Good and Bad Uses of IQ Testing

James FlynnI’ve long been a fan of sorts of James Flynn. He is a moral philosopher and psychologist who is best known for his work on intelligence. He is responsible for the Flynn Effect, which is this bizarre tendencies for IQ scores to go up over time. In fact, if you compared people from a century ago to people today, they would come out with an average IQ of 70 rather than the 100 of people today. Given that we can read the work of Mark Twain and James Clerk Maxwell, we know they weren’t dullards. So there must be something wrong with the tests; it isn’t that people today are just super brilliant compared to people a century or more ago.

The big problem, from my perspective, is that IQ tests don’t demonstrate what people think they do. They test specific kinds of thinking. And what makes the human brain unbelievably amazing compared to a computer is that brains think in countless different ways. What’s more, Richard Feynman supposedly had an IQ of 125 — higher than average, but not even “gifted,” much less “genius.” Yet Feynman was one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century. You really have to wonder about the utility of a test that doesn’t find someone like Feynman gifted.

But the Flynn Effect is still perplexing. I spent a lot of time several years ago studying it. And I do mean “study”: I was reading actual scientific papers about it, including Flynn’s own. And I never got to the bottom of it. Now that might have been because scientific papers don’t tend to speculate. They make modest claims that they can back up. Thus, I was very excited to see that Flynn had recently given a TED Talk, Why Our IQ Levels Are Higher Than Our Grandparents’. Check it out:

In the talk, Flynn argues that the issue is abstract thought. A hundred years ago, people didn’t need to use abstract thought and so they weren’t good at it. In the talk, he notes that a century ago, about 3% of jobs were “cognitively demanding.” Today, the number is 35%. This is very interesting, because what it shows is that the IQ score is highly dependent upon environmental factors. And this is exactly the opposite of the ways that IQ test have been sold. We’ve been told that they are age independent (they aren’t) and that they test “intelligence” and not “knowledge.” But clearly that is not the case.

This has huge political implications. Both Jason Richwine and Charles Murray push racial differences in IQ tests as a reason to ignore social and economic inequality. But what Flynn is discussing shows that any effect there may be between different races surely moves in the opposite direction: poor children with few opportunities will not get as much practice learning the cognitive skills that are reflected on IQ tests. Last year, without this knowledge, I noted about the two men:

Similarly, we only know of Richwine because of his hopelessly sloppy work purporting to show that comprehensive immigration reform would cost the country a fortune. It turned out that it would actually save the country money. Is it any wonder that people would be skeptical about either man’s work on intelligence? It certainly seems that they both have preferred policies and they are using intelligence testing as a way to justify those policies. And that isn’t the way science is supposed to work.

What I think all this means is that IQ tests could be used for a good purpose. We could use them to determine if our schools are providing a good learning environment that is opening up children’s minds. (It would certainly be better than the current testing regime we have.) But used to make arguments about how some groups are hopeless and others are not is morally dubious and scientifically invalid. Yet neither Richwine nor Murray (who has been a guest on The Colbert Report) are social outcasts. Can anyone really argue that we live in a post-racial society?

Cameras Won’t Stop Police Brutality — Obviously

Eric GarnerIt is extremely rare that technology saves us. An example of this was shown in a highly visible way this week. After the Michael Brown killer Darren Wilson was not indicted based to some extent on conflicting testimony, President Obama called for 50,000 body cameras to be worn by police throughout the country. That was Monday. And on Wednesday, the killer of Eric Garner went unindicted, despite video of the whole thing. Maybe next the president will call for brain implants that will record what police officers were thinking while they are strangling a man on the street or gunning down a 12-year-old in a park. But my guess is that grand juries would still find the officers innocent. After all, the police have such dangerous jobs. And what about black-on-black crime? And who are you to second-guess officers in the heat of the moment when they are staring into the barrel of a pellet gun or focusing on some untaxed cigarettes that may or may not exist?

As regular readers know, I don’t find these police apologia credible. The police really don’t have very dangerous jobs. I heard someone earlier this week say, “Police leave for work in the morning not knowing if they are coming back home that night.” That was said by a liberal! Yet that statement is meaningless in that it applies to literally every person who goes to work in the morning. And it is even more true of fishermen and cab drivers than it is of police officers.

The “What about black-on-black crime?” argument is just a dodge. How is killing Eric Garner over some potential illegal cigarette selling affected by black-on-black crime? What about all the blacks dying from Malaria in Africa? Should we just accept police violence and murder until we wipe out Malaria? The “What about black-on-black crime?” is at best a way to avoid discussing police abuse. At worst, it is a way of subtly placing the blame on blacks, “If those blacks weren’t so violent, the police wouldn’t be killing them all the time!”

The last claim is perhaps the most ridiculous. It is the one that police officers always mention in my experience. But the argument would never be applied to a run of the mill, non-police officer, murderer. No one suggests that we not second guess criminals. “Imagine you had been born into poverty and your father beat you every day and you ran away and lived on the streets from the age of 12 and so got into crime as your only occupational choice and ended up burglarizing a warehouse and were surprised by a police officer pointing a gun at you!” In that context, it would be very reasonable to shoot the officer, but no one has ever avoided prosecution with that argument. What people making such arguments are saying is that the police should never be held accountable.

In the case of Tamir Rice, the outcome will likely be different. I only say that because he was 12-years-old. Also, following the Brown and Garner cases, there will be real pressure on the District Attorney to get at least an indictment. I’d give a conviction for second-degree manslaughter a 50-50 chance. And I’m sure there won’t be an indictment of Officer Timothy Loehmann for murder. Even that would be asking for too much.

What we need to be aware of are two things. One is that we live in a racist society. The police are not any more racist than we are generally. The second thing to keep in mind is that we as a society have decided that the police are above the law. Unless they act in an egregious manner, they are generally clear. Having more video evidence won’t change that. For example, if there had been video of Michael Brown’s killing, I’m sure it would have shown that Brown was, in fact, stumbling and not charging Officer Wilson. But in court, Wilson still would have claimed that he thought Brown was charging — because I’m sure Wilson really did think that Brown was charging! He might have been indicted, but he certainly wouldn’t have been convicted.

Matthew Pratt Guterl wrote an excellent article today at New Republic, Police Cameras Won’t Cure Our National Disease. In it, he discussed various cases of police abusing their authority caught on camera:

As others have noted, there are hundreds of these videos on YouTube, some with millions of views. Advocates of police body cameras might enthuse over this collection, holding it up as proof that sunlight is a natural disinfectant. But it isn’t clear at all that the increasing ubiquity of cameras — or the massive circulation of such videos — has actually decreased the number of men and women of color victimized by overly aggressive policing.

I’m not sure what the solution is. Clearly we do not have to cure racism to make the situation substantially better. I think it would help for police to spend more time in the communities that they police. They should see their jobs as more interfacing with the community rather than “looking for crime.” They should stop thinking of the police force itself as a tribe. I’d love to see an end to the default carrying of guns and tasers. In other words, I’d like to see an entirely different approach to policing. But I’d be happy to just see a small amount of accountability. But I don’t expect to see even that.

Plagiarism and Publication Standards

CJ WerlemanI was surprised when people found that CJ Werleman had plagiarized things in his work. People like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass don’t surprise me. They are clearly creative people in over their heads who work their way into fabricating amazing stories. But it amazes me that people would write mostly original material and yet pinch a sentence here and a paragraph there. How does that happen?!

The reason this came up is that I was researching an article celebrating the upcoming third anniversary of Christopher Hitchens’ death. So I read Glenn Greenwald’s obituary of him, Christopher Hitchens and the Protocol for Public Figure Deaths. In it, he quotes an article by Dennis Perrin that sharply attacked Hitchens back in 2003, a few years after he had gone over to the dark side. I don’t normally think of Greenwald as a particularly inspiring wordsmith, but this sentence really impressed me:

Dennis Perrin, a friend and former protégée of Hitchens, described all the way back in 2003 how Hitchens’ virtues as a writer and thinker were fully swamped by his pulsating excitement over war and the Bush/Cheney imperial agenda…

I decided to go in search of a possible obituary by Perrin himself at the time of Hitchens’ death (December 2011). I didn’t find anything, but I did locate an article on Rationalists’s Blog, Remembering Christopher Hitchens… But! It was posted two days after the Greenwald article and contained the exact same, highly stylized, sentence. At first I didn’t believe it. It seemed like such an egregious bit of plagiarism. It was only later that I found out that the blog belonged to CJ Werleman in his early days before writing for respectable publications like Salon.

Discussions of plagiarism are generally overwrought, if you ask me. People treat it as some kind of unforgivable intellectual sin. What it usually indicates is laziness and sloppiness. In his three hour interview with The Young Turks, Sam Harris claimed that Werleman could be dismissed out of hand because he plagiarized. That doesn’t follow. The arguments are still the arguments, regardless of whether some words were stolen from someone else. But it was convenient that Harris had this out, because he really doesn’t have much of an argument against charges of racism. (And his racism doesn’t mean that his work should simply be dismissed.)

What bothers me about plagiarism is what it says about such people’s opinions about writing itself. Any number of people have noted my tendency to not quote large chunks of text from things I’m writing about. I prefer to provide my own overview. That’s largely because I love writing. What’s more, I assume that people read me because they like reading me. I’m not primarily a clearing house for other people’s ideas. (I do have that, though; I like my quotations posts very much.) Clearly, since I don’t like quoting people, I would never knowingly use someone else’s words as my own.

There is another aspect of this. I know my own style. If I copied text from another article into my editor for reference, I would never mistake a phrase as wonderful as “fully swamped by his pulsating excitement” as my own. Or rather, I would remember having written something so great. But why would I copy something like that into my editor? It makes me think that Werleman uses an entirely different process in his writing where he collects bits from various articles and then reworks them. This has the obvious downside that it is easy to forget that this or that paragraph wasn’t actually written by you. But from my perspective, the worse aspect of this is that it doesn’t lead to particularly good writing or thinking.

I don’t think anyone has looked into this, but Werleman plagiarizes himself more than he does other people. I think that shows that he is not intending to plagiarize. It is just how he works. But why is it that he was so successful as a writer when his process was the writing equivalent of “paint by numbers”? I think we should be far more concerned about that than we are about any particular plagiarist.

Max Baer Jr

Max Baer JrThe iconic Max Baer Jr is 77 years old today. He will always be remembered as Jethro Bodine on The Beverly Hillbillies. When I was a kid, I hated that character. I didn’t have much of an appreciation for stupid characters. I liked Elly May — not because she was gorgeous (although she was), but because she was brilliant. Regardless, I wasn’t much of a The Beverly Hillbillies fan anyway. I would probably like it more now.

Baer’s father was the great boxer Max Baer. If you aren’t a boxing fan, you probably only know him from his portrayal in Cinderella Man. And you would get entirely the wrong idea about him. By all accounts he was a decent guy. But the movie is quite good. Just don’t believe what it says about Baer. But that has nothing to do with Max Baer Jr, who I am writing about, at least in theory.

After nine seasons and 274 episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies, Baer tried his hand at at feature filmmaking — the sort of films I remember watching at drive-ins when I was just a kid. He had the knack! In 1974, he produced and co-wrote Macon County Line. It is a revenge film with a twist. Well worth checking out! Baer and director Richard Compton made the film for about a hundred thousand dollars and made $30 million. Here is the totally awesome trailer (it is not a true story):

He went on to make a few more films — generally quite successfully. The biggest film was Ode to Billy Joe. I actually hate the film, but that isn’t his fault. I just love the song so much, and the film destroys it by making the story concrete. What’s brilliant about the song is that other than the emotional core, the listener has no idea what’s actually happened.

After roughly five years of writing, producing, and directing, Baer pretty much retired at the age of 40. And why not? He was ridiculously wealthy by that time. He did, apparently, try to get the film rights for “Like a Virgin.” That could have been an awesome film too!

Happy birthday Max Baer Jr!