Wednesday, May 15, 2013

history and social science

One of the commenters on that Ta-Nehisi Coates piece from the other day lectured Coates about how he should "learn some statistics." It was, as you can imagine, not a helpful comment, and whether the commenter would have said the same to a white writer or not, it echoed traditional condescension towards black writers and black intellectuals in a way that was really unfortunate. This is a sticking point in arguments about race all the time. People complain that they are judged on the symmetry between their ideas and historical racism rather than their intent. But we live in history, not in a land of pure ideas, and the insistence on sensitivity and care in our racial dialogue is a necessary product of a legacy of oppression.

I've been thinking about statistical analysis of social phenomenon and history lately. Coates, as much as any other blogger, bases his work on history. History and the social sciences, particularly those pursued quantitatively like experimental psychology, have always been tense neighbors. Why? Because the purpose of history is to establish context. History's enduring message is that no condition can be understand without understanding the conditions that created it. History is an effort to contextualize. Statistical examinations of human life are just the opposite: they rely on the decontextualization of sampling and stratification, where we divide humanity into various groups, based on demographics and features, on the theory that this is the key to getting to the causal relationships that we want to find.

The people who conduct such research (and I read and interact with many) are often themselves quite candid about the limitations of stratification and the existence of uncontrolled variables. The important question, always, is the details, and reasonable people can reasonably disagree. When we point out that poverty has a large impact on a variety of life outcomes, particularly metrics of education or intelligence, you often hear the reply that poverty has been accounted for in the research. What that means in practice, typically, is stratifying the sample for income level, and then "comparing like with like." The question is whether these stratifying mechanisms are actually accounting for the influence of confounding variables adequately. You might point out, for example, that poverty is a holistic phenomenon that extends far beyond the simple question of income strata. When people talk about the role of parentage, people will say, "we've controlled for parent's educational level." But surely, parenting contains a vastly larger amount of variation than can be explained with that control.

Adjudicating those disputes has to be conducted by people with a deeper grasp of and greater expertise in the philosophy of social science than me. I do want to say: that there are people who dispute the degree to which key variables can be adequately controlled for in social scientific research, and people who point out that there are some potentially key variables that researchers have almost no ability to investigate, such as childhood lead exposure in adult subjects. These people are perfectly mainstream scholars. People asserting the case for racial inferiority through these mechanisms often express them with considerable certitude over the experimental mechanism, even when the most anodyne parts of the data analysis are subject to legitimate debate.

But even beyond the specific and limited questions involved with stratification of variables in the social sciences, there is a broader question of locating observed results in the context of history. Even if we are perfectly confident that individual variables have been isolated, when it comes to end results, it's our responsibility to place their observed values in a broader social context that helps to explain discrepancies. That is more true than ever when it comes to race. In a very real sense, the effort to combat racism has been the effort to insist on history: the history of slavery, the history of Spanish conquest of indigenous American people, the history of the decades in which Southern black people lived under slavery in all but name, the history of systems of racial discrimination, the history of immigration, the history of our war with Mexico.... Isolating variables can be a key part of socially just research. It is from the attempt to isolate variables that we can say with great confidence that poverty has an impact on education, for example. But we must return always to the reality of a history that has witnessed systematic and relentless oppression of nonwhite people. What aggravates me so much about many who raise the race and IQ question (often while refusing to speak plainly about their feelings on it at all) is the shortsightedness of their considerations, the denial of history. It happens so frequently that, yes, I think it is fair to ask about their motives.

Will Wilkinson put it well:
I don't think the subject or conclusion of Mr Richwine's dissertation is out of the bounds of reasonable discourse. Yet I think a suspicion of racism is perfectly reasonable. Grad students can choose from an infinite array of subjects. Why choose this one? Who are especially keen to discover a rational basis for public policy that discriminates along racial lines? Racists, of course. Anyone who chooses this subject, and comes down on the side vindicating racist assumptions, volunteers to bring suspicion upon himself, to expose his work to an extraordinary level of scrutiny.
Precisely so. It is not racist to ask these questions. James Flynn, one of the most important researchers of the question of human intelligence in history, has used this sort of research precisely to agitate for social justice and left-wing politics. But it is perfectly natural, in a country with such a long legacy of racism, to expect those arguing that race leads to inferior outcomes in as existential a quality as intelligence to be held to very stringent consideration. That is particularly true when, as in the case of Jason Richwine, that argument is levied in the service of further discrimination, a reactionary call against immigration and deepening racial diversity in the United States.

I think that the idea that is being combated here is not merely the question of whether non-white people are prone to low intelligence, but an idea that is rarely voiced but frequently floats around in the ether the way taboo ideas do. The idea is the notion that, whatever historical oppression for nonwhite people we can accurately identify, they've "had long enough," that all these decades after the Civil Rights Acts— after people decided that we had "solved" racism— nonwhite people should have figured it out. But this attitude depends on an ahistorical account: black and Hispanic Americans have never reached outcome parity with white Americans. We can't claim that they have failed to maintain the conditions of American middle class lifestyles when they have never enjoyed them. I could list a dozen metrics for quality of life and economic security on which black and Hispanic Americans have never enjoyed equality. To act as though it is their fault for not meeting those standards when they are working from a legacy of entrenched and deliberate exclusion is precisely to deny history.

What we ask for, when we dispute the conclusions pursued by the race science crowd with such zeal, is that they be forced to live in history, that they not try to argue as though human life is a series of disconnected variables but rather that it is an interconnected fabric of phenomena that cannot be separated without rending the garment. If we force those discussing race and IQ to live in the history of racial oppression, we are merely asking them to occupy the same position as those they are describing. People of color have never had any choice but to live in history.

21 comments:

L. Zambezi said...

Gawd, why is the left always judging minorities by white standards? "I am the standard, if you do not meet my standard, you have failed." No, they're just different. If you accept differences between the races, you accept glorious, wonderful, invigorating differences between the races. Newsflash: blacks do not aspire to be whites (though TNC does seem to relish the pats on the head he often gets).

Freddie said...

I'm not saying that they should be white. I'm saying that the oppression of nonwhite people is typically expressed in the material terms of economics. Most people do not see, say, higher infant mortality, higher poverty, higher likelihood of being murdered, or higher incarceration rates as "glorious, wonderful, invigorating difference."

6d6155e2-7a59-11e2-bb53-000bcdcb5194 said...

If the cultural and social advantages of being the hegemonic context in which the IQ tests emerged explains the difference between 'white' scores and 'black' scores, what accounts for the difference between 'white' scores and 'jewish' or 'asian' scores? I still haven't seen a compelling explanation from you that explains these discrepancies in scores, only assertions that challenge certain interpretations of said discrepancies.

Freddie said...

Because I'm not purporting to have an adequate explanation, merely to point out that there are those who assert a particular explanation in a way that transcends their evidence, and that explanation happens to fit perfectly with a traditionally bigoted vision of the world that has directly led to a vast amount of injustice and suffering, and still does.

Nathan Wright said...

Off topic, but you can say something similar about global warming ...

there are those who assert a particular explanation in a way that transcends their evidence, and that explanation happens to fit perfectly with a traditionally (bigoted) anti-industrial vision of the world.

Freddie said...

That is a thoroughly unconvincing analogy, for a number of reasons, but none more powerful than the fact that the study of carbon molecules in an atmosphere is far more direct than the study of some human aspect we call intelligence. Indeed, construct and operationalization are completely elided in our consideration of global warming.

Chris said...

http://www.iu5.org/sites/SpecialEducation/20092010%20Meeting%20Documents/May/IQ%20article%20Amer%20Psych%20%20March.2012.pdf

http://bioethics.stanford.edu/events/documents/pdfs/marks_folkheredity.pdf

I couldn't say anything that's not in those two pieces (the first a lit review and the second a book chapter).

Fred Smith said...

I discovered your blog by way of a podcast in which you argued that people's good intentions should not be assumed, so I know this is going to sound stupid, but I think you assume too much about people's intentions. You're accusing people of motivations that are, by your own admission, "rarely stated." So then what are you basing them on?

I admit to reading Steve Sailer's blog daily (and now yours) and I've yet to hear him make any of these arguments, and he's the poster boy, right? I've never heard him suggest that minorities should have caught up by now. Indeed, if you believe that differences in race/IQ influence outcomes, as he did, you wouldn't expect that to happen.

Will Wilkinson wants to know what motivates guys like Richwine and I have no idea. But I do know what motivates guys like Sailer and its white left liberals who spend their time and energy perpetuating the narrative that unequal outcomes are attributable to the racism of (other) white people. Pushing back against that narrative is their motivation, in part because they don't believe it to be accurate, and in part because they hate what they consider to be moral preening by other whites.

Fred Smith said...

And Wilkinson of all people surprises me here. There are some people out there who are simply contrarian, who want to challenge the orthodoxy and who take pleasure in raining on parades. Libertarians often fit that description, and so does Wilkinson from time to time.

The self-labeled "race realists" see a giant circle jerk going on among white left liberals who make a career out of calling (other) whites racists, usually the whites with whom they hold a number of other political disagreements. They also note that these white left liberals, in other contexts, make quite a big deal about how their views are informed by science and data, unlike their opponents. This is a situation begging to be disturbed by contrarians. From my perspective, racism has close to nothing to do with it, although I don't expect anybody to take my word on that.

imnotherzog said...

The strangest thing about this post is your myopic view of history. Haven't you been reading any of Moldbug's suggestest Victorian reactionaries? You need to crack open some Maine, Froude, and Carlyle sometime soon, not to mention any good 20th Century historian who appreciates Western Civilization.

To say, as you do, that "..we must return always to the reality of a history that has witnessed systematic and relentless oppression of nonwhite people" without also mentioning all the reality of white people bringing Christian civilization to nonwhite people -- well, you are not telling the whole story are you?

Are Africans on the whole better off or worse off in Zimbabwe or the country formely known as Rhodesia:

http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2007/08/country-that-used-to-exist.html

[if you've never been introduced to Mencius before, you really need to do a deep dive and explore his blog...I have some issues with him, since he's not a Christian, but he's consistently interesting]

Are blacks or Hispanics anywhere in the world achieving the parity with American whites (or Europeans) on the "dozen metrics for quality of life and economic security" that you might come up with? Is it because they have everywhere experienced "systemic and relentless oppression" by white people? Really -- even when their fellow Africans (or Arabs) sold them into slavery? Even when their fellow Indian tribes sacrificed them in great numbers to their gods (which is why it was easy for Cortez to gain quick allies in his efforts to conquer the Aztecs)? Which is why European/American civilization has come to dominate the world in the first place?

Less, please let's insist on history and let's not leave anything out that might make folks feel uncomfortable -- whites or nonwhite people ;-)

TGGP said...

I actually agree that it's fine for a Bayesian to be suspicious of what topic a person chooses to write about. This is actually the basis behind Glenn Loury's excellent theory of political correctness.

If comparing "like with like" is not enough when it comes to income, what if we compared blacks from a higher SES than whites/asians/hispanics etc? And so on for other ethnic groups? My understanding is that is still not enough to eliminate gaps in many cases. To Flynn, again, that is evidence that seriously radical changes to the entire culture of the country are necessary rather than simply meliorist anti-poverty measures (though those are of course good things).

Regarding Moldbug, you'd better have a lot of time on your hands if you want to read him, and not all of it (particularly his later stuff) is worth the time invested. There are probably easier introductions to perspectives which throw out our liberal intellectual inheritance (including the classical liberal/enlightenment bits that are the basis of modern "conservatism").

Glaivester said...

That is particularly true when, as in the case of Jason Richwine, that argument is levied in the service of further discrimination, a reactionary call against immigration and deepening racial diversity in the United States.

Why should we assume that increased immigration and deepening racial diversity is always a good thing? Robert Putnam did research that suggested that diverse communities had lower levels of social cohesion and trust than more homogenous ones (although, to avoid getting Richwined, he held off on publishing for five years until he could find some way to spin this into a call for more tolerance).

Glaivester said...

I think that the idea that is being combated here is not merely the question of whether non-white people are prone to low intelligence, but an idea that is rarely voiced but frequently floats around in the ether the way taboo ideas do. The idea is the notion that, whatever historical oppression for nonwhite people we can accurately identify, they've "had long enough," that all these decades after the Civil Rights Acts— after people decided that we had "solved" racism— nonwhite people should have figured it out.

I think the idea that fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, perhaps racism is not the primary factor driving differences in outcomes is not an unreasonable suggestion.

But this attitude depends on an ahistorical account: black and Hispanic Americans have never reached outcome parity with white Americans.

No one has suggested that they have. The question is why haven't they?

We can't claim that they have failed to maintain the conditions of American middle class lifestyles when they have never enjoyed them.

So until they gain parity with whites, we must assume that racism is their only barrier to success, even though, if there are other barriers, they will never gain parity even if racism is eliminated?

I could list a dozen metrics for quality of life and economic security on which black and Hispanic Americans have never enjoyed equality.

Everyone acknowledges this, the question is why?

To act as though it is their fault for not meeting those standards when they are working from a legacy of entrenched and deliberate exclusion is precisely to deny history.

I'm sorry, but you are using their lack of parity as proof that discrimination is the cause of their lack of parity. It's question begging.

Zack said...

Radiolab has a nice discussion about race: http://www.radiolab.org/2008/dec/15/

Jamelle Bouie said...

My favorite thing about this thread are the commenters who desperately, desperately want to believe that four hundred years of active, systematic oppression has zero effect on community outcomes.

You know what, I'll make it easier for you. Just come out and say that you think black people are stupid.

It's okay. I know you want to.

No one is going to yell at you.

Just do it.

TGGP said...

Alright, Jamelle. Blacks have lower IQs on average, and IQ matches up pretty well with what we call "intelligence". That's conventional psychometrics. However, if you think commenters here don't understand it's a matter of overlapping statistical distributions, then I'd say you have a straw-man in mind.

TGGP said...

That claim is of course compatible with 400 years of oppression having enduring effects.

imnotherzog said...

Mr. Bouie,

Far be it for me to disagree with the great Kool Moe Dee ("400 years of blood sweat and tears...") but you seem to have overlooked the point I was trying to make.

Let me try again. History is more complicated than you seem to be willing to acknowledge. You don't want to ask yourself questions like "why were Africans oppressed in the first place (instead of Africans oppressing Europeans)?" Or "why would African countries than know no history of oppression still lag their Asian/European counter-parts"? Or "why do the countries with Black majorities that seem to do the best are those with a history of Anglo cultural inheritance (like Bermuda)"?

All interesting questions and worthy of historical exploration.

TGGP said...

herzog, good point about looking for variation among African countries by colonial experience. It still boggles the mind that Acemoglu & Robinson tried to use malaria as a proxy for colonialism, completely ignoring the potential for using the different histories of Ethiopia & Thailand as a sort of control.

Charlie Martin said...

Oh, nonsense. Mathematical illiteracy isn't correlated with race. It is, however, highly correlated with journalism.

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