You have to read between the lines

A few years back, Henry Harpending  was giving a talk at the University of Michigan, and a prof there ( Richard Nisbett ) corralled him for a couple of hours, before the talk.

Nisbett  (who often argues in favor of the importance of  environmental influences on intelligence)  was interested in our paper (The Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence).  He thought we were probably right ( in that particular case).  Yet in public comments, he seemed to say that we were wrong. Henry mentioned a particular example criticizing NHAI,  and asked Nisbett why he’d written that, if he thought the opposite.  Nisbett said ” You have to read between the lines.”





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66 Responses to You have to read between the lines

  1. Jesse says:

    I hate this. It’s basically telling those of us who are curious but not brilliant that the truth isn’t for the likes of us. I have enough difficulty understanding the basics of this stuff without the people involved deliberately obfuscating.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Nisbett isn’t brilliant.

      • I don’t think that was Jesse’s point. Nisbett at least has some exposure to IQ&genetics story. I think Jesse meant that curious, but not very bright person WITHOUT good exposure to the area (e.g. working as mathematician or engineer) reading genetics-denying “scientific” papers might really think they are sound.

        • Jesse says:

          Thanks. That was my point. Gregory might be able to read between the lines but people like me need clear, concise and above all honest work in the topic.

    • albatross says:

      Yeah, I routinely read stuff far outside my expertise, and sometimes do so in a foreign language. Playing clever word games to hint at the truth while keeping the Inquisition off your trail makes it a lot harder to figure out what’s really being said.

  2. pyrrhus says:

    I think Nisbett meant that context is everything, in Academia as well as the real World.

  3. I think he meant that evasion is everything.

  4. erasmuse says:

    I think he meant that it wasn’t safe for him to praise the article, but he was smart enough to know it was good and carefully wrote his article so smart people would realize that.

    • Anonymous says:

      So smart people should read scholarly work and assume that the conclusion is actually the exact opposite of what is stated whenever it’s an issue that may be politically fraught? Seems like a very inefficient form of knowledge preservation.

    • albatross says:

      The Vox hit piece on Charles Murray was a bit like that. They spent so much time denouncing Charles Murray that almost nobody noticed that they’d agreed with almost every factual claim he’d made on his podcast with Sam Harris. Even when they disagreed with him, their position was still well outside the range of acceptable opinion. But hey, it was published in Vox and was slamming a known bad guy, so it must be okay.

  5. glenndc says:

    Who knows what Nisbett meant? Only Nisbett.. All we can say is that he contradicted prior private statements. The why is not an answerable question.

  6. owentt says:

    It’s not some kind of mystery. Nisbett has a soft and enjoyable job. He doesn’t want to risk it. And we all know that the people that don’t want to hear what Cochran and Harpending were discovering are very powerful and vindictive and unaccountable to the public and have no qualms about silencing anyone that displeases them.

    So if you want to discuss interesting work that angers the higher powers, you just have to make sure to denounce it in the course of the discussion. Then you can say what you want.

    • Boswald Bollocksworth says:

      The problem with the game Nisbett is playing is no one has time to read between the lines. Who here would have said yesterday, if asked to summarize Nisbett, that he likes to hide messages “between the lines?”. I’d have said “he knowingly spreads lies so he can be on TV”.

      It’s a have his cake and eat it too type ploy. I guess he tried to impress Harpending while keeping his masters happy. I get wanting to stay employed, that’s fine, but he doesn’t get any glory for this, no one donate if Nisbett tries to do a podcast fundraiser.

      • albatross says:

        This makes me think of the bit in Ben Franklin’s autobiography where he describes being converted to Deism by reading a big book of refutations of Deist arguments….

      • Young says:

        I think I have a tendency to read what I want to read when I read between the lines rather than what the author thought he would have me read when I read between the lines.

  7. magusjanus says:

    “The most influential thinker, in my life, has been the psychologist Richard Nisbett. He basically gave me my view of the world.” – Malcolm Gladwell


  8. Woof says:

    Saying that you are hiding things “between the lines” seems like a way of having your cake and eating it too. You are currently seen as a loyal obedient servant but if opinions change you can claim you were secretly disagreeing with whatever you seemed to have supported. France in 1944 was full of people who only appeared to support Petain and the Nazis by actively and enthusiastically collaborating. If you read between the lines they were really heroic members of the resistance, just ask them, they’d tell you.

  9. Frau Katze says:

    “You have to read between the lines.”

    Sounds like a great new idea for discussing science.

  10. Maciano says:

    Sounds like Nisbett shouldn’t be a scientist, but a lawyer.

    • Young says:

      I don’t think your ‘lawyer’ idea actually works. I have wondered if someone in law could write a Sokal hoax in a serious legal publication and get away with it for very long.

      I don’t think so unless, maybe, it were something in the ‘critical legal theory’ rubbish heap and even then it would likely be fairly clear to a professional without interlinear reading required.

      There are a lot of reasons why a legal Sokal hoax would have problems, but surely one is that practicing lawyers are looking for arguments that could withstand assault in court or, alternatively, for weaknesses in arguments that they intend to assault (or defend) Money is at stake and on the table.. It leads to more aggressive analysis than ordinary academic peer review.

      It is not a gentle and forgiving field. In fact, it is a profession in which it is kind of fun to tear other people apart.

      Bear in mind, though, that a lawyer’s goal in court is not really to prove something to a jury; the goal is to persuade them. Not really the same thing.

    • Young says:

      I would add that a legal brief should attempt to prove a position drawing on existing law and precedents. A brief is academic; a trial is performance. Both get close and unfriendly scrutiny.

  11. catte says:

    Straussian science.

  12. crew says:

    The world in interesting. When I mentioned that the people who win sprinting events are predominantly West African an Austrian I know claimed I was wrong and that they were predominantly Jamaican (and British).

    Magic dirt I guess.

    • epoch2013 says:

      See also the use of the word “Educational Attainment” in genetic papers. A dog whistle if I ever saw one.

      • gcochran9 says:

        It’s a stat that was available for participants in many genetic surveys: IQ scores are less often available.

        • crew says:

          Could educational attainment also be rated according to the difficulty of the subject.

          For example, I imagine that getting a PhD in Education is a lot easier than getting a PhD in math or science.

        • Doug says:

          Wordsum is a pretty easy and reliable proxy of IQ. GSS data miners have been using that one for years, and it seems as good if not better than educational attainment. Another possibility might be general knowledge, which is highly correlated with IQ. Ask people a few basic trivia questions: what century was the Franco-Prussian war, what’s the seventh planet, what’s the capital of Indonesia, etc.

      • sprfls says:

        Using EA really bugs me too — but as Cochran said, it’s what’s readily available, especially at the vast sample sizes needed. Though, if Piketty can get everyone’s anonymized tax returns for a study, why can’t we get the same for standardized test scores?

        The problem of course is EA isn’t only capturing IQ, but other stuff like Conscientiousness as well. And yeah, I think getting a PhD in a nonsense field is easier than graduating from a high school with a challenging course load.

        • Re: IQ and conscientiousness says:

          Is there any paper around regarding IQ, conscientiousness and what, if any, is the correlation between them?

          If we’re looking to improve life outcomes, since we can’t increase IQ for the time being, shouldn’t we be thinking of how to positively influence conscientiousness? My guess is that a smart student who is induced or forced to be diligent should do better in life than an equally smart student who wastes his time and brainpower learning and playing complex online games.

          • gcochran9 says:

            There was a Persian satrap who sold his justice. When the King’s Eyes caught him, they re-upholstered the satrapal throne with his skin, for his replacement to sit on.

            That probably boosted conscientiousness for a while.

        • To be fair, the large study by James Lee and colleagues looked at both cognitive ability and educational attainment. Others have done the same.

  13. MEH 0910 says:

    • Yudi says:

      It’d be nice if Cochran talked to Harmon directly, or let her post on this blog, instead of having these weird twitter/WH conversations.

  14. dearieme says:

    Is it better that a Nisbett privately admits to being a liar and a coward, or denies it?

    Better for whom?

    • albatross says:

      Almost certainly better for him.

      The shitty treatment Charles Murray has gotten from so many prominent people and so many activists has sent a really clear message, and presumably Nisbett, Pinker, Harden, etc. have gotten that message. The decision to lie about your beliefs, or at least to equivocate and shade the truth toward more politically acceptable views, is probably bad for society as a whole, but it’s also almost certainly good for the person doing it.

  15. Qasim says:

    This sort of selective dishonesty is by its nature not something that gets argued for in the general instance. (Is Nisbett generally dishonest? Generally wrong, selectively dishonest seems more likely). Do you think there are any countervailing reasons for ‘writing between the lines’? The idea that public doctrine should consist of unvarnished truth would be alien to most serious thinkers of past eras, few of whom would care about contemporary humanist pieties.

    • J says:

      Good point. In the past, it was universally understood that there had to be a public doctrine, palatable for the masses, and an esoteric truth accessible only to initiates. The nineteenth century Western openmindedness is running out of steam and knowledge feels the need to camouflage itself. Once more scientists started to communicate in some kind of Latin i.e. a language incomprehensible for the uncouth. That is the price thinking persons have to pay to live safely among surrounding garden-variety raging, violent lunatics.

  16. megabar says:

    There are at least two reasons why it’s difficult to be fully forthright on the topic of genetic determination of psychological traits. First are the obvious societal pressure, and the negative effects on one’s career. But beyond that, I, as someone with a typical allotment of empathy, have a hard time being truthful about these matters when talking to minorities; especially those whom I respect. That is, I don’t do it. I am disarmed in any discussion about immigration, for example.

    It seems that the arc of progressivism is to absolve people of their contribution to a problem, whether that contribution is under their control or not. I suspect that this is an outgrowth of our prosperity — we have the luxury to hide unpleasantness with a bit of societal inefficiency, and many decent people jump at the chance to do so. Unfortunately, that only goes so far, and we’re at an inflection point right now.

    If the science become undeniable, that would clearly facilitate productive discussion. But I am skeptical it will ever be airtight “enough”, given how committed people are.

  17. crew says:

    It would be interesting if the same investigations could be done for sprinting ability …

  18. Jim says:

    To some extent it’s encouraging that some people like Nisbett don’t actually believe the leftist nonsense they assert. Unfortunately I’m sure that there are a lot of people in academia who do.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Checking around, ran into yet another. Won’t mention his name, because it’s third-hand. But you have to wonder about scenarios in which everyone is secretly opposed to the system they’re enforcing… Not that I think that’s what happening here.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I would judge that he believes some of it.

      • albatross says:

        If you need to keep fitting into a community of people who believe X while you think X is nonsense, it’s probably a lot easier to do so if you don’t really let yourself think deeply about all the ways X is nonsense, and all the implications of that. It’s like not being a believer in a community where everyone’s a member of the same church–if you quietly note to friends that you have some doubts sometimes, you can remain a member of the community. But going full Richard Dawkins is a guaranteed path to ostracism.

  19. Rosenmop says:

    On a different topic, but related to scientific papers, does anyone have an opinion about so called “predatory Journals”?

  20. Glengarry says:

    Presumably Nisbett under his breath tells himself, “eppure sono i geni”.

  21. Guillaume Tell says:

    Quite new to this blog. Hello. (I have read Mr Cochran’s 10000-YE recently).

    I have a question for Mr Cochran or for any of the people familiar with his work: what is meant exactly by the fact that non-genetic parental influences do not measurably influence outcomes?

    For example: if I shoot a bullet in my child’s head, then am I not drastically influencing his life outcomes? Or is that shooting a bullet in one’s child head is genetic, hereby not disproving the statement above?

    If someone could explain/develop what Mr Cochran really means that would be highly appreciated.
    Thank you

    • gcochran9 says:

      In practice, in terms of the things parents actually do, they don’t have much of an effect on a kid’s personality traits or abilities. You see, shooting your kid is not very common.

      All the stuff about how you shape a kid’s personality & intelligence by doing this or that, say by playing Mozart or by the particular flavor of toilet training, is either something that happens rarely, or, more likely, never.

      Why did psychologists believe that such environmental influences were formative?

      • Guillaume Tell says:

        Thank you for your response.

        Formulated in terms of “things parents ACTUALLY do”, then I am ready to accept the statement, i.e., in the sense of events that do not diverge much from the normal behavior in a given society at a given time.

        For example, if a condition for survival is the ability to fend for oneself by adolescence when it comes to finding one’s own food, parental education in terms of hunting is probably not only a must in terms but also a social norm in that environment (for obvious selective reasons).

        On the other hand, in 2018 western societies, this clearly is not a requirement for survival (cf. precious snowflakes attending college) and, therefore, whether a father is teaching or not to his son how to hunt has probably little to no effect on the son’s life outcomes (at least in any provable way, because I have observed with n >1 that hunting skills are useful outside of hunting).

        Another example is whether we teach children about gun safety. Would you agree that teaching your kids how to best handle guns has effect on life outcomes?

        Now, where I think the matter is difficult to settle is that the that parents’ disposition to invest time and energy in raising their children has probably a strong genetic component, as we observe that this trait is very not shared equally amongst different ethnic groups, to say the least… So, even something that we call non-genetic parental intervention may have a genetic component itself.

        • Guillaume Tell says:

          I forgot to thank you for your work. Your book is really interesting, well written, witty and stimulating. I would love to discuss several points with you but you most likely don’t have time for that.

          • Frau Katze says:

            Keep following the blog. Related topics do come up.

            For a longer more detailed discussion of the effect of parenting, read “The Blank Slate” by Steven Pinker.

            The general idea is that the effects of parenting cannot be separated from the inheritance of personality traits from the parents.

            You frequently hear that children do best in a family with both parents (the stats are undisputed). But why?

            Could it be that divorcing parents indicate that at least one parent has some undesirable trait, that caused the divorce and that undesirable trait is passed genetically to the children? Thus the children do worse from inheriting the same trait.

            One way to test it to study identical twins put up for adoption at birth and they end up in different families. The twins tend to turn out remarkably similar regardless of the adoptive parents child raising techniques. He goes through the data in the book.

          • Frau Katze says:

            I should add that the culture in which the children are immersed also affects how they turn out. From an early age children associate with each other. They learn their spoken language from their child associates, not from the parents, as can be seen from the many cases of foreign born parents. The kids pick up the local accent too.

            By the time they’re teenagers the peer group is their chief interest,

            After all, over the time the long time that humans evolved, most time was spent in tribal groups with constant fighting. Children of a defeated tribe were often taken as slaves.

            So the ability to rapidly learn the language and customs of the new tribe would have a significant affect on their adult life. If they spoke the language without an accent, (and didn’t look visibly different – obviously that couldn’t be changed) it would be hard to tell them from the tribe’s biological children.

            Thus they’d have a chance of becoming an accepted tribe member and lose the slave stigma. They’d be able to marry and have their own children,

            So the ability to fit in with the peer group would be strongly selected for.

            • Guillaume Tell says:

              Thank you, Fraulein K, for your detailed answers.

              You are confirming my intuitive remarks regarding the difficulty to separate out parenting methods from genetic traits present in the patents. The interplay between the two is so multifaceted that I wonder if it is even meaningful to speak about those two as if they were two ontologically different things.

              Back your point. I read Pinker’s book when it came out. I found it okay but not nearly as profound as the 10k YE.

              In any event, regarding the twin studies, there is also quite a selection bias in that you have to consider the hypothesis that in order to be in that situation, those twins had to
              have either quite maladapted (not too common but not rare) or very unlucky (very rare by definition) parents, in order to become complete orphans at a young age. But imagining that this can be controlled for, I remain a bit puzzled by the findings regarding the fundamental irrelevance of the foster home’s parenting style.

              Are we to believe that if one of the kids is placed in the family of loving, blood relatives, who happen to love said twin as one of their own — while the other poor sap is put under the guardianship of a foster family of crack addicts who beat the crap out of the little fellow when they’re not busy having intercourse with him — then the life outcomes will be identical on average?

              I might be intellectually opaque, or sentimentally influenced by my own experience of (1) having been a child in a large family and (2) raising a large family, but I am still
              not ready to accept that conclusion.

              • Frau Katze says:

                Kids that put up for adoption are usually from an unmarried young woman who thinks she can’t bring the child up. Few are true orphans in the sense of having both parents deceased. Apparently this was true even in earlier days when death from disease was a lot more common. It was a lot harder for a widow in those days since there was no welfare state.

                Seeing effective birth control is so readily available in this day and age it rather suggests that young women in this situation are a bit irresponsible.

                But few babies are put up for adoption these days compared to the past, so it’s mostly working. I can’t remember when the studies were done, but at least some were likely done before the birth control pill and legal abortion.

                Your example of relatives vs crack addicts is not a good one. Adoption agencies do not place children with crack addicts. A good friend of mine adopted a baby girl and she and her husband were studied in some detail.

                I don’t have statistics, but going by the few cases I’ve read about (both parents killed in an accident) the relatives feel an obligation. I personally don’t know anyone in this situation. It’s very uncommon.

                Some have even suggested that the young woman who chooses adoption is in fact more responsible than one who decides she can do on her own, given today’s welfare state.

                Anecdotal: I’ve known a number of adults who were adoptees and they seem to be fine as adults.

                My sister and I even discovered a half-brother from 23andme. He was born in the early 1950s, between me and my sister, We weren’t overly surprised as we knew that our father had certain tendencies.

                Both our half-brother’s parents were married. The mother already had several children and put her husband’s name on the birth certificate. He wasn’t put up for adoption until he was ten months old. The mother was a devout Roman Catholic and wants the adoptive parents to be Catholic too, The whole thing sounds bizarre but it’s true,

                He’s done fine (my sister met him as they don’t live too far apart and we keep in touch by Facebook and email). He says he had a very good upbringing and he is close to his adopted sister (who is also fine),

                He finally tracked down his mother’s family but they won’t see him and deny the whole thing. The older children must remember it. The mother is still alive but has early Alzheimer’s. He did get some information from a granddaughter of his mom, and the family also seemed fine, Her marriage did not break up. We do not know if our father knew about this development but my parents never broke up.

                I have raised two kids and my sister has four. She was absolutely floored by Pinker’s book. One of the four has had a lot of trouble, although the other three are just fine.

                She believed that the way they were brought up would determine 100% of how they turned out. Instead, she learned having children is like rolling dice. She told me she would not have had four had she read the book earlier.

  22. reinertor says:

    It’s possible that this post is linked to another one about certain private conversations…

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