Digest, 9/11/2021: Seek and Destroy

the twentieth digest post

In April, I did this roundtable with Paige Harden for the University of Bristol on the topics of genes and education. I think it touches on a lot of important points for both Dr. Harden and I, and in particular really hammers home the answer to the “why bother to study this, what good can come of it” question that liberals have asked approximately six million times since the New Yorker piece came. Though I know I will never convince many of you, I do want to again insist that the most important point is that genetic research will continue to grow more and more sophisticated and effective over time. There is no arresting that growth. Companies like Genomic Prediction Inc. are already offering genetic testing that not only detects likely congenital disorders but also predicts if they’ll be short or unintelligent. No doubt this process is clumsy at present and produces small effects. But in ten years? Are you willing to bet this testing won’t be much more powerful and sophisticated?

Friends: this stuff is not going away. And even if all of the progressive handwringing on these topics leads to a ban on research in the United States, will such qualms stop labs in South Korea from developing better genetic testing? Will people tweeting the word “eugenics” stop labs in China from working on how to directly manipulate the genome? No. So let’s talk, openly and honestly, and come up with an ethical framework for understanding genetics and behavior that avoids all of the terrible thinking of the past. We won’t accidentally fall into selective breeding and genetic ID cards as long as think and act carefully. “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”


Several people have asked me to engage on the question of the racial achievement gap in relation to this topic. My essential belief is that the racial achievement gap is environmental and likely incredibly multivariate - I think the gap is probably the result of an impossibly large number of variables of small individual effect. This is why, though it's important to recognize that racial gaps are not just income gaps, it's always insufficient to use income bands as some sort of proxy for the environment writ large; it simply underdescribes the available variability. Unfortunately, many influences of small effect are harder to address with policy than a few big ones. I do think the best available solutions are economic, which is one reason I support reparations for slavery. I think that we should be really clear-eyed that bringing the Black median wealth number up to parity with the white figure probably won't immediately eliminate all of the gap, again because there's so many variables likely involved. But I think within a couple generations you'd see the gap shrink to the point where it's statistical noise, in part because Black parents with more money would be able to address various environmental deficits that are lurking in the gap. Of course, the moral bonus is that while we're waiting for the gap to close completely, we've also put money in the hands of Black people in the first place.

The talent gap that I’m talking about goes something like this. Within any demographic group you care to identify - like, working class Asian American charter school students from large cities or middle class Black private high school students etc. - there is a distribution of ability. And the distribution within groups is always bigger than the distribution between groups, that is, the gap between the best and worst performing white student or Black student is much larger than the gap between the average white student and Black student. Yes, the average Black inner city student is performing worse than the average suburban white student, but there are students from the former group who get into every Ivy league school and kids from the latter who struggle and drop out. (Among other things, this makes the belief that schools and teachers are determinative of student outcomes rather bizarre.) I am convinced by the behavioral genetics research, as well as by what I take to be common sense, that some significant portion of this advantage is genetic. Of course environment plays a major role. But I also think individual people have strong tendencies to excel or struggle academically. If we eliminate demographic gaps, we're still leaving behind the ones who struggle due to a lack of talent.

And this is the future that worries me: the racial gaps have closed, and we have roughly proportional representation of the races in various elite hierarchies, including income - but we still have what's essentially a dynastic elite, one that looks just on paper but which has still pulled the ladder up behind it. In other words, we'd see proportional racial representation in the top 1% (or 20% etc) of the income distribution, and proportional racial representation in Harvard, Goldman Sachs, Congress, the National Academy of Sciences, etc. But it's still a hideously unequal system. Yes, racial proportionality would of course be better. But I'm not interested in a rainbow oligarchy. And the tyranny of the talented would in a sense be more insidious, because our racial inequalities are so obvious - it's easy to look at the board of a Fortune 500 company and note that there's no Black people - and also because it would provide a built-in justification. “Yes, they rule, but it's only because they're so talented.” It's still a terribly inegalitarian system. The Cult of Smart is my brief on the problems with a genetic aristocracy and what we can do to build a more just world.


I’d like to thank my friend Alan Jacobs for writing this. Alan says

Also, Freddie is correct to say, elsewhere in this post, that there are hundreds of supposedly reputable people who a few years ago lied relentlessly about his book — the book he hadn’t yet written! — in the hope of getting his contract canceled, and have never apologized or retracted their falsehoods. Having a blue check means never having to say “I was wrong,” I guess. That was one of the events, one of several, that permanently and definitively soured me on Twitter: seeing how enthusiastically professional journalists and academics would lie in order to bring down someone for wrongthink — when in fact the person wasn’t even guilty of the heresy they accused him of. It’s the act of burning witches that justifies you; the question of whether the people you’re burning actually are witches doesn’t arise, then or later.) 

It wasn’t a lot of fun! Although it was made a lot easier both by not being on Twitter and by how weird it all was; it as a little too bizarre for it to hit me too hard. Anyway, it was a very strange situation and I wonder if perhaps things have gotten a little better since then. You’d like to think a few more people would have thought to say “how is it that so many people know the contents of a book that won’t release for two more years?” One way or the other, I’ve moved on. (If you’d like to strike a blow against unfounded pile-ons and callout culture, buy the book.)

This Week’s Posts

Monday, September 6th - All White Men Are White Men

The vogue for white men constantly complaining about how bad white men are is a road that has no ending. It’s all driven by self-interest and bad faith. I decline.

Genes Believe in You

Spurred on by this past week’s big New Yorker article, I discussed some of my frustrations with the way the conversation was going, stressing that these issues are going to be playing out in the future whether we like it or not.

Wednesday, September 8th - How to Enjoy this Newsletter

Just what it says on the tin.

Thursday, September 9th - Why Resist Blank Slate Thinking? For One, Look to No Child Left Behind

More on the same theme. This one in particular interrogates the “why should we talk about this?” question, with the answer being that education policy is founded on blank-slate thinking and that has had ruinous consequences.

Friday, September 10th - I Feel Conflicted About Saying This, But I'm a Grad School Success Story (subscriber only)

Sharing some conflicted feelings about grad school; I had the time of my life, and I tell anyone who will listen not to go.

And we had the first book club post this week!

From the Archives

As part of the launch of my book last year, I wrote a piece for The Washington Post about Donald Trump’s obsession with intelligence and genetic fitness, and how it really isn’t that different from all of ours - but a better way is possible.

Song of the Week

Substack of the Week

House of Strauss
HoS Pod with guest Freddie DeBoer: On Deadspin, Gawker and Drew Magary
Listen now (62 min) | House of Strauss pod is back! This time, we welcome one of the best writers on the internet, Freddie DeBoer. We discussed, among other things, the fall of Deadspin in relevance and what that meant. Hope you enjoy it. For those who don’t know, future podcasts are going to hinge on one question as a jumping off point. In this case, the question is, “Why d……
Read more

As you can see here, I was the new Ethan Sherwood Strauss podcast, House of Strauss, which is attached to his recently-launched Substack. I had a lot of fun talking about Deadspin and its highs and lows, as well as the very weird way a lot of guys who themselves had shock jock-style public personas have since decided that other people shouldn’t be able to reform in the same way. Pulling up the ladder, you might call it.

Ethan is a very experienced basketball reporter based out of the Bay Area. Like a fair number of people he has recently sort of been cast into an “anti-woke” orbit, simply by dint of finding some of the absurd excesses of contemporary social justice culture unpalatable. For example, I really enjoyed this essay on Nike and how its marketing has gotten just impossibly cynical about exploiting social justice messaging. The actual advertisements in the post really have to be seen to be believed. As I so often am these days, I feel forced to say… who asked for this? Who wanted a Nike ad that’s also a lecture about patriarchy? Can this really be moving units? I mean it’s so grimy with insincerity and opportunism, it’s had to imagine that most people view it positively. And as Ethan says, it undermines the most basic core associations of the brand, particularly regarding the absolutely dogged pursuit of victory at all costs. Do people want a Nike that keeps telling you “there are more important things than winning”? Just Do It, If It’s Not Too Big of a Deal. Anyway, do listen to our podcast, and check out House of Strauss. If you’re invested in NBA basketball and media criticism I think it’s well worth a subscription.

Book Recommendation

Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul, Jeremiah Moss, 2017

I will likely lose the YIMBYs over this one, but they’re pretty juvenile anyways. This book is a charming elegy for a lost New York. I’ve written in the past that I don’t have a ton of patience for a lot of the romanticism about the good old/bad old days of NYC - much about the city back then was genuinely unpleasant, and I speak from experience. But I also do lament the loss of cheap rents and independent artists and holes-in-the-wall and more. You can want both, you know; you can want a city that is both developing and improving and safer and cleaner and also want a city with cheap rent, a counterculture, and the vitality that comes with accessibility. Moss’s book is really a history of hundreds of places that have left us, and it provides incredible color in every page. Even if you’re a bigger fan of development than Moss is, I think there’s a ton to learn about here, and a lot to mourn.

NFL Pick of the Week

I’ll take the Indianapolis Colts +3 over the Seahawks. I like a home underdog on opening weekend, I maintain a probably irrational belief in Carson Wentz, and I’m really not sold on a single thing Seattle did this offseason. I love the receivers but I hate the backs and I don’t have the slightest idea who pressures the quarterback. Jamal Adams can’t blitz every play.

Comment of the Week

I'm going to apologize for nerding out here, but I very rarely get to comment on something where I have reasonable levels of expertise. Freddie talks about a biochemist, and their potential outcomes.

According to the NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates, which is a very good source of data on research PhDs, 793 PhDs in biochemistry graduated in 2019. The median time to doctorate for these folks was 6.5 years from the start of graduate school. Of the 21% of respondents* took definite employment, and 52% of them went into industry directly. Those folks have a median starting salary of $100,000, which indicates that Freddie's guesses are basically correct.

44% of respondents* (the largest group) took a postdoc, which pays something like the NIH minimum, which is something like $53,760.

The best source for the number of tenure-track positions in biochemistry is the Chemistry Faculty Jobs List, which is a volunteer-led database that's widely used. In 2018-2020, the average number of tenure-track positions of all kinds was 74, and about half of them were at PhD-granting institutions.** I'm pleased to be able to provide a number that might be used for that group of "some people like that", and for 2019, it was around 83 people in America, and for the tenure-track positions, it's something like 40-50 people at best. - Jim Tung, aka K.

That’s all she wrote. See you next week.