(content warning: discussion of racially motivated violence and coercion)

 

I wanted to share that I think it's not bad to think about the object level question of whether there are group differences in intelligence rooted in genetic differences. This is an empirical claim, and can be true or false.

My moral beliefs are pretty rooted in egalitarianism. I think as a matter of policy, but also as a matter of moral character, it is good and important to treat the experience of strangers as equally valuable, regardless of their class or race. I do not think more intelligent people are more worthy of moral consideration than less intelligent people. I think it can be complicated at the extremes, especially when considering digital people, animals, etc., but that this has little bearing on public policy when concerning existing humans.

I don't think genetic group differences in intelligence are likely to be that relevant given I have short AI timelines. If we assume longer timelines, I believe the most likely places they would be important in terms of policy would be in education and reproductive technology. Whether or not there are such differences between groups now, there could easily come to be large differences through the application of embryo selection techniques or other intelligence enhancing technologies. From an egalitarian moral framework, I suspect it would be important to subsidize this technology for disadvantaged groups or individuals so that they have the same options and opportunities as everyone else. Even if genes turn out to not be a major cause of inegalitarian outcomes today, they can definitely become a major cause in the future, if we don't exercise wisdom and thoughtfulness in how we wield these technologies. However, as I said, I don't expect this to be very significant in practice given short AI timelines.

Most importantly, from my perspective, it's important to be able to think about questions like this clearly, and so I want to encourage people to not feel constrained to avoid the question because of fear of social censure for merely thinking about them. For a reasonably well researched (not necessarily correct) discussion of the object level, see this post:

[link deleted at the author's request; see also AnonymousCommentator's note about the racial IQ gap]

I think it's important context to keep in view that some of the worst human behaviors have involved the enslavement and subjugation of whole groups of people, or attempts to murder entire groups—racial groups, national groups, cultural groups, religious groups. The eugenics movement in the United States and elsewhere attempted to significantly curtail the reproductive freedom of many people through extremely coercive means in the not-so-distant past.  Between 1907 and 1963, over 64,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized under eugenic legislation in the United States, and minority groups were especially targeted. Presently in China, tens of thousands of Uighurs are being sterilized, and while we don't have a great deal of information about it, I would predict that there is a major element of government coercion in these sterilizations.

Coercive policies like this are extremely wrong, and plainly so. I oppose and condemn them. I am aware that the advocates of these policies sometimes used genetic group differences in abilities as justification for their coercion. This does not cause me to think that I should avoid the whole subject of genetic group differences in ability.  Making this subject taboo, and sanctioning anyone who speaks of it, seems like a sure way to prevent people from actually understanding the underlying problems disadvantaged groups or individuals face. This seems likely to inhibit rather than promote good policy-making. I think the best ways to resist reproductive and other forms of coercion go hand in hand with trying to understand the world, do good science, and have serious discussions about hard topics. I think strict taboos around discussing an extremely broad scientific subject matter hurt the ability of people to understand things, especially when the fear of public punishment is enough to prevent people from thinking about a topic entirely.

Another reason people cite for not talking about genetically mediated group differences, even if they exist, is that bringing people's attention to this kind of inequality could make the disadvantaged feel terrible. I take this cost seriously, and think this is a good reason to be really careful about how we discuss this issue (the exact opposite of Bostrom's approach in the Extropians email), and a good reason to include content warnings so anyone can easily avoid this topic if they find it upsetting.

But I don't think forbidding discussion of this topic across the board is the right society-level response.

Imagine a society where knowledge of historical slavery is suppressed, because people worry it would make the descendants of enslaved people sad. I think such a society would be unethical, especially if the information suppression causes society to be unable to recognize and respond to ongoing harms caused by slavery's legacy.

Still, assuming that we were in a world like that: In that kind of world, we can imagine that the information leaks out and a descendant of slaves finds out about slavery and its legacy, and is (of course) tremendously horrified and saddened to learn about all this.

If someone pointed at this to say, "Behold, this information caused harm, so we were right to suppress it," I would think they're making a serious moral mistake.

If the individual themselves didn't want to personally know about slavery, or about any of the graphic details, that's fully within their right. This should be comparatively easy to achieve in online discussion, where it's easier to use content warnings, tags, and web browser apps to control which topics you want to read about.

But society-wide suppression of the information, for the sake of protecting people's feelings even though those individuals didn't consent to being protected from the truth this way, is frankly disturbing and wrong. This is not the way to treat peers, colleagues, or friends. It isn't the way to treat people who you view as full human beings; beyond just being a terrible way to carry out scientific practice, it's infantilizing and paternalistic in the extreme.

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Unfortunately, there's no way to publicly examine, measure, or discuss group differences in a way that doesn't disproportionately attract those who'd misinterpret and misuse this against the group(s) in question, and therefore without those groups legitimately feeling attacked by those giving visibility to the topic.

It's the core of politics (how to characterize groups and their relation to each other), and therefore rationality in hard-mode.  There are very few forums where it won't cause more harm than good.

In fact, we don't have good epistemic practices for studying or thinking about groups, as distinct from individuals.  I suspect there is a lot of reality in the self-organized sortation by visible traits, and this does cause group-norms to differ by distribution of invisible traits.  But I don't know of many studies that break it down that way.

Unfortunately, there's no way to publicly examine, measure, or discuss group differences in a way that doesn't disproportionately attract those who'd misinterpret and misuse this against the group(s) in question, and therefore without those groups legitimately feeling attacked by those giving visibility to the topic.

I feel like this might be downstream of activist-caused evaporative cooling, tho. If you say that anyone who studies group differences must be motivated by animus, people unmotivated by animus will be disproportionately likely to leave the field.

One of the current controversies in medicine is over whether race should be used as a factor in diagnostic decisions (one example). Now, you or I as patients might want our doctors to use all available information to provide us with the best treatment possible, and you or I as people interested in good outcomes for all might be worried that this will lead to people being predictably mistreated (which, if set according to population-level averages, will disproportionately affect minority groups). It seems pretty implausible to me that the people who set up race-sensitive diagnostics and treatments for kidney diseases were motivated by ill will towards individuals or groups, and much more likely that they were motivated by good will.

Similarly, you could imagine people who want to come up with policies and procedures which are motivated by good will towards everyone, and want to use the most effective information available to do so. Is it really productive to militate them out of existence?

I didn't say nor mean to imply that anyone who studies group differences must be motivated by animus.  I do find that public discussions of such research seems to attract amateurs who ARE motivated that way, and activists who assume that others in the discussion are.

To be clear, I'm deeply in favor of careful world-modeling that understands the distribution of traits, and the level of correlation between visible and invisible traits, especially when it allows better individual decisions based on actual observations and measurements.  I, however, don't believe that most people, even on LessWrong, are capable of that level of rigor, and the discussions seem more painful than helpful in non-heavily-moderated-and-focused forums.

Not "this topic is wrong to research and use in individual treatments", but "this topic doesn't go well on LessWrong".  And a little bit of "this topic is wrong to use in general non-individual policy".  

To me it seems like the current zeitgeist is just not up to addressing this question without being almost entirely captured by bad faith actors on both sides and therefore causing some non trivial social unrest. There might be some positive gain to be had from changes in policies depending on the reality of genetic differences in IQ, however policy makers would have to be much more nuanced and capable than they appear to be. Even if this were possible it would have to be weighed against the social aspects.

I think part of the trouble is that "not being a racist" is part of the broadly accepted values, but once you admit to robust race differences in socially valued traits, different notions of "not being a racist" that would be equivalent become distinct.

"Not being a racist" basically means treating people as having equal moral value regardless of race, like equally valuing their perspectives in decisions and equally giving them opportunity for material possessions and life comfort. In utilitarianism, one way we could think of this is as there being no correlation between race and the weight one is given in the utility function/social welfare function. Since utilitarianism is typically egalitarian in weighting everyone equally, utilitarianism is also typically "not racist" in this sense.

If races are equal in socially valued traits, then there's not much more to say. However, if races are distinct, then things start getting complicated, due to a type of values that almost everyone endorses, which I call "empowerment values". Basically, due to instrumental convergence, there are some things that are useful to many humans, and empowerment values say to do those things. For instance, police and law create an orderly society which facilitates positive-sum interactions, which is helpful for many different human concerns.

But the trouble with empowerment values in this context is that on their own, they also imply discriminatory values aka meritocracy. That is:

  • Certain people have a propensity to create value for others, and discriminatory values say to give such people more power so they have more opportunity to create value, and give them more material comfort so that they have more reason to stick around. For instance one might support private property, free trade, and trademarks to allow businesses to grow, or one might support firms promoting people based on internal evaluations of performance, or one might support representative democracy.
  • Certain characteristics that people have might cause people to create value for others, and again discriminatory values say to give such people more power and material comfort, so they have opportunities to generate value and more reason to stick around. For instance one might support ability testing for firms that hire people.

If discriminatory values are applied to a society with racial differences in socially valued traits, then some races would be much more assigned to positions of power, positions of material wealth, etc., based on their greater socially valued traits; those races would come to dominate society.

This conflicts with an alternative notion of "not being a racist", which I tend to call "diversity values" or "egalitarian values". (For simplicity I will stick to diversity values applied to race here, but it can also be applied in other circumstances.) Under diversity values, people should be treated as first-class citizens regardless of their race, and no races should be left behind. (A lot of people have rounded this position off to something like equality of outcome, but recently I've been wondering if subagents might provide a better perspective on it. TBD.)

I think this is the real crux behind a lot of opposition to discussion of racial differences in IQ. I regularly see opponents of the discussion say that even if robust IQ differences between races are real, they just justify interventions to equalize things. This seems to be indicative of egalitarian values.

So basically, when people want to distance themselves from racism while acknowledging racial differences, I think they should make it clear which of the positions they endorse. Simplifying for a moment to consider only black and white races:

  • "Black and white people have equal terminal moral values, but white people are instrumentally superior to black people, so white people should tend to dominate over black people, and we want to give white people more material comfort than black people so that white people associate with us more."
  • "Black and white people should both have their perspectives well-represented among the leadership of society, and they should both have comparable material comfort, even if this involves giving black people special treatment over white people, relative to what is recommended by a predominant empowerment-focus."

Also recommended reading: Book Review: Human Diversity.

Black and white people have equal terminal moral values, but white people are instrumentally superior to black people, so white people should tend to dominate over black people, and we want to give white people more material comfort than black people so that white people associate with us more.

This is an incredibly weird and disingenuous way of stating the position, there is no central authority to "give white people more material comfort than black people", that's not how this works. Salaries (and hence material comfort) are determined by supply and demand, if overall white people do jobs that are more in demand and in shorter supply than black people, then we should expect their material comfort to be higher. Do I "dominate over" my neighbor if I'm a high-paid surgeon and he's a plumber? What a weird way of phrasing things.

If black people tend to have lower IQ than white people, then that's an important explanatory cause for the difference in observed material income. Such a difference would also suggest different interventions than if no difference were there. Time and money currently being spent on various diversity initiatives would much better be spent getting pregnant black women to not drink and smoke, supplementing iodine, not being around heavy metals, i.e. mitigating all the environmental causes of low IQ, causes which we should research in much greater depth.

I do associate intelligence with moral weight to some extent (how could a Jupiter-brain have the same moral weight as a village idiot?), and an entire group of people having low intelligence is somewhat akin to a genocide-level catastrophe to me, everything should be done to ameliorate that state, and blinding ourselves to the evidence of the ongoing catastrophe does nothing useful. 

This is an incredibly weird and disingenuous way of stating the position, there is no central authority to "give white people more material comfort than black people", that's not how this works. Salaries (and hence material comfort) are determined by supply and demand, if overall white people do jobs that are more in demand and in shorter supply than black people, then we should expect their material comfort to be higher.

I don't understand what part of my phrasing of the position made you think I was talking about a centralized authority. My comment characterizing the position didn't say that the position was "the central authority should give white people more material comfort than black people", it said that the position was "we want to give white people more material comfort than black people". Here, "we" is a nonspecific plural pronoun, which I intended to refer to the various people in society.

So for instance if you are a surgeon and your neighbors is a plumber, then the reason people pay you more is because they have a higher priority for making dealings with (associating with) a surgeon than a plumber, relative to the supply of surgeons and plumbers.

Do I "dominate over" my neighbor if I'm a high-paid surgeon and he's a plumber? What a weird way of phrasing things.

Do you dominate over the person who used to live in your apartment if he is a plumber who had to move out because housing prices rose while you as a surgeon can move in because you are highly paid?

Do you dominate over the plumber if you decide how the plumber's social media works, because you are smart enough to pass exams/interviews and work for the social media company?

Do you dominate over the plumber if you end up using your greater merit and accumulated resources to become a politician and make rules for what the plumber can or cannot do?

Honestly - the answer is probably not. While these do get close to fitting the definition of domination, I think they are too distributed and noisy to really be usefully thought of in that light. When you move into a city, you don't bid up the housing prices for the person who moved out of the house, but instead slightly for the general market in the future. When you work for a social media company, you don't make rules about any specific random person. When you become a politician, you are accountable to a great deal of different interests.

However, when you average over entire groups of people, then the noise averages out, and the diffuse effects add up on the group level. So it seems like the lens works on the group level.

If black people tend to have lower IQ than white people, then that's an important explanatory cause for the difference in observed material income. Such a difference would also suggest different interventions than if no difference were there. Time and money currently being spent on various diversity initiatives would much better be spent getting pregnant black women to not drink and smoke, supplementing iodine, not being around heavy metals, i.e. mitigating all the environmental causes of low IQ, causes which we should research in much greater depth.

I think the difference is much more genetic than environmental. Though one could still search for environmental ways to improve IQ, I suppose - they just seem likely to apply just as well to white people as to black people.

Also, regarding the position:

Black and white people have equal terminal moral values, but white people are instrumentally superior to black people, so white people should tend to dominate over black people, and we want to give white people more material comfort than black people so that white people associate with us more.

This position is often criticized as being a position of "white supremacy", which is usually considered to be horrible racism. On a first glance, this criticism seems valid to me; it seems to fit the definition of white supremacy ("the belief that white people constitute a superior race and should therefore dominate society"), and it also seems to be the sort of thing a classical white nationalist would say and endorse as their ideology.

I think the main counterargument would be that this is a case of the noncentral fallacy. That is, we usually associate white supremacy with Jim Crow, the KKK, slavery, etc., or with laws that explicitly favor white people regardless of merit, whereas this position is compatible with rejecting such things.

However, I am not sure how solid the counterargument is. Maybe the issue is that the term "white supremacy" is badly named, but this position sure does seem to agree with classical white supremacists that it is desirable for white people to dominate society. (There's some complications with asians and jews being higher IQ too, so that creates a distinction, but this distinction doesn't seem central to why the position is considered bad.)

I think a primary distinction is one of legitimacy; classical white supremacy policies explicitly advantage whites in a way that makes it questionable whether whites truly are innately superior in the traits they claim to be, whereas the more mainstream white supremacy position wants to have at least a nominally even competition so that white people everywhere prove their superiority and that they deserve their power and wealth.

(There's some complications with asians and jews being higher IQ too, so that creates a distinction, but this distinction doesn't seem central to why the position is considered bad.)

That seems to make a large difference. Hearing that someone is a white supremacist would normally make us update toward this person being white and irrationally thinking their own race (which happens to be white) being superior. A form of selfish bias. But if we hear that a white (particularly gentile white) person thinks that Northeast Asian people have higher average IQs than whites, and Ashkenazi Jews having even higher average IQs, then we would strongly update against the conclusion above.

(In general, the discussion seems unduly distorted by the fact that the focus is almost always on black/white rather than on white/Northeast Asian, or the like. For example, when it is claimed that one group would feel hurt and excluded when such differences are pointed out. Personally I know not of a single white person who has complained about feeling hurt and excluded when hearing about data supporting higher average IQs for Asians or Jews. Maybe this would be different when living as a white minority in, say, Japan, but that seems still uncertain to me.)

This seems to me like a quokka-like position.

Certain views are verboten to state and will, if stated, get you randomly attacked, especially by the crowd who'd look up 25 year old postings in the first place.

It does not matter what other things you do.  It does not matter if you can be quoted as saying something that doesn't put white people on the top.

"If only I had said it in a manner that makes it clear it's not white supremacy, people wouldn't hurt me" ignores that people don't have rational discussion in mind.  There is no way to say it in a manner that can't be quoted out of context in social media and used to set a mob on you.  You can't avoid this by being nicer about it.

It's also quokka-like in the opposite direction. Actual bona-fide white supremacists, like David Duke (founder of a revival of the KKK) will be indirect and evasive about their beliefs. If they can, they will totally try to get labelled not a white supremacist on some technicality.

I think among white nationalists who believe that asians and jews are smarter, there is often a tendency to still prefer europeans, with the explicit justification given that asians are more conformist and therefore less innovative, and jews are more libertine and therefore prone to leftism/immigration-friendliness/gender progressivism.

Among the sort of techy contrarian people who might talk about IQ differences while rejecting and distancing themselves from white supremacy, I think there is often a preference for asians and jews. I guess it's fair enough to say that this is not a selfish racial bias.

I suspect that most grievances about genetic IQ differences are motivated by status. 

Almost everyone perceives intelligence to be a marker of status, so spreading the belief "Group X have lower average IQ" has the consequence of lowering group X's members' status in the eyes of most people. And intentionally publicly lowering someone's status using words is more-or-less the definition of an insult.  The only difference in this case is that the status lowering isn't intentional; unfortunately, intentions are very hard to signal convincingly.

It therefore seems to me that, if you want to make discussions about race and IQ more palatable to the public and less emotionally draining, you would need to make a strong or costly signal that you're not trying to lower anyone's status. To my mind, the only way to do this is to have high status in the minority group hurt by IQ claims and this is really hard to achieve. Simply saying one doesn't think intelligence impies moral value won't dissuade most sceptics.

One part of this issue: The answer to the question is literally unknowable with our current scientific tools (though as we develop better models for simulating biology and culture this might change). We can't run experiments that are not contaminated by culture/biology.

What is left is observational evidence.

Proving causality with observational evidence usually doesn't work. This is especially the case with an issue like this with only a moderate effect size (a one SD effect on test scores is tiny compared to the impact of smoking on lung cancer, or stomach sleeping on SIDS), and where both factors are always present and connected.

What is left is reasoning from priors.

Personally I think HBD is unlikely because the observed outcome differences are exactly the sort of thing the known cultural forces would create even if there was no genetic difference, so the existence of these outcome differences does not serve as additional evidence of genetic differences. This means that while it is totally possible  there could be major intelligence differences between groups, I don't have any particular reason to think they actually exist.

But this argument is simply not a robust or rigorous proof. I give it around a 1/100 chance of being wrong, while things that I actually know, like the name of the president, have a far, far smaller chance of being wrong.

The problem with racial differences in intelligence is that it's not a very useful question. Race is much more a cultural thing than a genetic thing. Especially when it's based just on skin colour, or where your grandparents were born. It's obvious that certain genotypes are more intelligent, seeing as intelligence is very heritable. So you could make the case for universal genomic testing and having social scores based on the results or something (with a massive list of assumptions and caveats). But that's very different from the current system of White, Black, Asian, Hispanic (if you're American). 

Cultural differences explain racial differences a lot better than genetics, at least for now.

A lot of the problems around this topic stem from the fact that currently there is an implicit (and often explicit) assumption that the smarter you are, the more you're worthy of whatever is nice. Which in turn implies that if you're not smart, then you're worthless. Freddie DeBoer has written a lot about this subject.

Cultural differences explain racial differences a lot better than genetics, at least for now.

Where is the evidence for this? I am not really well versed with this topic but am under the impression if this were true it would be heavily promoted/reported on. 

Well, race is a very ill defined term from a genetic point of view. How would you define "white"? "Black" covers vastly more, genetically speaking, than all the other races put together. Which is to be expected, since humans originated in Africa. Where your ancestors are from is important in that it will make you more or less susceptible to various things (e.g. Africans are more resistant to malaria, Scandinavians are more resistant to HIV, pastoral people can tolerate lactose), but these tend to be single genes, or at most a few. In the case of features that are regulated by multiple genes, it's spread out a lot more, with lots of genes giving small boosts. 

In the case of intelligence, it's a bit like asking whether there's a homosexuality or speech gene. The simple answer is no, the deeper answer is (as always in biology) "it depends". For example, in the case of speech, there is a family in England that has a genetic disorder that results in them not being able to speak. This doesn't mean that FOXP2 is responsible for speech. It just means that it's a critical element, the lack of which will break the speech system.

Intelligence is (most likely) similar. There are lots (hundreds or thousands) of genes correlated with intelligence. These genes are spread all over the gene pool, which has always (except remote islands, e.g. Tasmania) been mixing itself around. If there was a single gene for intelligence, I'm pretty sure it would spread really fast, unless it was a recent (e.g. 1000 years) mutation. Unless it was somehow intrinsically connected to superficial characteristics like toenail size, beard length, or skull shape, the intelligence gene would spread to other places without changing how the recipients look.

It's like eyesight. Having good eyes is very useful. So you'd expect most people to have similar levels of sight (sans various defects and with a normalish distribution) because natural selection will be pushing up to the Pareto limit. Intelligence is similar. It's too useful to give up.

An interesting example of cultural differences being more explanatory than genetics are the Dutch. Before 1875, the median height of Dutch men was 165cm. In 2014 it was 174cm. That's not something that can be explained well with genetics (it's too fast). The most likely explanation is that their genes had the potential to be really tall, but the environment didn't supply enough resources. Average height is actually one of the best measures of social well being (along with when girls start menstruating), as it's very sensitive to how healthy children are (each skipped meal and each illness result in a little less growth).

Isn't that the whole point behind all the stories about poor children ending up in Harvard? About increasing spending to schools in more disadvantaged areas?

The problem with finding scientific evidence for this, is that the whole topic is radioactive. Whatever your results are, you'll be called an SJW, racist, woke and wanting to reintroduce eugenics. Much safer and easier to just choose a different subject for your grant proposal.

Semi-automated mod message. You've been having a bunch of comments downvoted. I haven't reviewed your comments in detail. But skimming then, I get a sense of you being pretty fixated on one particular topic in a kind-of ax-grindy way, and seem to be orienting to it through the lens of political conflict rather than "figure things out." (I realize other people in this conversation may also be orienting to it through a political lens, I haven't checked but it seems likely)

I think my main recommendation is "if you actually want to participate in LessWrong as a community member, rather than drive-by person arguing about a pet topic, I recommend... well also commenting on stuff other than this topic, and demonstrating that you're here to actually here to figure interesting stuff out.

Talking about human genetic differences, on the literal internet, is lunacy. Every single person who knows the risks never does it. 

It's not a matter of personal preferences or priorities, either they understand the risks or they don't.

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