The Misguided IQ Debate

Candice eetimesThere has been an uptick in the number of articles, podcasts, and online debates about IQ differences between groups, most especially regarding the so-called ‘races’ and of course between the sexes.  There are typically two sides, both equally right and at the very same time equally wrong.  One side cites IQ studies that show that there are differences between groups and thus conclude that there are genetic differences between them.  The other side says that is pure racism or sexism.  The first side then claims that the second side is anti-science and knee jerk “social justice warriors”.

In all of this debate, I have read only one man, who straddled both sides, who came closer to the right answer when he said that those talking about the IQ differences in the science literature is about two different phenomena.  One, is where we note that there are average differences between defined groups.  The other is where we research the genetics of IQ.  The two do NOT meet.  Sadly, he failed to go into enough detail to explain why.

First, lets talk about the genetics studies of IQ.  The first thing researchers wanted to know is what it the “heritability” of IQ.  To do this they used twin studies, noting the differences and similarities in IQ scores of  identical vs fraternal twins in situations where they are raised together vs apart.  This leads to four different cases.  In one case, it is assumed that both siblings share both genetic and environmental influences while in the other case, only 50% of the genes are shared while maintaining the same early environmental influences if they are raised together.  If raised apart… well, you get the idea.  From this, studies have led to estimates of 50% to 80% heritability.  That is to say, that genetic differences can account for half to 80% of the VARIABILITY of IQ scores.

Remember, so far, we’ve been looking at the variability of individuals within a population, not the differences between populations.

Here we need to understand why the studies show such widely different results.  It is caused by the very nature of environmental influences.  The closer to optimal environmental conditions, the greater the genetics will explain the variability and thus the presumed heritability.  If everyone in a study had absolutely perfectly optimal environmental conditions, ALL of the variability would have to be from the genetic differences and thus a study would show that IQ was 100% heritable.  But life is never the same for two individuals.  And they certainly aren’t the same, nor optimal, for all individuals everywhere for all time.

Thus, the differences in environmental conditions may (they don’t have to automatically be this way) lead to greater variability in a population and thus lower the estimates of heritability.  The question to be asked is how sensitive is IQ to differences in environmental conditions?  The answer is… an amazing amount !  How do we know this?  The Flynn Effect.

Please take a moment to read the Wikipedia entry on the Flynn Effect (so I don’t have to repeat what it says):

The Flynn effect describes the changes in average IQ scores in the same genetic population (gene pool) over a very short period of time.  We don’t have to know what causes the effect.  We need only note that the effect has caused a significantly larger change in average IQ within populations over time than the putative differences found between populations (and in the difference in range of IQ between the sexes).  Is it too much of a stretch to conjecture that any putative differences found between populations is more likely to be attributable to environmental differences, that populations are distributed along different points of the Flynn Effect, than to any putative differences in genetics?

Thus, we see that one group has jumped to the wrong conclusion about the differences between populations because of ‘racial’ bias and another group is reacting in an anti-science manner out of fear that any conclusion will adversely effect disadvantaged populations. Both are wrong.

The number of genes and the number of environmental factors are both very large… too large to come to any conclusion regarding putative differences between populations at this time.

Besides, this argument is looking at the wrong thing.  We shouldn’t be looking at the genetics.  We should be looking at the data to find out what is the optimal environment and ensuring that each and every human being on the planet experiences it.

Further External Reading:

So is it nature not nurture after all?


Free Speech vs. Academic Freedom

Candice eetimesHow do you define “free speech”?

We need to ask because lately, people have been arguing that our college campuses have abandoned free speech.  However, it would appear that they are confusing “freedom of speech” with “academic freedom”, a much different concept.  Further, many outsiders, visitors and speakers not part of the official university community, have claimed that their “free speech rights” are being denied on campuses.

Lets clear a few things up.  First, “free speech” rights are part of the American value system both culturally and legally, codified right in our Constitution in the Bill of Rights.  However, that right is NOT the right to be heard.  It is the right to NOT be arrested when speaking out.  That is to say, if you say something critical of policy or politician, you may NOT be arrested and prosecuted.  It does not give a person the right to demand that an institution provide a platform to disseminate that position.  A university is well within its rights to turn away a would-be speaker.

What people are really asking for is a form of “academic freedom”… another value occasionally professed by centers for higher learning.  But once again, not a right guaranteed by any law.  This freedom is usually granted to instructors or researchers who have gained a contractual protection called ‘tenure’.  But even tenure may not protect an individual who steps outside of other norms and values held collectively by the university community.

No university or college is under any legal or moral obligation to provide a platform for an outsider, either under the rubric of “free speech” nor of “academic freedom”.  An invited speaker does so purely as a courtesy on both sides.  No one’s rights have been abrogated if a would be speaker is disinvited for any reason.

Having dispensed with the notion of rights, we may turn to the question of wisdom of turning away such speakers.  There is something to be said for providing a wider range of ideas and opinions to be heard on campus to provide a better education, or perhaps to bolster deeper cultural understanding.  However, when a would-be speaker’s primary reason for speaking is to gain the imprimatur of respectability and even of implied correctness for their ideas from having spoken at an institution… and that institution’s values would oppose those ideas and would seek to deny attaching its reputation to those ideas, the institution would be better served by denying that platform.

Let’s be specific, speakers calling for discrimination or other illtreatment of others do NOT have a right to expect university support for their ideas nor to provide a platform from which to call for these injustices.

On the other hand… when an institution has invited a speaker, that speaker has the moral expectation that they will not be subject to undue harassment and physical danger.  Members of the university community have the right to speak against the ideas of the speaker, but not the right to shout them down, as that interferes with right of other members of the community to hear out the speaker, which was after all, the reason for inviting the speaker.  One does not have to be respectful of the ideas or opinions of the speaker; but one must be respectful of the rights of others to civil conduct during a presentation.

Video Review: The Expanse

Candice eetimesI finally had the chance to watch the first two episodes of The Expanse.  It has been well reviewed by others.  Those reviews all speak well of the production values and the scientific realism of the show.  Sigh…

First, there are lots of wonderful high quality details… but as I’ve explained before, one of my pet peeves is the fetish that Hollywood has for transparent displays.  This show has them in abundance.  It’s irritating and pulls me out of the story and into my career as an expert on display design.  But that isn’t the only problem with science and technology on the show.

In one scene, a hard-boiled cop with a streak of cynical corruption pours liquid from a bottle into a glass… that goes sideways… SIDEWAYS!  Ummmm… if that’s the effect of gravity of Ceres, then the engineers of the habitat messed up and didn’t plumb the building.  Then it occurred to me… perhaps they are trying to show the effect of Coriolis?  No, that can’t be right as Ceres has a rotation (day length) of nine hours.  The coriolis effect would be far too small to be noticed.  Ok… could it represent that the bottle was under some pressure and Ceres tiny 0.03g gravity wasn’t involved?  This would make more sense… but the bottle didn’t seem to be a pressured bottle.  Nothing I can think of would explain the behavior of the liquid.

Thinking of gravity… at that tiny gravity, everyone on Ceres should have been loping, not walking… and certainly NOT running as occurred in several scenes.  The moment someone tried it, they would be bounding off the floor!  And then there is the issue of shipboard gravity/acceleration.  While it may make superficial sense for people to use magnetic boots in zero g, a long time favorite staple of budget limited science fiction film, actual walking in them makes zero sense.  Walking is a form of “falling” forward and toward the floor then catching yourself.  Without real gravity/acceleration walking just isn’t possible.  The best that could occur is to use the mag boots in situation where one wants to lock oneself into one “standing” position so as to enable working on tasks that require that torque be applied by one’s arms.  Then… there are the scenes where ship acceleration is used to provide gravity.  Yes, the physics allow that… the energetics do not.  One would not provide constant moderate g burns to rocket around the solar system.  It would take more reaction mass than the mass of the ship!  Then there is the sillyness of the design of the chairs used during high g burns… sigh… one would not be sitting upright!  One would be lying down, lazyboy fashion, so that one’s heart didn’t have to fight the acceleration to keep blood flowing to one’s brain (drugs or no drugs).

Speaking of energetics and economics.  The notion of capturing ice in the outer solar system and storing it in a ship that then brings it back to the belt makes zero sense.  Ice is very plentiful in the outer system in the form of comets and Saturn’s rings.  One would simply (as if anything in space is “simple”) strap an ion rocket powered by plutonium Radioactive Thermal Generator (RTG) to nudge it into a least energy orbit to the belt.  If that’s not enough water and other gasses… do it over and over.  No human should be riding it back down to the belt.  There should NEVER be a shortage of water available to the belt.

OK… I love the show for it’s hard science fiction feel… I just wish that they had a better science advisor!  Or perhaps, had chosen to base the show on a SciFi book series where the author knew better?

Additional Reading:

What Hollywood Gets Wrong In Futuristic Science Fiction