Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A fascism of statistics

Last night, in a lengthy programme on Channel 4, Rageh Omaar explored the highly controversial issue of whether there are innate differences between the levels of intelligence of different races. In each thread of his investigation, Omaar allowed the proponents of the most provocative theories to set out their case, before seeking to demolish their arguments. From my own perspective, he did so extremely convincingly, by showing that the genetic differences between races are too minimal to produce the dramatic differentials in intelligence that have been suggested, and by pointing to the 'Flynn Effect', which could imply that IQ tests are less of a direct measure of intelligence, and more a measure of an individual or group's "adaptation to modernity". However, as the programme progressed, I could just imagine the self-anointed experts on the field of IQ (many of them statisticians) saying "this is proving nothing, he's missed the point entirely, anyone who thinks that IQ tests do not directly and accurately measure intelligence simply does not understand statistics".

And that, I think, is the essence of the whole problem with the debate over the validity of IQ tests, regardless of whether it relates to race, or merely the 'classification' of individuals by intelligence. There's a kind of 'statistical fascism' at play, whereby the statisticians refuse to seriously engage with any of the powerful counter-arguments to the prevailing wisdom that IQ tests are meaningful measures of intelligence - unless it is done on their own terms, with detailed reference to 'meta-analyses' and 'regressions' and all sorts of other incomprehensible language. Given the huge importance of this subject to everyone, it simply can't be right that authoritative discussion of it is restricted to such a narrow area. For one thing, anyone who has ever taken an IQ test (I've taken the American SAT, which in its old form closely resembled an IQ test) won't need a grounding in statistical theory to intuitively understand that it simply can't be a pure measure of intelligence - your score will also be significantly affected by your level of motivation to do well, your composure under severe pressure of time, etc, etc. The statisticians would respond by pointing out that, if an individual takes several different IQ tests, the outcome will typically be remarkably close every time. But this doesn't really address the point - if someone's composure and motivation levels remain fairly constant every time they take the test, it follows that the scores would remain constant as well. This constancy does not constitute proof that IQ tests accurately measure intelligence.

Ah, the statisticians might respond, you're overlooking the high level of correlation between IQ scores and success in life, as measured by educational attainment and income levels. But doesn't an individual's composure under pressure and motivation to succeed also play a significant role in determining their life chances? If an IQ test is partly measuring those things, it's hardly surprising there would be such a correlation.

In fact the buzz phrase of statisticians in this field appears to be "intelligence tests are the most accurate of all psychological tests". Just goes to show how ropey all the others must be.


  1. i remember an analysis som eyears ago whereby the iq of white people fell below the national average set at 100.

    the outcome was predictable, those that came from strong nuclear indian families where education for boys and girls was important scored very highly, and those that came from non nuclear black single parent families with little parental influence scored appallingly.
    this was not 101 or 102, it was 107 for the indians and less than 90 for the black community. truly awful.

    if one looks at colour and geography, there was a huge difference in the results for girls between the hindu, moslem and bangla communities. so religion and the failure to push women as far in moslem communities as in hindi communities meant that girls did less well.

    therefore i question the issue of an iq test relating to intelligence per se.
    it simply means one has had more opportunity to learn, to be tutored and mentored, and those learned skills can be tested in these examinations.
    if one really wanted to question the relevance of iq, the fact girls in some asian communities scored highly and others very low means the problem of girls being held back has transgressed the move for these communities into britain from asia.

    on the positive side, the fact that the whites are not the most intelligent should be noted, as that kinda removes griffin's superiority complex.

    it does however reinforce the sterotype that the afro caribbean community as a whole is an intellectual embarassment, in much the same way it is in the states.
    lose the PC attitude and accept this for what it is. it does not mean black people are less intelligent, but it does mean that without the opportunity to succeed they will not use that intellect to rise above the lower areas of society.

    in both countries there are too many young black men in jail, or men who avoid the role of fatherhood and marriage altogether, doing little to help their children in their formative years.

  2. I remember discussing IQ tests with a friend who is a doctor. We were both, at the time, members on MENSA which I think has an entry of 140 IQ, based on a test.

    His IQ was 160!!! (mine nothing like that).

    He reckoned however that passing an IQ test meant only one concrete thing.... You were good at passing IQ tests...