Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Are Jews Smarter? And, more importantly, am I allowed to ask that?

I recently came across an article which explores the question of high IQs among Jews. It's well known that Jews are vastly overrepresented among Nobel Laureates, and substaniallly, if not quite as drastically so, in higher education, and many fields, such as law and medicine. The article mainly tries to look at the question of "why?" Can we say why Jews are more accomplished in these intellectual fields? Are we actually smarter? And, if so, is that a result of nature or nurture?

What I find most interesting is a meta-question: are we even allowed to ask this question?

Every now and then, someone comes out with some study which says that one group is better or worse at some activity. There was "Intelligence is partially determined by race. And, guess who's the smartest!" There was "Women aren't as good at math or science." There are many, many more, of course. Needless to say, after every such "discovery," there is a chorus of condemnation. People claim that the reports are wrong, and that they are driven by explicit or implicit prejudices.

What always fascinates me is that it seems that these kinds of condemnations are, at some level, unfair. Mind you, I'm not saying that I accept the findings of these studies. I'm saying that, if we're going to reject them, we should do so because they are wrong, not because they are impolite.

I have no idea if Jews are actually smarter, on average, than other people. And, if we are (or, if we're actually less intelligent), I have no idea why that's so - if it's nature or nurture, or some combination. But, it seems to me that those are facts, and that those facts, by definition, are independent of my feelings about those facts. In other words, it might be true that Jews are smarter (on averge) than non-Jews. But, whether that idea offends me doesn't have any impact on the correctness of that idea.

I know that biases can affect research - it's possible that someone will come to false conclusions, at least in part because those conclusions support a prejudice that the researcher holds. That's pretty obvious. But, even in those cases, it still seems more effective to attack the research, and the evidence, rather than the researcher.

At the risk of drawing too straight of a line, religion used to do this all of the time - if someone made a scientific claim which undermined religion (think, for example, of Galileo. Or Darwin. Or...), the religious institutions would respond not with "Wrong!" but with "Heresy!" It seems to me that claims of "racist!" are just an updated version of that: assaulting the morality and motives of an argument, rather than the content.

The author of the article is, of course, aware of this danger, which is why he ends with:
Political correctness and accusations of racism will restrict the academic discourse, but, as is often the case with Jewish history, this case study will tell us much about broader topics: What intelligence really is, how it is fostered, what factors promote intellectual achievement—and whether we as a society are mature enough to debate these questions honestly.
It would be nice to think that we can debate these questions honestly. We should never be afraid of the truth.

1 comment:

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg said...

Interestingly, that same website just ran a fantastic example of what I was talking about: http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/science/4758/size_matters_according_to_new_study.

Apparently a study was done that claims that Born Again brains are smaller than, e.g., Protestant brains. The article attacks the study as biased and mean-spirited. I'd rather see the data attacked, or the conclusions (which it kind of does, but not really).