This just in: research finds we're awesomely awesome!

By Megan McArdle

Often, when confronting new research, I have to remind myself of one of my favorite aphorisms ever, from the much-lamented former blogger (and current scientist) Charles Murtaugh:

The universe is not here to please you.



It would be nice if the empirical evidence offered definitive proof that each and every one of my policy ideas was Pareto Efficient, but there you are: the universe is not here to please you.

Which is funny, because he said this in response to being called a racist for suggesting that there might be persistent heritable inter-group differences in IQ. Charles Murtaugh is pretty darn liberal, and as you can imagine, his fellow liberals did not take kindly to his statement that there might be something there; hence his issuance of the dictum that has wormed its way into my heart. And this new study on the neurological differences between liberals and conservatives made me think of nothing so much as the debate over race and IQ.

It certainly could be true; perhaps conservatives and liberals were programmed from birth. But I have two problems with it. First, I've spent too much time watching groups agree with each other not to think that one's peer group has very large effects on one's beliefs. Would a doctrinaire liberal from the Upper West Side who gets angry at the very notion of questioning the wisdom of affirmative action really look very much different from a doctrinaire conservative in Kansas who gets angry at the very notion of questioning the sanctity of marriage?

Almost any study of this type is going to be done in a place which skews one way or another. In that place, you will have two types of people:

1) People who agree with the dominant orientation of the locality
2) People who disagree with the dominant orientation of the locality

The people who disagree will probably look very different from the people who agree, because the mental qualities needed to maintain strong disagreement with one's neighbors are probably somewhat singular. But that doesn't mean their mental model caused the beliefs, and if you switched to a different location with a different orientation, you might get results showing the opposite.

My other problem is that the west has a long history of research on race and IQ, and gender and IQ, and so forth, that generally finds--quel surprise!--that the dominant group is genetically superior. This could be true; to discuss a subject I feel less queasy bringing up, I find it possible that male IQ's are distributed with fatter tails, so that there are more male geniuses (and cognitively disabled people) than female. But it's also true that scientists, like everyone else, have a tendency to find what they are expecting. Often, it's a case of not asking yourself the right question that might disconfirm your findings: like "Is the West Village a good sample of American political philosophy?" Evolutionary biology stories about gender are often plausible, but then, I can generally tell an equally plausible story that cuts the other way.

So when I read about research that has confirmed that a group the researchers themselves belong to is smarter, or more flexible, or just generally groovier, than some other group of folks, I can't help but reach for the salt shaker.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2007/09/this-just-in-research-finds-we-apos-re-awesomely-awesome/1900/