Monday, July 29, 2013

China not squeamish about IQ

After being identified early as a science prodigy, Zhao raced through China’s special programs for gifted students and won a spot in Renmin, one of the country’s most elite high schools. Then, to the shock of his friends and family, he decided to drop out when he was 17. Now, at 21, he oversees his own research project at BGI Shenzhen—the country’s top biotech institute and home to the world’s most powerful cluster of DNA-sequencing machines—where he commands a multimillion-dollar research budget.

Zhao’s goal is to use those machines to examine the genetic underpinnings of genius like his own. He wants nothing less than to crack the code for intelligence by studying the genomes of thousands of prodigies, not just from China but around the world. He and his collaborators, a transnational group of intelligence researchers, fully expect they will succeed in identifying a genetic basis for IQ. They also expect that within a decade their research will be used to screen embryos during in vitro fertilization, boosting the IQ of unborn children by up to 20 points. In theory, that’s the difference between a kid who struggles through high school and one who sails into college.

Some people are smarter than others. It seems like a straightforward truth, and one that should lend itself to scientific investigation. But those who try to study intelligence, at least in the West, find themselves lost in a political minefield. To be sure, not all intelligence research is controversial: If you study cognitive development in toddlers, or the mental decline associated with Alzheimer’s disease, “that’s treated as just normal science,” says Douglas Detterman, founding editor of Intelligence, a leading journal in the field. The trouble starts whenever the heritability of intelligence is discussed, or when intelligence is compared between genders, socioeconomic classes, or—most explosively—racial groupings.

Since the 1990s, when a book called The Bell Curve (coauthored by a psychologist and a political scientist) waded into this last morass, attempts to quantify or even study intelligence have become deeply unfashionable. Dozens of popular books by nonexperts have filled the void, many claiming that IQ—which after more than a century remains the dominant metric for intelligence—predicts nothing important or that intelligence is simply too complex and subtle to be measured.

For the most part, an IQ test—the most common of which today is called the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale—is a series of brainteasers. You fit abstract shapes together, translate codes using a key, sort numbers or letters into ascending order in your mind. It’s a weirdly playful exercise, the sort of test you would expect to have no bearing on anything else. But studies make it clear that IQ is strongly correlated with the ability to solve all sorts of abstract problems, whether they involve language, math, or visual patterns. The frightening upshot is that IQ remains by far the most powerful predictor of the life outcomes that people care most about in the modern world. Tell me your IQ and I can make a decently accurate prediction of your occupational attainment, how many kids you’ll have, your chances of being arrested for a crime, even how long you’ll live.

Critics claim that these correlations are misleading, that those life outcomes have more to do with culture and environmental circumstances than with innate intellectual ability. And even IQ researchers are far from in agreement about whether scores can be validly compared between groups of people—men and women, blacks and whites—who experience very different environments even within the same country. Variations within groups are often greater than the variations between them, making it impossible to draw conclusions about someone based on their group.

But on an individual level, the evidence points toward a strong genetic component in IQ. Based on studies of twins, siblings, and adoption, contemporary estimates put the heritability of IQ at 50 to 80 percent, and recent studies that measure the genetic similarity of unrelated people seem to have pushed the estimate to the high end of that range.

This is an idea that makes us incredibly uncomfortable. “People don’t like to talk about IQ, because it undermines their notion of equality,” Detterman says. “We think every person is equal to every other, and we like to take credit for our own accomplishments. You are where you are because you worked hard.” The very idea of the American dream is undermined by the notion that some people might be born more likely to succeed. Even if we accept that intelligence is heritable, any effort to improve or even understand the inheritance process strikes us as distasteful, even ghoulish, suggesting the rise of designer superbabies. And given the fallout that sometimes results when academics talk about intelligence as a quantifiable concept—such as the case of Harvard president Lawrence Summers, who in 2006 resigned after suggesting that science is male-dominated due not to discrimination but to a shortage of high-IQ women—it’s no surprise that IQ research is not a popular subject these days at Western universities.

But in his lab at BGI, 21-year-old Zhao has no such squeamishness. He waves it away as “irrational,” making a comparison with height: “Some people are tall and some are short,” he says. Three years into the project, a team of four geneticists is crunching an initial batch of 2,000 DNA samples from high-IQ subjects, searching for where their genomes differ from the norm. Soon Zhao plans to get thousands more through Renmin—his former high school—as well as from other sources around the world. He believes that intelligence has a genetic recipe and that given enough samples—and enough time—his team will find it.

Ask Zhao what draws him to IQ as a research subject and invariably he talks about the mysteries of the brain. He’s driven by a fascination with kids who are born smart; he wants to know what makes them—and by extension, himself—the way they are. But there’s also a basic pragmatism at work. By way of explanation, he points to the International Mathematical Olympiad, a tough competition that has helped define China’s approach to math. Two-thirds of students train for it, he says, and its judgment of the talent is so respected that for years high scorers were allowed to skip gaokao, the traditional college entrance exam. But only a tiny fraction of people have the mathematical gifts to be competitive, Zhao says, and this basically comes down to IQ. “You cannot ask a kid with low IQ to just work hard and then become a really talented mathematician,” he says. “It’s impossible.” And yet, Zhao says, that’s what is currently expected in China. He wants to stop the vast majority of Chinese students from wasting their time.

Three years after arriving at BGI, Zhao’s messy mop of hair is gone, replaced by a dark shadow across his shaved scalp. His project, meanwhile, has grown up along with him. Just a week before my visit, thousands of DNA samples arrived at the institute, each containing the genome of a person with extraordinarily high IQ. They were collected from volunteers around the world by Robert Plomin, a behavioral geneticist at King’s College London who is now one of the project’s main collaborators. Once these samples are processed, BGI’s battery of DNA sequencers will decode them.



Corruption:  Costco backs Obama, Obama touts Costco

If you’re a millionaire corporate bigwig using your wealth to influence elections, and using your company’s clout to influence legislation, President Obama might give you a tongue-lashing.

Unless you’re a fundraiser and donor for the Obama Victory Fund, and your company’s lobbying agenda coincides with the White House’s — then Obama will give you a shout-out in a major economic address.

In his nationally televised speech Wednesday, Obama sang the praises of retail giant Costco, whose founder Jim Sinegal gave Obama the maximum contribution in two elections and hosted fundraisers for his reelection. Costco has also lobbied for many of Obama’s legislative priorities, including higher minimum wage, Obamacare, and price controls on financial processing fees.

Given the company’s politics and tendency to seek profit through big government, Costco stands out as a model of Obamanomics. The money trail and the free advertising also give off a whiff of cronyism.

Sinegal contributed the maximum $35,800 to the Obama Victory Fund last year and also held a $35,800-a-plate fundraiser for Obama. In the 2008 election, Sinegal gave $43,500 to the DNC (here and here), which is, in effect, a contribution to Obama. On top of that, the Costco founder gave the maximum $2,300 to Obama’s campaign. So that’s more than $80,000 personally to Obama. Add in $100,000 to Obama’s SuperPAC, Priorities USA, plus the $2 million the July 2012 fundraiser reportedly brought Obama, and you’ve got a healthy amount of support.

Obama’s gotten even more, though, from Sinegal and his company.

Sinegal lobbied for Obamacare in 2009. His company has supported a higher minimum wage. Both of these regulations impose proportionally greater costs on the company’s smaller competitors — and almost every competitor is smaller, because Costco is the nation’s No. 2 retailer behind only Wal-Mart. Sinegal also spoke in Obama’s favor at the 2012 convention.

Costco’s founder did all these favors for Obama over five years, and on Wednesday, Obama returned the favor:

"We’ll need our businesses, the best in the world, to pressure Congress to invest in our future, and set an example by providing decent wages and salaries to their own employees.  And I’ll highlight the ones that do just that – companies like Costco, which pays good wages and offers good benefits; or the Container Store, which prides itself on training its workers and on employee satisfaction – because these companies prove that this isn’t just good for their business, it’s good for America."

To recap: Raise $2 million for him, give his campaigns $180,000, lobby for his legislation, and the President will advertise for your store.



Zimmerman Backlash Continues Thanks to Media Misinformation

More than a week after George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the fatal shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin, the backlash against the verdict continues. President Obama spoke some undeniable truths when he noted that the African-American community’s intense reaction to the case must be seen in the context of a long, terrible history of racism. But there is another context too: that of an ideology-based, media-driven false narrative that has distorted a tragedy into a racist outrage.

This narrative has transformed Zimmerman, a man of racially mixed heritage that included white, Hispanic and black roots (a grandmother who helped raise him had an Afro-Peruvian father), into an honorary white male steeped in white privilege. It has cast him as a virulent racist even though he once had a black business partner, mentored African-American kids, lived in a neighborhood about 20 percent black, and participated in complaints about a white police lieutenant’s son getting away with beating a homeless black man.

This narrative has perpetuated the lie that Zimmerman’s history of calls to the police indicates obsessive racial paranoia. Thus, discussing the verdict on the PBS NewsHour, University of Connecticut professor and New Yorker contributor Jelani Cobb asserted that “Zimmerman had called the police 46 times in previous six years, only for African-Americans, only for African-American men.” Actually, prior to the call about Martin, only four of Zimmerman’s calls had to do with African-American men or teenage boys (and two of them were about individuals who Zimmerman thought matched the specific description of burglary suspects). Five involved complaints about whites, and one about two Hispanics and a white male; others were about such issues as a fire alarm going off, a reckless driver of unknown race, or an aggressive dog.

In this narrative, even Zimmerman’s concern for a black child—a 2011 call to report a young African-American boy walking unsupervised on a busy street, on which the police record notes, “compl[ainant] concerned for well-being”—has been twisted into crazed racism. Writing on the website of The New Republic, Stanford University law professor Richard Thompson Ford describes Zimmerman as “an edgy basket case” who called 911 about “the suspicious activities of a seven year old black boy.” This slander turns up in other left-of-center sources, such as

Accounts of the incident itself have also been wrapped in false narrative—including such egregious distortions as NBC’s edited audio of Zimmerman’s 911 call which made him appear to say that Martin was “up to no good” because “he looks black.” (In fact, Zimmerman explained that Martin was “walking around and looking about” in the rain, and mentioned his race—of which he initially seemed unsure—only in response to the dispatcher’s question.)

While this falsehood was retracted and cost several NBC employees their jobs, other fake facts still circulate unchecked: most notably, that Zimmerman disobeyed police orders not to follow Martin (or even, as Cobb and another guest asserted on the NewsHour, not to get out of his car). In fact, there was no such order. The dispatcher asked if Zimmerman was following the teenager; Zimmerman said yes, the dispatcher said, “We don’t need you to do that,” and Zimmerman replied, “Okay.” (Just before this, the dispatcher had made comments that could be construed as asking him to watch Martin, such as, “Just let us know if he does anything else.”)

No one except Zimmerman knows whether he continued to track Martin—or, as he claims, headed back to his truck only to have Martin confront him. No one but Zimmerman knows who initiated physical violence. Both eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence, including injuries to Zimmerman’s face and the back of his head, supported his claim that he was being battered when he fired the gun. It was certainly enough to create reasonable doubt. Yet accounts that deplore the verdict often completely fail to mention Zimmerman’s injuries. Thus, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson says only that an unarmed “skinny boy” could not have been a serious threat to “a healthy adult man who outweighs him by 50 pounds”—nearly doubling the actual 27-pound difference between Martin and Zimmerman and omitting the fact that Martin was four inches taller.

The false narrative also makes it axiomatic that a black man in Zimmerman’s shoes wouldn’t stand a chance—especially if he had shot someone white. Never mind examples to the contrary, such as a 2009 case in Rochester, New York in which a black man, Roderick Scott, shot and killed an unarmed white teenager and was acquitted. Scott, who had caught 17-year-old Christopher Cervini and two other boys breaking into a car, said that the boy charged him and he feared for his life. (While the analogy has been decried as false in a number of Internet discussions because Scott actually saw Cervini doing something illegal, this is irrelevant to the self-defense claim: stealing from a car does not call for execution.)

What about general patterns? In the New Republic article, Ford cites a report in the Tampa Bay Times showing that “stand your ground” self-defense claims in Florida are more successful for defendants who kill a black person (73 percent face no penalty, compared to 59 percent of those who kill a white person). But he leaves out a salient detail: since most homicides involve people of the same race, this also means more black defendants go free. Nor does he mention that another article based on the same study of “stand your ground” cases from 2005 to 2010 noted “no obvious bias” in the treatment of black defendants—or mixed-race homicides: “Four of the five blacks who killed a white went free; five of the six whites who killed a black went free.”

One Florida case has been widely cited as a contrast to the Zimmerman verdict and a shocking injustice: the case of Marissa Alexander, a black woman said to be serving twenty years in prison for a warning shot to scare off her violent estranged husband. But that’s not quite what happened. Alexander’s “stand your ground” claim was rejected because, after the altercation with ex-husband Rico Gray, she went to the garage, returned with a gun and fired a shot that Gray said narrowly missed his head (a claim backed by forensics). There is plenty of evidence that Gray was abusive, but Alexander was not the complete innocent her champions make her out to be: she also assaulted Gray, giving him a black eye, while out on bail for the shooting and under court orders to stay away from him. Her twenty-year sentence, required by a mandatory minimum for firearm offenses, was a travesty; her conviction was not.

Liberals and disenchanted conservatives who decry fact-free ideological narratives, true-believer hysteria and willful reality-denial on the right should take a good look at the left’s Zimmerman Derangement Syndrome.



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