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Will Someone Please Tell Me Why William Saletan Gets Paid to Not Do His Homework?: Monday Smackdown


Ah. Someone who wishes me ill informs me that William Saletan has surfaced, but cannot tell his own story straight: William Saletan (2018): Stop talking about race and IQ. Take it from someone who did: "A person with a taste for puncturing taboos learns about racial gaps in IQ scores and the idea that they might be genetic...

...He writes or speaks about it, credulously or unreflectively. Every part of his argument is attacked: the validity of IQ, the claim that it’s substantially heritable, and the idea that races can be biologically distinguished. The offender is denounced as racist when he thinks he’s just defending science against political correctness. I know what it’s like to be this person because, 11 years ago, I was that person.... Here’s my advice: You can talk about the genetics of race. You can talk about the genetics of intelligence. But stop implying they’re the same thing. Connecting intelligence to race adds nothing useful. It overextends the science you’re defending, and it engulfs the whole debate in moral flames...

What William Saletan does not say is: "Not only did I write credulously and unreflectively about claimed genetic racial gaps in IQ scores, but I did an incompetent and zero-assed job of doing my research. Why? Because I have insufficient work ethic, I am not very good at my job, I wanted to believe, I wanted to 'puncture taboos', and I thought trying to make African-Americans feel smaller was kinda fun."

Am I wrong? Anybody want to push back on whether Saletan does his homework? Anybody have anything from William Saletan worth reading to bring forward?

Let's turn the mike over to the not unintelligent Cosma Shalizi:

Cosma Shalizi (2007): Last Words on Saletan: "Saletan has written an epilogue, titled 'Regrets', to his series, which is a very curious piece of work indeed. Here's the end of it in its entirety (except for the links)...

...In researching this subject, I focused on published data and relied on peer review and rebuttals to expose any relevant issue. As a result, I missed something I could have picked up from a simple glance at Wikipedia:

For the past five years, J. Philippe Rushton has been president of the Pioneer Fund, an organization dedicated to "the scientific study of heredity and human differences." During this time, the fund has awarded at least $70,000 to the New Century Foundation. To get a flavor of what New Century stands for, check out its publications on crime ("Everyone knows that blacks are dangerous") and heresy ("Unless whites shake off the teachings of racial orthodoxy they will cease to be a distinct people"). New Century publishes a magazine called American Renaissance, which preaches segregation. Rushton routinely speaks at its conferences. I was negligent in failing to research and report this. I'm sorry. I owe you better than that.

In my first post about this, I said that there were two possible interpretations of Saletan's actions: that he didn't know that the ideas he was spreading were crap, or that he did, but spread them anyway to advance an agenda.

Saying that the second interpretation was more charitable wasn't just a joke.

Sadly, this partial mea culpa supports the first interpretation, that of incompetence. To put it in "shorter William Saletan" form, what he is saying is: I am shocked—shocked!—to discover that the people who devote their careers to providing supposedly-scientific backing for racist ideas are, in fact, flaming racists. And he does seem to be shocked, though it is hard (as Yglesias says) to see why, logically, he should strain out those gnats he displays for our horrified inspection while swallowing the camel of group inferiority (and telling his readers that camel is really great and the coming thing). This indicates a level of incompetence as a reporter and researcher that is really quite stunning—as Brad DeLong says, this seems like a trained incapacity.

But let me back up a minute to the bit about relying on "peer review and rebuttals to expose any relevant issue". There are two problems here. One has to do with the fact that, as I said, it is really very easy to find the rebuttals showing that Rushton's papers, in particular, are a tragic waste of precious trees and disk-space. For example, in the very same issue of the very same journal as the paper by Rushton and Jensen which was one of Saletan's main sources, Richard Nisbett, one of the more important psychologists of our time, takes his turn banging his head against this particular wall. Or, again, if Saletan had been at all curious about the issue of head sizes, which seems to have impressed him so much, it would have taken about five minutes with Google Scholar to find a demonstration that this is crap.

So I really have no idea what Saletan means when he claimed he relied on published rebuttals—did he think they would just crawl into his lap and sit there, meowing to be read? If I had to guess, I'd say that the most likely explanation of Saletan's writings is that he spent a few minutes with a search engine looking for hits on racial differences in intelligence, took the first few blogs and papers he found that way as The Emerging Scientific Consensus, and then stopped. But detailed inquiry into just how he managed to screw up so badly seems unprofitable.

The other problem with his supposed reliance on peer review is that he seems confused about how that institution works.... A journal's peer review is only as good as the peers it uses as reviewers. If everyone, or almost everyone, who referees for some journal is in the grip of the same mistake, then they will not catch it in papers they review, and the journal will propagate it.... Any group of quack scholars with a shared delusion can put together a journal, dub each other peer reviewers, and go on their cheerful way by endorsing each others' work for their journal. (One of the ways you can tell that intelligent design creationism is a propaganda front and not a real, if stupid, scholarly movement is that their effort to put together just such a journal was never more than half-assed, and it's moribund for some time now.) This isn't even always a bad thing, since sometimes people who seem like quacks are in fact right, and doing things like starting their own journals gives them a chance to get their act together and assemble a convincing case. But all of this does mean that the peer-review filter is a very weak and accepting one, especially on controversial topics. It does not seem unreasonable of me to ask that those who set themselves up as science reporters grasp this...