We Don’t Know Our Potential (Nathan J. Robinson essay)

Respect should be irreverent when evaluating the intellectual worthiness or lack thereof of someone’s argument. But I find myself relinquishing what little I had for Nathan J. Robinson of Current Affairs, who published this howler We Don’t Know Our Potential, in response to Fredrik deBoer’s book, The Cult of Smart.

His whole argument is effectively an argument from ignorance (argumentum ad ignorantiam or appeal to ignorance). Because it is impossible to know anyone’s potential, that therefore it is impossible to make positive claims about differences between innate human capacities for learning and abilities.

The examples he gives, such as about plants, human height etc., about environment are obviously so contrived as to not apply to anything encountered in the real world and of no relevant/pertinent explanatory power.

He writes:

Let’s take a particular closed environment: indoor plants. (I own no indoor plants. These are the hypothetical ones I would own if every plant I touched didn’t immediately die.) My baby cactus grows to one foot, my orchid grows to two feet. But maybe that was just those particular individuals. There will be variations if I get more. So I get lots more baby cacti of the same species. Lots more orchids, also of the same species. Always the same: one foot, two feet, give or take. I give them the same amount of water, the same amount of plant food, the same everything. Identical shared environments. One foot, two feet. The cactuses look weak. The orchids are thriving.

Now, I want to know whether the difference could be environmental in origin. So I vary the environmental influences: I change the amounts I water them, the amounts of plant food, the amounts of sunlight. But there are commonalities that persist across these environmental variations I try. I therefore conclude that the differences in height are heritable, thus genetic, and that the orchid is simply better suited to survival. A baby cactus cannot outgrow or outshine an orchid. They have a Nature.

But then I realize something: I have tried a number of environmental variations (more or less water) and concluded that they don’t matter. But these variations took place within a shared environment that was consistent across all of the experiments. I have not changed that shared underlying environment. What if I took them outside?

I take my plants outside. Something shocking happens. My orchid grows to the same height. My cactus now grows to the same height as my orchid! What?! Two feet, both plants, every time. It turns out my cactus loved having lots of sunshine, and my orchid had already topped out and didn’t benefit from any more sun. At a certain point, my orchid even wilts while my cactus endures. (It helped that I briefly forgot to water them, because as it turns out orchids and cacti require different amounts of watering). I bring a second baby cactus outside, totally forget to water it, and it grows to ten feet! Where will the damn thing stop?

What has happened to my theory? Two things: first, I have not lost the part of the theory that says biology has a role in determining plant height. Orchids and cacti do behave differently under the same circumstances, depending on those circumstances, and certain changes in circumstances will not alter that difference. What I have lost is the ability to look at the difference between the heights of the cactus and the orchid and say that the cactus is “predisposed” or “naturally” shorter than the orchid. If it is predisposition, it is predisposition given a particular shared environment; the background thing we have not varied. Actually, in a different and more conducive environment for the cactus—with the correct type of nourishment this time from its caretaker—the cactus was often taller than the orchid. It was a mistake of reasoning to conclude that orchids have an “innate” tendency to be taller than cacti. Only if you assume that the shared environment is unchangeable. And we can be misled by the fact that we did vary various environmental factors (water, food, etc) while missing that there was one big one that we were not varying.

His argument is premised on an intellectual sleight of hand on his part. It’s like saying, “What if we define 100 meters to be 4 feet, so that everyone can run a 100-meter race at roughly the pace.” Even if some people are innately faster at running 100 meters, by society changing its expectations or by changing definitions, such innate differences cannot manifest themselves and therefore it is as if they do not exist.

These examples, along with the fictitious ‘Sarah Slow’, do not prove what he thinks they do. Nor do they refute deBoer’s arguments either or invalidate IQ testing. They are just edge cases that are detached from any applicable understanding of reality. There is no human environmental-equivalent of exposing cacti to sunlight, without coming at the cost of lowering standards, that can rectify innate differences. Hence why these examples are of no applicability to the real world. Moreover, if Mr. Robinson’s thesis were correct, we would expect IQ tests to be a poor predictor of academic achievement. People who score low on IQ tests would perform well in school. Some do, but those are the exceptions; otherwise they are highly correlated. We would also expect different IQ test items to not correlate with each other. But they do, especially at the low-end of ability. Sarah Slow, who cannot do chemistry but excels at philosophy, would presumably have an average IQ at least, but perhaps weaker at analytical ability and stronger at verbal. If her IQ were low, she would likely have no strengths, either at chemistry or philosophy or anything else sufficiently g-loaded. It is a tough pill to swallow that IQ is so predictive at so many seemingly unrelated things, but it is.

Be cautious about those who make grandiose claims about genes and human behavior. Notice that frequently they don’t actually include any discussion of which genes are involved, because the person doesn’t know. They are just citing heritability statistics, which, similarly interpreted, would tell us dog ownership is genetic.

Like yourself? He also ignores that deBoer is not just talking about absolute gains in improvement, but also relative differences of individual ability, which will remain intact even if everyone improves. So under a hypothetical environment in which everyone can realize their full potential under perfect learning conditions and no racism etc. etc., individual differences will still remain.