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What do IQ differences really mean?

Posted by Josh Rothman  July 27, 2012 03:36 PM

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IQ is a continual source of controversy. It makes sense that we all have different IQ scores -- but it’s hard to know what to think about statistics which show differences in IQ between whole nations or ethnicities. Are those differences in IQ innate, perhaps driven by genetics? Or do they depend on other factors, like wealth or education? In a new essay in The American Conservative, “”Race, IQ, and Wealth,” Ron Unz, the magazine’s publisher, pores through the data in an attempt to discover “what the facts tell us about a taboo subject.” He comes to surprising conclusions.


Francis Galton, originator, troublingly, of both psychometrics and eugenics.

Unz draws on a huge, global dataset of scores created by two eminent IQ scholars, Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen, for their controversial 2001 book “IQ and the Wealth of Nations.” Their dataset showed that IQ was heavily correlated with per-capita GDP. The authors used it to argue that the distribution of wealth around the world was driven by the distribution of intelligence, which was in turn genetically determined.

Now, in this new essay, Unz takes a careful look at the very same data -- and, in a surprising twist, comes to exactly the opposite conclusion. Though their book has long been touted by those who believe that IQ is genetically determined, in fact, Unz says, the numbers are actually “a game-ending own-goal”; they show that population-wide variations in scores are “overwhelmingly due to cultural or socio-economic factors.”

The IQ data, Unz explains, is broken up by country: It shows, for example, that there’s been a historical IQ gap between test-takers in Austria and test-takers in Croatia. But Austrians and Croatians are almost genetically identical -- which means that genetics simply can’t explain the 12-point difference in scores. That pattern is repeated around the globe.

Genetics also can’t explain why IQ scores change so much when people migrate. For many immigrant groups, Unz says, the data shows a substantial rise in IQ after a group immigrates to the United States. For decades, people opposed to immigration have alluded to the low IQ scores of new immigrants, sometimes citing the Lynn and Vanhanen data. And yet a careful look at the data shows that whatever gaps there are are quickly closed -- often within a single generation.

How is it that a population’s average IQ score can change so quickly? Urbanization, Unz thinks, is a big factor: The data shows a meaningful gap between urban and rural test-takers, both here and around the world. It’s not that city dwellers are smarter, strictly speaking, he argues; instead, GDP-generating city life might prime us for “the strongly abstract and analytical thinking required on an IQ test.”

What remains, Unz writes, is “a mystery arguably greater than that of IQ itself”: How did people on both sides miss the real meaning of Lynn and Vanhanen’s data? Maybe, he writes, no one bothered to look. “Pro-racialists” felt vindicated by the book, and skipped the numbers. And their opponents skipped them too -- “fearful lest the vast quantity of data within prove that the racialist analysis [was] factually correct after all.” If you're at all interested in this subject, you owe it to yourself to read more at The American Conservative.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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