Thoughts on a Brouhaha in Academia
Casual readers be warned, this is one of those occasional posts about matters of little import to everyday folk. Normally that includes you and me, but in this case I’m invested, for reasons I hope become clear.
Anyone who spends more than a nanosecond on social media (or any Fox outlet for that matter) has no doubt stumbled across some bit of outrage being stoked on a college campus. Often there is a highly-credentialed member of the professoriate around to lend the imprimatur of academic authority and describe the problem in suitably polysyllabic words.
Sometimes, like the townsfolk in Frankenstein or The Scarlet Letter, the profs get a bee in their bonnet and decide they need to act en masse. This is about one of those times.
First, though, a bit of background. Quilette, is an online platform dedicated, in its own words, to “…ideas, even dangerous ones.” How I first stumbled across the site remains uncertain, but it provides a lively and irreverent alternative to the utterly un-fun seriousness of the progressive Left.
To the extent that Quilette is known at all, it’s probably for a nifty stunt in which academic publishing found itself hoist by its own petard. I enjoyed that enough to keep an eye on the site.
That’s how I learned about Noah Carl, a young academic whose scalp is wanted by at least three hundred academics who signed an open letter declaring his work “ethically suspect.” The signators demand to know just how such a sad specimen could be granted a position at any learning institution.
Dr. Carl’s misstep? He’s not willing to write off research and researchers that have earned the ire of the progressive set.
The issue comes down to intelligence, more specifically, measures of intelligence. Almost from day one, those measures have been fighting words. And, to be fair, the measures have been misused from the start, playing supporting roles in such dramas as the eugenics movement and arguing against civil rights for African Americans.
There are, in fact, plenty of good reasons to be suspicious of IQ, or the g-factor as the psychometricians like to call it. The tests are full of bias and the whole notion of a ‘general’ level of intelligence, presented as a single number ought to strike all thinking people as absurd.
Don’t take my word for it. None other than Stephen Jay Gould conducted a pretty through evisceration in the 1980s. I find Howard Gardner‘s theory of multiple intelligences far more persuasive.
People love simple things they believe they understand, though. So IQ persists. Dr. Carl’s problem is that he’s defended papers and other publications that are found wanting. This is where it gets dicey. The basis for finding them wanting is either their application to, or support of, ideas that suggest some groups are naturally more intelligent than others.
Dr. Carl believes these things should be discussed. The objectors think some ideas are so dangerous they must never be spoken of, let alone be lent the credibility of the academy. On such disagreements are arguments between academicians built.
I wanted to see for myself what the fuss was about, so I tracked down Carl’s most cited paper, “Verbal Intelligence is correlated with socially and economically liberal beliefs” (2014). Given the furor, I was expecting a tour de force argument supporting some truly objectionable conclusion. In actuality, it’s a narrowly focused, methodologically sound social science paper.
Here are a few key sentences from the paper’s conclusion:
“..consistent with Pinker’s (2011) hypothesis, Americans with higher verbal intelligence tend to have more socially liberal beliefs and more economically liberal beliefs (β = .10–.32)
Overall, my findings suggest that higher intelligence among classically liberal Republicans compensates for lower intelligence among socially conservative Republicans…Independents with higher intelligence are more likely to support the Democratic Party in elections.
…a 10-word vocabulary test is at best an imperfect measure of verbal intelligence, let alone general intelligence.”
Time to burn the house down, right? I mean, finding consistency with Pinker? What’s next? Interment camps?
I returned to Quilette to learn just who Carl’s tormentors are. There’s a photo showing some of the signators. One is also mentioned in the article’s text. I’ll get back to him.
Many social scientists and even a mathematician are seen in the note. But that doesn’t mean much. The thing I remember most from grad school, though I discounted it, was that we poor MS slobs in the applied track actually took far more math and methods courses than any PhD ever did. So you might discount everyone listed who isn’t a mathematician. Or at least grant I know how to read a study and comprehend the math used and the results reported.
That brings me to the academic singled out in the text, the anthropologist David Graeber, who seemed particularly indignant about the matter. I tracked down Graeber’s CV, driven by a desire to try and figure out just how versed in math this latter-day Torquemada was. That’s when things got interesting and I had to go back and look at his photo.
You see, Dr. Graeber and I crossed paths decades ago. If I’m right, he was the anthro senior a year ahead of me who took a living room hostage with a tedious tour of a paper he’d been told was publishable.
He’s no reason to lie on his CV about where and when he attended school and I am intimately familiar with the social science requirements of that time and place. As an anthropology major he could have escaped math entirely and done fieldwork (most did). The stats class offered in Soc Sci stopped short of interpreting this study let alone something more complicated.
Lest you complain that I’m a mere practitioner taking on a full doctor, let me note that his MA and PhD were granted by the University of Chicago, a fine school with a deserved reputation in social science. Anthropology PhDs are required to take one, as in 1, math class.
Dr. Graeber strikes me as an unlikely math nerd. His CV–which reads like a parody of the lectures we regularly heard in the early 1980s–supports that assertion.
So let’s lay the fancy maths aside. After all is said and done, the beta coefficients are mulled over and the significance of the Somers’ d test affirmed, the difference is 2 to 5 IQ points.
Pretty meaningless in the real world. And certainly nothing to go to war over.
But, hey, people love simple things they believe they understand.