I read Scott Alexander because he’s a pretty good weathervane for insight into the respectable crowd. For reasons I don’t understand, he periodically gets raves from writers way up the food chain, so he’s clearly writing about sensitive subjects without activating their panic buttons. I once read this book on Highly Sensitive People, and the author was like “OK, this may be painful, so stop and take a breath before you move on. Sense how you’re feeling. Breathe again. Now turn the page.” I found this extremely irritating, and Scott reminds me of that author. Who, by the way and despite the offputting habits and an entirely unscientific theory, provided me with a successful frameworks and some useful tips. Yes, I am a Highly Sensitive Person. Go ahead, laugh; it’s 20 years and I still think it’s funny.
Anyway. While this may seem like insider baseball, I’m writing this because the issue at hand illustrates an important point.
Recently, Scott wrote a soothing reassurance to the many people writing him “heartfelt letters complaining about their low IQs”.
See, the correct response to “heartfelt letters complaining about their low IQs” is a gagging noise or, perhaps more maturely, a discreet eye-roll. But that’s just me.
Scott quotes a Reddit commenter echoing a typical concern:
I never got a chance to have a discussion with the psychologist about the results, so I was left to interpret them with me, myself, and the big I known as the Internet – a dangerous activity, I know. This meant two years to date of armchair research, and subsequently, an incessant fear of the implications of my below-average IQ, which stands at a pitiful 94…I still struggle in certain areas of comprehension. I received a score of 1070 on the SAT, (540 Reading & 530 Math), and am barely scraping by in my college algebra class. Honestly, I would be ashamed if any of my coworkers knew I barely could do high school-level algebra.
Scott does something like five paragraphs on the measurement and meaning of IQ and how it’s great for groups but not terribly valuable for the individual. All that is just duck and weave, though, because basically, his response is “Well, your IQ test wasn’t accurate”. But Scott’s worried that if he says that, it will undo all the hard work he’s put in convincing people that IQ has meaning.
So reading the post, the reddit thread, and the comments, I’ve concluded that my–well, somewhat undue–frustration has two sources. First, I believe abrupt, brusque and occasionally rude responses are not immoral and frankly necessary. But more importantly, I’m dumbfounded that Scott would treat these queries as worthy of a treatise, so I’m wondering why.
I don’t usually quote Malcolm Gladwell unless it’s his ketchup piece, but this is instructive:
Of course, Gladwell was actually quoting someone with actual expertise, Arthur Jensen:
While individual IQs are irrelevant, the tiers are pretty useful. Those who interact regularly with all three tiers can place people pretty accurately in those tiers. My various occupations have given me access to the entire range of IQs, from the occasional low 80s to third standard deviation and possibly beyond. As a result, I don’t know a 98 from a 105, but I would never place either in the below 90 or above 115 group.
And from that vantage point, I can’t figure out why Scott is equivocating, because there is simply no way the Reddit poster, or indeed anyone who reads Scott’s blog, has an IQ much south of 115. The idea is ludicrous. Instantly risible.
Alexander is clearly aware of this. His characterization: “Help, I got a low IQ score, I’ve double-checked the standard deviation of all of my subscores and found some slight discrepancy but I’m not sure if that counts as Bayesian evidence that the global value is erroneous” oh so gently mocks his emailers–and mocks them in a manner that only higher IQs could understand.
But why would he spend so much time on the topic? Maybe it’s my (extremely low) opinion of the SSC groupies, but it’s pretty obvious that the emailers are looking for validation from their hero.
“I’ll tell Scott or random people on the internet that I’ve got a low IQ and they’ll go, pish tosh! and tell me how smart I am.” . Write an intellectual email, tossing in all the right buzzwords, worrying about their IQ, in order to get a reassuring “Don’t be silly! You’re far too intelligent for a 90 IQ!” that they can brag about.
In short, I think Scott’s emailers are lying to get an ego boost.
Sure, it’s possible that IQ tests are routinely handing out scores of 90 to people with 80th percentile SAT results. It’s just extremely unlikely. Alternatively, these folks could be IQ-denialists lying to seed doubt and confusion about IQ tests. “We’ll be, like Russian agents and post fake news through Scott. No one will trust these foul instruments!”
I’ll take “Needy Validation” for $1000, Scott.
He may simply be too polite to say “I don’t believe you”. But no one else did, either, in all the megabillion comments he gets on each blog. Some of the reddit folks gently pointed this out, but their views didn’t catch on.
Hence I wonder about restriction of range. Are the people in the discussion, from Scott Alexander on down, so unfamiliar with the intellectual capabilities of a 94 IQ that he thinks it merely unlikely that the IQs are inaccurate, as opposed to a possibility that can be instantly dismissed?
Maybe that’s it. After all, most of the educated world is setting their intellect standards like the second graph of this grip strength study illustrating the essay title:
As the author says, note the change in the x axis.
In perhaps his most famous piece, Scott characterizes the other, the people outside his inadvertently constructed social bubble as “dark matter”. These people exist. They are legion. But somehow he never runs into them, never has any contact.
It’s a neat little metaphor, but really all he’s describing are social bubbles that restrict your range pf experience or understanding. Just as most progressives never run into a conservative, so too are most college graduates who aren’t teaching in high poverty districts rarely going to meet an average IQ, much less sub-90 intellects.
Steve Sailer, with the ruthless accuracy and snarkiness that (wrongly) inspires disdain for his excellent observational skills, once observed that Rachel Jeantel, who testified at George Zimmerman’s trial was a high school student. Steve, who notices things, was pointing out that our expectations for high school students must include Jeantel, when in fact most people yapping about at risk black high school students have Will Smith in mind. Wrong. Smith is a bright guy.
Rachel was 19 when she testified, and graduated the next year from high school at 20. The media reports that “extensive tutoring” helped her graduate, but high schools will graduate anyone who tries hard enough. In my opinion, the support and the attention, not the tutoring, is what helped Jeantel graduate. I can’t find much about her life since then, but no news in this case is pretty good. I’d guess Jeantel below the 90 tier, but she might be right above it. She’s pretty functional. She’s savvy about how to handle her moment in the sun. She took advantage of the support offered her.
Listen to some of Jeantel’s testimony. Go back up and read that Reddit post that Scott says is typical of the worried emails he gets from people who are saying that they have roughly the same IQ as the young woman in that video.
Perhaps then you’ll see why I think the emailers deserve derision, gentle or otherwise.
Derision not because a low IQ is to be mocked or dismissed. Derision in part because I believe these people are seeking validation and ego boosts. But mostly, derision to reinforce and educate people about these tiers. The more people understand the basic realities of a 90 IQ as opposed to one of 115, the more we’ll understand the challenges of educating and employing them. The more people who engage in these debates understand how cocooned they are, the less foolishly optimistic they’ll be in considering education policy debates.
Educators, the peasants of the cognitive elite, can offer some guidance. Many educators deliberately ignore cognitive reality; I’m not saying we all have the right answers, or that I do. But I would like all educated people who think they understand American education to look at the whole picture, rather than be allowed to ignore the “dark matter”.
I really don’t know if Scott himself is refraining from mocking these IQ queries or if he really doesn’t understand that their fears are impossible.
Ending where I began: I read Scott Alexander because he’s a pretty good weathervane for insight into the respectable crowd that prides itself on its skeptical humanism. Unfortunately, either interpretation of his behavior is consistent with that set. I remain befuddled.