Signaling Beats Race-IQ For Controversy

On Sunday I gave a talk, “Mind Enhancing Behaviors Today” (slides, audio) at an Oxford FHI Cognitive Enhancement Symposium.   To suggest how society might treat future mind enhancements, I reviewed how we today treat mental enhancements in six different areas of life: grunt-work, sport, medicine, nutrition, school, and story.  I discussed signaling explanations our behavior in these areas and in passing mentioned the low marginal health value of medicine.

Also speaking were Linda Gottfredson, on how IQ matters lots for everything, how surprisingly stupid are the mid IQ, and how IQ varies lots with race, and Garett Jones on how IQ varies greatly across nations and is the main reason some are rich and others poor.  I expected Gottfredson and Jones’s talks to be controversial, but they got almost no hostile or skeptical comments – it was my talk that was clearly most controversial!  Alas I don’t have a recording of the open discussion session to show you.

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  • Mike

    how IQ varies greatly across nations and is the main reason some are rich and others poor

    No one shouted at this? To me it seems obviously to get the direction of causality wrong.

    how surprisingly stupid are the mid IQ

    How about how surprisingly stupid are the high IQ? This makes the most impression on me. Maybe because I am a prime example.

  • Excuse me if this has been covered already, but is there anything which could disprove signaling theory?

    • Michael Bishop

      I think its more helpful to focus on particular examples where signaling may or may not explain the behavior. It certainly is possible to bring evidence to bare on particular examples.

  • cw

    Perhaps your talk, while fascinating, was not so controversial that audience members felt comfortable associating with the topics by asking questions and trying to learn more. Race-IQ issues may be interesting to some, but fewer people would want to associate themselves with the talk by engaging the speaker.

  • Cog

    I’d be interested to hear more of your speculations about signalling through story. Your very brief comments seem to make sense in reference to telling stories (in the widest sense of the term), or even talking about them afterwards. But does this begin to explain why we so love just hearing/seeing them in the first place, even without signalling anything afterwards?

  • No one shouted at this? To me it seems obviously to get the direction of causality wrong.

    To me, it seems to get the direction of causality exactly right. Now what?

    • Mike

      :-). I regretted the word “obviously” as soon as I reread it, but alas, one cannot edit posts here.

      The problem with presuming poor countries are poor due to low IQ is that emigrants, moreover children of emigrants, seem to compete well in wealthy countries. For instance Asians in the US. The sampling is not random, which is perhaps why these people seem to compete _unusually_ well, but relying on such a bias becomes increasingly tenuous as you increase the number of standard deviations between their IQ and what you hypothesize is normal for their race.

  • Aron

    Sounds like you had a good time.

  • No one shouted at this? To me it seems obviously to get the direction of causality wrong.

    To me, it seems that everyone who studies IQ and wealth is likely to come across the consensus that malnutrition depresses IQ pretty soon. So I wouldn’t go and assume that people who hold presentations about this topic wouldn’t be aware of this objection and take it into account.

    • Mike

      OK OK. On such an issue, I’d expect people to throw a fuss _even if_ it were claimed to be taken into account, but different forums and different fields have different cultures about how much to harass someone when there is disagreement.

  • ImACoward

    I think cw is right. Anyone who dares to allow his name to be linked with race and IQ may be risking his career or worse. So I’m not even using my real name to post this comment. That fear can suppress meaningful discussion is not unique to the topic of race and IQ. For example, consider the all-too-true message of this T-shirt:

  • Granite26

    I’d guess emotional fatigue. By the time they finished questioning your statements they were annoyed. By the time they finished hearing the other two speakers, they were past the point of caring.

    as a possible explanation

    • Actually I was the last speaker.

      • Granite26

        Then I got nothing

  • Are we comparing the IQ of people of different races or cultures? That is to say, are these studies by Gottfredson and Jones gauging the amount IQ potentials vary with DNA, or location/association (nature vs nurture)?

    As for getting people’s opinion on controversial subjects, isn’t that what the internet is for? With anonymity I believe people become much more likely to voice their opinions (however ridiculous they may be).

  • kevin

    The thing that always mystified me about IQ is that for some regions average IQ is about 70, by US standards. In the United States, this is borderline retarded. Yet these people seem to be able to survive on their own, without guidance from family members, or the public sector resources we devote to our mentally-disabled people. ‘

    It makes me doubt the validity of IQ testing in these regions.

    • Eric Johnson

      See pp 367-9 in Jensen’s “The g Factor” – one can read them for free on

      • John Maxwell IV
    • > IQ is about 70… Yet these people seem to be able to survive on their own

      There is an explanation for this:

      There are two types of retardation: familial and organic. The former is caused by normal population variation in intelligence while the latter is caused by diverse individual problems such as genetic defects or head injuries. Related to this, the IQ scores of people with familial retardation correlate normally with their parent and sibling’s IQ scores (.50), while the IQ scores of people with organic retardation are not much associated with the IQs in their family.

      Retardation is measured by a combination of IQ and adaptive scales. Sometimes an IQ of 70 is used as the threshold of retardation. People with familial retardation and organic retardation of matched IQ perform the same in academic and training contexts, but organically retarded individuals do worse on the adaptive scales which measure things such as self-care, motor skills, and social functioning, signifying a broader range of mental dysfunction and some sort of developmental damage.

      “James Watson Tells the Inconvenient Truth: Faces the Consequences”

    • Doug S.

      You can find a similar effect by looking at raw IQ scores from many years ago. Were our great-grandparents really mentally retarded? (They were certainly *shorter* than people who live today…)

      • Eric Johnson

        On that front it’s also important to remember that the aristocracy was always well-nourished, at all times from the beginning of history (and also relatively freer from infection, in case that also matters for IQ). Quite possibly little or no Flynn effect has occurred in the highest class. But that class has always been tiny, and its incremental IQ advantage over the next-best has never made any significant difference in population mean IQs.

        This helps explain why Shakespeare, Newton, Euler, the high-medieval cathedrals, and the Book of Job rate highly by today’s standards, despite the Flynn effect. Today, we certainly do have world-historical artists alive, at least in my opinion (see the best works of Arvo Part, Terrence Malick, Cormac McCarthy). But, if anything, we have fewer than you might expect when comparing today’s population figures to those of 1850 or 1200 AD, or 500 BC

  • Not really me

    So, is Linda’s talk online?

  • Eric Johnson

    Robin, leaky placebo blinding certainly does seem like the prime crux of the antidepressant effectiveness debate, at least to this casual reader on the subject. Has anyone ever tried a study with an active placebo producing dry mouth or whatever?

    One could reduce de-blinding even more by limiting a study to subjects with IQ 90-95. Since this would not take us far from the population IQ mean, there would be little sacrifice of ecological validity, and it seems obvious that people under IQ 95 are less likely to de-blind themselves.

    • Eric Johnson

      Viola, it has indeed been studied. But the controversy continues:

      Quitkin et al. (2000) assert that, in their analyses, the placebo response rate in studies using active placebos is similar to that using inert sugar pills (viz., about 30%). In contrast, Moncrieff and colleagues (2002) conducted a meta-analysis of available antidepressant trials using active placebos and found that the difference between antidepressants and active placebo was negligible, and was much smaller than in trials using inert placebos. Furthermore, unblinding still could not be ruled out entirely in the active placebo trials because of methodological limitations.

      I haven’t read that many meta-analyses on any subject, but I will say that I haven’t seen meta-analysts comment very much about just what proportion of the analyzed literature they had examined prior to devising their inclusion criteria for the meta-analysis. This is relevant in obvious ways to the question of the objectivity of such meta-analyses. Of course if they are experts in the field they might have read a lot of that literature long before, over years or decades, and be rather aware of what sort of study design features correlate with certain results.

  • Eric Johnson

    The controversy over the eligibility of this athlete with congenitally defective lower legs is interesting re sports enhancements. Though he would doubtless be pretty fast on natural legs, his artificial legs seem rather likely to be better than the real thing.

  • Rafal Smigrodzki

    “how surprisingly stupid are the mid IQ”

    Can you blog some on that, or maybe link to Gottfredson’s talk, if available? This could shed some light on the practical meaning of IQ not just as a way of expressing relative ranking but rather in the context of absolute performance at tasks that a high-IQ person may deem important.

    • Douglas Knight

      I think the standard survey by Gottfredson is “Why g matters” but that might not be the most direct answer.

      • Noumenon

        Thanks for the link anyway.

        I wanted to hear more about the stupidity of the medium IQ too.

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  • – da best. Keep it going!