Toby and the social constructionists: intelligence, race & gender

Toby Young, journalist and co-founder of the West London Free School, and appointed to the brand new Office for Students (OfS), recently delivered the 2017 Constance Holden* Memorial Address. His title was “Liberal Creationism”. The text of the lecture has been published as an opinion paper in the Elsevier Journal Intelligence. Neither Toby nor the topic of intelligence are strangers to controversy, so I was curious about to what he had to say.

the fate of intelligence researchers

For the first couple of pages I was nodding along in agreement. Toby opens with a robust defence of intelligence researchers who have faced serious consequences for suggesting that biological factors contribute to intelligence – careers ending abruptly, ignominy, and worse. His description of their opponents as a ‘neo-Marxist intersectionality cult’, ‘Social Justice Warriors’, ‘Liberal Creationists’ and ‘anti-hereditarians’ had a ring of truth about it.

The intelligence researchers’ findings have generally supported the idea that human nature is in part biologically determined.  Historically this idea is tainted by its association with eugenics, and it’s that association, Toby suggests, that’s at the root of the opposition to the research. He claims the ‘anti-hereditarians’ are wrong to think of the biological aspects of intelligence as “inextricably bound up with these toxic political movements and fundamentally incompatible with liberal values” (p.3).  I think he’s right.

human nature and individual differences

After a brief tour of some anthropological controversies to demonstrate that all human beings have some psychological traits in common, Young moves on to “what divides us” beginning with individual differences. This is the point where I felt his argument weakened considerably.

Young says “when a progressive liberal listens to a behavioural geneticist talk about the biological basis of IQ and the positive correlation between IQ and socio-economic status, what they think they are hearing is a Social Darwinist argument in favour of the current distribution of wealth and power” (p.3). He argues that at the heart of the opposition to claims about the biological basis of human nature, whether IQ, gender or race, is social constructionism, which holds the view that “anyone who believes that human differences are rooted even in part in biology rather than socially constructed is the enemy” (p.2). What Young appears to have failed to realize is that whatever the contribution of biology and however wrong the social constructionists’ reasoning, ‘intelligence’ (IQ), ‘race’ and ‘gender’ are nonetheless constructs.

intelligence, race and gender as constructs

There’s no doubt that biological factors contribute to what we call intelligence, race and gender. Some congenital medical conditions result in low intelligence, people with ancestry in different parts of the world have different physical and physiological characteristics, women are anatomically different to men, and so on.

The concepts ‘intelligence’, ‘race’ and ‘gender’ entail biological characteristics (ability to carry our particular tasks, physical features, anatomical differences), but that doesn’t mean ‘intelligence’, ‘race’ or ‘gender’ map directly on to discrete biological entities.  Although the biological characteristics are real things in the natural world, it doesn’t follow that the concepts ‘intelligence’, ‘race’ and ‘gender’ must be real things in the natural world. As Gilbert Ryle would have pointed out, intelligence, race and gender are different kinds of things to the brains, skin colour and sexual characteristics we associate with them.

The biological characteristics mean we can operationalize those constructs in biological terms for research purposes. A researcher could decide that, for the purposes of their study, intelligence consists of the ability to perform particular tasks, measured using a particular test. A particular racial grouping could be operationalized in terms of particular physical characteristics. Gender, likewise.

It doesn’t follow that intelligence, race or gender have a biological existence independent of the concept of intelligence, race or gender. In marked contrast to brains, skin or genitals.

I think Toby is right that some more vociferous opponents to the claims about intelligence have framed the debate entirely in terms of social constructs and in doing so have completely discounted biological factors. But that’s not true of all who have questioned the claims about intelligence, race or gender.

The existence of brains, skin or genitals are rarely disputed.  They are physical entities and there’s general agreement about their characteristics. But intelligence, race and gender have been the subject of controversy more or less since they came into being because they are constructs. The question looming over all of them is ‘what do you mean by….?’

what do you mean by…?

As the psychologist Edwin Boring pointed out way back in the 1920s, intelligence is what[ever] intelligence tests measure.   Somebody, somewhere makes a decision about what a particular intelligence test measures. Intelligence tests undoubtedly measure something. Whether it’s intelligence or not depends on what you think intelligence is.

Race is controversial because the characteristics that are supposed to be typical of different racial groups are, because of the way genetic expression works, on a multi-dimensional continuum.  Even if the features considered to characterise a particular racial group are very clearly defined, it’s often difficult to decide whether or not an individual belongs to that group.

As for gender… The ‘social constructionists’ so disparage by Young make an important distinction between someone’s sex (reproductive anatomy and secondary sexual characteristics) and their gender – their social role based on their sex. The distinction is a helpful one, but two terms are often, unhelpfully, used interchangeably.

A further complication is that biology, also unhelpfully, doesn’t adhere to a neat binary male/female distribution of physical sexual characteristics. One estimate§ puts the frequency of intersex characteristics as high as 1.7% of the population.

The difficulty in determining what constitutes intelligence, race or gender calls into question the validity of all correlations found between intelligence and any demographic group. That’s because someone has to decide what constitutes intelligence and what constitutes the demographic group; the validity of intelligence as a construct has been questioned ever since Spearman came up with the idea of g.

you say this, I say that

Young’s argument appears to be essentially this: Science shows that shared human characteristics and individual differences are to large extent biologically determined.  And that anti-hereditarian opposition to that finding originates in the ‘fanatical egalitarianism’ of the hard left (p.6). According to Young, the egalitarianism the hard left want can be brought about by a totalitarian dictatorship.

Interestingly, in his opening comments Young dismisses the fanatical egalitarianism embraced by the far-right (also enforced via a totalitarian dictatorship), as ‘toxic baggage’ that could be discarded. And complains “It’s not much fun to be branded a ‘Nazi’ or ‘white supremacist’ on Twitter or anywhere else” (p.1).

Totalitarian regimes of the hard left, far-right and various other political and religious persuasions, inflicted catastrophic damage on huge numbers of people during the 20th century and look set to continue doing so in the 21st. To justify their actions, some regimes used the idea that characteristics are inherited. Others have used ideology. None have taken much notice of what science has to say.

Toby has taken note of the science but has managed to fundamentally misunderstand both it and social constructionism. He’s lumped together anyone else who’s misunderstood the science, objected to spurious scientific claims, been upset by unwise off-the-cuff remarks, with left-wing ideologues.   And has used his misunderstanding to launch an attack on the hard left who he equates with Stalinists.

His argument is essentially constructed in opposition to the narrative of people he disagrees with, whether they are a ‘neo-Marxist intersectionality cult’, ‘Social Justice Warriors’, ‘Liberal Creationists’, ‘anti-hereditarians’ or vote Democrat (p.7).

If the social constructionists think intelligence, race and gender are social constructs, Young doesn’t consider the possibility they might actually be no more than social constructs, despite scientists arguing over their construct validity for decades. If sceptics get upset about scientists making questionable claims, Young assumes the scientists must be right. If any group he disagrees with marginalises the role of biological factors in individual differences, Young marginalises the role of environmental factors. If all the parties Young disagrees with fight like ferrets in a sack about the differences between their views, Young lumps them all together as if they form a homogeneous group.

That doesn’t tell us that Young is wrong and the social constructionists/neo-Marxist intersectionalists/Social Justice Warriors/Liberal Creationists/anti-hereditarians are right. What it does tell us is that misunderstandings of science can be used to justify anything.

notes

*Constance Holden wrote for the news section of Science for 40 years.

§Blackless et al (2000). How sexually dimorphic are we?  http://www.aissg.org/PDFs/Blackless-How-Dimorphic-2000.pdf

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