The IQ Wars

The IQ wars are back: Practice Does Not Make Perfect

The IQ wars were a series of public exchanges involving academics, journalists and bloggers in the field of behavior psychology, human biology, and sociology that spanned from 2008 to 2013 between proponents of biological determinism (nature) lead by scientists Steven Pinker and Charles Murray and popular blogger Steve Sailer versus the proponents of nurture lead by best-selling authors Malcom Gladwell and Nicolas Nassim Taleb, as well as other liberals. The IQ wars centered around Malcom Gladwell’s 2008 bestseller Outliers that downplayed the role of IQ and innate talent in favor of ‘deliberate practice’ and Steven Pinker’s 2011 The Better Angels of Our Nature that argued that the world had become less violent.

Steven Pinker fired the first shot, eviscerating Outliers and Gladwell’s scholarship, or lack thereof, in a 2009 NY Times review:

The themes of the collection are a good way to characterize Gladwell himself: a minor genius who unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning and who occasionally blunders into spectacular failures.

Gladwell responded on his own website, choosing not to join Pinker on the ‘lonely ice floe of IQ fundamentalism’.

Bloggers Steve Sailer and molecular/cell biologist Steve Hsu, both well-known exponents of biological determinism, sided with Pinker – arguing in refutation to Gladwell that IQ doesn’t have a threshold of diminishing returns, is stable throughout life, is congenital instead of environmental, can be reliably tested, and is a statistically significant predictor of success at life.

In 2011, neo conservative turned neo liberal blogger Andrew Sullivan weighed in, siding with Pinker and proclaiming that research into IQ research had been strangled by ‘p.c. egalitarianism’.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a super liberal from the Atlantic, responded, putting words into Mr. Sullivan’s mouth and implying he condoned ‘racist’ science.

The IQ wars elevated the profile of Charles Murray, whose 2012 book Coming Apart, like his earlier books, posits that a combination of biology and culture are major contributing factors to today’s social problems and the growing ‘underclass’, arguing that wealth inequality is caused by the difficulties that the increasing complexities of modern life present to low IQ individuals.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb, an irascible liberal and ally of Malcom Gladwell, accused Pinker of falling for the fallacy of survivorship bias as well as other statistical oversights in his claim that the world had become less violent, as Pinker’s argument allegedly failed to account for ‘black swans’ such as nuclear war.

Taleb lost in the court of public opinion when it became apparent he hadn’t read Pinker’s book, and because his criticism may have been motivated by a personal vendetta against Pinker for attacking Gladwell’s Outliers and What the Dog Saw, not because Taleb’s argument held any intellectual merit that imperiled Pinker’s thesis.

In the aftermath of the IQ wars, Gladwell’s reputation as a hip ‘intellectual of sorts’ suffered, especially on high-IQ sites such as Reddit and 4chan whose smart users – already leery about Gladwell’s pithy, panglossian anecdotes about the virtues of deliberate practice – attacked Gladwell at every available opportunity. On Reddit and 4chan, while posts about Gladwell were met with universal destain and derision, posts about Murray and Pinker received universally effusive praise; however, Gladwell, by exploiting the credulity of his large fan base, would win the war in terms of speaking engagements and book sales. After all, a message that gives hope to the dullards who buy his books that they too can covet the skills of geniuses with just enough practice, is an appealing one.

Andrew Sullivan parted ways with The Atlantic, launching his own site and writing a few more precient articles about IQ.

Taleb, having gotten his butt handed to him by the HBD and finance community, would go on to make many more incensed, incoherent rants about ‘bankers’ and ‘risks’, while launching another book Anti Fragile, that like all his earlier books, repackages what actual statisticians and stock traders have known for decades as something novel and groundbreaking.

As evidenced by the flourishing discussion of HBD themes on sites such as Reddit and the mass realization of the inescapable reality of biological determinism in the hyper-competitive, winner-take-all post-2008 economy, maybe Gladwell is the one on the lonely ice floe of IQ denialism.