Ta-Nehisi Coates has a great reply to Andrew Sullivan’s rather tone-deaf regurgitation of an unsourced story on a “p.c. egalitarianism” stranglehold on so-called “intelligence research.” He writes a takedown as it should be written — with respect for the author and no tolerance for bullshit.
The problem with Sullivan’s suggestion that researchers continue pursuing race-based intelligence is that it ignores what it is that “intelligence research” is supposed to find in the first place. Context matters, and the search for the elusive g — a measure of “general intelligence” — has largely led to skewed results in favor of the dominant ruling class of well-educated white males.
Let me give you an example. Here’s a common IQ test type logic puzzle that has a clear “right” answer (the Wason selection test, for those interested).
You are told to check if the following statement is false: “If a card has a vowel on one side, the number on the other side will be even.”
You are then given the following cards: A, G, 7, 4.
Which cards do you have to flip over to check if the statement is false?
The answer is to flip over card A (obvious) and card 7 (not as obvious). It doesn’t matter what’s on the other side of G, and if card 4 had a vowel or consonant on the other side, the statement could still be true.
But let’s frame the question a different way:
You are told to check if the following rule is false: “If a person is drinking alcohol, they are over 21.” You either know the beverage they are drinking or their age.
The four people you see are: age 16, age 22, drinking a beer, and drinking a Coke.
Who do you need to check?
Most people get this one correct. (See the paper here.) Why? Because we have experienced events like these and adapted our brains to understand them. I would bet that the 10 percent of people who get the vowel/number version correct have taken formal logic courses or have wrestled with such logic puzzles before.
When I was teaching, one of the standardized tests that the book included had an extended reading sample about a family’s experiences with skiing and snow. For my students, many of whom had never left the city of Chicago, such a reading sample was totally foreign. The test wasn’t testing their reading comprehension; it was, in many ways, simply testing their familiarity with skiing and its terms.
The search for g is a search for something that doesn’t exist — no intelligence is “general”; it shifts with the context of the activity and the world we live in. I’m not a big believer in the woo-woo Gardner multiple intelligences, but I think we should be honest when we discuss intelligence. We were not born with intelligence; our culture created it. Performance on cognitive tests is as artificial as anything else we can cook up.