Monday, March 6, 2017

Unintended consequences of SAT (IQ) testing

Two observations from different sources spark a thought.

Citation 1: A Note to Alums of Middlebury College from Maggie's Farm. Citing another writer, a former professor at Middlebury who left there in the 1970s. Emphasis added.
I remember two salient traits of the majority of students in those days. One was their extraordinary intellectual laziness and lack of curiosity, especially infuriating because so many were such intelligent kids. The other was their immense privilege. Shiny new BMWs filled the student parking lot, each fitted with racks holding the most technologically advanced skis for whizzing down the slopes.
Citation 2: The Bow-Tied Bard of Populism by McKay Coppins, an interview with TV personality, Tucker Carlson. Emphasis added.
“Look, it’s really simple,” Carlson says. “The SAT 50 years ago pulled a lot of smart people out of every little town in America and funneled them into a small number of elite institutions, where they married each other, had kids, and moved to an even smaller number of elite neighborhoods. We created the most effective meritocracy ever.”

“But the problem with the meritocracy,” he continues, is that it “leeches all the empathy out of your society … The second you think that all your good fortune is a product of your virtue, you become highly judgmental, lacking empathy, totally without self-awareness, arrogant, stupid—I mean all the stuff that our ruling class is.”

Carlson recounts, with some amusement, how he saw these attitudes surface in his neighbors’ response to Trump’s victory. He recalls receiving a text message on election night from a stunned Democratic friend declaring his intention to flee the country with his family. Carlson replied by asking if he could use their pool while they were gone.

“I mean people were, like, traumatized,” he says. And yet, in the months since then, “no one I know has learned anything. There’s been no moment of reflection … It’s just, ‘This is what happens when you let dumb people vote.’” Carlson finds this brand of snobbery particularly offensive: “Intelligence is not a moral category. That’s what I find a lot of people in my life assume. It’s not. God doesn’t care how smart you are, actually.”
We have had long period of meritocracy where high IQ has, on average driven higher status and to a lesser extent, higher income. I wonder about the objective truth of Carlson's observation but I suspect it is directionally correct: We have done a fantastic job, without considering the consequences, of identifying and segregating high IQ people. Not intentionally but in effect. I suspect that there is a corollary, that we have done a great job of funneling those of above average intelligence the 115-125ers, into government.

Possible outcomes to this process of identification via SATs (and ACTs) of the above average IQ, the funneling of those above average into specific types of universities and types of jobs, the segregation of those above average in cities in general and specific self-enclosed neighborhoods within those cities in particular, and ultimately the class isolation of those above average from the rest of their fellow citizens.

Possible Consequences
Loss of empathy
Loss of respect for fellow citizens
Loss of moral foundation - Meritocracy of the philosopher king sort begins to seem inherently natural and normative
Loss of human dimensionality - Cultivates the habit of measuring people solely on IQ rather than behavior, morality, innovation, accomplishments, etc.
Loss of intellectual curiosity - If sheltered with all other high IQs, then you lose awareness of human and life diversity and mystery
Loss of intellectual vitality - High IQ without curiosity leads to lost potential
Loss of economic dynamism - If all the smart people are no longer randomly distributed but are concentrated in a small number of locations, then the improvement potential in the remaining areas is degraded.
Loss of innovation - If high IQ are all living in bubbles of their own creation, what they believe can become unmoored from reality.
Loss of productivity - Who is more productive, the 125 IQ who remains in their hometown and becomes the bank manager or the one who leaves, gets a degree from an Ivy League and then joins the government writing well-intended regulations?
Fostering of totalitarian orientations - If you are smart, and everyone around you is smart, you likely have an inclination to regard "your" answers to the complexities of life as superior to everyone else's and it therefore makes sense for "your" answers to take precedence over the answers of others. I.e. you take the first steps towards a coercive technocracy and deny the equality of all citizens in the participation of shaping their future.
That's a mountain of inference on a couple of molehills of observation but I suspect there might be something to the train of thought.

UPDATE: Megan McArdle has a free-speech piece out today (3//6/17), Attention, Student Protesters: Use Your Words. One of the speakers violently attacked was Charles Murray, he of The Bell Curve; much maligned and maliciously misrepresented.

One of McArdle's commenters has a good comment and a reminder of a connection I had not made. Murray's The Bell Curve was subtitled Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. While there was a single brief chapter exploring the race aspect of IQ, the book was actually about the class issue and now that the commenter mentions it, I recall that much of what Murray was talking about, nearly a quarter of a century ago, sure looks like the substance of my post above: IQ identification, channelling, assortative mating, and segregation.

The comment from Realist50:
I read The Bell Curve - long ago, shortly after its release - and one of the things that stands out to me is how prescient it was (in 1994) in talking about the greater and greater separation of what it calls the "cognitive elite" from much of the rest of society. I don't remember the trend being discussed all that much at the time, though that trend - phrased far more often in socioeconomic terms than cognitive terms - has obviously been discussed a lot in more recent years.

The book combined several points - each citing research findings - to argue that broadly-defined "meritocracy" could result in a society that's a lot more stratified, and in many ways a lot less pleasant, than many people seem to think.

Suppose that intelligence is correlated with career and financial success in life.

Suppose that intelligence is to a large degree heritable. And it may not matter much if "heritable" means genetic or environmental, because it's probably not possible to manipulate early childhood environmental factors enough to change IQ meaningfully except via adoption.

Suppose that society over time has gotten better at identifying the cognitive elite and funneling them into elite universities and high-status jobs. Suppose also that these trends, including societal changes in the status of women, have led more and more to assortative mating among people of the same cognitive level (i.e., high or low).

Put that all together, and you get a cognitive elite that tends to persist across generations. In some real sense these people succeed because they most "deserve it". Furthermore, people being people, they'll also tend to organize society so that they and their children have additional advantages on top of their natural ones, and the "we deserve our success" rationale will help in justifying that process (perhaps especially to themselves.)

The flip side of all of these trends is a low cognitive ability underclass with similar persistence across generations.

There was also a portion of the book talking about racial differences in average cognitive abilities. My recollection is that the authors were careful to note that these differences aren't big enough that they should be regarded as useful in, for example, evaluating one individual job applicant, but that they do have implications for what outcomes will look like in society as a whole.

Some critics engaged with the book in a fair way, citing other research to critique some of the correlations cited or argue that research showed that these correlations could be the result of socioeconomic status rather than IQ.

But there are far more people like these students, and far too many professors, who don't know anything more about the book than to shout "OMG, that's racist."

It's very similar to what happened to Larry Summers when he diplomatically noted that on cognitive tests men and women have the same average intelligence but different distributions - basically, greater standard deviation for men, and therefore more men at both ends. There was an immediate uproar claiming that couldn't possibly be true. Why? Generally no particular reason given other than that it offended received wisdom. It seemed like the loudest critics were humanities professors who almost certainly had limited understanding of the relevant research and statistical analysis.

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