IQ: An Apostate's View

Somethin' Ain't Right

January 31, 2010

A few years ago I encountered on the web groups of people, usually very smart people, who called themselves Race Realists and IQists, and regarded IQ as a scientifically valid concept. Fine, I thought. Some people are clearly smarter than others, and so are some groups. You could measure height, so why not intelligence? On average, people with high IQs were obviously more intelligent than those with low IQs. One isn’t supposed to talk about the intelligence of groups, of course, but that made it all the more interesting. I had read Arthur Jensen and the gang, and found many of their conclusions convincing.

But the more I listened to IQists, the less reliable the idea of IQ seemed.

There is a book called IQ and the Wealth of Nations, regarded as a sacred text by IQists. It purports to list the mean IQs of the world’s countries and establish a relation between IQ and national income. It works, roughly, much of the time. At the top of the IQ list were Hong Kong (107) South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan, with the US way down at 98 for American whites. So far, so good, I thought.

But…but….

Consider American blacks, regularly put at 85 by IQists, and Mexicans, at 87 in The Wealth, and India, at…81. Eighty-one? Ye gods and little catfish: those Indians must be really dim.

Are they? How do the numbers track with observation?

Not splendidly. Having trod this path before, I peered into Google’s vasty deep for winners of the US national spelling bee. A lead paragraph from the The Times of India: “WASHINGTON: There was an air of inevitability as yet another precocious middle-schooler of Indian origin won the US National Spelling Bee championship for 2009 on Thursday night, extending a decade long run in which Indian-Americans kids have won the title seven times out of ten… Kavya, who had finished fourth last year, lived up to her billing as a hot favourite this year. Seemingly encyclopaedic in her knowledge of words, she wore down the final eleven, cracking words such as ergasia, escritoire, hydrargyrum, blancmange, baignoire, huisache, ecossaise, diacoele, bouquiniste, isagoge, and phoresy. Yeah, don’t even try.”

This is not compelling evidence for a genetic background of near-retardation. Indians are substantially less than one percent of the American population, yet they resoundingly drub our gurbling semiliterate gifts to a future which, so far as I know, hasn’t asked for them. From this orthographic catastrophe (from an American point of view) one might draw many conclusions, none of them heartening for the US, but that Indians are dull-witted is not one of them.

(I’m not sure that these kids are regressing to the mean with any precipitation either. Maybe, having a low IQ, they have forgotten where the mean is, and are regressing upward, or even sideways. One never knows.)

The results of the spelling bee were not news to me. In my days as a science writer, I visited the web site of Bell Labs, a principal pillar of the technological superiority that the US then enjoyed. The staff lists were littered with Indians. (They were in fact top-heavy with Nguyens, Chins, Cohens, and Khans. Who was really doing America’s research, I didn’t wonder.) I also chanced on the faculty list of an engineering department in Florida, I forget which. It wasn’t MIT but still a real school. The faculty read like the yearbook at Mumbai Senior High. That was then. Things are more so now.

All of this is anecdotal, but there seem to be an awful lot of anecdotes about Indians, and not about other groups with higher mean IQs. On a whim, I asked Google what it knew of Inderjut Badhwar, a highly brained colleague of mine many years ago at Federal Times. To my lack of surprise, Indy has become an internationally respected novelist. On and on.

It is gospel with IQists that IQ predicts achievement. Statistically this is certainly the way to bet, at least when IQs are measured within a culture, or in cultures with similar attitudes toward schooling. If we look at ten graduate students in chemistry with IQs of 170, and ten with IQs of 120, we can be pretty sure that the first group will excel the second. It doesn’t seem to work so well across cultures.

Indians average four points below American blacks, six points below Mexicans, and seventeen points below American whites. Yet they win the spelling bees. They produce many of the best minds in Silicon Valley. (Search on “Indians” and “Silicon Valley.” E.g., “Bay Area Indian immigrants represent America's most successful immigrant group. Collectively, they've created companies that account for $235 billion of market value.”)

An obvious response, though not an answer, is that America gets the brightest of a nation of a billion people. No it doesn’t. India is a country in development. (Unlike many developing country, it is actually developing.) I do not pretend to expertise on the country, but it is obvious that in a country still largely rural and very poor, cognitive stratification cannot have occurred to the extent that it has in Western countries. That is, the mechanisms to suck the best brains out of the entire country and school them are not as well developed as they are in the US, where anyone who can remember his name can go to some CSP or other. (College-shaped place.) In India, all sorts of little Ramanujans are probably helping their mothers make charcoal in remote villages.

Here I am guessing, but I will guess: The number of Indians who have access to a real education is way smaller than the corresponding number in the United States. (The CIA Factbook puts literacy at 61%.) America does not get the smartest of a nation of a billion souls. It gets some fraction of those smart and lucky enough to go to university.

I doubt that even the most desperate statistical legerdemain can plausibilate (I say it’s a word) an Indian mean IQ of 81. There are just too, too many Indians who are too bright. If you like you can say that blacks perform poorly because they have been oppressed, that Latinos are sleeping in the somnolence-inducing grasp of Catholicism, that whites have turned shiftless, and that Indians are overcompensating or something equally nonsensical. As you like. But the IQs don’t track achievement.

Philip Francis Stanley and Grotesque Ophthalmological Malpractice