Wisdom of the Ancients, Redux

The authors of the paper on Victorian intelligence have seen my critique and kindly replied.

HBD Chick has already addressed their response from pretty much the same perspective I will, but just to make it official…

I originally complained that Galton’s Victorian sample was more elite than the modern day samples in the study, and so could be expected to have higher IQ by selection bias alone. The authors counter that Galton broke his sample down into demographic subcategories, and each of those subcategories does better than the corresponding subcategory today – therefore, demographic differences are not responsible for the IQ difference.

HBD Chick pointed out, correctly, that the similarly-named categories hide some big differences. For example, Silverman directly compares Galton’s Victorian students (presumably college students, since we’re talking age 18 – 30) to 1940s college students. While both groups are college students, one is more elite than the other: according to National Center For Education Statistics, the percent of Americans with bachelors’ degrees rose from about 2% in 1900 to about 10% in the 1940s. If England was similar, and if college is pretty meritocratic, then the 1880 student sample was drawing form about the smartest 2% of people, and the 1940s student sample from about the top 10% of people.

The other comparison the authors brought up was Anger’s 1993 sample of “220 postal, hospital and insurance workers from three different US cities”, which they compared to Galton’s Clerical/Semi-Skilled and Semi-Professional groups and found that, even matched job for job, the Victorians did a bit better. This is good work, but I am still skeptical for two reasons.

First, in a society with a large underclass, the middle-class will be comparably elite. Suppose that we took the least productive 90% of people in 2013 America and put them in those power-generating pods from the Matrix. We still need postal workers, but now the postal workers are coming from what was previously the top 10% of the population – maybe people who would have been college professors in the old system. But the Victorians had a comparably larger underclass (small farmers and factory workers) and a comparably smaller middle class than we do. Therefore, we would expect Victorians with a standard middle class occupation to be drawn from more elite segments of the population than a comparable modern with the same occupation.

Second, Galton’s sample was still self-selected from people who came to a science museum in an elite city and paid him money! I propose that the average postman you will find buying science-related merchandise in the gift-shop of the Exploratorium in San Francisco will be smarter than the average postman drawn randomly from the distribution of postmen!

So although I appreciate the authors’ time and politeness in responding to me, I am still skeptical of their findings.

Let me move to one other point that many of my commenters protested. In the original article, I said:

All the theory here sort of checks out, except for the part where they say IQ changed 15 points in a hundred years, which is just a little bit faster than any responsible person expects evolution to progress. People critique the idea that Ashkenazi Jews could have shifted fifteen points in nine hundred years on the grounds that it’s too fast.

Many people correctly noted that it’s a lot harder to evolve a complex feature in the first place than it is to break one, and therefore my comparison was invalid. I actually considered this when writing the original post, but decided to leave it in. Here’s why.

In a normally distributed trait like IQ, over a short period like nine hundred years most of the action isn’t going to come from de novo mutations. It’s going to come from people on one side of the bell curve out-reproducing their peers on the other. This can happen just as quickly for smartening up as it can for dumbing down.

A commenter writes:

The sheer 15 point drop made me go ‘nope’ right away. If I remember Lynn right we should be losing about one IQ point per generation of our genetic potential in the West, two thirds of that due to mass immigration which wasn’t a big factor for Britain before the late 70s. The dysgenic drop can’t be more than about 3 points.

These seem like much more reasonable numbers. They also seem like a good reason not to worry about dysgenics ever again. How many more centuries do we have in which natural selection is going to be the main force shaping our genome, as opposed to genetic engineering or transfer to nonbiological life? Maybe one, if you’re really pessimistic? Losing three IQ points before that time (most of which are probably instantly regained via Flynn Effect or some kind of low-budget intelligence amplification like the racetams) isn’t anything to lose much sleep over.

18 thoughts on “Wisdom of the Ancients, Redux

  1. Keller Scholl

    You refer to the elite of the victorian society as if it corresponds perfectly with the IQ-elite of the victorian society. In modern America, this wouldn’t be true, and I suspect that it was much less true in Galton’s age, where inherited wealth would still explain the vast majority of your personal wealth. So, they may have been the elite, but that doesn’t mean that they were the smartest.

    I agree with your conclusion, but this point troubled me.

  2. Scott Alexander Post author

    Agreed with the first part, not sure what you mean by the singularity opportunity cost.

  3. Scott Alexander Post author

    Totally happy to agree that even small IQ gains are super important.

    And if you want to institute some simple and ethical eugenics plan like the one I mentioned in my description of Raikoth – or just promoting the Nobel sperm bank better – I am totally in support of that.

    But if the argument is reversing the demographic transition, or even banning all foreign immigration (which may be a special case since it decreases average IQ without decreasing the number of high IQ people around for several generations until interbreeding is complete, and might even bring in new advantageous alleles ie hybrid vigor) – both of which are two of the most otherwise highest-utility policies there are, and both of which would require fundamental and very dangerous restructurings of society to complete – then I don’t think the gains from one or two IQ points are that high.

    And I also think that there are probably vastly, VASTLY easier way to get those gains – either by decreasing class inequality (which allows the geniuses in the lower class to realize their potential via Flynn Effect), Nobel sperm bank type projects, biologically-informed parenting like in that guide I wrote, or just intelligence amplification research. Anything complicated that involves fighting off Vast Formless Things should be number two hundred on the list.

    If that was the only way to stop total dysgenic collapse of society, that would be one thing. If we’re talking one IQ point, screw it.

  4. Oligopsony

    I love the thought of Reactionaries condemning the past for not engaging in high modernist social engineering enough. Welcome to the Cathedral, comrade. Refreshments are in the vestibule.

  5. Douglas Knight

    I think you are distracting from what I think is a more fundamental problem with the study. It is more difficult to determine if you can compare Victorian studies to modern studies than to determine whether you can compare modern studies to each other. But by focusing on the bigger discrepancy, you are implicitly endorsing the comparability of the modern studies.

    Here is the scatteplot of the studies against time. If you look at it, you see that what has increased over time is the range of scores. In 1900, the two studies yielded 200ms. Today, some studies yield 200ms and some yield 300ms. In 1950, with only 3 studies, the range was almost as big. I think the scatterplot is all you need to reject the ability to extract a secular trend.

    But if you think you can compare the results of the modern studies, you must conclude that Finns and Australians are much faster than Scots and Americans. I think that’s a crazy conclusion, but if you believe it, you can go replicate it. If consistent methodology fails to replicate this, then you can’t compare these scores and you can’t do the meta-analysis across space, let alone time. And we know that Finns and Australians are not dramatically smarter than Scots and Americans, so even if it turned out that Finns, Australians, and Victorians are super fast, that would be interesting, but wouldn’t tell us much about intelligence.

    Also, when Scott argued backwards that this showed that U of Chicago students in 1900 were 1sd above the population mean, he was implicitly excepting that the modern data is comparable across countries and thus that that Australians are faster than Scots.

    (Choice of countries: I haven’t looked at much of the data. As Scott says, the Scots and the Australians are the two big studies. The Scots scored about 300ms and the Australians about 200ms. The Finns were also about 200ms, but the meta-analysis claims that they have very small sample size and thus don’t really affect the regression. But I think they misreport the sample size, which is actually one of the large ones. The American size wasn’t as big, but it was the same team as did Glasgow, so that might be a good comparison.)

  6. Multiheaded

    Just a little nitpick for a start: back before the Fascists gave the word “eugenics” its current overtones… which powerful organization exerted the greatest influence against such presumably eugenic policies as easily available contraception, cheap and legal abortion, family planning propaganda and early sexual education?

    Hint: it got its way far more often in Victorian and Edwardian times. Hint: it was always considered a generally controlling and illiberal force, condemning “degeneracy” and cultural upheaval.

  7. Multiheaded

    My god, pure ideology! (“and sho on, and sho on”)

    Sigh. We did discuss this before on IRC; I made the argument that it’s fucking pointless to hurt common people for a slightly better chance of getting an Einstein when the low-hanging fruit is probably in ensuring that more bright people take the role of a Linus Torvalds instead of a Steve Jobs… a Keynes instead of a Warren Buffet… perhaps a Marie Curie instead of a Thatcher. I remember reading something on LW about how much American science is currently losing because all the bright young people go into parasitic “industries” like “law” and “finance”. We need a society that doesn’t waste the genius it already has, and then there’d be no point in rearranging populations to harvest more genetic rent.

    Rewarding poor/incompetent people for childlessness, though? I’m absolutely fine with that, and as long as it’s framed as a children’s rights issue, the “eugenics” scarecrow needn’t come into public debate. I have heard very few policy proposals along those lines which don’t simply sound like a dystopian Hollywood future and don’t bait populist backlash. Either you people consider the prospects of eugenic policies seriously, in which case you have to ALWAYS treat framing and connotations as a serious factor – or you’re talking about it to appear all radical and edgy, which does seem to be the case.

    1. Athrelon

      “the low-hanging fruit is probably in ensuring that more bright people take the role of a Linus Torvalds instead of a Steve Jobs… a Keynes instead of a Warren Buffet… perhaps a Marie Curie instead of a Thatcher.”

      You can believe this (I do, though translating this to policy is tough) and still think we should also be doing eugenics.

      1. Intrism

        Two solutions are being presented to you. One is low-cost, relatively simple, and relatively uncontroversial. The other would be expensive, difficult, prone to backlash, and historically both blood-soaked and entirely unsuccessful. You should be exploring the first long before the second, even if they might both be beneficial.

      2. Athrelon

        It’s not obvious that eugenics is the harder problem. Policy levers are pretty straightforward and although a full-on eugenic policy is taboo today, it’s quite possible to make anti-dysgenic policy moves on the margin. Research into embryo selection doesn’t even need political backing aside from playing the scientific funding game.

        By contrast, smart people choosing the “wrong” careers is fundamentally about status, and status is Hard(TM). You can make a small marginal impact by doing a Thiel 20 under 20 thing but that’s a tiny impact and not even clear that that has broader ripple. It certainly doesn’t reward “doing real science rather than chasing grants” which is the key feature of many of Multi’s heroes.

    2. Michael Vassar

      Funny, I agree with your point but think you choose the wrong exemplar in all three of your personal comparisons, both because you laude the smarter (by a LOT) figure AND because you laud the figure with far FAR smaller positive social impact..

      1. Multiheaded

        Smarter? Yeah, might be a mistake on my part. Positive impact? Citations needed, to me it seems that Jobs mostly built fancy toys that didn’t push the industry itself forward but rather just marketed it very well… Buffet got brushed aside with his open letter about his class being parasitical and a threat to American society while Keynes changed policy in major ways… Thatcher looks just straight-up destructive…
        (just for fun: http://samkriss.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/scenes-from-the-thatcher-funeral/)

    3. Nomophilos

      “We should solve this other problem instead” sounds like a Fully General Counterargument against nearly any improvement. Yes, you can almost always find some lower-hanging fruit, that doesn’t mean we can’t discuss whether a policy would be an improvement, no?

      And in this case, your “lower hanging fruit” doesn’t look easier to pick – “paying idiots to get sterilized” is more straightforward than “get smart kids to get into science instead of finance”.

    4. Multiheaded

      Thatcher? Gotta be fucking kidding me. From what I’ve heard from British bloggers: cultural devastation, homeless people on the streets, squandered the windfall of North Sea oil, “reformed” unprofitable industries by demolishing them wholesale (as the Chicago Boys helped do in 1990s Russia, so this is kinda personal for me)… Hell, Roger Scruton, an eminent British conservative/reactionary, called her a “vile woman”.

      I agree that Curie wasn’t all that exceptional. I linked Curie to Thatcher because she went from a good and positive-utility scientist/bureaucrat to a negative-utility politician, IMO.

    5. Multiheaded

      I suspect that object-level policy and ideology/propaganda are in practice always enmeshed in many weird ways, so you might be making a dangerous mistake by not accounting for ideological factors right at the drawing board.

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