Science ignorance and the press

John Derbyshire today has yet another example of people writing about science who don’t understand it, even a little bit. I have a lovely daughter who has an honors degree in Anthropology. Unfortunately, she got indoctrinated in the “Blank Slate” theory of child psychology, as promoted by “Mismeasure of Man” author, Stephen Jay Gould. The blank slate advocates are enthused about molding children’s minds and include behavioral psychologists as well some rather scary characters from Stalin’s USSR who were going to invent a “New Soviet Man.” This is all about politics, you see.

Steven Pinker actually wrote a book called “ The Blank Slate, which should have debunked much of the behavioral nonsense. I tried to get my daughter to read it when we were on a trip together but she refused. Pinker shows from identical twin studies that much behavior is inherited. We can argue about nature vs nurture all day but to assume that behavior is all one or the other is to risk being shown a fool. Unfortunately, the nurture assumption has gotten involved in politics and that skews the debate.

Then along came The Bell Curve, which makes one point that low IQ people seem to be having more children than high IQ people and scared everybody into thinking it was racist. In fact, it was nothing of the sort but facts are less important than rumors in some political circles. I was at Dartmouth when it came out and it was hilarious to see people, who would not be seen buying the book in the Dartmouth Bookstore, quietly asked me to borrow it when I finished.

David Brooks seems to be in that category as Derbyshire quotes him:

Prof. Eric Turkheimer of the University of Virginia, conducted research showing that growing up in an impoverished environment harms I.Q.

Lysenko would be proud of Brooks for that howler. Turkheimer actually didn’t say that but Brooks confuses low income and intelligence of parents who have low income and intelligence children with environmental influence.

Children reared in low-SES (socio-economic status) households, therefore,
may differ from more affluent children both environmentally and genetically
(Gottesman, 1968), and the models we employed in this
study do not allow us to determine which aspect of SES is responsible
for the interactions we observed.

It’s only a step from that to say that environmental influences will affect inherited characteristics like IQ. That is at the root of Gould’s theory of the Blank Slate. The child is like every other child, capable of responding to environment or parental influence to become more intelligent or more aggressive or passive. It’s only a step to the New Soviet Man.

Central to Lysenko’s tenets was the concept of the inheritability of acquired characteristics.

There seems to be a general feeling, as a Hastings Center working group put it, that “behavioral genetics will never explain as much of human behavior as was once promised.”

No. Feeling it may be but it is not true. Do some reading.

How about an IQ test for reporters and columnists ?

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