is quite different from Cowen’s typical contribution to Marginal Revolution. If someone is noting something, why do
esn’t Cowen provide a link or at least tell us their names? It almost seems like Cowen is familiar with the relevant literature but does not want his readers to know just how familiar. The easiest way to get Watsonized is to make too clear how deeply you have drunk at the fountain of forbidden knowledge.

Note, also, that the fact that scores can continue to rise is largely besides the point. Sailer does not dispute the Flynn effect! So, whether or not Cowen finds it more (or less) significant than Sailer is irrelevant.

For instance it is quite possible that groups with higher measured IQs simply have been on an “improvement track” for a longer period of time. More generally I think we should consider the Flynn Effect a bit of a mystery and that suggests an overall tone of caution on these issues rather than polemicism.

1) There is some evidence that the Flynn effect has stopped, so talk of time on an “improvement track” may be pointless. Further discussion here.

2) But, again, Sailer agrees with all of this! (Or, at least, he can grant all of this without backing down on his main thesis.) When is Cowen going to explain “Why Steve Sailer is Wrong?”

Most importantly, there is a critical distinction between hypocritical discourse on race and racism itself. Hypocritical discourse on race is harmful and often Sailer does a very good job skewering it. But racism itself is far, far more harmful, whether in the course of previous history or still today.

So what? Sailer does not deny that racism exists or that it is harmful. This sounds like more throat-cleaning to preserve Cowen’s place in the commentariat. As “tom” in the comment thread notes:

Would you say it if you thought that there were group differences? You would probably lose your NYT column. You would probably be protested on campus. You would probably be called a racist by young bloggers and liberal bloggers to whom you frequently link. Publishers of the type that put out your books would recoil.

I am not saying that you are incorrect. I am saying that you could not realistically answer the other way and keep your life the same as it is now.

Can you answer my question? Would you say if you thought Sailer was right?

Good question. Back to Cowen:

It is fine if a given individual, for reasons of division of labor, spends his or her time attacking hypocritical discourse about race rather than attacking racism itself. (For instance we shouldn’t all focus on condemning Hitler and Stalin, simply because they were among the most evil men; there are other battles to fight.) But I still wish that specified individual to ardently believe that racism is the far greater problem. Insofar as that individual holds such a belief about racism, I am much happier than if not.

So, the key issue is comparing the harm caused by “hypocritical discourse about race” versus the harm caused by racism? What relevance does this have to the issue at hand?

Another Marginal Revolution commentator notes that “This thread is almost a rehash of one at Brad DeLong’s blog back in 2005! Brad was caught censoring comments, including ones by Greg Cochran and Steve Hsu.” Indeed, see the provided links here, here and here.

Summary: Cowen’s post about “Why Steve Sailer is Wrong” is pathetic. He fails to clearly explain what Sailer believes or to offer arguments against those beliefs. He seems familiar with some of the relevant scientific literature, but declines to mention any of it. Cowen is trapped. He is too intellectual honest and open-minded to ignore the issue completely but too aware of the dangers of being Watsonized to dare to address the topic of race and IQ directly.

KITLG associated with testicular germ cell tumors

Two papers in Nature Genetics report today that variation in KITLG is associated with development of testicular germ cell tumors. Regular readers of this site will recognize that gene name: KITLG is also one of the important loci contributing to differences in skin pigmentation between human populations. The authors are aware of this:

As KITLG has a role in determining level of pigmentation, we postulated that inherited variation at this locus could provide a genetic explanation for the observed differences in TGCT incidence in whites and blacks. KITLG has undergone strong positive selection in the European and East Asian populations, with an extended haplotype of 400 kb. Data from HapMap phase 3 show significant differences (P = 4.3 times 10e-20) in the frequency of the risk alleles of KITLG (rs3782179 and rs4474514) when comparing the CEU (major allele frequency = 0.80) and ASW (African ancestry in Southwest United States: major allele frequency = 0.25) populations. This finding suggests that inherited variation in KITLG may explain, in part, the observed differences in TGCT incidence between whites and blacks.

This makes for quite a nice story–selection for lighter pigmentation in Europeans appears to have led to the increase in frequency of a linked variant that causes increased risk of TGCT. As we understand more about the genetics of human traits, I suspect that examples like this–where traits are correlated due to selection on one impacting the other simply due to physical proximity–will become rather common.

Posted in Uncategorized

Kansas girl wins national spelling bee

The AP, 13-year-old Kansas girl wins National Spelling Bee:

Cool and collected, Kavya Shivashankar wrote out every word on her palm and always ended with a smile. The 13-year-old Kansas girl saved the biggest smile for last, when she rattled off the letters to “Laodicean” to become the nation’s spelling champion.

Here are the next 10 runner ups….

Read More

Spengler's game

Austin Bramwell has a piece up where he focuses on Spengler‘s (David Goldman, not the original Oswald Spengler) intellectual hero Franz Rosenzweig. Bramwell suggests:

I consider only the political implications of Star, of which, surprisingly enough, I find very few. The Spenglerian theses in particular seem more like a creative gloss or “misprision” of Rosenzweig than an accurate restatement of his views. For all Spengler’s obeisance to Rosenzweig, I suspect that Goldman came up with his stuff on his own.

Star is Rosenzweig’s book The Star of Redemption. The link is to Google Books, so you can read a fair amount before you hit the preview limit.

GNXP reader TGGP pointed out an obvious Spenglerian dishonesty a long time ago. Just as Bramwell suggests that Spengler’s oeuvre has far less to do with Rosenzweig than he might represent, TGGP found an instance where he cited as a support for an argument a footnote which didn’t support his argument if you actually read the original source, which most of his readers obviously would not.

All of this matters because I occassionally get emails from big fans of Spengler who want me to give a response to this column or that, and sometimes he is brought up as an authority in the comments. He’s also cited by people who I believe to be sincere seekers of truth such as Rod Dreher. But frankly the kind of thing TGGP put the spotlight on isn’t surprising, when people point me to an “awesome” Spengler column there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors, and the intellectual equivalent of “card tricks” pop up over and over. This doesn’t mean the conclusions he reaches are necessarily incorrect, and if a plate of shady facts is your cup of tea if that’s what you need get to dessert, I say go to town. I generally pass when that’s on the menu. Look at this catch by Steve from several years ago. Spengler’s assertion is pretty much a joke on the face of it factually (read by Diarmaid MacCulloch for why you should be laughing), but 99% of his readers wouldn’t know that, so they will continue to follow his close reasoning from false premises. His columns are mind-numbing because they’re riddled with this sort of misinformation.


I already pointed to Scitable on my other weblog, and I thought I would here too. It’s a new education oriented site put out by Nature which is currently focused on genetics. The topics section is pretty good for a more-deep-than-Wikipedia but not-quite-a-research-paper level stuff. They do have a “feedback” option, but I really think they might benefit from having a comment feature which can be hidden. There’s a lot that can be learned about a subject from the various debates people have about specific terms (this sort of feeback occurs in Wikipedia discussions).

Posted in Uncategorized

If these mice could speak

pinkyAndBrain_traced.jpgNick Wade in The New York Times reports on new research where they inserted human FOXP2 genes into the mouse genome. Here are some of the findings:

Despite the mammalian body’s dependence on having its two FOXP2 genes work just right, Dr. Enard’s team found that the human version of FOXP2 seemed to substitute perfectly for the mouse version in all the mouse’s tissues except for the brain.
In a region of the brain called the basal ganglia, known in people to be involved in language, the humanized mice grew nerve cells that had a more complex structure and produced less dopamine, a chemical that transmits signals from one neuron to another. Baby mice utter ultrasonic whistles when removed from their mothers. The humanized baby mice, when isolated, made whistles that had a slightly lower pitch, among other differences, Dr. Enard says. Discovering that humanized mice whistle differently may seem a long way from understanding how language evolved. Dr. Enard argues that putting significant human genes into mice is the only feasible way of exploring the essential differences between people and chimps, our closest living relatives.

It isn’t a surprise that FOXP2 has a lot of effects. Additionally it probably isn’t that surprising that the “language gene” as it is sometimes hyperbolically termed changes the way mice vocalize, it seems to have evolved in songbirds as well as the lineage leading up to humans. Mice are obviously more similar genetically to humans than birds so it shouldn’t been that surprising.
The original paper is in Cell, A Humanized Version of Foxp2 Affects Cortico-Basal Ganglia Circuits in Mice:

Read More

The "future" of the American automotive industry

BusinessWeek, The Tough Road Ahead for GM and Chrysler:

The upshot is that some 30 significant players worldwide are fighting over a pie that has shrunk by more than 30% in the past 12 months. The industry can make about 90 million cars worldwide, but it’s selling only about 55 million. Not exactly a forgiving environment for a pair of wounded car companies. That, partly, is why Chrysler’s rescue has struck some as misguided. Speaking of the government’s decision to save the weakest and smallest Detroit player, industry consultant Michael Robinet says: “We needed to take a patsy out, and we didn’t. We may have missed an opportunity. The Japanese, Hyundai, and the Germans will still be here.”

I was skeptical of the bailout last fall because I assumed bankruptcy was inevitable. Of course I don’t know much about the automotive industry, but numbers like those above aren’t hard to find. It seems likely that the government knew that a bankruptcy was coming anyway, so the whole song & dance about the bridge loans were going to make the companies viable was kind of weird, though perhaps there’s some “animal spirits” rationale for the soft landing….

Scitable, Nature as king of all science media?

A few weeks ago I was pointed to Scitable, part of the Nature media empire. Here’s how it’s introduced:

A free science library and personal learning tool brought to you by Nature Publishing Group, the world’s leading publisher of science.
Scitable currently concentrates on genetics, the study of evolution, variation, and the rich complexity of living organisms. As you cultivate your understanding of modern genetics on Scitable, you will explore not only what we know about genetics and the ways it impacts our society, but also the data and evidence that supports our knowledge.

Due to the disciplinary focus I can see why Nature Education might have thought I would be curious. Since I’m rather confused by Facebook’s constant barrage of applications the relative simplicity of the interface was a relief. The site has the standard “social networking” features, but these sorts of utilities are useless without content. I clicked Topics, then Population and Quantitative Genetics. This is an area where I feel that Google has problems spanning the gap between Wikipedia and academic articles…because there isn’t much content in between in terms of difficulty and depth.

Read More