Most of his readers will not object on scientific grounds

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2021

Scott Alexander reviews Fredrik deBoer’s The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice:

I’m Freddie’s ideological enemy, which means I have to respect him. And there’s a lot to like about this book. I think its two major theses — that intelligence is mostly innate, and that this is incompatible with equating it to human value — are true, important, and poorly appreciated by the general population. I tried to make a somewhat similar argument in my Parable Of The Talents, which DeBoer graciously quotes in his introduction. Some of the book’s peripheral theses — that a lot of education science is based on fraud, that US schools are not declining in quality, etc – are also true, fascinating, and worth spreading. Overall, I think this book does more good than harm.

It’s also rambling, self-contradictory in places, and contains a lot of arguments I think are misguided or bizarre.


Remember, one of the theses of this book is that individual differences in intelligence are mostly genetic. But DeBoer spends only a little time citing the studies that prove this is true. He (correctly) decides that most of his readers will object not on the scientific ground that they haven’t seen enough studies, but on the moral ground that this seems to challenge the basic equality of humankind. He (correctly) points out that this is balderdash, that innate differences in intelligence don’t imply differences in moral value, any more than innate differences in height or athletic ability or anything like that imply differences in moral value. His goal is not just to convince you about the science, but to convince you that you can believe the science and still be an okay person who respects everyone and wants them to be happy.

He could have written a chapter about race that reinforced this message. He could have reviewed studies about whether racial differences in intelligence are genetic or environmental, come to some conclusion or not, but emphasized that it doesn’t matter, and even if it’s 100% genetic it has no bearing at all on the need for racial equality and racial justice, that one race having a slightly higher IQ than another doesn’t make them “superior” any more than Pygmies’ genetic short stature makes them “inferior”.

Instead he — well, I’m not really sure what he’s doing. He starts by says racial differences must be environmental. Then he says that studies have shown that racial IQ gaps are not due to differences in income/poverty, because the gaps remain even after controlling for these. But, he says, there could be other environmental factors aside from poverty that cause racial IQ gaps. After tossing out some possibilities, he concludes that he doesn’t really need to be able to identify a plausible mechanism, because “white supremacy touches on so many aspects of American life that it’s irresponsible to believe we have adequately controlled for it”, no matter how many studies we do or how many confounders we eliminate. His argument, as far as I can tell, is that it’s always possible that racial IQ differences are environmental, therefore they must be environmental. Then he goes on to, at great length, denounce as loathsome and villainous anyone who might suspect these gaps of being genetic. Such people are “noxious”, “bigoted”, “ugly”, “pseudoscientific” “bad people” who peddle “propaganda” to “advance their racist and sexist agenda”. (But tell us what you really think!)


He acknowledges the existence of expert scientists who believe the differences are genetic (he names Linda Gottfredson in particular), but only to condemn them as morally flawed for asserting this.

But this is exactly the worldview he is, at this very moment, trying to write a book arguing against! His thesis is that mainstream voices say there can’t be genetic differences in intelligence among individuals, because that would make some people fundamentally inferior to others, which is morally repugnant — but those voices are wrong, because differences in intelligence don’t affect moral equality. Then he adds that mainstream voices say there can’t be genetic differences in intelligence among ethnic groups, because that would make some groups fundamentally inferior to others, which is morally repugnant — and those voices are right; we must deny the differences lest we accept the morally repugnant thing.


  1. Kirk says:

    The real question would be whether or not the thing we define as “intelligence” is really what we think it is.

    I’ve gone on record here arguing that the testing we do has almost irretrievably distorted the discussion, and an awful lot of our culture. As they say, “the map is not the territory”, and I would argue that there’s a corollary to be found in the statement that “the test is not the quality of intelligence”.

    The thing we’re actually looking at, with regards to all of this, is the question of adaptation. How well are various genetically-distinct sub-populations adapted to the conditions endemic to modern “civilization”? I’d argue that the reality isn’t that the black kid who doesn’t do well in a traditional educational setting is “less intelligent”, but that he or she is “less adapted” to that environment. Those kids may not do well with the same material and technique used effectively to teach Ashkenazic Jews their lessons, but there are probably other paths to learning that they would do well with–And, which would be entirely unsuited to the Ashkenazic Jewish populations.

    Same thing with the issues relating to our sexual dimorphism–Little girls do better in settings where they’re sitting around doing fussy little “just-so” work, and little boys go stir-crazy in the same ones. The reasons? Men and women are different. Duh. Same with the things we look at with regards to the “races”. The issue isn’t one of virtue, but of adaptation–While it is true that a blind person would do better in an environment which was entirely intended for and designed around their blindness, they may certainly adapt to one intended for the majority sighted population. Provided that they’re taught and given the tools necessary to do that…

    It ain’t virtue, this thing we think we measure with IQ testing. I’ve run into too many people who tested “smart”, and performed “really, really dumb” for me to really believe that. We’ve built everything around those things that are easily measurable with testing, and ignored the fact that there are a lot of things which are not particularly amenable to testing–Like, common sense and wisdom.

    The stereotypes aren’t entirely wrong, either–Blacks are observably a lot more “common-sensical” than their white peers. You will never, ever catch a black person doing half the high-octane stupidity that you will a white individual, and what you see in comedy is, to a degree, quite true. Put a black person into a situation where there is something completely out of context and supernatural, they’re going to respond with common sense and get the hell out of the house. Only a white person is going to stop to try to analyze the issue and figure things out, which may well get their asses killed. Same thing in interpersonal relations–If someone perceived as “dangerous” tells your average normal black person that they’re going to kill them, then that black person usually responds rationally by either getting out of that situation or killing the “dangerous” person without hesitation. White dumbassery? Usually results in trying to reason with said “dangerous” personage or not taking them seriously.

    It’s stereotypical as hell, but like all stereotypes, there’s a grain of truth beneath it all. Whites tend to over-intellectualize, and blacks react better to environmental cues than idiot whites will. Been there, done that personally–My “threat” instincts are observably utter shiite in the urban environment, and a black friend of mine who I was with at the time I’m thinking of was instantaneously aware of the risk we were in, that I was utterly oblivious to. “Man, those guys are getting ready to rob your dumb ass… Get the hell out of here…”. I had seen the same guys, but their body language and so forth did not ring any alarm bells for me, not being someone who grew up in the city.

    Of course, that same black friend of mine nearly got himself killed visiting a farm and trying to interact with a bull, soooo…

    It’s all a question of adaptation. Some circumstances play to certain genetic traits which give advantage to their owners, and some are actually deleterious to their survival. There’s no particular virtue to any of it, and you really need a full spectrum of human potential to do well in all circumstances. I’m really good at the crap that many hold out as “signs of superior intelligence”, but I’m also fully aware that outside a classroom or academic setting, that really means jack and shit. Dump my ass into the Amazon jungle naked, and I’m probably dead meat within hours, while a Jivaro tribesman who couldn’t read or write might survive comfortably until their death by natural causes…

  2. Gavin Longmuir says:

    After tossing out some possibilities, he concludes that he doesn’t really need to be able to identify a plausible mechanism, because “white supremacy touches on so many aspects of American life that it’s irresponsible to believe we have adequately controlled for it”

    Where do I sign up for this “white supremacy” stuff I keep hearing about? Can I still get “white supremacy” benefits if my parents were Irish?

    Our societies are facing some very real, possibly insuperable, problems. Instead of focusing on dealing with those problems in an intelligent manner, the Best & Brightest waste everyone’s time with nonsense about “white supremacy”, “Covid”, “Climate Change”. Oh well! Darwin wins in the end.

  3. Goober says:

    The “out of Africa” diaspora began something like 4,200 generations ago, leading to human beings populating nearly the entire surface of the planet, eventually, spending hundreds, and even thousands, of generations under such a vast variety of conditions, operating under a similarly vast variety of evolutionary pressures, that anyone espousing the belief that the only differences between the races is skin color is just…

    …completely misled.

    You cannot tell me that the only thing that changed between an Eskimo in the frozen tundra, and a person living in Sub-Saharan Africa, is the melanin content of their skin.

    The fact that saying something like that inevitably leads to accusations of placing moral and ethical judgment on someone for having those differences is just a sad product of our inability to accept that different does not mean better/worse.

    It’s the same as discussing the differences in men and women. You just can’t, even though the differences indisputably exist.

  4. Sam J. says:

    You can not read about the Minnesota twins study of identical twins raised apart and then compared without believing that a large part of our behavior, intelligence, etc is genetic. The similarities between people raised totally apart is so similar as to be freakish. It’s mind bending.

    As for “the test is not the quality of intelligence”.

    This is true and not true. There are different types of intelligences. These teats are not going away though because they are the cheapest, fastest way to generally, on average tell the performance and capability of different people at a really low cost.

    Just because they score high doesn’t mean they are all that but it does mean. on average, they have the potential to if they apply themselves.

  5. Altitude Zero says:

    Even if he actually thinks that at least some of the racial differences in average intelligence are genetic (which, since he isn’t an idiot, he probably does), deBoer couldn’t admit it, because his book would immediately be branded as “White Supremacist”, and he would lose his publisher, his social standing, and possibly his job. So he really has no choice; one would think that Scott Alexander, of all people, would understand this. At any rate, I’d be willing to bet that if you kidnapped Freddie, pumped him full of sodium pentothal, and ask him what percentage of the difference is genetic, he’d say at least 50%.

  6. Lucklucky says:

    Why are so many children of significantly accomplished persons and geniuses incapable of achieving the same level as their parents?

    “doesn’t make them ‘superior’”

    I know this part was in relation to IQ. I don’t care much about IQ. I think it has a strong bias. Present an IQ test to a highly intelligent Roman and he would do poorly, and in the end IQ measures IQ.

    The “superior” thing problem is not that someone is superior to another person. It is that the “superior” person thinks he is free by reason of his superiority to do almost anything to the “inferior” one. It is same problem with vast electoral majorities, political coups, and vast economical power. Those people automatically feel entitled to force others to follow them.

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