David Brooks and Twelve Friends Agree: IQ is Passé

Steve Sailer is having some good fun with the latest regurgitation of the old "let’s move beyond IQ, already" bromide, as presently punctuated in David Brooks’ strawman-surfeited NYT op-ed, "The Waning of IQ."  I don’t have much to add, except to note that Brooks’  bizarro-world pronouncements are emblematic of a certain brand of left-handed elitism that finds purchase in the bobo-inhabited cloisters of metropolitical cocktail culture.  To put a finer point on it, Brooks can be dismissive of cognitive ability because he doesn’t hang out with dullards.

This points up a central if oft-overlooked insight of The Bell Curve. It’s stated right at the outset, where Murray and Herrnstein use an apposite thought experiment to illustrate the culture-perpetuating mechanics of cognitive stratification.  Remember the "dozen closest friends" exercise? Addressing their "preposterously unlikely" readership,  Murray and Herrnstein wrote:

Think of your twelve closest friends or colleagues.  For most readers of this book, the large majority will be college graduates.  Does it surprise you to learn that the odds of having even half of them be college graduates are only six in a thousand, if people were randomly paired off?  Many of you will not think it odd that half or more of the dozen have advanced degrees.  But the odds against finding such a result among a randomly chosen group of twelve Americans are more than a million to one.  Are any of the dozen a graduate of Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, Cal Tech, MIT, Duke, Dartmouth, Cornell, Columbia, University of Chicago, or Brown?  The chances that even one is a graduate of those twelve schools is one in a thousand.  The chance of finding two among that group is one in fifty thousand.  The chance of finding four or more is less than one in a billion.


The point of the exercise … is is to encourage you to detach yourself momentarily from  the way the world looks to you from day to day and contemplate how extraordinarily different your circle of friends and acquaintances is  from  what would be the norm in a perfectly fluid society.  This profound isolation from other parts of the IQ distribution probably dulls our awareness of how unrepresentative our circle actually is.

Thus David Brooks, who once penned a bravely evenhanded review of The Bell Curve, can unselfconsciously knock off  a howler like:

If people at Harvard are moving beyond general intelligence, you know something big is happening.

Yes, something big indeed. In David Brooks’ narrow sliver of reality. Which is all that matters.

I once stumbled onto a dirt-level version of the "twelve friends" exercise, which I have since come to refer to as the "piano test."  It began when my then-girlfriend-now-wife proffered an innocuous observation:  "Isn’t it funny," she said, "how everyone has a piano in their house but no one ever plays them?"  I must have worn a poisonously quizzical expression when I turned to her her and replied, "what the fuck are you talking about? I don’t know anyone who owns a piano."

This wasn’t entirely true, of course.  Most of her family members did indeed have mostly pianos on display in their home environs, and I knew them.  But no one in my family did. Nor, when I reflected on the matter, did any of my close friends growing up.  As I pondered this curious gulf in our respective referential experiences, I realized that the very thought of owning a piano struck me as odd.   

But my lineage isn’t far removed from the Scotch-Irish sludge that pretty much defines the demographic character of central Appalachia.   Growing up, I traveled in overlapping circles of rednecks, skatepunks, and self-styled misfits, whose homes were generally more likely to be strewn with dogeared Stephen King paperbacks and Thomas Kincade reproductions than anything resembling a piano. After I barely graduated from high school, I barely made it into a low-rung state college.  If we went out to eat when I was a kid, we went to Shoney’s.  That’s the way it was. The way my reality was colored.

My wife’s experience was different.  Her genetic stock boasted close ties to Eastern European Jewry and Methodist-bred WASPdom, with academic signposts on all sides.   Her friends were honor students who went to semi-prestigious schools, as did she. And her friends’ families, naturally, owned pianos.  That’s the way it was. The way her reality was colored. We met in the shadowy intersection of a venn diagram. It must have been fate.

Straddling both worlds provides a sobering vantage from which to discern the self-delusional habits of thought and opinion that serve to cultivate and ultimately entrench a casual Lake Wobegon worldview.  Nowadays, when dinner conversation with the extended family  turns to matters of education or "social justice" or the dread subject of race, my silence is practiced and frankly well-advised.   

Part of Brooks’ latest pitch surely traces to the same self-conscious humility that lay behind Stephen Jay Gould’s  success as a once-beknighted dispenser of middlebrow-marketed egalitarian-creationist palliatives. It’s easy enough to digest if your experience with the left side of the curve is limited to fragmented conversations with cab-drivers, Mexican maids, and dry-cleaning clerks. But part of Brooks’ problem, I am equally confident, is that most of his friends own pianos.

None of which would matter in the least were it not for the stubborn fact that these recurrent and predictable displays of easily sold wishful thinking serve merely to allay cognitive-elitist discomfiture. I suspect that Linda Gottfredson may be on to something crucial when she reports on the power of IQ to predict and explain trends in accidental injuries, mortal risk, and long-term health. Yet the humanitarian potential of her work will, in all probability, remain politely untapped.  And when Gregory Clark suggests that indigenous peoples throughout the world may be innately ill-suited to step up to their expected roles as rational agents under a Western-capitalist paradigm, his impolitic speculation may well be informed by practical concern.  But it’s another promising lead to be studiously avoided by David Brooks and most of his closest friends.

The beat goes on.  If our memory of Hurricane Katrina is tainted by just the right measure of media-facilitated rumor and myth, we can avoid thinking the unthinkable. Until the next seismic reminder comes along, the lessons you might have derived are safely predefined as gauche. Like talk of iodine deficiency in third world countries.  Nothing to be done.  But so what.  David Brooks is an important opinion-maker, and he says IQ is passé.

Best to move on, then. A colleague has been raving about that new Ghanan restaurant on Lexington.  The lunch crowd is a beast, but it’s worth the wait.  Perhaps a reservation for twelve will keep the goblins at bay.

UPDATE:  If you’re looking for an informed  analysis of Brooks’ op-ed, Gene Expression  has the goods.