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21.11.07

A Note In Passing On The Race And Intelligence Debate

I haven't had time to read any of the conservative columnists who have recently claimed that science proves black people are stupider than white people. But I have encountered a number of my usual reads denouncing these columnists and their conclusions. I noticed an interesting aspect to their denunciations: the cause of the columnists' error, insofar as one is asserted or hinted at, is portrayed as motivational bias. That is, while these columnists are not necessarily racist per se, it's also not exactly a negative influence on their lifestyle to decide that their race is smarter, so they like and want the conclusions they're coming to. Reaching for a motivational bias explanation is unsurprising given the framing of the columnists' argument, in which they seem to protest too much that they really wanted to come to the opposite conclusion and they explicitly make the motivational bias accusation against liberals who hold that there are no racial intelligence differences. Motivational bias is also an easy explanation because that's just what racism is from a mainstream perspective. What's not raised as a possible explanation is interpretational bias. What I mean is the tendency to take one's own culture as an obvious universal norm, and therefore to see people from other cultures as coming up short (a tendency that is stronger for people in dominant groups, since that dominance means they are less likely to encounter a situation where they're forced to question those assumptions). I find the comparative inattention to interpretational bias curious since the most common anti-racist attack on intelligence testing is that the tests assume certain norms and background knowledge that make sense for middle-class whites, but which can't be assumed -- and therefore lead to poorer test performance -- on the part of people from other backgrounds.

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