Judge Posner and Limits of Smartness

brain.jpgRichard Posner, while explaining why he dislikes affirmative action, argues:

As discrimination declines, replaced by affirmative action, explanations for lagging achievement that are based on discrimination lose their plausibility. They were never entirely plausible, given Jewish achievement in the face of fierce discrimination, though it is argued by Stephen Pinker in a recent issue of the New Republic that discrimination against Jews in the Middle Ages, by forcing them into middleman occupations where intelligence is a more valued asset than in farming or soldiering, resulted in the more intelligent Jews having a higher birth rate (because they were better off) than the less intelligent Jews and so, through the operation of natural selection, discrimination can be “credited” with some of the responsibility for the high average IQ of Jews today–even its genetic component. (Hitler may have had something to do with this as well, as it is plausible that the most intelligent European Jews saw the handwriting on the wall earliest and left Europe in the 1930s before it was too late.)

Although I admire Judge Posner and have learned a great deal from his writing, I think it is fair to say that I disagree with much of this analysis. It isn’t just that the evolutionary science of intelligence is extremely complicated, which should lead us to doubt claims about the effect of time-limited selection pressures on economic outcomes. Nor is it just that Posner has violated Godwin’s Law.

The problem is rather that smart people are often anti-social geeks, who don’t make better life choices under conditions of uncertainty. It is true that there is evidence that intelligence and ability to perform statistical calculations under controlled conditions are related. But I haven’t seen any good real-world evidence that smarter folks are better able to discount those emotions/biases (such as patriotism, risk aversion, optimism) that would have led Jews in Europe to stay put. Indeed, the conventional wisdom is that smarter people have weaker “street-smarts”, which is another way of saying they are likely to be bad at reading others for social cues. So even if intelligence were hereditable in the way Posner evidently postulates, it seems unlikely to me that the smarter portion of European Jewry escaped the Holocaust.

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10 Responses

  1. Anonymous Coward says:

    Well done. Reading this post, I fully expected a shrill broadside against Posner for speaking of the holocaust or adopting terms that smack of eugenics. Were you going to equate him to Mel Gibson? No, thank heaven. You took his argument on the merits and exposed some yawning gaps in Posner’s knowledge and logic. Well done. Thank you for the seriousness and fairness of your thinking. Such quality is hard to come by out here in the ol’ blogoshpere.

  2. Chris says:

    Many Jewish Germans with the means to do so fled Germany before the Holocaust. If you make an assumption that those with the means were generally smarter than the poor then his assumption doesn’t have the holes that you think that it does.

    Now whether or not IQ is correlated with success is an entirely different issue.

  3. Haninah says:

    As the grandson of German Jews who left the country in 1933, I’d sure like to think that this means I’m genetically predisposed to make good decisions concerning my own future. But I think it’s pretty obvious that the list of other factors involved in determining who left and who stayed is pretty obvious: economic opportunity, professional situation, relatives abroad who could sponsor visa applications, Zionist beliefs (in my grandparents’ case), and, of course, sheer, dumb luck.

    Not that I’m advocating his reasoning in either case, but Posner’s logic might apply better to Jewish emigration from eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries (~1880-1910), when conditions were riper for intelligent people to make a carefully-considered decision, rather than for the lucky to get out by the skin of their teeth (and, besides, that’s where the vast majority of American Jews came from.)

  4. John Armstrong says:

    Posner hasn’t “violated Godwin’s Law”. Godwin’s Law doesn’t refer to mentioning Hitler or the National Socialist party, but to comparing your opponents to them.

    A case in point.

  5. Bruce Boyden says:

    Also, if I understand it right, Godwin’s Law is violated if someone *doesn’t* compare their opponents to Hitler. But I agree totally with Dave’s overall point. Back in grad school, a classmate of mine (sadly also now a lawyer) studied 1930s German Jews and why those with means didn’t leave, and concluded it was explained partly by wishful thinking — which I think even the smartest people fall prey to. Whereas rich, cynical dullards may have survived.

  6. Andre Glucksman, the French philosopher, argues in his 1985 book La Bêtise (literally, “Stupidity”) that being very intelligent and being very stupid are not mutually exclusive—a point that has always seemed intuitively true to me.

  7. shamu says:

    the whole holocaust issue aside, i think posner’s point is valid, i.e., that jews’ success in getting into top schools and getting top jobs despite discriminatory limitations undercuts other minorities’ arguments than affirmative action is necessary.

    as for evidence of the intelligence / social aptitude gap, we need look no farther than many of our lawyer colleagues, and of course, their law professors.

  8. CMK says:

    “The problem is rather that smart people are often anti-social geeks, who don’t make better life choices under conditions of uncertainty.”

    I see this kind of comment come up way too much. I think the root is that the ivory tower and similar institutions are the exclusive domain of the world’s intelligent and every one of those working stiffs out there is greasing by on their social skills to make up for their lack of raw intellect.

    I think it’s more of an issue where the intelligent split off at some point in life, with the “anti-social geeks,” who prefer books to people, find academia or less socially taxing professions a better fit, and tend to be grouped together. From a purely economic perspective, the financial rewards are much greater in the wider world, so the very intelligent who are not anti-social geeks go out and seek their fortunes. This is an oversimplification but it makes the point.

    So to think that the more intelligent probably made incorrect choices at the same rate or a lesser rate than the rest of the population because of their “anti-social geekiness” is confusing a subset of intelligent people with the whole. Certainly Posner in this discussion is not focusing solely on “intelligent anti-social geeks,” with affirmative action, but professionals, business people, and politicians, as well as the “geeks.” Many, if not most of these people came in with similar SAT and LSAT scores, but they focus their skills elsewhere. If there’s some conclusive study out there I’m missing, please point me to it.

  9. Paul Gowder says:

    The historical claim is also kind of dumb. Jewish achievement in Europe happened in — surprise! — fields in which they weren’t discriminated against! (Indeed, that’s part of Pinker’s point.) In the U.S., the history of discrimination against Jews pales beside the history of discrimination against Blacks, and, shock!, Blacks have suffered accordingly.

  10. jms says:

    while i don’t agree entirely with posner’s point, i believe your criticism is neither fair nor accurate. specifically, i think you miss two important points. first, i beleive that posner is saying that the effects he mentions could have effects at the margins – not that every single jew would be more intelligent as a result of the effects he identifies, but rather that some jews would, and this would raise the ‘average’ intelligence level, however you wish to identify that. this reading is particularly consistent with posner’s invocation of natural selection, which is generally a mechanism that tends to work on the margins and only have significant effects over long periods of time. second, i think your view of ‘intelligence’ is too limited. street smarts itself is something that very well might have led many jews to survive discrimination (and in the case of nazi germany, read the cues and escape), and street smarts is often more important to business success than book smarts. furthermore, a far more important component of success and even ‘smarts’ is a good work ethic – which is certainly more important than raw intelligence. it certainly may be possible that those who succeeded under discrimination had very strong work ethics and passed that work ethic down to their children very effectively.

    one further point – i dont believe paul gowder’s historical claim is entirely accurate. while jews were certainly never slaves, they did face a very high level of discrimination. jews were hated period, and their jobs didn’t matter. furthermore, even in their chosen professions, often professions christians were not in, such as money lenders, they were despised and discriminated against. for a great example, see shakespeare’s the merchant of venice. i wouldn’t say shylock was treated particularly well, even though jews weren’t exactly discriminated against within the money lending profession (and the portrayal of shylock is a whole nother issue).