Restriction of Range

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.





About educationrealist

27 responses to “Restriction of Range

  • Nathan Taylor (praxtime)

    I enjoy reading your blog, finding it direct. Even if I don’t always agree.

    But I’ve often thought about SSC as well, and also found that IQ post a little odd. So for FWIW, here’s my take on it:
    1) the emotional tone of this particular post implies Scott Alexander panders (at least somewhat), and this helps his popularity.
    2) while Scott’s post on tolerating anything except the outgroup may be one of his most linked pieces, I think his most exposing piece is the one defending Scott Aaronson
    3) which is to say I think the unifying theme/energy behind’s Scott’s blog is defending sensitive nerds/geeks. (choose your own correct jargon for nerd here). *no matter their IQ*. A safe place for senstive people, of a introvertish, bookish sort.
    4) I’ve went to two San Jose SSC meetups (2013 and 2015 if I recall), and they were rather puzzling (at least to me). But a few more years in retrospect, I realized SCC meetups were groups gathering together for assisting sensitive people, often *very* smart, for getting along in the world. But – and this is essential – you do NOT have to be smart to be part of his ingroup. Just sensitive.
    5) Scott is not pandering in the sense of trying to get clicks. He’s using the full force of his abilities to write in a way which allows those he disagrees with to engage. but the underlying frame/motivating force is to create a civil culture of nerdish support. And what’s so evil about that?

    In short, I find the subculture Scott comes from rather off putting. But also (from a distance) quite beautiful, and a benefit to the world. And to answer your question, he rather obviously is pointing out that if you read and understand his SSC blog, your IQ cred is good. But he’s doing it in his own unblunt and roundabout way. He’s civil. And even if I can’t quite feel a close kinship to his super-nerdish ingroup, I feel strongly the world is far better off for his writing. I’m very glad people at say, Vox, and elsewhere read him. It makes the world just a wee tad better. And he’s deliberately transparent on that IQ post. Your instincts are exactly right. No need to be befuddled.

    PS – I noticed while posting this comment (went to Aaronson’s blog) that he’s doing a joint meetup with Alexander next week. And good for them!

    • educationrealist

      I also find it offputting, and I deliberately avoided the word “pandering”. I don’t know who Scott Aaronson is.

      • Jake

        Scott Aaronson is a spectacularly brilliant computer scientist at MIT. He attracted the attention of non-specialists a few years ago when he wrote some very cautious criticism of SJW excess. Needless to say, this drew a pack of rabid wolves who nearly tore him apart – and Aaronson, being the type who really does care about the approval of the feminist left, was hurt pretty badly. Scott Alexander’s “Untitled” piece was partly written as a response to this brouhaha.

      • educationrealist

        I thought that pretty obvious. I know nothing about Scott Aaronson.

      • Steve Johnson

        More interestingly Scott Aaronson wrote a hyperventilating piece on Trump that actually prompted Moldbug to come out of (public) retirement in the comment section.

      • educationrealist

        I got curious and found two posts of him hyperventilating but couldn’t see any response. Link?

    • educationrealist

      Oh, and thanks for the kind words! I enjoyed your comment. Very lucid and shows you understood my discomfort.

    • amac78

      Anecdote. My IQ is likely 1 to 1.5 SDs higher than my wife’s, but she is at or above Jensen’s professional/graduate threshold. And, indeed, she’s very successful as a health care provider. Judging from academic performance and conversation, our kids’ IQs likely fall near the middle of this range. Unsurprisingly.

      One kid was recently tested, and mom was stunned to find the reported result at just below that threshold. Not being the intellectual type, she imagined that “failure!” would have to be stenciled on their yearbook picture. I cajoled her into reading Scott’s post; it had the effect that he intended.

      So my experience dovetails nicely with Nathan’s observations.

  • ganderson9754

    “but high schools will graduate anyone who tries hard enough…”

    “Mr. A, why did you give me a D-?”

    “Because I like you.”

  • nelshoy

    Not everything he writes is for the same target audience.

    Scott feels a kinship the so called rationalist community, and he’s mostly addressing a specific subset with mental illness. As a psychiatrist, he’s seen thousands of people who obsess over their various perceived faults so much it does serious damage to their ability to function.

    Rationalists already emphasize the importance of IQ and its importance for life outcomes. He’s just trying to tamper these people’s irrational belief that a low IQ score means there lives are over and that they might as well give up on things within their reach, because he cares about them. It’s the kind of message that’s obvious to everyone else, but that you desperately need to hear when your inner voice is telling you you’re a piece of shit that will never amount to anything.

  • Roger Sweeny

    “Mr. A., why did you give me an F?”

    “Because there is no lower grade.”

  • Jacob

    There’s some controversy on your tier concept. Would you say that either of these comments capture your intent?

    • educationrealist

      Hi, thanks for the link. I thought it was pretty obvious I don’t think there’s hard and fast boundaries around the tiers. That was, as the commenter pointed out, why I said I didn’t know the specific IQs. Most of the comments trying to explain me , as opposed to hyperventilating at my cruelty, were correct.

      • Jacob

        Thanks for your elaboration.

        Also, I was tickled that the title of your post and example graphic has such strong parallels with my previous reddit comment:

      • educationrealist

        I can’t see it right now (school bans reddit) but will look at it later.

      • educationrealist

        One other thing: While I think derision is the correct response, I think people are conflating two points because of the, er, special nature of Scott’s audience.

        1) People writing posts like that fearing they have low IQs should be roundly mocked. That doesn’t mean cruelty. It means “Oh, lord. No, you’re not. Don’t be silly.” It means not engaging with the idea, making it clear the question is unreasonable.

        2) I don’t believe that many people have incorrect IQ scores. I believe, rather, that Scott gets a lot of questions about this because he has a reader base of, if not groupies, people who often want his attention and support.

        Scott went into considerable detail about how he’s worried about telling people that their IQs are inaccurate because it will ruin faith in the test and his other work on IQ. I’m saying not to worry, because if my intuition is correct, these people aren’t really uncertain about IQ inaccuracy. They’re in need of validation.

        Now, I *don’t* believe that should be mocked by Scott, or indeed anyone who is seeking that sort of validation. They shouldn’t be encouraged as much as Scott is doing it (in my view) but I wouldn’t mock them for their neediness, and I wouldn’t be cruel.

        That said, not being Scott, *I* am mildly mocking Scott’s readers en masse, as I do think the bulk of them are needy overthinkers. Again, please note that I read him, and regardless of why you read him, he’s clearly bright as is his reading base.

      • educationrealist

        Hey, we used the same one! I thought it was really on point.

      • Jacob

        Seems like replying in this blog is disabled beyond a certain comment nesting level, so I’ll reply here instead of directly to your comment that begins “One other thing”.

        Thanks for your further words on derision; your recent words seem much more kind, charitable, and practical than your previous words. I’m worried that people (reasonably) have gotten the wrong impression on the sub-topic, especially with repeated use of the word “derision” which often includes mean-spirited things you are actually discouraging.

        Also, thanks for making excellent points about IQ score validity and other possible explanations for what’s going on when people write to Scott about such personal concerns. I think a lot of high-IQ people in high-IQ social bubbles (quite understandably) have a hard time getting an accurate picture of people different from themselves.

        Sidenote: I am enjoying a lot of your other blog posts. I’m glad you got linked to from /r/slatestarcodex.

      • educationrealist

        I don’t know why the interface blocks multi-tiered responses. I’m not terribly about the blocking, though, because I hate it when words get squished.

        I am, in fact, a kind, charitable, and practical person. My worst enemies, if I had any, would agree that there isn’t even the tiniest strain of malice in me. I think people put too much emphasis on “mockery” and “derision”, making it the equivalent of “bullying” or “condemnation”. The world has gotten too soft!

        Glad you like the blog!

  • bellisaurius

    I think this is why I like your blog, ER. Reading Scott is reading about the world the way I wish it could be. Reading yours is about the world as it is, and how we can deal with that.

  • BJ dubbS

    I don’t get the SSC fanboyism, especially among higher-tier bloggers. It just seems really long-winded and self-regarding and then I give up.

    • educationrealist

      Yeah, I totally don’t understand Sean Trende and Megan McArdle going wild about “I can stand anything except the outgroup”. It’s a good piece, but that reaction only makes sense if they weren’t aware of the bubble.

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